Tag Archives: Television

The heart of Saturday night

 

One of my favourite parts of Trevor Griffths’ brilliant 1976 TV drama Bill Brand  is at the very end: a social gathering at the house of Labour MP Brand with his friends from a left-wing theatre group. It’s a Saturday night, which is commented on twice. Friend Jamie remarks that sharing alcohol and singing with friends on a Saturday night will compensate for the disappointing audience reception at that evening’s performance. When Brand apologises for the noise to his visiting neighbour, she brushes it aside: “I’m not bothered…it’s Saturday night.” The collective singing of songs of comradeship, added to an envelope of letters of support which he has just received, encourage Brand to look forward optimistically to the political struggles ahead.

Saturday night was regularly the big night out in the days of the reliable 5-day working week. Perhaps, even within our very different 21st century conditions of employment, it still is. The news media certainly refer to “the weekend” and “the working week” as if we hadn’t years ago invented shift work, 24-hour shop openings and home deliveries.

Saturday night is celebrated in many popular songs by such as Tom Waits (“The Heart of Saturday Night” and “Jersey Girl”), Sam Cooke (“Another Saturday Night”), Elton John (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”) and Whigfield (“Saturday Night”). Saturday night is a time for relief and excitement from drudgery and routine, involving cinemas, dancing, pubs and clubs, and, perhaps, also, romance and sex.

Saturday was also a big night for television programmes in the 1970s – variety shows, comedy, sports highlights, drama both light and more serious, produced in Britain or imported from the USA. The special status of Saturday night television is an idea which the present day media is still attracted to, despite the evidence of much lower audiences. Perhaps it makes them feel that those days of large profits and cultural impact have not entirely vanished. Not so long ago I heard a particular TV performer described as “the king of Saturday night” – possibly it was the late Bruce Forsyth – as if their programmes appeared at no other time in the week.

If Saturday night as a time of relaxation and entertainment has changed less than we might have expected, certainly the political improvement which Bill Brand and his comrades were working for, and expecting, seems like a more ridiculous and more old-fashioned goal.

 

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Your most important job?

 

The media of my youth was full of (male) polymaths, I reflected, when I read about the recent death of another. Bryan Magee was a philosophy academic who was also a Labour MP and a television presenter. Two TV series which he presented for the BBC about philosophy now seem astonishingly old-fashioned in their intellectual earnestness; at the time they were screened, I’m afraid, any such discussion programmes I would have been watching would be on the less demanding subjects of cinema, theatre, books and music.

Also on TV in the later 1980s was Pat Kane. He was the lead vocalist and co-songwriter of Hue and Cry, one of several British bands of the period who took their musical cues from US soul and jazz music. From the start, he was a confident interviewee on both musical and political topics, and at one point, I remember, he was writing two Saturday columns for The Herald newspaper, one interacting with theories of arts and culture and the other dealing with day-to-day political issues. As time passed, Kane participated more in the media and less in music. His two current websites The Play Ethic and Thoughtland show a variety of intellectual interests and suggest an impressive capacity for hard work and learning new skills.

Kane’s singing style famously recalled Frank Sinatra as much as Marvin Gaye or John Lennon, and he and his keyboardist brother Greg were an ambitious pair who liked to set themselves apart from contemporaries who sounded similar. For instance, they worked with acclaimed young Scottish jazz and classical saxophonist Tommy Smith, and, on the Big Day concert in June 1990 as part of Glasgow’s City of Culture events, I recall they appeared on the international stage at Glasgow Green with Nanci Griffiths and Les Négresses Vertes rather than the UK pop stage at George Square with Wet Wet Wet.

The Kane brothers’ latest musical work in Hue and Cry shows they have both retained much of their original expertise even if the passage of time makes it sound rather repetitive and familiar. Pat Kane has built a decent career on transferable skills, but I wonder if he wishes his musical career had been more like David Byrne’s or even Damon Albarn’s: more records, bigger venues, more chances to develop musically, a higher reputation among his peers as an artistic innovator.

Jonathan Miller was already a qualified doctor when he became a comedy writer and performer with Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore in the stage revue Beyond the Fringe. That success led him to more serious work as a theatre and television director. I discovered him as an engaging conversationalist and raconteur on such TV shows as Michael Parkinson’s in the 1970s , where he regularly protested that he was a serious medical person first and that all these stage and TV performances were distractions which he would soon pull himself away from. These different strands in his professional life did seem to come together with his TV series on medicine The Body in Question, although I personally was more interested in his stint as producer of the BBC’s project (during 1978-1984) to televise all of Shakespeare’s plays.

