Friday, 4 December 2015

Rear-view mirror


The media is a Moloch that eats its young.  Blood, sweat and tears go into TV programmes and they’re soon forgotten. Or are they? And do they leave us with shared memories? Some long-ago programmes on reincarnation, taxmen, and Yehudi Menuhin. A right-wing rant from Kingsley Amis. And Alison Steadman in a tin bath

I do not sleep well. I never have. I was ill quite a lot as a child, and early memories link sleeplessness to fever. As an adult I have never been able to get comfortable in bed and fidget constantly.  For the last seven years I have lived in a brownstone on Manhattan; I love the building but in the summer I am bombarded by cold air from the air-conditioner and wake very early, sometimes to the calls of a raccoon family in the garden.  In the winter, too, I often wake in the small hours to the gurgling of the central-heating pipes and know that I shan’t sleep again. Then I use the radio for company.

©Takkk/Creative Commons
A week or two ago, waking at four, I decided to listen to a back number of Radio 3’s Through the Night.  Lying back and letting my thoughts drift, I found myself thinking, for no obvious reason, of TV programmes I remembered from my teens. There seemed to be many more from then than from recent years. By the time my alarm went off a few hours later, I had drifted off, and it was not until the evening that I found that I had written, half-asleep, on the notepad by my bed.

Now, people do this. Back in the 1970s a British Liberal peer, gravely ill in hospital, was given narcotics to dull the pain. He was convinced that the resulting drug-fuelled dreams held the key to the universe, but could not quite recall them later. So he asked for a notepad. One night he jerked awake, aware that he had been given the answer to existence, and scrawled it rapidly upon the pad, then went straight back to sleep. It wasn’t until the afternoon that he remembered, looked at the pad and saw scrawled upon it the words: “It’s Henry V! It’s Henry V! He’s taking his horse to France!!” 

My own notepad contained no such revelation. Instead, there were the following words:

BLOXHAM TAPES
MANY HAPPY RETURNS
BLAIR CASTLE
WE ARE ALL GUILTY
THROUGH THE NIGHT 


There is no Rising Damp here,  no Pennnies from Heaven or Fawlty Towers, and no Reginald Perrin (apart from the last-named, I don’t think I saw any of these at the time). The programmes I had written down were half-remembered mysteries. The next weekend, I searched my memory, and then the internet; and I know, now, what all these programmes were and when they were broadcast. They had nothing in common with each other, except that they were broadcast in 1974-1977; and they have stayed alive in my memory for 40 years, although I have seen none of them since. I wondered whether my memories of them were correct. I also wondered whether anyone else remembered them. Had they vanished without trace, or had they left some impact on the collective memory? 

II
Arnall Bloxham was a Cardiff hypnotherapist.  In 1976 he startled the British public with a programme, The Bloxham Tapes, in which he appeared to regress three apparently quite normal subjects into past lives. One had been a sailor in Nelson’s navy; another had been a Jewish woman murdered in a pogrom in medieval York. Their recollections were striking and vivid, and appeared to be backed by such evidence as was available. The programme had a significant impact at the time, the more so since Bloxham – an avuncular, white-haired gentleman – said nothing during the programme, letting the tapes speak for themselves. However, presenter Magnus Magnusson  interviewed the subjects when they were awake, and they claimed to have startling, vivid recall. Some doubt was cast on the story of the pogrom victim, who claimed to have sheltered in a vault in York that was thought to not exist. A few months later, however, workmen stumbled upon it, bringing the programme back into the public eye.  Certainly Jeffrey Iverson, the BBC producer who initiated the programme, remained convinced, and later wrote a book called More Lives Than One? Evidence of the Remarkable Bloxham Tapes (1977).

The evidence has since been challenged. In particular, Melvin Harris, in his 1986 book Sorry, You’ve Been Duped (later republished as Investigating the Unexplained), argued that the alleged sailor, Graham Huxtable, could have absorbed the details he gave under hypnosis from popular literature and other sources. In particular, he had named the ship on board which he was severely injured as the Aggie, forcing researchers to conclude that it had been the HMS Agamemnon, a far more powerful ship than Huxtable said it was.  Other evidence from the programme has apparently also been questioned across the years. 

Not having read Harris’s book, I can’t judge. But, like Iverson, I was at least partly convinced at the time, and am still intrigued. Nearly 40 years later the programme inspired my novella Dog!, published in September 2015. But I have found it hard to find much about Bloxham himself apart from the fact that he was Welsh, was a former president of the British Society of Hypnotherapists and was already elderly at the time the programme was made. (One source says he was nearly eighty; another that he was born in 1881, which would have made him 95 in 1976.) He is, I suppose, no longer with us. But the fact is that the programme inspired at least two books (three, if you count mine), and has never quite been forgotten. TV does not always – quite – eat its young.

