Friday, December 31, 2021

Wartime Britain 1939-1945, by Juliet Gardiner

This enormous volume - 591 pages before the exhaustive acknowledgements, notes, bibliography and index - is a detailed history of the Second World War from the perspective of those at home. It's an extraordinary read, full of horrifying detail, and very useful for something I'm currently working on.

What really struck a chord was some people's response to the things they could do to protect themselves and others. 

“In November 1939, the Daily Mail had asked its readers, ‘What part of the war do you mind most?’ … ‘Women in Uniform’ came first and ‘Blackout’ second.” (p. 45)

Gardiner quotes from JBS Haldane's 1938 book ARP (ie air-raid precautions), concerned that his unemployed neighbour will not be able to afford the paints and blinds required for blackout. 

“As a result he will probably show a light, and my life, not to mention the King’s, will be endangered.” (p. 47)

Another neighbour, said Haldane, 

“can afford paint and blinds but she is an absolute pacifist, who says that she will have nothing to do with war … She says she is going to keep her lights on, and if a bomb hits her house she will be well out of a wicked world. As I have never yet seen a bomb hit the mark at which it is aimed, I think it is much more likely that a bomb aimed at her skylight will hit me … If lights should be covered, as I think they should, then this should be made a matter of law, like the lighting regulations for vehicles.” (p. 48)

“Which it was,” adds Gardiner. But there are still examples of people ignoring the rules, or feeling they should be exempt, or blacking out parts of their houses - like not having your nose inside your mask. There's even a doctor concerned about the effect on people's mental health.

The Blitz itself makes for harrowing reading. The scale of devastation would be hard to grasp if Gardiner did not thread the narrative with awful detail - names, what they were doing as the bomb landed, the bits of body never identified. Each school and hospital is like a knife being twisted. There's so much tragedy and suffering, it's easy to see why some people felt conflicted about celebrating the end of the war when it eventually came.

Gardiner is good at explaining how, after years of war and bombardment, the V-1 and V-2 managed to feel different:

“many people found them a particularly scary form of warfare, an unreckonable mechanical monster impervious to human interference, a science-fiction horror. George Orwell [in Tribune, 30 June 1944] noticed the widespread complaint that the V-1s ‘“seem so unnatural” (a bomb dropped by a live airman is quite natural p. 551 apparently.’)” (p. 550)

And there's more contemporary resonance in the people who fled Liverpool and Bristol once the bombing started in earnest there.

"it was largely in response to the unwillingness of many provincial towns and cities to learn the lessons of London and prepare for the homeless and the disorientated, as well as the dead and the injured. ‘It seems that each city and town had to experience a major attack before making adequate plans for the relief of the community.’ [this cited from Richard M Titmuss, History of the Second World War: Problems of Social Policy, p. 307.] In this context trekking can be seen neither as a tendency to scuttle nor as mindless flight, but as a largely rational response to a desperate situation.” (p. 366)

There's another modern parallel in the realisation, in late 1944, that the war wouldn't be over by Christmas and there was yet more to be endured - and yet more lives to be lost. The book concludes with the end of the war, and a sense that the British people had voted for a better, more equal future, the Labour Government able to build on the nationalised systems imposed during war. But there are hints of the difficulties to follow: the rise in divorce rates (hitting a peak in 1947), the problems of living standards when about half the housing stock in London and much in cities elsewhere had been damaged, the economic hit to the country as a whole, the scale of those physically and/or mentally injured...  

Getting through the crisis is one thing; dealing with its long-term impact is another story...

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Journeys into Genealogy

I'm a guest on the Journeys into Genealogy podcast with host Emma Cox, talking about my efforts to research the history of my own surname as the descendant of refugees, and also sharing some stuff about my current work in progress to uncover the life of David Whitaker, first story editor of Doctor Who.

Podcast website: 

Also available on:

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

In the Springtime of the Year, by Susan Hill

I made slow progress through this short, slight book, in part because of work and life and everything else at the minute. But its quiet, intense grief is also pretty gruelling, protagonist Ruth passing through a well observed kind of madness.

Ruth is 20 when her beloved husband Ben is killed, quite suddenly, by a falling tree. His family, especially his domineering mother, then want Ruth to behave and grieve and do things as they deem appropriate, while she can only lock herself away. She talks to Ben. She ventures out into the countryside to somehow connect with him. She begins to live with the idea that he is gone.

A lot of this I well recognised in my own loss. It came as no surprise that Hill based this novel on lived experience. As she explains in her Afterword,

"A few days after the death of the man I loved, a close friend of ours wrote me a note. He said, 'You should write about it, that is what you are for.' [Doing so] was a wholly cathartic experience, and I felt better for having done it - though I had by no means done with grieving - I had given a shape to a mass of messy emotions and reactions, and distanced myself slightly from them. The end of the book marked the beginning of the healing process, though it was a dreadfully slow business, and I came out of it all a changed person. But I was very conscious - I still am - of my immense good fortune in being a writer, able to a certain extent to make something positive out of the negative." (pp. 171-2)

Yesterday, queueing for an hour in the drizzle and fog for my anti-COVID booster, I read the bits where Ruth, given time, can put things more in perspective and even help others through their own loss and trauma. She knows the things not to say, and to ignore the barbed, unreasonable words and behaviour of the newly grieving. She recognises the madness, and gets on with the washing up, the small tasks that need doing and are all that can be done.

Every half-page of this, the queue shuffled one or two steps forward. People around me were spiky about  having to wait, the lack of shelter and of anyone to tell us that there was one queue for those with pre-booked appointments and another, longer queue for us walk-ins. It wasn't right. It wasn't how it should be.

Just keep going, I thought. That's all we can do. 

Thursday, December 09, 2021

James Bond in the Lancet

The new issue of medical journal Lancet Psychiatry includes my essay, "Was it obvious to everyone else that I'd fallen for a lie?" on James Bond, and also Len Deighton and John le Carre. I wrote it before I'd seen No Time To Die.

You need to be signed up to read the whole thing, but the teaser first paragraph goes like this:

"When actor Sean Connery died in October, 2020, media coverage focused on his success as the secret agent James Bond. The franchise is still going strong, with Bond now played by Daniel Craig and No Time To Die, the latest film, now in cinemas. That enduring appeal is partly due to the movies consciously keeping up with the times and reflecting contemporary trends. Yet Connery's Bond films are still screened on prime-time TV in the UK; remarkable, given that the first of them, Dr No, is nearly 60 years old and invidiously features White actors made up to look Asian. The best of Connery's Bond films, Goldfinger (1964), was even back in cinemas at the end of 2020. They are exciting movies, and sexy and fun, but their persistence is down to something more profound. The world of espionage portrayed by mid-20th century writers was deeply concerned with scientific and political issues concerning individuality, identity, and the human mind..."

Simon Guerrier, "Was it obvious to everyone else that I'd fallen for a lie?", Lancet Psychiatry vol 8, issue 12, pp 1040-1 (1 December 2021)

Sunday, December 05, 2021

HV Morton's London

Having read Michael Bartholomew's biography of HV Morton, I'm now on to Morton himself. HV Morton's London is a collection of three earlier books, The Heart of London (1925), The Spell of London and The Nights of London (both 1926), first published together in 1940. Mine is an 18th edition from 1949.

Basically, they're vignettes from all round the capital, edited versions of Morton's column for the Daily Express. He visits Big Ben, goes back stage at the Old Vic, sits on more than one night-time riverboat on the look-out for suicides. There are flea markets and dances, a tour of the Royal Mint, a boxing match, a gambling den and much more. At one point, he's in the tower at Croydon Aerodrome, gazing across the Surrey fields to the twin towers of Crystal Palace - and somewhere in between, my old home.