Michael Parkinson’s first period of BBC shows ended in 1982 but revived successfully in 1998 – by which time the original “chat show” description was being replaced more often by the more grandiose American “talk show”, probably because the format was becoming ever more ubiquitous in the TV schedules. I remember noting that similar groups of celebrities whom Parkinson interviewed in the olden days returned in the new period: established Hollywood actors, TV comedians, and sometimes the same people, like Michael Caine or Billy Connelly. But I never saw again Jonathan Miller. He was now in his mid-60s, and he probably felt that the format of the TV interview and the interests of TV audiences had changed too much.

George Thomson was also a Labour MP,  a few years before Bryan Magee, who later became one of the UK’s representatives on the European Commission when the country first joined what was then called the EEC . However he started his adult life as a journalist with DC Thomson, the Dundee-based publisher famous for children’s comics as well as adult newspapers and magazines. “I sometimes wonder,” I heard him say once on TV, “whether I added more to the sum total of human happiness during the years when I was editor of the Dandy.”

 

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Eurovision, and the particular legacy of Brighton 1974

 

The weekend of the Eurovision Song Contest, the most well-known event of the European Broadcasting Union and popular music’s closest equivalent to an international celebration, is another suitable time to reflect again about the decades of changes in the music.

As I was growing up, it was obvious that the USA and the UK were the dominant forces in pop and rock music. Other countries’ artistes sometimes seemed to copy openly these countries’ originals; for example, Johnny Hallyday in France. If only more pop music heard in the UK was sung in languages other than English, I used to think, more young people would be encouraged to learn such languages. But such artistes never seemed to emerge into the music mainstream.  Artistes from other countries who enjoyed international status tended to be instrumentalists, like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream from Germany. World music artistes from the French- and Spanish-speaking countries remained a niche market. The music world became more European only with the rise of electronic dance music in the 1980s, building through the continental clubs of Ibiza and Ayia Napa and the Sónar festival of Barcelona, and most of this music was instrumental where any vocals in any language were unimportant.

 

Views of three cities which have hosted the Eurovision Song Contest: Amsterdam, and, below, Paris and Bergen.

 

In its beginning the Eurovision Song Contest was definitely a forum for western and central Europe. Political changes like the end of the Soviet Union and the enlargement of the European Union led to the event being hosted and contested by countries formerly on the fringes of and even outside the continent. The fifteen or so participants in the 1960s has now more than doubled to this year’s 40. Qualification procedures seem now as tortuous as for the UEFA Champions League or Formula One motor-racing.

In the 1970s, it was sometimes seen as ironic that, at a time when British pop/rock songwriters and performers like Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Elton John and David Bowie were so successful all around the world, none of these people represented the country in the Eurovision Song Contest. That was possibly because it was felt that the UK was doing well enough with acts who might be considered as our “second eleven”, like Cliff Richard, Sandie Shaw, Lulu and the Shadows. Whatever, it allowed our major figures to concentrate on their serious work in the important markets and stages.

The most musically significant of the artistes who have won the competition during its history is probably Abba, who won in Brighton in 1974. Although Scandinavian, they sang in English, following the dominant US-UK paradigm. Their Eurovision victory led to an international career and further decades of influence and homage.

 

The Grand Hotel in Brighton.

 

In the 1970s any self-respecting pop/rock producer or artist could compose a strong melody. Because it was a minimum requirement of which everyone seemed to be capable, it led to arguments among fans about which practitioners were the more culturally acceptable. Abba became an acceptable pop act for the musically snobbish – which most of us were at least some of the time. Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (occasionally assisted by Stig Andersson) wrote some great melodies and arrangements for songs like “SOS”, “Money Money Money”, “The Name of the Game”, “Take a Chance on Me”, “One of Us”and “Head Over Heels”. They also wrote lyrics in their second language which were at worst perfectly serviceable, and at best witty and sensitive.

Nowadays I am more interested in the European Broadcasting Union for their annual radio days of music for Holy Week, and Advent broadcast in the UK by BBC Radio 3, but a lifetime of listening to pop music has included at least a little attention to the Eurovision Song Contest. While it may not have helped to raise musical standards, it will still, in the middle of a period of European division,  remind viewers and listeners of ideas and a culture which they share in common.