I could initially find nothing on the next title on the list, Many Happy Returns, although I remembered it very well. It made no appearance in the BBC Genome Project listings or the IMDb site; but I was sure of the title, and probably the year – about 1975.  I was slightly out on both counts. Happy Returns was part of the ITV series Sunday Night Drama and was screened on 5 June 1977. The series had some distinguished contributors, including Ken Russell. This one was by Brian Clarke and was directed by an experienced Granada TV insider, Brian Gilmour.

The lead character is a tax inspector, chasing a Yorkshire businessman who he is sure is misreporting his income. The inspector raises his suspicions with his superior. “Who’s his accountant?” asks the boss. “Mr X,” he is told. He frowns. “That’s funny, he’s not one of the bent ones, is he?” he asks. We meet the accountant, who is indeed not bent and is very embarrassed. He convenes a meeting between the Revenue and his client, at which the latter thumps the table and complains he is being harassed. The Revenue doesn’t buy it and sticks him with an assessment for some £20,000 in back taxes. It is clearly less than he really owes. (To put this in perspective, I earned £1,495 in the mid-seventies; a Mini cost less than £1,000). Meanwhile at the businessman’s home, his wife hears their temporary cleaner, Mrs X,  complain that she can barely manage.

In the final scene, the businessman sits at his dining table doing his sums. “It’ll be all right,” he calls out to his wife. “’Fraid we’ll have to sell the boat. But we’ll get a new one for next season.” His wife expresses her relief. She then reads an item from the paper. “That Mrs X has just got six months in prison,” she says, surprised.  “What for?” asks the businessman. ”She fiddled her social security,” says the wife, naming the sum (it is pathetic). “I dunno,” says the businessman. “Why do they do it, eh.” Roll credits.

It’s a little jewel of a play, a mere 30 minutes, with not a scene out of place. It’s lost now, and no-one remembers it. But you could remake it today. The world hasn’t changed in 40 years; if anything, the plotline would seem more up-to-date than ever. 

III 
The next programme on the list is not quite forgotten. The man who inspired it, Yehudi Menuhin, never will be.  What I wrote down as BLAIR CASTLE was Mr Menuhin’s Welcome to Blair Castle, and it went out on BBC1 on November 30 1974. It was again fronted by Magnusson, then ubiquitous; a popular Icelandic-born presenter, he was also a scholar and translator of Norse sagas and author of a history of the Vikings.

In the programme Yehudi Menuhin met Hector MacAndrew, a distinguished Scottish fiddler who endeavoured to teach Menuhin the fast, resonant technique of Strathspey bowing. Menuhin couldn’t do it. As an article in The Scotsman would recall nearly 30 years later: "Menuhin just couldn’t get a hold of the famous Scottish up-stroke, and he got more and more frustrated and eventually said to Hector, ‘Oh, I cannot play The Marquis of Huntly’s Farewell.’ But Hector looked at him and said, ‘Ah, but you can play the Beethoven [violin concerto] and I can’t.’"  I cannot say I remember that exchange word-for-word. I do remember the programme clearly, though, in part for the vigour of the music, much of which likely came from that Strathspey style. I had not seen or heard it before. (This was many years before the wonderful Ally Bain series Down Home, which was also to stick in my mind.) MacAndrew, 71 at the time, died only a few years later but left a legacy of compositions of his own that have now been recorded.

Menuhin with sisters Yaltah and Hepzibah, 1935
©National Portrait Gallery/Lusha Nelson
Menuhin had first performed in public when just six or seven years old. In 1932, Elgar recorded his own Violin Concerto for HMV; the soloist was to have been Kreisler, but he was not available. Instead he used Menuhin, a 16-year-old kid from New York City. I often fall asleep (when I do) to this astonishing recording, made on a late spring morning over 80 years ago but sounding like yesterday. Later Menuhin would tour the battlefronts during the war and would, with Benjamin Britten, play for the survivors at Belsen.  In later life he remained firmly committed to liberal causes; he could for example not abide apartheid.  In 1974 he was already Sir Yehudi Menuhin (though he was not yet a British national, so did not use the title). Eventually he was Lord Menuhin.

He was a colossus, and yet there was no hint in Blair Castle that he knew that, or cared. Another fiddler, Michael Welch, in a memoir of Hector Macandrew, has written of Menuhin’s appearance in the programme that: “It was a measure of the pupil that he recognised the gift of his teacher and was willing to listen to and be guided by an undoubted master of his own particular form.”  Mr Menuhin’s Welcome to Blair Castle is memorable for the music, but also for the charm and modesty of one the great men of the earth. 