At his best, Morton has access and insight so that it feels authoritative. Quite often, though, he gives full rein to whimsy, allowing himself to imagine the conversations - the whole lives - of people he merely glimpsed in passing, many of them salt-of-the-earth Londoners he names "Alf". More than once I was left thinking, 'But how could you know this?' or 'How could you have overheard?', so it lacks the authenticity of my friend Miranda Keeling's observations of real life.

At worst, Morton is misogynist and racist. His wandering eye falls, for example, on a pretty girl, but he assumes she is Jewish and will therefore soon grow fat. Another time, he describes the Chinese community in Limehouse as monkeys and is baffled by evidence that the men might be good to their wives. They allow him into their homes and bars; the threat of violence is all imposed by Morton. All of this stated quite openly, and shared in the popular press. It's not merely shocking; it is not the London I know.

Morton's is a strikingly dirty and polluted London, full of junk markets and rag fairs, worthless rubbish even sold from the windowsills and steps of the crumbling tenements. Almost every description of a landmark is shrouded in mist. One particular smog comprises,

“Many flavours. At Marble Arch I meet a delicate after-taste like melon; at Ludgate Hill I taste coke. … Everywhere the fog grips the throat and sets the eye watering. It puts out clammy fingers that touch the ears and give the hands a ghostly grip.” (p. 25)

The landmarks, too, are sooty. Viewed from the clock tower that houses Big Ben, he spies Nelson's column,

"stood up jet black like a cairn above the mist of a mountain top" (p. 160).

This juxtaposition of the modern and the mythic is a favourite trick of Morton's - wowed by a room in which Dickens once stood, or sounds that might have been familiar to Romans. It can get a little repetitive and yet his interest in the ancients can often provoke his most evocative writing, such as this from a visit to Cleopatra's Needle:

"Did you know that beneath the famous stone is buried a kind of Victorian Tutankamun’s treasure, placed there to give some man of the future an idea of us and our times? Did you realise that the London municipal authorities could do anything so touching? … In 1878 sealed jars were placed under the obelisk containing a man’s lounge suit, the complete dress and vanities of a woman of fashion, illustrated papers, Bibles in many languages children’s toys, a razor, cigars, photographs of the most beautiful women of Victorian England, and a complete set of coinage from a farthing to five pounds. So the most ancient monument in London stands guard over this modernity, rather like an experienced old hen, waiting for Time to hatch it.” (p. 78)

Again, he can't resist playing this against aching modernity:

"I stood there with the tramcars speeding past and the criss-cross traffic," (p. 79). 

But it's a spot I know very well, and those tramcars are from a lost world.

In describing how omnibuses have changed within his own memory, Morton reveals what else is different (as well as his usual predilection for women's underthings):

“In 1925, when this was written, London omnibuses had open roofs, and the seats were protected by black tarpaulin covers which travellers could adjust in wet weather. Nowadays the London omnibus is an enclosed juggernaut and wet seats are things of the primitive past. Also, the Strand has changed since 1925. It has been widened in parts, and it is no longer an exclusively masculine street. Silk stockings are probably now more in evidence there than pith helmets and spine pads [from the imperial outfitters].” (p. 34n)

This throng of Londoners heading out into the Empire he finds straightforwardly heroic, but anything of that world coming into London is straightforwardly threatening. In Morton's view, all foreigners are at best suspect; often they're also monstrous. Then, while out on the Thames at 2 am, he spots, “a queer fleet at anchor” in Limehouse: 

“‘The smallpox boats,’ said the sergeant [giving him this tour]. ‘They are always fitted up ready to take patients [arriving in ships] down to the isolation hospital in the event of any outbreak.’” (p. 400)

It's not as if the capital is otherwise a bastion of good health. There are no gyms or joggers in this London. Morton's description of conditions in the few free hospitals in a time pre-NHS is gruelling, for all he admires the good-hearted people running such charity. He also visits St Martin's by Trafalgar Square, where the homeless men offered shelter are divided into three types: ex-prisoners with a grudge against the world; those who won't work; and,

"those who went to the war as boys and came back men with boys’ minds" (pp. 42-43).

There's pity for these wounded men, but no sense that they are owed something more by a grateful nation. That contrasts with the dead of the same conflict. Morton passes the six year-old Cenotaph, that "mass of national emotion frozen in stone", where,

"A parcels delivery boy riding a tricycle van takes off his worn cap [as he passes]. An omnibus goes by. The men lift their hats. Men passing with papers and documents under their arms, attache and despatch cases in their hands—and the business of life—bare their heads as they hurry by." (p. 19)

That's all the more poignant given when this edition was compiled. Morton's first introduction to these three books was written in August 1940, addressing fellow imperilled Londoners. His theme is the pride and interest the Second World War has ignited in their city as it faces devastation.

"Men who in former years hardly knew where their town hall was to be found, now sleep there regularly, and have become familiar with many a municipal mystery. Men and women, to whom a fire hydrant was once a technical term which cropped up occasionally in the newspapers, can now draw you an accurate map of the water-supply of their district. Countless diligent wardens know by heart streets which, until recently were an untracked wilderness to them, although they lived just round the corner." (p. vii)

A second introduction, written in February 1941, is for American readers. London, he informs them gravely,

“has experienced the mass raid; the single nuisance raider; the high explosive raid; the fire raid; the mixed h.e. and fire raid; the raid directed against docks and warehouses; and the raid directed, apparently, against Wren churches and hospitals.”

But there are broadly two types of air raid: day and night.

“When London is raided by day, people no longer rush into shelters and cellars at the first note of the siren, as they used to when they were new to bombing.” (p. viii)

Instead, Londoners look around for signs of alarm or haste, but the traffic otherwise continues. Yet, hyper-vigilant to all sounds and senses, they will suddenly scatter. Night raids are another matter - altogether more tense and exhausting, even before the bombs come.

"As darkness approaches people become restless and begin to think of getting home before the black-out. Shops and businesses close early in anticipation of ‘siren time.’ Dusk falls, and the streets empty. It is not a pleasant experience to stand, say, in Bond Street, the pavements deserted except for anxious groups round the bus stops, every taxi-cab either occupied or else driven by a man who cannot take you back where you wish to go because he is himself trying to race the black-out to the other side of London." (p. ix) 

Despite the hardships, Londoners have met hardship - says Morton - with their usual stoicism and good cheer. He tells us about ordinary City clerks who've been transformed into lions, the "man of books" who became a man of action. There's a mug of tea with the wardens, sharing tales of their modest heroism night after night. It's all good propaganda, these honest, good people remaining quietly dignified despite the ravages of war.
"The task of such civilians in war is infinitely more difficult than that of the soldier, who is a single-minded man trained to fight with others and untrammelled by any struggle to maintain the normalities. … Most gallant, and tragic, are those others who have been bombed out of flats and houses, some of them losing everything they possessed. The ability to ‘double-up’ with relatives and friends in times of misfortune, formerly an exclusive habit of the poorest classes, is now a general tendency. Admiration for those who have no homes, who spend their nights in other people’s shelters, and turn up at their offices in the morning to carry on as usual, is beyond expression.” (p. xix)
But one line is haunting. It's surely meant to reassure, yet in a book that is testimony to all that stands to be lost.
"The result [of the Blitz] is a grim city, a shabby city, a scarred city, but not a devastated city, except round and about Guildhall, where several famous streets have been burned to the ground.” (p. x)

Friday, December 03, 2021

My Mum recently asked how many books I've written, and I realised that I didn't know. That then led to a conversation with my boss Julian Bashford at Visionality, who suggested that I might get some benefit from having my own website.

So, is where you'll find a list of things I've written in the past 19-and-a-bit years as a freelance writer.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Blake's 7: The Terra Nostra

I've script edited one of the three Blake's 7 audio stories that make up The Terra Nostra, a new set out in January 2022 from Big Finish. It's all the wheeze of that criminal mastermind Peter Anghelides; my job was to offer notes and criticism without him having me shot.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Long Game, by Paul Hayes

Loved this deep dive into how exactly Doctor Who came back to TV in 2005, talking to many of those involved including Julie Gardner, Jane Tranter and Lorraine Heggessey. It's a story I thought I knew pretty well but Hayes has covered all sorts of stuff that was completely new to me - not least the key role played by my old friend Daniel Judd in sorting out the issue of rights.

