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 CurĂ© 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.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun reminded me chiefly of the Isaac Asimov story, Reason, which so beguiled me as a child. Klara is an AF - or "artificial friend" - an android companion who begins this novel gazing from the window of a trendy shop hoping that someone will buy her. She's an intelligent, observant machine, powered by the light of the Sun, but there's much of the human world she doesn't fully understand and readers must be active participants, filling in gaps in her knowledge or puzzling out what's really happening.

We understand that the small girl who smiles at Klara through the glass shop front and promises to come back and buy her may never return. We understand that a character with a serious illness may never recover. We understand that Klara goes to live with a traumatised, grieving family who don't always behave logically. But we also understand that Klara acts out of genuine concern to do right by these people. All our sympathies are with her, even more so than with the sick child at the heart of the story.

There are some disturbing ideas here: the genetically edited, "lifted" children and the social underclass then left behind; the idea of machine copies of the dead who can live on as comfort to their families; the haunting hints about the cruel treatment inflicted on AFs sold to other families; the understated cruelty of old AFs being left on the scrapheap to succumb to their "slow fade". But really this is an unconventional love story - nominally about two children whose lives are diverging, and actually about the devotion shown to them by their keen-to-please servant.

Then there's Klara's relationship with the Sun, her power source, who she assumes can power others, too - and is sentient and listening. I'm not sure how I feel about the ending of the book, which implies Klara might be right, that the Sun can intervene. It feels dissatisfying because, for once, there's no alternative to the meaning Klara applies here - there's no potential alternative reading that we can infer, other than lucky coincidence.

The coda, with a figure from Klara's past returning for one last conversation, is much better handled - poignant, sad, and with Klara still trying to make sense of human behaviour and her own complex feelings.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #570

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine has lots on the imminent new TV series with lots of exclusive access to cast and crew.

There's also bits from me. Deputy editor Peter Ware read my post here about Alvin Rakoff's new memoir and asked me to interview him about it. There's another Sufficient Data infographic, illustrated by Ben Morris and this time tracking the Sixth Doctor's efforts to pilot the TARDIS to particular destinations. And  I get a name-check in the nice review of the new Blu-ray release of The Evil of the Daleks.

ETA Alan Barnes' feature on the episode Blink also cites my 2017 interview with writer Steven Moffat.

Monday, October 04, 2021

Big Sky, by Kate Atkinson

I've been gadding about this week, braving the petrol crisis to venture to Cambridge and Liverpool, accompanied on the road by Jason Isaacs reading Big Sky - the fifth and, to date, final Jackson Brodie novel. Isaacs is perfect for this: he played Brodie in the TV series and - unlike readers of previous books in the series - knows how to pronounce words such as "Niamh". He's also good at making various characters distinct, which is important in a novel that depends on the interlinking relationships of a whole crowd of different, well drawn people.

In the years since Started Early, Took My Dog, time has moved on and yet little has changed for Jackson Brodie. He's still a private investigator, still haunted by the murder of his sister which compels his efforts to find and save other missing women. And yet his caseload is all sweating small stuff: following a married man and his girlfriend on dates; doing background research on some people; running round after his ex and their now-teenage son.

Lots of it involves people we've met before: that ex, Julia, is from the first book and she's been a constant presence. There's the return of Reggie Chase from book three, now working in the police but denying that's down to Jackson. We call back to events and people from previous adventures, because part of the thing is that Jackson lives in the past, but also trauma lasts for a lifetime. In addition, there's a more meta textual thing going on. Julia plays a pathologist in a TV series about a police detective, and at one point a cast member asking Jackson's advice for a scene. Then there's Jackson's continued reference to his own "little grey cells", linking him to Poirot (just as, a few sentences before introducing us to Poirot, Agatha Christie mentioned Sherlock Holmes). It's Jackson, and this whole endeavour, as part of a continuum, of death as entertainment.

To be honest, death takes quite a time to put in an appearance. Nothing much happens for a good few hours of the audiobook - we trail after Jackson and other characters going about their various lives, some of which intersect. But there are hints of something darker under the surface and as we pick over details, Jackson's instincts are shown to be absolutely, horribly right. There are a lot of women in danger...

I found the first half of the book mostly fun if a little too on the nose - anyone in favour of Brexit is crass and a bit (or a lot) racist, and there's lots of Jackson being grumpy about modern life. A running gag is that we get a character's train of thought and then someone else telling them to get a move on or to focus on matters at hand, as if the characters are sniping at their author's flights of fancy. As I said of the previous novel, this kind of thing can all feel a bit self-indulgent. But I think it's works better in this case, not least because this groundwork binds us to the various characters before the plot kicks into gear and things get  properly thrilling and tense.

What follows is often brutal - children in danger, some horrible deaths, and a seemingly endemic violence against women and girls. Atkinson has lots to say on the subject, but woven through the novel and from various perspectives so it never feels like a lecture. It is harrowing and compelling.

That makes it sound like an angry novel, and it is in places. Yet it's also often funny, and the over-riding emotion is melancholy - for lives lost and blighted, for the harm done by callousness and greed, for the long shadow it all casts over everything.

In that, and in its thrilling tension and it feeling like it had something to say, it chimed with No Time To Die, which I went to see on Saturday and really liked - but want to see again before committing my little grey cells.