IV 
The next title scrawled on my pad was WE ARE ALL GUILTY. I remembered this play as having been shown in the summer of 1975, and this time I was right; the IMDb Movie Database says August 17. It also gives a cast list, and records that it was part of a series of stand-alone dramas made by a British company, Associated Television (ATV). The series was called Against the Crowd but I can find little information about it, except that one of the other episodes was written by a well-known science fiction writer, Nigel Kneale, and another by Fay Weldon. No-one seems to remember We Are All Guilty. But IMDb does name the writer; it was Kingsley Amis.

Amis was only 53 in 1975, but had long ceased to be the enfant terrible of Lucky Jim (in fact son Martin was emerging as terrible in his own right). His personal life was complex, and he drank. But he was far from finished as a writer, and several of his best books were still to come. (The Old Devils, which would win the Booker, wasn’t to be published until 1986.) He had also changed his politics. A Communist Party member as a young man, by 1975 he had been moving to the right for years. We Are All Guilty was a snapshot of the way Amis père saw his world.

Amis in 1970 ©National Portrait Gallery/Geoffrey Argent
The plot is thus: A teenage layabout and his friend break into a warehouse. The security guard chases them, and in so doing he crashes through a faulty safety rail to the floor below, incurring injuries that look permanent. The teenager, Clive, finds himself in the criminal justice system. The trouble is, it’s full of social workers and vicars who see crime as a social disease and want to see him, not the guard, as the victim. The play ends with Clive wishing that someone would blame or punish him for the mess he’s made.  It sounds like a right-wing rant about the state of society. (As does the latest from Amis fils. Perhaps we all get like our parents in the end.) Indeed that is how I remembered it; but Amis was more subtle than that.

Searching for We Are All Guilty online, I was surprised to find that Amis had turned it into a novella, which was published many years later, in 1991 – not long, in fact, before he died.  I don’t know why he did this, unless it was a case of “never waste good material”. It is mainly cited as having been written for young people (though I wonder about this), and is largely forgotten. Kirkus Reviews were not impressed. Amis, it wrote, “seems as oblivious to the real roots of Clive's antisocial behavior as his adult characters are; he even gives Clive the (unlikely) option of easily finding a job, and depicts him as bored with the girls he hangs out with. It all smells of the establishment believing that the lower classes would be all right if they'd just shape up."

Kirkus might have missed something. To be sure, Amis doesn’t think that we are All Guilty; this book is about personal responsibility. But the book is not a rant – it’s satire, which should be no surprise from Amis. There may even have been satire in his rightward shift. As The Independent said after his death, that shift was sincere, but: “There was always an element of deliberate provocation and self-parody in this stance... As soon as left-wing attitudes became trendy, as they did in the late 1960s, Amis's innate scepticism was turned upon them and their proponents.”  In any case, what comes strongly from the book is not that Clive gets off nearly scot-free. It is that he himself does not understand why he has, and feels the need to expiate his guilt – but is not allowed to. By being forgiven, he is denied absolution.

Both the book and the original had some nice touches.  In the play, a social worker offers Clive a cigarette; he takes it and leans forward to light hers, but she hasn’t got one – she doesn’t smoke. In the book, Clive and three of his friends eat in an Indian; they are plainly bored, with the place and each other, and you sense that Clive’s problem is not that he is evil or stupid, but that there is just not enough in his head. The book is not Amis’s best; some of the dialogue is stilted – one senses he knew very few Clives – and he could have done more with the plot than this slim novella; Martin Amis would have, I am sure. Yet, reading it 40 years after seeing the TV play, I found it cohesive and oddly satisfying. 

V
 Once in a blue moon, something shown on TV changes the way people think and, maybe, act. The classic example from British TV is the BBC’s 1966 episode of its Wednesday Play, Cathy Come Home, in which a decent couple’s descent into homelessness is charted to the point where their children are taken from them – the latter a disturbing scene that was filmed “live” in a Tube station. Cathy Come Home had mixed results. It is said to have led to the foundation of the homelessness charity, Shelter – but in fact this was coincidental, and the film’s director, Ken Loach, has apparently since said that the film made little impact on homelessness.  Still, no-one who has ever seen this film will have forgotten it.