I especially like where Hayes presents conflicting published accounts of what happened to the people involved in an effort to get at the truth - and his acknowledgment that sometimes people remember the same events differently. He's also very good at placing Doctor Who in the wider context - of changing BBC politics, of BBC and British television more generally, and of imported drama from the US such as The X-Files and Buffy. The result is a sense of myriad separate forces all pulling in similar directions - Doctor Who was always going to come back in some form, none of the other options quite as good as what we got. There are no villains and yet it's thrilling to relive the sensation as the stars gradually align...

As Hayes says, the book seems especially timely what with the recent announcement that Gardner, Tranter and Russell T Davies are taking over Doctor Who once more. But how brilliant, how satisfying, to find an original story to tell and make the familiar new.

Oh, and joy of joys, a small-press book with an index. This is definitely a book I'll be coming back to... 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë

This largely autobiographical novel was first published in 1847, the same year that Anne's sisters published the better known Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, though it's thought this was the first to be written. 

A business investment goes wrong, putting pressure on the already limited means of the Grey family. To help her parents, Agnes takes a job as a governess for a wealthy lot. Her first, young charges are unruly and cruel: at one point, Agnes kills some wild birds rather than allow them to be tortured. The wayward behaviour is blamed on Agnes and she is dismissed, but she has the resolve to try again. Her second position is as governess to older children, who are no less spoilt or unruly. One is playing off various suitors, enjoying the attention and the chance to turn them down. This contrasts with Agnes, who modestly admire the virtues of a young parson...

It's a less dramatic book than those by Brontë's sisters, or Anne's own The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In those books, first impressions are often deceptive, and we only uncover a person's true character in time. Here, things are much more as they appear - the good are always meek and modest and good, the bad seem unlikely to ever find redemption. That lack of twists may come from the fact that this isn't a heightened, gothic fiction but grounded in real experience: it is thought that the novel is based on Anne's own diaries.

The violence, the threat, the powerlessness, all feel horribly real. There's also no climactic event - a fire or a storm or whatever - to bring about reckonings for all involved. Towards the end, Agnes speaks to another woman trapped in her own awful life and can only advise her to weather it as best she is able. There is no escape.

Agnes gets a happy ending but the author quickly passes over marriage and children, it being outside her own lived experience. For all she mentions further challenges, it's where the book slips into fantasy - poignantly, given that the model for Agnes's husband is thought to be a curate Anne knew who died the year her book was published.
"We have had trials, and we know that we must have them again; but we bear them well together, and endeavour to fortify ourselves and each other against the final separation—that greatest of all afflictions to the survivor. But, if we keep in mind the glorious heaven beyond, where both may meet again, and sin and sorrow are unknown, surely that too may be borne..."

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff

Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila is stationed at Isca Dumnoniorum (modern-day Exeter) but longs to get back to his home - and the good weather - in Clusium (in modern-day Tuscany). Then his garrison are attacked by Britons, including those Marcus considered as friends. Wounded, Marcus cannot continue as a soldier, which means he can't make enough money to return home. In considerable pain, mental and physical, he is well supported by an uncle and some new friends, and in time develops a plan. He will undertake a dangerous quest to discover what happened to the Ninth Legion, who - with Marcus's father among them - went missing somewhere north of York...

I'm not sure what I expected from this children's classic, my copy a 50th anniversary edition embossed in gold, but assumed it would be a stirring tale of heroism in the Roman army. Instead, its hero is quickly hobbled and forced out of his job, and spends the rest of the book as a misfit. The consequence is a far more interesting book: Marcus can guide us through 2nd-century Britain from two perspectives, having known the privilege of a position in the army and now as an underdog. We get a rich, layered portrait of the Roman province and the land beyond Hadrian's wall, with Rome itself a distant yet powerful influence. 

It means Sutcliff can have it both ways, sympathising with Roman characters and with the subdued, resentful Brits. There's no particular sense that the Romans are right or wrong to occupy Britain, no great feeling from the author that Britons ought to rule themselves. Colonisation is simply the way of things, which seems striking and odd now. I wonder how odd it felt when the book was first published in 1954 when Britain still had colonies - they were increasingly in the news - and also where Sutcliff stood on things. Is it a twist to show Britons being colonised, or suggesting that colonisation has always been (and always will be) with us?

Perhaps the most telling moment is when Marcus adopts a wolf puppy and then, once its old enough to fend for itself, takes it out of the city and sets it free. His hope is that the wolf will remember his kindness and return "home" of its own volition. A comparison is made to Esca, a former slave granted his freedom who remains on good terms with his former master. Sutcliff is shrewd enough to show the awkwardness and resentment that linger long after this, yet it's solved by a few words from the former master, telling Esca not to be so insufferably proud. 

At stake throughout is honour: for Marcus, no longer able to support himself financially; for his father and the lost Ninth Legion; for Esca. We understand these stakes for all they're an alien system of values - and I think that's what makes The Eagle of the Ninth so effective. The plot is fairly slight and straight-forward, a trek north and back again to fetch a particular object. And yet it's a journey through an ancient, foreign land that feels credible, comprehensible, tangible - since we can flip to the glossary at the back and map the Roman names onto modern British cities and towns.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Gallifrey's Most Wanted - Runcible Report #24

Doctor Who: The Cold Equations starring Peter Purves and Tom Allen
I'm a guest on the Gallifrey's Most Wanted podcast, chiefly chatting to hosts Jeff and Ross about the trilogy of Doctor Who stories I wrote starring Peter Purves and Tom Allen. But there's also some stuff about my new Sherlock Holmes novel The Great War and much more besides. You can listen to the podcast here:

Sunday, November 14, 2021

In Search of HV Morton, by Michael Bartholomew

This is a very good biography of a very successful writer and pretty awful human being. Michael Bartholomew brilliantly teases out the real man from the literary persona, effectively providing biographies of two people: the real Harry Morton and the invented HV.

Morton's most famous work is In Search of England (1927), in which he escaped London for excursions in a bull-nosed Morris. Bartholomew makes the point that the title suggests this England had become hidden or lost and so had to be sought through its countryside and history. He goes on that this struck a chord in a nation still reeling from war. He also points out that the final destination in the book, a village in which Morton finds this England, is almost certainly a fiction. As he says, there's a subtle but important difference between a myth and a lie... I'll return to this when I reread In Search of England.

Bartholomew is aided by a wealth of evidence which any researcher would envy (me included). HV Morton published more than 40 books, almost all of them non-fiction, often recounting his adventures with wry, self-deprecating insight. Many of the books were collections of reports for newspapers (and, later in life, features for glossy magazines), with telling differences between what was originally printed and what was then revised. That would be quite enough, but Bartholomew also had access to a 200-page unpublished autobiography written in Morton's last years and a collection of diaries and correspondence ranging right back to his earliest days. This means the biographer is able to compare a diary account of a formative experience with how Morton chose to remember it a half-century later, and then contrast this with the version put in print. There is even a dated list of Morton's sexual conquests, totalling some 100 different individuals, with "wh" marking those that he paid for, which Bartholomew matches against the other details in his timeline.

There are plenty of gaps in the record - missing diaries, absences in what Morton tells us - and Bartholomew is good at deducing connections, motives, feelings. He also tells us when it's his own speculation by adding "I think", as well as saying when nothing firm can be said. Literary biographies can all too often be an annotated list of published works, reductively pinning down real events that inspired the writer, as if writing is little more than copy and paste. Bartholomew achieves something very different - and better. Morton is more than simply a witness: we come to understand the creative act, even in non-fiction. There is careful research beforehand, skilled observation at the time, a period of reflection to put things in perspective, and then craft in the actual process writing - from moulding loose events into a story, to the striking turns of phrase, the well-chosen idiom or analogy, and the deftly worked light humour.

