Tuesday, December 06, 2022

WGGB First Novel Award shortlist

The Writers' Guild of Great Britain has announced its 2023 awards shortlist, the winners to be announced at a ceremony on 16 January. As chair of the guild's books committee, I've been running the First Novel Award, and our three shortlisted titles are:

An Olive Grove in Ends by Moses McKenzie

Braver by Deborah Jenkins

The Return of Faraz Ali by Aamina Ahmad

Saturday, December 03, 2022

Charles Hawtrey 1914-1988 The Man Who Was Private Widdle, by Roger Lewis

Charles Hawtrey of the Carry On films had an alcoholic cat. It was,

“pampered with port-soaked sugar lumps, its bread and butter sprinkled with Cyprus sherry, [and] used to walk into doors and see double when chasing mice.” (pp. 70-71)

This is just one extraordinary, sad and savage anecdote in Roger Lewis's pithy biography. Lewis has been diligent in going through BBC and BFI paperwork and in talking to those who knew Hawtrey in person. As well as the cast and crew of various productions, Lewis spoke to cab drivers, publicans, neighbours, and is good on the gulf between the cheery, cheeky persona captured on film and the angry, lecherous drunk of real life. 

Hawtrey's meanness is quite something:

“Of necessity [Lewis claims] he was frugal, penny-pinching. He maintained his account at the Royal Bank of Scotland (Piccadilly branch), because he believed the Scots would keep a beadier eye on their customers’ shillings. He’d lug bags of carrots from Leeds to Kent, because vegetables were cheaper in Yorkshire. He pilfered toilet rolls from public lavatories — or at least his mother did. She was notorious for wiping out supplies at Pinewood and, when rumbled, tried to flush away the incriminating evidence, which blocked the drains, closing down production on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Hawtrey was told that in future his mother would have to be locked in his dressing room.” (p. 72)

That's a fantastic a story but I'm not sure it can be true as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang began filming in June 1967 and Wikipedia claims that Hawtrey's mum Alice died in 1965. Lewis doesn't provide a source.

There's lots on money here. Hawtrey and his costars did not get rich from the Carry On films but producer Peter Rogers did. Instead, Hawtrey converted his house in Kew into bedsits  though implied to Roy Castle while making Carry on Up the Khyber in 1968 that he owned a “block of flats”. But Lewis says this enterprise didn't work out, and Hawtrey ended up being “ripped off” (p. 89). He retired to Deal, got banned from all its pubs and finally collapsed in a hotel doorway.

It's a troubled end to a troubled career. Hawtrey “never mixed with the rich and famous” (p. 12), and yet and some notable early roles. As well as playing several women on stage, he understudied Robert Helpmann as Gremio in Tyrone Guthrie’s production of The Merchant of Venice at the Old Vic, the cast including Roger Livsey as Petruchio and, in a small part, the future novelist Robertson Davies. A couple of years later, Hawtrey was in the cast of New Faces, the show that debuted Eric Maschwitz's hit song, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”

But Lewis shares excerpts over three pages from polite, curt rejections from the 1940s and 50s. Then, on page 61, he gives a long list of names at the BBC that Hawtrey wrote to in radio and TV, but concludes that these were,

“all radio or television apparatchiks, and not a single one of these names rings any bells with me” (p. 61n).

In fact, the list includes television pioneer Rudolph Cartier, Cecil McGivern (Controller, then Deputy Director of Television) and Shaun Sutton (later Head of Drama). I recognised various jobbing staff directors from the drama department, and Graeme Muir from light entertainment. So Hawtrey wasn't just writing to “everybody at Broadcasting House, from the Director-General to the janitors”; this is evidence of his range and aspirations  a serious, dramatic actor as well as comic foil.

Friday, December 02, 2022

Clips from a Life, by Denis Norden

It's been a busy few months running the First Novel Award for the Writers' Guild of Great Britain - the shortlist to be announced shortly. Now I'm back to reading stuff related to my forthcoming biography of David Whitaker, former chair of the Writers' Guild and first story editor of Doctor Who.