I didn’t see it in 1966 (I have since). But the last of the titles scrawled on my pad was part of the same series, although by then it had been renamed Play for Today.  For it, the BBC commissioned some of the best playwrights and directors ever to work in Britain, including Loach himself, Jack Rosenthal, David Hare, Howard Brenton, Trevor Griffiths, Mike Leigh (whose contribution Abigail’s Party is still revered) and Dennis Potter  (one of whose episodes was initially banned). It’s an A-team, and I hadn’t understood to what extent until I started researching this post. But I did remember Griffiths’s Through the Night. While writing this post, I found the British Film Institute (BFI) page on the programme, and saw that I had seen it 40 years ago to the day – on December 2 1975. 

Through the Night concerns a young woman, played by Alison Steadman (then 29).  Admitted to hospital for an investigation into a lump in her breast, she is asked by a nurse to sign a consent form “just in case”. She wakes the next morning to find that her breast has been removed, something that she in no way expected or thought she had agreed to. The play follows her shock, the insensitivity of some of the hospital staff, and the bleakness of her stay in hospital. Some of the play can now be seen online, but I haven’t looked; instead I have tried to reconstruct the scenes that impressed me so much that they are still in my mind. They include the casual presentation of the consent form, Steadman waking up on the ward, and the confusion and distress of her husband when he visits her with the children.

There are two scenes that loom especially large in my mind after not much less than half a century. One is when the surgeon emerges from theatre (Steadman, presumably, has been wheeled back to her ward). Another doctor appears and reminds the surgeon that he is seeking cancerous tissue for his research. The surgeon replies that he has as much as his colleague could possibly want. The savagery of his reply leaves us in no doubt of what he found.

The second of these scenes is still the most powerful thing I have seen on TV. Steadman’s character is taking a bath; we see her sitting in an old-fashioned portable tin bath, in the middle of a bleak room flooded with sunlight. A cleaner is washing the floor, paying no attention to the young woman who sits stiffly upright in the tin bath, dressings drawn across her torso where her right breast (I am sure it was the right) used to be.  The light streams through the window, and is bleak.

According to the BFI, the play drew little critical response. I wonder if that is true; I do not remember. But it was seen by a large audience of about 11 million, and struck a chord with the viewers. The BFI’s piece adds that author Trevor Griffiths himself was “swamped” with letters about the play. I do remember that a besuited senior consultant was wheeled on straight after it ended, and insisted that Steadman’s character had had a rare “bad trip” in which everything that could go wrong had done; and that few patients would ensure such an experience. Griffiths was in the studio, in a simple sports-jacket and tie, but I have the impression that he said very little. Perhaps he was content to let his play speak for itself. I did not know then that the play was a response to Griffiths’ own wife’s experience of breast cancer (in fact, they were by then divorced, and she died in an air crash two years later).

Although I remembered the author’s name clearly, I knew little about him. Researching this post has been a revelation. His credits include a long list of plays for TV and the stage, and also wrote the original screenplay for the film Reds, a project he left after disagreements with Warren Beatty (but he has since said that the eventual screenplay was about 45% his).  A fascinating 2011 interview with Robert Chalmers in The Independent recounts how his screenplay on the great revolutionary Thomas Paine struggled to get made, despite support from Richard Attenborough and Kurt Vonnegut; it was eventually produced on stage in London. Chalmers writes that: “Like Bicycle Thieves, Through the Night is a classic work so intense that you wouldn't want to watch it twice. That play generated a greater public response than any one-off piece in the history of British television, apart from Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home. The Daily Mirror alone received 1,800 letters after its broadcast.”

So Through the Night is not forgotten then, and neither is its author (and Steadman of course is not).  Its director, too, is still around – Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who later directed Brideshead Revisited, and may, intriguingly, be the illegitimate son of Orson Welles. It is amazing what you discover when you dig back, into the half-remembered. 

VI 
What has this dig into my TV past revealed, if anything? Maybe nothing; a middle-aged man looking back – which is nothing to anyone else. But I asked two questions at the start of this post. One was whether TV left us, as a society, with shared memories. The other was whether TV sucked up the creativity of people like Amis and Griffiths, then threw it away, lost to those who follow.

The answer to the first question is yes. My search found that at least two of these programmes (Blair Castle, Through the Night) were widely remembered, and I suspect at least one other (The Bloxham Tapes) is too. This is at least partly about their excellence.  But it is also about a glue that stuck a society together. The BBC and ITV chains still exist, but there are far more choices now; many younger people may not watch conventional TV at all. Through the Night got 11 million viewers, then about 1 in 5 of the population. I don’t suppose anything would now. Does this mean that, in another 40 years, there will be no shared memories? Does that mean we will be fragmented, with nothing in common? And if so, should we worry about it?