A good example of this use of different sources is what Bartholomew can tell us about a particular photograph, chosen for the back of the dust jacket:

The photograph is also included in the plate section of the book, with the following caption:

"The opening of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923 -- Morton's first big break as a reporter. The photograph was taken by the Times photographer. Under armed escort, treasures are being removed from the tomb. The figure leading the way is the official archaeologist, Howard Carter. The figure on the extreme right, furtively shadowing the party and taking surreptitious photographs, is Morton. When the photograph was published in The Times, Morton, the interloper, was cropped from the image."

The next plate is the front page of the Daily Express for 17 February 1923, with Morton's coverage - "Pharaoh's Coffin Found" - the first headline. Bartholomew follows the thread of Morton's early passion for archaeology and friendship with antiquarian GF Lawrence, how this helped him get the Tutankhamun gig (the Express determined not to let the Times have a monopoly on the story), the effect this trip had on Morton and how it all tied in to the historical perspectives in his later books.

It's interesting to read that, while waiting to be sent out to fight in the war, Morton was stationed in Colchester and involved in some excavations of Roman finds there. This was also true of the archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler. There's no mention of Wheeler in this book, or of Morton in Jacquetta Hawkes' biography of Wheeler, and perhaps they never overlapped in life. Yet it strikes me that these womanising rogues had a lot in common, and Wheeler had a similar way of making direct connections to the ancient past. During excavation of Maiden Castle in the 1930s, Wheeler's brilliant deductions about the stages of a Roman siege were informed by his own battlefield experience in the war. Yet I wonder if the two men would have been at cross purposes: Wheeler using modern experience to unpick the truth of history, Morton looking to the past to provide a modern fiction... I'll keep an eye out for references to Wheeler in Morton's books.

Bartholomew has an eye for wry humour, such as when he details a break-in at the office young Morton was renting with a friend so that Morton could write a novel and the friend a play. 

"The project petered out, before Morton had completed chapter one, when a burglar broke in and made off with the kettle, tea and biscuits, but disdained to steal the manuscripts." (p. 82)

We also quickly get a sense of Morton's character, his presence in any room. While I envy Bartholomew his wealth of evidence, I wonder how much he enjoyed the time spent with his subject. Morton's insecurities and womanising are exhausting from the off but the racism creeps up on the reader. True, his travel writing is full of caricatures - there are often salt-of-the-earth yokels or idiot Americans for his narrator to converse with - but Bartholomew is good at showing how often Morton plays against easy stereotypes and presents a more complex view... at least in his published writing. In private, he's often shockingly racist, continually sympathising with the Nazis during the war and then emigrating to South Africa just as the apartheid regime came in.

Bartholomew confronts this head on and at some length: 

"For him to to have persisted with a rosy view of fascism, long after others had seen the light, indicates more than naivety." (p. 172)

He also points out the contradictions in Morton's prejudice: this man who made his name celebrating England actually despised much of its people and ways of doing things. Morton sympathised with and admired the Nazis and assumed they'd win the war, and yet was also a dedicated leader of a Home Guard unit, expecting to die with his men in token, doomed resistance to the inevitable invasion.

There are other ironies, such as - "improbably", as Bartholomew says - when the Labour Party published a pamphlet by Morton, What I Saw in the Slums (1933), with a foreword by party leader George Lansbury. Bartholomew makes the case that George Orwell surely read this ahead of his own, better known, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), and even argues that of the two, Morton is the more sensitive and egalitarian.

"Morton's own descriptions of women are just as powerful [as Orwell's], and are less patronising. He writes, for example, of women who strive to put a symbolic barrier between their home and the even more squalid street beyond, by whitening the doorstep: 'Thousands of horrid doorsteps, worn as thin as wafers in the centre, are whitened or raddled. Every time a door opens you see a woman cleaning something.' What I Saw in the Slums is an impressive little book." (p. 147)

Bartholomew is no less impressive. There's lots that's uncomfortable in Morton's life - or parallel lives - but the story is well told. Note to self: this is how it's done.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #571

The latest Doctor Who Magazine is, of course, devoted to the new TV series will lots of exclusive access to cast and crew.

There's also another Sufficient Data infographic from me and illustrator Ben Morris, this time on all the times the Doctor has used the alias "John Smith", or had it applied. Ben is also one of the contributors profiled on page 3.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Secret Barrister

It's taken a while to get through this because it's both dense and pretty grim. The anonymous author makes a compelling case about the failings of the judicial system and what and who is to blame. I worked in the House of Lords for 13 years and followed the passage of lots of legislation, so knew of some of the issues detailed here, yet much still came as a shock.

At its best, I think, the Lords could spot potential unintended consequences of proposed new law. Often, an elderly noble and learned figure would rise unsteadily to share some anecdote about a case they were involved in maybe 40 years before. They had learned from those mistakes, and hoped to spare some further unfortunate from a repeated injustice. It's a particularly insidious trick, then, to smuggle significant changes into secondary legislation where there's less chance of teasing out detail.

"The practical consequence of reforms snuck onto the statute book by stealth in 2012 is to financially punish innocent people for the 'crime' of being wrongly accused. When I explain this to non-lawyers, they assume I'm joking, or exaggerating for effect." (p. 199)

The issue here is the decimation of legal aid, the impact being what the author calls an "Innocence Tax", and entirely premised on a false narrative that spiralling costs were all the fault of the lawyers.

"In 2007, the House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee heard evidence that the significant rises in Crown Court legal aid costs was largely down to increase in volume of cases, propelled by the creation of more criminal offences, and concluded that 'the average cost per claim did not and has not significantly increased'. Legal aid had therefore increased not because of fat-cat lawyers exponentially milking the taxpayer, but because the state was increasing the volume of cases." (p. 208)

Too often, Governments boast that they will bring about "change", a word that is not the same as "improvement". The result is ever more tinkering, meddling, chaos.

"To try to make sense of sentencing is to roam directionless in the expansive dumping ground of the criminal law. Statutes are piled atop statutes. Secondary legislation bearing titles unrelated to the amendments they make to primary legislation and the half-baked, half-enacted and half-revoked brainchildren of some of our dimmest politicians lie strewn across the landscape, stretching out farther than the eye can see. The many hundreds of legislative provisions exceed, at a conservative estimate, 1,300 pages. If one were seeking a totem to the despair caused by the work of licentious, headline-chasing governments revelling in the ruin they wreak, sentencing law would be it." (p. 286)

We've seen it over the past few weeks: the rush to respond to some incident by bringing in new legislation, rather than ensuring that current legislation has been adequately applied - which more often than not equates to whether it's being adequately resourced. That's the theme here: the awful cost inflicted by ill-thought attempts to save money.

The grimmest thing is that, like The Blunders of Our Governments, it paints a pretty bleak picture of systematic failure - which has only got worse since publication.

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Out now: Sherlock Holmes - The Great War

Published in the UK today by Titan Books (and in the US on the 16th), Sherlock Holmes - The Great War is my first novel in a while. The blurb goes like this:

December 1917. An important visitor arrives at a field hospital not far from the front, who makes sharp deductions about the way the ward is run based on small details that he sees. Sherlock Holmes is apparently only present for a tour, but asks searching questions about a young officer who apparently died in the hospital, but whose records have mysteriously vanished. As Holmes digs deeper, details emerge pertaining to a cover-up that stretches from the trenches to the top of the War Office, and conspiracy on both the British and enemy fronts.

On Sunday, I was a guest on the live Writeopolis! podcast and talked a bit about the book, and the Jeremy Brett version of Doyle's "The Man with the Twisted Lip".

Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald

With a bit of driving to do, I downloaded the audio version of The Bookshop read by Eve Karpf. It is, as Backlisted led me to expect, a quietly devastating novel about Florence Green's efforts to run a bookshop in a small town. There's the same eye for telling detail as in the two previous Fitzgerald novels I've read (Offshore and The Gate of Angels), the same mix of comic and melancholy. It's a book full or wry irony, too, such as old, kind Mr Brundish's view on whether the locals will cope with reading Lolita:
"They won’t understand it, but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy." (p. 101)
What makes The Bookshop different from the other Fitzgerald novels I've read is its implacable villain, Mrs Violet Gamart, who - all for the very best reasons, she tells herself - sets out to destroy Florence and her dream. She's an extraordinary character: initially a figure of fun, then ever more monstrous. It's a while since a fictional character made me angry.

Gamart apparently owes something to Sophie Gamard in Balzac's in Le Curé de Tours (1832), and she exemplifies a cynical line in The Bookshop about life being made up of "exterminators" and "exterminatees". While the bookshop is assailed by the elements (damp, seasonal flooding, subsidence), Florence is harassed by purposeful action.Gamart has a powerful network of accomplices - a cowardly lawyer, a  nephew who is an MP, a feckless chap from the BBC - to make a number of spurious legal claims against Florence, even changing the law to force through her own way.

This particularly struck a chord because, by chance, I'm also reading The Secret Barrister.
"Geoffrey Robertson QC offered a withering description of magistrates in his evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee in 1995, painting them as:
Ladies and gentlemen bountiful, politically imbalanced, unrepresentative of ethnic minority groups and women, who slow down the system and cost a fortune.
In fairness, we have seen slight improvements since 1995, a time when JPs were recruited sans interview by a tap on the shoulder from an old chum. But the unsurprising legacy of an institution which, until 1906, jealously restricted membership to the landed gentry, and until the 1990s was still dominated by freemasons, is that today with your average bench, you're not entrusting your liberty to the collective wisdom of twelve everymen; the butcher, baker, candle-stick emporium televangelist etc. You're often pitching to the admissions board of a 1980s country club." (The Secret Barrister, p. 58)

PS: In case it's of interest, last year I wrote a Doctor Who story set in The Bookshop at the End of the World.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Gate of Angels, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Fred Fairly has a Junior Fellowship at the College of St Angelicus, Cambridge, in 1912. It's a good, respectable job that seems to set him up for life, but for an important proviso. By long-standing custom, no women are allowed on the site - nor even female animals if they are able to produce offspring. Basically, Fred is prohibited from having a serious girlfriend, let alone a wife. Which is fine until his nasty bicycle crash with Daisy Saunders, with whom he almost immediately finds himself in love...

The Gate of Angels is full of the same light touch with darkness under the surface as the author's Booker-winning Offshore. It strikes me that both books are focused on misfits, living in the cracks between the "normal" or "established". The episode of the Backlisted podcast devoted to Fitzgerald's Human Voices (which I've yet to read) compares Fitzgerald to Nancy Mitford in observing eccentricity and foible - but with the important difference that Fitzgerald is more often kind in what she observes. These are ridiculous people, but our sympathies are with them. 

Which real-life characters were closely observed in this instance? Fred's predicament struck a chord, as mathematician John Edensor Littlewood (1885-1977) could not marry the woman he loved without foregoing his place at Trinity; the result being that my great-grandmother married someone else (but, er, continued to see "Uncle John" all the same). I wonder, now, how common such arrangements might have been.

Some of the darkness of the novel stems from our own knowledge of the future: that there is a war around the corner, and that the arguments detailed here about the nature of the atom will produce spectacular results and entirely change the world. Yet there's more to it than that. For all the book pokes fun at the all-male academics - the one who writes ghost stories in the manner of MR James, or the hanger-on who rather logically concludes that he might take on Fred's girlfriend for himself - there's a constant, disquieting threat, especially to women.

One sequence particularly struck me. There's an extraordinary description of 150,000 south Londoners commuting each morning, the journey,

"compared at that time by sociological observers to a great war or catastrophe in a neighbouring land from which the fugitives, forbidden to look back, scurried over the river bridges by any means available to them, only checked by the fear of falling underfoot." (p. 76)

Daisy, aged 15 (in flashback), is caught up in this maelstrom, one that is predatorily male, such as when she's on the tram:

"Those who did the approaching, in the stifling proximity of the tram, were inclined not to believe in the wedding ring [she wore as protection], and knew what else Daisy was wearing as well as she did. It was a battle with no accepted rules and when the tram began to roll with its plunging, strong-smelling human freight, men put their hands over their ticket and money pockets while schoolboys protected their genitals and women every point of contact, fore and aft." (p. 77)

At 19, Daisy's efforts to help a suicidal man only get herself into hot water, and we well understand her predicament - unemployed, orphaned and poor - when a decidedly unpleasant character suggests taking her to a hotel. We also understand, when this has been such constant background noise in Daisy's life, why she now doesn't quite say no, for all this will spell disaster.

The result is that we really feel for her and for Fred and this rash decision casts a pall over their chances of happiness together. Brilliantly, really brilliantly, we're not told how things end up with Fred and Daisy, and things seem quite impossible for them until the last line of the book. It's so lightly done; it's so powerfully effective - a good summary of the book as a whole.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald

A few days ago, my knowledgeable friend John Williams tweeted that, 

"Penelope Fitzgerald was treated abominably by parts of the literary establishment for daring to win the Booker Prize for Offshore in 1979 ... she was on The Book Programme afterwards where that dreadful arsehole (and host) Robert Robinson introduced the show by saying that 'the wrong book had won' and encouraged the other guests to tell Fitzgerald what they thought about her winning incorrectly."

Appalled by this, I sought out a copy of Offshore (and also The Gate of Angels, which the Dr recommended). It's a brilliant, short novel about bohemian misfits living on houseboats in Battersea circa 1961 - Alan Hollinghurst says in his introduction that clues in the text to the exact date are a little contradictory. These are liminal people living liminal lives:

"You know very well that we're two of the same kind, Nenna. It's right for us to live where we do, between land and water. You, my dear, you're half in love with your husband, then there's Martha who's half a child and half a girl, Richard who can't give up being half in the Navy, Willis who's half an artist and half a longshoreman, a cat who's half alive and half dead..." (p. 54)

One objection to it winning serious literary prizes may be that it's often funny. An early example has single mother Nenna visit the married couple on the next boat:

"Laura sat down rather heavily.

'How does it feel like to live without your husband?' she asked, handing Nenna a large glass of gin. 'I've often wondered.'

'Perhaps you'd like to fetch some more ice,' [her husband] Richard said. There was plenty.

'He hasn't left me, you know. We just don't happen to be together at the moment.'

'That's for you to say, but what I want to know is, how do you get on without him? Cold nights, of course, don't mind Richard, it's a compliment to him if you think about it.'"(p. 12)

It's the sort of thing, I thought, you might get in Reggie Perrin. Like that, the comedy here masks a lot of melancholic stuff. There are those who can't abide a life on the river, and those who adore such existence but for whom it cannot last. From the local teachers and priest, to the peculiar school friend of Nenna's estranged husband, there is constant pressure to conform with "normal" life on land and be as miserable as everyone else. Then there are the dangers of this kind of life: the threat of falling in to the water, or a boat succumbing to leaks, even the risk of violence...

It's all very neatly observed, the author basing it on her own experience (as she did with many of her novels), but changing things to give one particular real person a less tragic fictional end. Perhaps Offshore was dismissed because of this lightness of touch, but it's also a very smart book, threaded with knowledge and insight. There is lots on the practicalities of such an existence, of the shifting tides, the feel of the water. Nenna's daughters shrewdly spot tiles made by William de Morgan while out mudlarking, and know his life and work enough to correctly judge their value; they strike a hard bargain with the owner of an antique shop who makes the mistake of assuming their ignorance. (We then see the true value of the tiles: the girls earn enough money to splash out on records by Cliff Richard.)