 

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What Carry On carried on from

 

In recent times I have acquired a greater tolerance towards the Carry On films. Whereas, once, like many people who thought of themselves as modern/intelligent/liberal/progressive, I believed they represented everything old-fashioned, unsophisticated, crass and unpleasant in British culture!

One reason for my change of heart has been an increased appreciation of the link between the Carry On series, all directed by Gerald Thomas between 1958 and 1978, and earlier British cinema.

Many of the regular actors in the  series – Hattie Jacques, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims, Bernard Bresslaw, Terry Scott – had begun their careers in the 1950s or even in the 1940s and had appeared in these other, better regarded, films. The most diverse career perhaps belonged to Kenneth Williams (performing with Maggie Smith, in Peter Brook’s The Beggar’s Opera with Laurence Olivier, directing plays by Joe Orton) –  but another of note was definitely that of Sidney James.

James’ early film career was varied and productive. He features in The Small Back Room, one of the films made by the great writing/directing partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the J.B. Priestley-scripted Last Holiday, two of the most fondly remembered Ealing comedies The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt,  another famous comedy The Belles of St Trinian’s,  Carol Reed’s circus drama Trapeze, Basil Dearden’s boxing drama The Square Ring, the gangster Shakespeare Joe MacBeth. A later return to his native South Africa for the drama Tokoloshe suggests a continuing appetite to expand his range.

In these films he appears with stars like Alec Guinness, Alistair Sim, Burt Lancaster, Kenneth More, Laurence Harvey and Peter Sellers.

Alongside James’ film work was his fame as Tony Hancock’s regular co-star on Hancock’s Half-Hour, on both radio and television. In fact it was widely rumoured that James was removed from the programme at the star’s request because of his popularity.

The first Carry On film in 1958 was Carry On Sergeant. Those first few films bear closer resemblance to other British comedies of the 1950s like Doctor in the House or Folly to be Wise or Brothers in Law or Love in Pawn or The Galloping Major  in their tone and casting and observations of post-war British life than to the series’ broader, farcical later titles. James’ own first appearance in the fourth film Carry On Constable has him not yet typecast, playing a long-suffering but even-tempered police sergeant. Later he was invariably the manipulative, lecherous and cackling centre of his social group, whether in Tudor England, the Wild West, the Indian Raj or the contemporary Britain of either local government or the “permissive society”.

An interview with James’ daughter on Talking Pictures TV raises the point that, if James had lived longer – he died in 1976 – he might have benefitted from the new fashion of encouraging veteran comic actors into dramatic parts. Contemporaries of James who did benefit included Max Wall and Charlie Drake each in Samuel Beckett and Charles Dickens and Jimmy Jewell in Trevor GriffithsComedians. Later on, Robbie Coltrane, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Lenny Henry would all be able to combine careers in TV comedy and perhaps more challenging dramatic work. Certainly James seemed to have a reputation for being well-prepared and hard-working, and many stereotyped actors have flourished through a good script, co-operative fellow performers and an imaginative director.

Perhaps we see signs of what might have been in the few surviving episodes of his post-Hancock TV series Citizen James where the scripts present him with the opportunity to develop a character more fully. However, the stronger, richer version of his character is definitely the one created by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson in the first series, who is a disresputable Soho gambler and shirker of responsibility, in contrast to the more suburban and respectable man which he became later as written by Sid Green and Dick Hills. That makes Citizen James rather similar to his Carry On characters, so maybe that does clinch the argument that in the second half of his career James had moved into a productive routine which it might have been difficult to deviate from. But at least he seemed to enjoy and appreciate his career, which, by all accounts and tragically, his co-star Kenneth Williams did not.

 

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The modern shape of the news

 

“Brexit continues to suck the life out of the British news cycle,” said journalist Andrew Neil on the BBC programme This Week recently. He might reasonably have omitted the last two words of that sentence.

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union after 40 years has been the main story for all of its news media for many, many months.

I am old enough to remember that the issue of membership of what was first called the Common Market has long been an issue of discussion and even controversy in UK politics. Margaret Thatcher’s successful Conservative governments of the 1980s frequently criticised the organisation even while they maintained membership. Divisions within the John Major government of 1992-1997 over the issue of the Maastrict Treaty led to the election of Tony Blair’s Labour government.

The major difference today is how much more ubiquitous and dominant are news programmes within national television. In the UK thirty years ago each weekday had about five hours of news within 36 hours of programmes on two BBC channels; nowadays we have the two 24-hour TV news channels provided by Sky and the BBC, plus nine hours of news each weekday on the two main BBC channels as well as the regular news bulletins on the other networks.

