Friday, August 08, 2008

Lions are frightened of helicopters

Or at least they were 40 years ago. A fun new collection of BBC archive films and documents on aerial journeys (clearly nothing at all to do with Britain from Above) includes a letter from John Betjeman on 30 September 1968.

In it he's miffed that the BBC have been using his name to get permission for filming impressive swoops over Englishmen's homes (the film itself is also in the archive) when he hadn't yet agreed to narrate the programme.

I love the implicit details in this: the Beeb steamrolling ahead even before the bits of paper have been signed; Betjeman as a man with pals living in stately homes; and the madcap image of an incident at Longleat:
"Today Lord Bath tells me that his partner Jimmy Chipperfield almost died of a heart attack 'when the helicopter went over the lion and giraffe reserve, as it scared the bloody animals out of their wits, and he thought they would all escape.'"

John Betjeman, letter to BBC producer Edward Mirzoeff, 30 September 1968 – BBC Archive.

There's a great wealth of other programmes and documents to sift through (even when you should be working), and it's only a couple of weeks since they posted up all the Dad's Army stuff that made the news.

I should probably declare an interest in that the Dr has done a bit of work for the archive team. But how can you not delight in these things? I've been specifically employed to write things requiring oodles of research, and it's a joy to uncover odd connections and morsels of strange fact.

Sometimes an incongruous detail is the hook for the whole of your story. I got asked to write Doctor Who meets Oliver Cromwell in Ireland, which was never go to being much fun. I needed a way in, a way for the Doctor to have an impact without changing – or belittling – the real and awful history. And then, in the reading it turns out that the physician accompanying Oliver Cromwell's army to Ireland was later a founder member of the Royal Society. And if he does that as a result of the Doctor having a word in his ear, suddenly I have a story...

You understand why people get so hot under the collar when historical dramas and documentaries have skimped on their research. The past is often so much stranger, darker, madder and better than that. Yes, you have to trawl through it to pick out the good stuff, but the exercise is well worth it.

And George Orwell's blog is starting just tomorrow. That'll certainly help with my current regime of 5,000 words per day.

1 comment:

Le Mc said...

Yes, and that's why "The Settling" was so successful.