On another occasion, one of the girls tours the Tate, remarking on what Whistler and his contemporaries did and didn't get right in their portraits of the Thames - the behaviour of the water, the behaviour of gulls.

"The attendant watched her, hoping that she would get a little closer to the picture, so that he could relieve the boredom of his long day by telling her to stand back." (p. 59)

It's another example of the knowledge, the skill, of these women being overlooked. But also there's something like Whistler in this novel as a whole: a portrait of the people on the river, a particular, brief moment, the apparent simplicity full of beauty and sadness and truth.

Friday, October 22, 2021

The Second World War, by Dominic Sandbrook

I raced through this enthralling, vivid account of the Second World War, part of a new series written by Dominic Sandbrook for his eight year-old son. There's a lot of pluck and excitement, largely told from the perspectives of individual eye witnesses, ordinary soldiers and civilians as well as the brass. There are accounts from children caught up in the action, from women and ethnic minorities - the war not exclusively Boy's Own.

I should declare an interest: I know Dominic a bit, have made three short documentaries with him for the Doctor Who DVDs, and his history-for-adults book White Heat was extremely useful when I wrote my book on The Evil of the Daleks and my audio play The Home Guard.

Much of his account of the war is familiar - key battles, famous speeches, the real people who inspired the movies. What really struck me is how Dominic conveys the "world" bit of the war, cutting from events in Europe to Khalkin Gol or Singapore, or how the war in the deserts of Africa differed from experience in Burma. The Nazi attack on Stalingrad, for example, feels very different in the context of everything else going on at the same time.

It's all told in a breathlessly engaging, slightly tabloid tone, all short paragraphs and direct quotations. Yet this is skilfully  peppered with nuance and an eye for historical irony. Here's Hitler touring the newly conquered Paris, having posed for photographs in front of the landmarks:

"At the chapel of Les Invalides, Hitler stood for a long time before the tomb of Napoleon, another ordinary soldier who had risen to become an all-conquering emperor. Then, without a word, he turned away.

For the man who had painted postcards [in Vienna], this bright morning in August 1940 was the greatest moment of his life. Twenty years earlier he had been a nobody. Now he was the master of Europe.

After just three hours, the trip was over. It was only 9 o'clock in the morning, but Hitler had seen all he wanted.

As they drove back the airfield, he said quietly: 'It was the dream of my life to be permitted to see Paris. I cannot say how happy I am to have that dream fulfilled today.'

At that moment, Speer glimpsed the lonely, pathetic human being behind the mask of cruelty, and felt 'something like pity' for him.

Then the mask slipped back into place, and Hitler's familiar stern expression returned. And a few minutes later, as silently as he had arrived, the dictator was gone. He never came back." (p. 128)

There are a few notable absences - such as nothing on the V2. But my only objection is the lack of an index and that Sandbrook doesn't cite his sources - "I don't have room," he tells us in his note on page 353. I find this frustrating with the Horrible Histories books too: that you can't check the claims made with such authority. "History is sources," as a former tutor used to tell us sternly. (And, ahem, it helps when I inevitably pinch bits of this to use in other things...)

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Misfits, by Michaela Coel

This short book is an extended version of Michaela Coel's 2018 MacTaggart lecture, an outsider's view of the television industry,. I'd seen that at the time but it's interesting to revisit given the stuff on early British television that I've been reading (The Intimate Screen and Writing for Television (1955)), about the variety, the diversity, of what gets put on TV - and who decides what gets put there.

Coel charts her life growing up on an estate opposite the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland, one of many striking juxtapositions. There's violence at school, she drops out of college and then ends up writing bits of her life and perspective that get the attention of Channel 4. This leads to her extraordinary Chewing Gum and, after a horrific assault, the even more extraordinary I Will Destroy You. She learns lessons, gets things wrong, and some of her experience is harrowing. Yet, bold, defiantly, she endeavours to be honest, to open things up: her point being that Television will only get its house in order if we can be transparent.

It's an often funny, often very uncomfortable read. Coel is a brilliant writer. An early passage about moths seems to lose its way - but it's a kind of promise, just as when a TV drama opens "cold" on something odd and unclear. It's the writer asking for the trust of the viewer/reader that all will be explained. The final pages, when Coel returns to the moths, will echo in my head for some time. 

There's lots here to mull over, not least her call to arms to put the wrong things right: "What part can I play? What can I contribute or say to help?" (p. 98). And I'm struck by her response to the relative imbalance of power between creatives and those in charge.

"I've often been told by people in our industry that many producers, in many companies, 'test the waters' to see what they can get away with. I told them the opposite of what I'd learned in drama school: the only power we have is the power to say 'no'." (p. 64)

I've often heard something like this said in relation to the choices we make as writers about what to write, a recognition of our relative lack of power when producers and commissioning editors are the ones who decide what to green light. All we can do to steer our careers is to decline an invitation when it doesn't feel right, to take a small step backwards.

Coel's version is about stepping forward

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Writing for Television, by Sir Basil Bartlett

Following yesterday’s post about The Intimate Screen and British Television up to 1955, I read this short guide to Writing for Television from 1955 written by Sir Basil Bartlett, who is listed on the cover as “Drama Script Supervisor [for the] BBC Television Service”, this credit prefixed on the inside with the word “formerly.”

It’s a rather nice little hardback, originally sold for 9s 6d, and “was written at the request of the BBC,” says the blurb on the inside front flap. Although the author “assumes that the reader has already had some experience in writing”, this “severely practical book is for a wider circle than the professional writer only” and will “appeal to the ordinary reader who likes to know how the machinery works”. It was one of a number of practical guides published by George Allen and Unwin, with adverts on the back cover for An Introduction to Journalism by EH Butler and Play Production for Amateurs by Eric Bradwell, and ads inside for Write What You Mean by RW Bell and Technical Literature - Its Preparation and Presentation by GE Williams. 

Bartlett provides 76 pages of notes intended, he says, "for the professional writer” (p. 9), and assumes that he (always "he") comes from the theatre. "Basically, Television is a by-product of the theatre," he tells us (p. 11). Indeed, of the up to 90 scripts received by the Drama Department each week, “the majority … are still in stage-play form” (p. 48) rather than being written especially for Television.
“The Drama Department has a dual function. On the one hand it has been for many years a repertory theatre. Week after week it presents to viewers Television versions of outstanding theatre plays by authors of all nationalities and all generations. On the other hand it has a growing and gladly undertaken responsibility for finding new work by new authors and giving it an airing.” (p. 48) 
There was not a 50/50 split between the two, and Bartlett is also aware of the ratio changing. Of the up to ninety submissions received by the Drama Department each week, “The majority of scripts submitted are still in stage-play form,” (p. 48) but in 1950 the Drama Department produced 105 plays, 95 of them adaptations of established stage plays; in 1954, of a “similar” total, just 30 were established stage plays, the rest either adaptations of new plays, novels or short stories - or, good gracious, “new plays written expressly for the medium” (p. 49). In addition to this, the department produced four serials. 

To aid the would-be writer of TV, Bartlett provides extracts from 10 notable TV productions, which - like The Intimate Screen - are evidence of the sophistication and ambition of early TV. For my own reference, they are: 
Strikingly, Bartlett doesn’t encourage writers to write material expressly for TV. With fees for single performance of an original play at £120, and £60 for a repeat, he admits that “an author … can scarcely make a living out of Television, even if he writes ten plays a year and gets them all accepted" (p. 71) - even if the expansion of television and the development of TV craft may mean increased fees in future. There’s mention of sales abroad, but at this stage he’s talking about selling a script that can then be reproduced, rather than a recording of a BBC-made play.