In a recent article for The Spectator,  Ed West argued that “The BBC was a product of a strong national culture, but it also helped to further cement it, making events like the Proms or FA Cup final part of our collective experience...Yet the world in which Lord Reith established the BBC has gone... The fact that the Beeb is attacked by everyone, whether it’s the left or right, Scots or English, reflects the fact that we have become a far more diverse country... It has become a victim of the contradiction at the heart of established liberal-left politics – the clash between solidarity and diversity.” In short, there is nothing left to glue us together.

Menuhin with Bruno Walter in 1931 ©Bundesarchiv
Or is there? I am writing this a few minutes after British MPs voted to authorise air strikes on Syria. This decision is itself divisive, but the brouhaha around it appears to have involved much of the country.  I am far from sure that there is now no national conversation, even if it takes a different form and is in different, and more diverse, fora. And is the latter so bad? The mainstream broadcasters in Britain have been bound by the need for “balance” in their reporting and they have, very imperfectly, observed it. What if they were not to do so? The effect of the Nazi media in Germany or Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda is a warning here.  So is Welles’s own 1938 radio drama The War of the Worlds, which allegedly sparked mass panic. Today the rumour of a Martian invasion would soon be dispelled on Twitter. If there is a corollary, it is that Through the Night would not have the impact that it had in 1975. But I wonder if even that is true. If work of this quality appeared online, it would be shared and tweeted far and wide.

What of the other charge – that TV was and is a monster that sucks up creativity, uses it once and throws it away?

This is harder to disprove. While searching for these programmes, I also tried to establish whether copies survived.  In the case of Happy Returns, I could not at first find evidence that it ever had existed. I eventually identified it from a very brief entry on the British Film Institute (BFI) site; they do not seem to have a recording. As for We Are All Guilty, not long before his death in 1995 Amis said he would love to know if it still existed in any form. It appears not, although the script is held at an American university. Still, we have the novella. The Bloxham Tapes does exist, in four places; according to the global bibliographic database, WorldCat, three of them are public libraries in the US and the fourth is Monash University in Melbourne. In all cases, however, they are VHS tapes and one wonders how well they have survived.

I had better luck with the others. The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society in Edinburgh holds the original 16mm film of Mr Menuhin’s Welcome to Blair Castle; moreover it has been carefully digitalised and transferred to DVD. Sadly it is only available as a loan to branches and members of the Society, and only for private use. But this is likely for copyright reasons, so is fair enough; in fact, it is wonderful that the RSCDS has ensured the film’s survival. Last but not least, Through the Night has been preserved by the BFI, which has it in multiple formats, including digital. Clips are available online. The complete play is not, but can be viewed at any of the BFI’s “Mediatheques”, as it calls them; there are nine of these, in Glasgow, Wrexham and seven locations in England.

The first TV broadcasts in Britain were in 1936 and were live. They were usually not recorded. This remained the case for some programmes into the 1960s. Videotape arrived from the late 1950s onward, but in the 1970s it was still expensive and some programmes were, incredibly, recorded over so the tapes could be reused. Much TV from earlier decades has simply gone. Changes in technology mean that TV is easier to preserve. Today, a broadcast can easily be converted to simple sequences of 1s and 0s, and need never be lost. However, this does not assure us that all will be preserved. The volume of media produced expands exponentially year by year, and much of it is cat videos. The challenge now is to know what we have, where it is, how to find it again, and why we might wish to.

It will always be our own job to remember that that we feel matters. When something grabs your attention, stop, and store it away; you won’t pass this way again. And one day you will write it down when the raccoons wake you in the morning.
 

Mike Robbins's novella Dog! is available as an ebook for just 99c (US) or 99p (UK), or as a paperback, from  Amazon (US, UK, and all other country sites), Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Indigo, iTunes and more.


Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads

2 comments:

  1. I don't remember these programmes, Mike, but I completely identify with the idea of everyone watching certain shows, which meant we had a common cultural identity. This is not the case now due to the huge amount of choice of programmes to watch, and ways to watch them. I remember watching a series set in France in WW2, 'Manhunt', with my family, and finding it really gripping. I just looked it up, it was shown in 1969/70 - 40+ years ago, but I can still remember certain scenes vividly.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I remember Manhunt being on! But we never watched it. I do remember Up Pompeii! and the first season of Monty Python, both of which were that same winter.

      This whole question of a common cultural identity is a fascinating one. In this piece I took the view that technology hadn't changed that, or not completely; but you could easily argue the opposite. You could also argue that that common culture has broken down, but not for those reasons - a changing population has also done that, and today people can keep more of their identity from their country of origin. I am in the US but watch Sky News a lot more than I do the US networks (mainly to evade the commercials). I am sure many people in the UK are doing exactly the same thing.

      Delete