Before that, Whitaker was script editor for Light Entertainment at the BBC, at the same time that Denis Norden and Frank Muir were employed as advisers on comedy. Whitaker then succeeded Norden (and Hazel Adair) as chair of the guild. So I scoured this memoir for any telling detail.

As Norden admits, it's is a rather loose collection of memories, jotted down as they occurred to him and then assembled in rough chronological order. There's a lot on his love of puns and odd turns of phrase, and much of the history is given by anecdote. He doesn't mention Whitaker but provides some fun tales about people in the same orbit - Ted Ray, Eric Maschwitz, Ronnie Waldman, the sitcom Brothers in Law starring Richard Briers and June Barry (Whitaker's first wife), and the early days of the guild.

For example, there's the striking fact that Hazel Adair, co-creator of Compact and Crossroads, who was Norden's co-chair, “at the Guild’s first Awards Dinner opened the dancing with Lew Grade” (p. 281).

Norden's eye for comic detail means there's plenty of vivid, wry observations. I particularly liked this, on the cultures of cinema:

“During the early forties I did some RAF training in Blackpool, where I discovered the cinemas were in the habit of interrupting the main feature sharp at 4 pm every day, regardless of what point in the storyline had been reached, in order to serve afternoon tea. The houselights would go up and trays bearing cups of tea would be passed along the rows. After fifteen minutes, the lights would dim down again, the trays would be passed back and the film wold resume. Anyone unwise enough to be sitting at the end of a row at that point could be left holding stacks of trays and empty cups.” (p. 33)

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Countdown to the Moon #771

This afternoon, I had a long chat with Nathan Price on his Countdown to the Moon project, discussing Artemis, the TV coverage of Apollo and then all sorts of other stuff. I've had lots of this kind of thing rumbling through my head for a while, so enjoy my attempts to put it into some kind order...

The things I held up at the beginning are:

The Moon - A celebration of our celestial neighbour (ed. Melanie Vandenbrouck, 2019), which accompanied the National Maritime Museum's exhibition The Moon

Doctor Who: Wicked Sisters (2020), in which Dr Who meets early lunar colonists all making the "great leap" in giving up their Earth citizenship. Oh, and some Sontarans.

Friday, November 18, 2022


Photo of child entering the TARDIS from 1993 documentary
I've set up an account on Mastodon, if that might be of interest:

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Doctor Who Magazine #584

Photo of David Tennant as the Fourteenth Doctor on the cover of Doctor Who Magazine issue 584
The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine is, of course, devoted to the return of David Tennant as the Doctor, with plenty of exclusive chatter with the new cast and crew. How lovely to see Scott Handock is script editor on the new series - an age ago, I gave Scott his first writing gig.

Also in the mag is "Factory Records", in which me and Rhys Williams look at the set used in filming the Dalek production line sequence from the end of Episode 4 of The Power of the Daleks (1966), written by David Whitaker. So often in Doctor Who, limited time and money mean what the writer intended must be cut down to something less thrilling, but this is an example of the opposite happening. The CG recreations are by Rhys, Gav Rymill and Anthony Lamb.

There's also a Sufficient Data infographic by me and Ben Morris, this time looking at the Doctor's regenerations. I'd not seen The Power of the Doctor when I wrote the brief, or I'd have squeezed in the regeneration/deregeneration into the Master and back.

Tuesday, November 01, 2022

Vortex #165

The new issue of Big Finish magazine Vortex includes a feature on the Blake's 7 set Allies and Enemies, which is out next month. I've written No Name, the second of the three one-hour audio stories, and have a few things to say in the mag.

In other news, things are bit busy. I was in London two weekends in a row, most recently to attend the screening of the Doctor Who story The Time Meddler at the BFI, plus various clips from the forthcoming Blu-ray release, which include the documentary I worked on about original story editor David Whitaker. I'm pressing on with research for my book about Whitaker, and my other book about one of the Doctor Who stories he wrote, and I'm working on another book, and a book award, and various bits of audio drama, spec work and everything else. It is all go.