Instead, Bartlett is entirely pragmatic about using Television to further a career on the stage.
“The BBC Television Service is, however, an excellent try-out theatre. And it is on this basis that it should be considered.” (p. 70)
He gives six reasons: “First, he will get his play knocked into shape by experienced script-writers and directors.” Television also affords better casting and production that a small-stage try-out, and the author will get his name known to millions, who might then go see a stage version, and he’ll have the value of newspaper coverage - all while retaining the rights. Elsewhere, Bartlett tells us that - at BBC Television at least - “the standards of the theatre prevail” as “Television respects the author’s integrity”. Indeed, “once an author’s work has been accepted it becomes the sole purpose of the director, actors and technicians to see that it is project as well as is humanly feasible on to the screen.” (pp. 14-15.)

Yet the sense is that the author would have little involvement at all in the televisual elements of screening works primarily conceived for the stage.
“The adaptation of stage plays, old and new, is normally undertaken by BBC staff writers and directors, and outside writers are rarely called in to adapt the work of their playwright colleagues. Most plays, after all, require no more than rigorous pruning, a little transposition of scenes and a general opening up.” (p. 43) 
Of course, an increased focus on original plays written especially for the screen would obviate this kind of work, and I wonder how much that influenced the decision of Sydney Newman, when he became Head of Drama at the beginning of 1963, to close the Script Department entirely.

That the BBC produced some 105 plays each year helped clarify something for me: why the BBC had a regular run of Sunday-Night and Tuesday-Night plays. It was all down to limited studio space.
“A BBC Television play is rehearsed for either two or three weeks according to its complexity. Most of the rehearsals take place in outside rehearsal rooms, and the cast spends only two days, including transmission day, in the Television studio.” (p. 62)
So Studio D at Lime Grove would have Saturday and Sunday booked for the live Sunday-night play; Monday and Tuesday would be for the live Tuesday-night play; Wednesday and Thursday would then be given over to a repeat performance of the Sunday-night play - implicitly, affording it more value than a play shown just once on Tuesday. (As we saw in The Intimate Screen, it was the Thursday-night repeats that got recorded, where examples survive.) The studio was therefore free on a Friday, when a smaller production such as a half-hour serial might be fitted in.

When it began in 1963, Doctor Who was recorded in Studio D on consecutive Friday evenings. This series-of-serials was possible, surely, because by that time, more prestigious dramas were being recorded in the new Television Centre, freeing up space - but the structures and schedules remained.

Then there’s the kind of material suitable for TV. For all Bartlett underlines the connections to theatre rather than film (“Stage plays and Television plays are living things, whereas films are in cans”, p. 14), he has to admit a major difference.
“One of the biggest problems facing the Television writer is that his public is so elusive. [Whereas a playwright can see the audience,] “The Television writer, on the other hand, is writing in a vacuum. He has a potential public of many millions. But he can never be sure, at any given moment, that those millions have not switched off.” (pp. 26-27)
Even so, he tells us,
“The viewer is the average man. And what he wants is to be told a story which he can both enjoy and understand.” (p. 27)
And he warns that,
“the majority of viewers have no theatrical background. Many of them have never been in a theatre in their lives.” (p. 28 )
This was, of course, an insight often ascribed to Sydney Newman but is fundamental to the medium years before he even came to the UK.

So much of the book is about Television as a modern, technological medium but Bartlett’s warnings on subject material firmly place this in history:
"Although not liable to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain it [the BBC] is compelled, by the nature of its Charter, to exercise a strict internal censorship of its own. This amounts to no more than a sense of responsibility for what is shown to the family and seen in the home. Thus there is no place in BBC programmes for plays that might normally be produced in private theatre clubs. And any author who has an urge to write a play on a distasteful theme--rape, for example, or incest or abortion--would be better advised not to write it for Television. ... The BBC must also be cautious about plays with a strong political content. ... In addition, there is a quite natural ban on the portrayal of the Royal Family in fictional programmes.” (p. 18)
That said, I held my breath when he raised the issue of writing aimed at minorities - but it wasn’t at all what I expected:
“If he [the author] decides to throw caution to the winds and write deliberately for a minority audience, for the hard core of better-educated viewers, he must remember that the BBC Television Service puts out a single programme and that the time allotted to minorities is considerably less than is possible, for example, on Sound radio, which has three channels. And the competition for the few minority spaces on Television is a stiff one.” (p. 29)
It’s a case for accessible, popular television - a grounded, universal TV - very much in Newman’s line.

There’s much more, such as on the popular appeal offered by regular characters and situations in serials and series - though, “With its single programme and shortage of studio space the BBC Television Service cannot embark very frequently on a series.” (p. 42). And there’s a fantastic chapter that takes us through the day of a live recording, explaining everyone’s roles and giving a sense of the tension, and the author getting in everyone’s way, which dovetail’s nicely with the account in Alvin Rakoff’s new memoir.

And then, at the end, Bartlett concludes with something that’s a cognitive leap forward. Though, “People are inclined to be snobbish about Television Drama and to regard it as a slightly disreputable member of the theatrical family” (p. 73), “In the future the theatre will, I believe, have a lot to learn from Television.” (p. 74). He means in doing away with the frame of the stage play - footlights and the proscenium arch - to get up close to, even inside a subject’s head.
“It is an intimate medium and well suited to this task.” (p. 76)
As we saw yesterday, he was right - and much sooner than he can have expected. He's a key witness, on the cusp of revolution.

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Intimate Screen, by Jason Jacobs

Recommended to me by my friend Dr Una McCormack, The Intimate Screen - Early British Television Drama, published by Oxford in 2000, covers the period 1936 to 1955, and is fascinating.

Jacobs sets out his intention to “revise significantly, rather than refute completely” (p. 3) the model suggested by Gardner and Wyver, that:
“The first phase [of Television drama], primarily under the aegis of the BBC, was one of the last sustained gasps of a paternalistic Reithian project to bring ‘the best of British culture’ to a grateful and eager audience—a mission of middle-class enlightenment. Thus in its early days TV drama picked up the predominant patterns, concerns and style of both repertory theatre and radio drama (as well as many of their personnel, and their distinct training and working practices) and consisted of televised stage plays, ‘faithfully’ and tediously broadcast from the theatre, or reconstructed in the studio, even down to intervals, prosceniums and curtains.” (Gardner C and Wyver J, ‘The Single Play from Reithian Reverence to Cost-Accounting and Censorship’, and ‘The Single Play: An Afterword’, Screen 24/4-5 (1983), cited in Jacobs, p. 3.) 
Gardner and Wyver were not alone in seeing “a respect for theatre” (Jacobs, p. 7) as “blocking” the liberation of new forms of drama which came in, they felt, for two reasons: with the creation of ITV in 1955 and Sydney Newman starting work in British television in 1958. 
“Along came this man with the dream of putting the story of ordinary people and of our times, the contemporary times, on the screen, and doing this with quality, and giving writers freedom to write … This natural force blew through the corridors of television and blew a lot of the cobwebs out. That man probably had a greater influence on the development of television than anyone else.” (Ted Willis, speaking on the 1987 Channel 4 documentary And Now For Your Sunday Night Dramatic Entertainment, cited in Jacobs, p. 7)
Jacobs argues that many of the supposed innovations of this “second phase” — a focus on original plays written especially for television, working class subjects, moving the cameras, cutting, location filming etc — had a long pedigree in television already, and that the medium had always aimed at a kind of intimacy with the viewer which set it entirely apart from film, radio and the stage.

As he goes on, that “intimacy” was readily discussed in the press and the BBC’s internal paperwork, and understood in a number of different ways: the intimacy of watching in your own home (rather than dressing up to go out to the theatre), usually on your own or with just a few other members of the household (not a whole theatre audience); the intimacy of softer spoken voices as actors did not need to project to the back of the theatre; the intimacy of live drama, where the audience was witness to events happening in real time (and things might go wrong at any moment); the intimacy of small studio spaces and the close-up… 
“Intimacy meant the revelation and display of the character’s inner feelings and emotions, effected by a close-up style of multi-camera studio production.” (p. 8)
The sense is that the practicalities of television - in licensing material to put on screen, the limited studio and technical facilities, the smallness of the TV screen, and it being in people’s homes - shaped the kind of drama that was screened, the way it was framed and the audience’s response. The aesthetics of TV drama came from how it was made.

One major issue in exploring all this is that so little TV survives from the first phase: Although recording — and thus retaining — TV programmes wasn’t readily available in the UK until about 1958 (p. 4), 
"by 1947 it was technically possible to record television on film so, theoretically, there should be a complete record of programmes from here onwards. Instead, for the pre-1955 period, we have two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment, the 1953 televising of the Coronation, an adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a selection of children's programmes from the early 1950s, and some sporting events (Test Match cricket, some football)." (p. 10) 
Just as in histories of the theatre (and in the sort of Doctor Who archaeology I’m involved in), these missing performances are pieced together from surviving paperwork, recollections and photographs, partial records rather than the full story. Jacobs is excellent at this: each chapter gives the broad context before moving into case studies on particular plays, detailing — as much as is possible — how they were staged and framed.

Some details are fascinating: instantaneous “cutting” from one camera to another was not possible until 1946; until then, “mixing” between two shots could “take up to eight seconds”, requiring great skill on the part of the crew, with some scripts specially written to accommodate the delay (pp. 46-47). There's lots of the limits of what could be achieved, and how small, gradual improvements in technology could change the feel of drama.

In fact, more recordings exist than Jacob suggests: there are surviving bits of pre-recorded material from the 1930s, and the earliest surviving “full” TV drama is It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer (tx 22 February 1953) - “full” because the surviving version is the shorter repeat; the original longer version was not recorded. It's striking that all these surviving dramas of the period - Schweitzer, Quatermass and 1984 - were produced by the same person, Rudolph Cartier. As Jacobs details in a 15-page case study on 1984, Cartier was extremely adept and lauded in his time for pushing what TV drama could do — though Jacobs argues that Cartier was selecting from a range of already established techniques rather than originating them entirely. But the retention of Cartier’s work isn't necessarily evidence of him being held in special esteem.

For one thing, other plays were recorded but not retained. The Broken Jug (tx 24 August 1953, produced/directed by Hal Burton) and The 23rd Mission (tx 11 November 1953, produced by Ian Atkins, directed by Julian Amyes) were, says Jacobs, both pre-recorded rather than broadcast live — marked as such in Radio Times, though without any reason being given, annoyingly.

Then there was the issue of copyright. The BBC often had rights to transmit a live adaptation of a theatre play, as an ephemeral performance, but not to retain it in any physical form. In some cases, the corporation was required to destroy recordings, such as a 1939 production of The Scarlet Pimpernel).
"One solution to the copyright problem was to commission original plays for television. The setting up of a script unit in early 1950, and the hiring of Nigel Kneale and Philip Mackie as staff scriptwriters, can be seen as an attempt to generate fresh drama, and drama which could be recorded and owned by the BBC. This would not have been an issue before telerecording when television programmes simply could not be thought of as material commodities [or tradable goods]." (p. 12).
The suggestion is that The Quatermass Experiment was selected for recording over other plays of the period because Kneale was on staff and the production was written especially for television. There were still complications: Jacobs also reports issues over the pre-filming of trailers for The Quatermass Experiment because there was no agreement in place with the actors’ union Equity. An agreement was reached, and also a deal whereby only the repeat performance of a play would be recorded, guaranteeing actors two performance fees (p. 113).

Then, in a footnote about the controversy over the political content in 1950 play Party Manners and its  repeat being cancelled, Jacobs adds that,
"The BBC were keen to demonstrate that they were not prone to state control, so much so that when similar controversy erupted around Nineteen Eighty-Four the BBC repeated the play in the face of considerable parliamentary criticism. It was the repeat which was telerecorded." (p. 96n)
So was Nineteen Eighty-Four recorded — and survives today — because of the controversy?

There's some stuff about the BBC's penchant for "Horror Plays" after the Second World War, perhaps reflecting the mood of the BBC staff — and the nation — who had been in service, but also acknowledging that TV suited the creation of eerie atmospheres and, as a letter to Radio Times in 1948 put it, "actors and actresses like to have 'close-ups' of registered horror" (p. 99).

In his case study on 1984, Jacobs suggests that in expanding what TV could do — using location filming to expand the scale of the story — Cartier turned the intimacy of television on its head. As Cartier himself said, the Michael Anderson film version of 1984 made a year after his own version, 
“could not recapture the impact of the TV transmission … It was decidedly different in the TV viewer’s own home, where cold eyes stared from the small screen straight at him, casting into the viewer’s heart the same chill that the characters in the play experienced whenever they heard his voice coming from their ‘watching’ TV screens.” (Cartier, ‘A Foot in Both Camps’, Films and Filming 4/12 (September 1958), p. 10. Cited in Jacobs, p. 138) 
This was surely reversing the usual, "cosy" intimacy of television to invade the viewer’s home — and the reason the drama proved so effective and shocking. Jacobs cites glowing reviews in the press and the “mostly hostile” letters to the BBC which “criticised the play on the grounds of obscenity”, thought it “‘unsuitable for the vast audience’ or talked about it in terms of ‘pollution’: such productions could be bad for people.” (p. 155)

Jacobs concludes with the fact that Sydney Newman was, in 1956, taken to see the Royal Court's stage production of Look Back in Anger by John Osborne. I’m not sure that date is correct, or that Jacobs is quite right in his analysis here. It’s worth putting this in context.
"In [his work at] the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Newman had witnessed, and had also contributed to, the remarkable flowering of the dramatic arts on television in North America, in which new writers, new actors, and new directors had all played their parts. He also recognised that television was a mass medium of nothing; that because of cultural inequalities most of the audience had little experience of the theatre but much of the cinema; that television drama should reflect and comment on the world familiar mass audience. The story goes that Michael Barry, then head of BBC drama, took Newman to see Osborne's Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre. That play, with its unusual worm's-eye view of society and its derisive radicalism, seemed to Newman the dazzling light on the road to Damascus; more accurately, it summed up what he had come to believe about drama..." (Bernard Sendall, Independent Television in Britain (1982), cited in Television Drama: An Introduction by David Self, p. 49.)
Jacobs thinks it ironic that Newman was taken to the play by Michael Barry of all people, the man whom Newman would replace at the BBC and, “inspired” by the revolution in theatre they had witnessed together, radically overhaul TV drama. (Jacobs also says it was ironic that Look Back in Anger was not particularly successful on stage until an extract was broadcast on television.)

But that surely isn’t quite right. Another Canadian immigrant, Alvin Rakoff, claims in his new memoir that he was offered a job at the Royal Court by Tony Richardson, having both worked together as director-producers at the BBC. Rakoff turned down the offer, "then watched as the Royal Court went on to to revolutionise British theatre when it produced Look Back in Anger." The implication is that Rakoff was offered the job - and the chance to work on developing that play - because of the work he had already done in TV. Indeed, he says the "revolution" in theatre was “started by television writers who were the first to show more interest in ‘the man on the Clapham bus’ than the ladies’ tea party at the vicarage.” (I'm Just the Guy Who Says Action, p. 111). 

Fusing that with Jacobs, the implication is that Obsorne's play was riffing on the intimacy, the psychological insight, that was by now characteristic of TV, and intrinsic to the practicalities involved in televising drama. The "second phase" of TV drama ushered in by Newman was not, then, some radical new form but the recognition of strengths and virtues in the now mature TV medium. In that sense, it was more building on what had gone before than breaking from tradition.