Both BBC News and Sky News tend to follow each other closely in the stories they cover and how they prioritise. The topics are often London- and Westminster-centred; also acts of violence, perceived terrorism, natural disasters. This has led to a climate where the same few news stories are endlessly repeated and the way they are reported uses the same language and the same people and the same video footage.

24 hours a day of TV is a long time to fill. So other resources have emerged to supplement. New media organisations like Spiked and Novara Media sprang up alongside the long-established but less popular print newspapers. Think tanks with different interests and shades of political opinion conduct research and write articles which the news media pick up on. Each of the two news channels has devised many programmes of political conversation. Unfortunately these have learned to prefer confrontation and shouting rather than clarity and balance. And there is “social media”, especially Twitter, which staff of both TV news and print newspapers have long used as a major source and which they also have adopted as their own principal broadcast conduit. The journalists do less independent research and reporting but more commentary and their language has become less nuanced and less temperate and less impartial.

We had political divisions in the past, of course. Industrial disputes always polarised opinion, especially the miners’ strike of 1984-85.  The British military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq led to sustained protests and arguments.

So, what about the discussion over leaving the European Union? It’s surprising to remember that during the campaign before the referendum in 2016, the word “Brexit” was almost never used: we all just talked about leaving or staying in the EU. Only when the incoming Prime Minister Theresa May said “Brexit means Brexit” did the word start to gain popularity and notoriety. Although, as conceded above, it is certainly an issue which divided opinion within political parties and within different geographical areas in the past, many of us have still been shocked about the extent to which it created hostility and hysteria and accusations of treachery within all age groups and social groups. Especially since the poverty and social problems which people were angry about had obviously been caused not by the EU but by the neglect of successive national governments, both Labour and Conservative. The TV producers’ fondness for headlines like “Brexit Crisis” and “Brexit Britain” and for raised voices and personal insults has allowed this evidence to be ignored, and for the actual closeness of the referendum vote to be forgotten.

A robustly free and impartial press is the feature of a just society and Amnesty International and kindred organisations remind us that in other countries more journalists are being intimidated, imprisoned and killed than ever before. However, I do feel that a large part of the blame for the anger, aggression and fear around “Brexit” can be fairly laid with our media, principally the television news programmes. Why might they have behaved as they have? Many possible reasons: technological changes within their industry, difficulties in coping with these, a long-standing gluttony for political drama, the laziness of individual executives and producers. What I am quite sure about is that we are not living through the finest hour in the history of the UK free press.

A perceptive reminder came recently from the Canadian academic Steven Pinker. Why, he wondered in his recent book, are people so unhappy, when all the evidence shows that the whole world is wealthier, healthier and more peaceful than ever before?

His answer: because the picture of the world which the media presents is so different. “Journalism has a built-in bias towards the negative, in that it covers events, and it is easier for something to go wrong very quickly rather than right very quickly.” An explosion or a terrorist attack can break out rapidly, but improvements in well-being arrive more slowly and gently and so are very seldom deemed worthy of a news report.

 

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The influence of Katherine

 

The name of James Hilton is rather forgotten now, his having died in 1954, but novels like Lost Horizon and Random Harvest were popular enough to be transferred quickly by Hollywood into films which were regularly on TV screens during my youth. The Hilton novel which has held its reputation longer than others is possibly Goodbye Mr Chips. Its 1939 film version, directed by Sam Wood, earned six Oscar nominations and a Best Actor prize for Robert Donat. Stuart Orme’s British television version, first screened in 2002, is still regularly shown, at least partly due to the continuing popularity of its lead actor, Martin Clunes.

Hilton’s novel tells the story of the 60-year long career of a schoolteacher named Chipping at a boys’ boarding school called Brookfield. This is another one of those narratives through which the events of World War One cast a long shadow. A startling scene towards the end has Brookfield attacked by enemy aircraft and describes Chipping’s courage and humour in the face of this. It is sobering to realise that, just a few months after the first screening of Sam Wood’s film, and even before Robert Donat had received his Oscar statuette, its audience was facing, in real life, a second war.

More significant even than the 1914-18 war for the lead character is the period of two years during the 1890s. During this time, Chipping, by now in his mid-40s, meets on holiday a young woman called Katherine Bridges. They marry and enjoy a life together which is happy but tragically short.

While Chipping, or Chips, the nickname given by Katherine, is present throughout the whole narrative, Katherine’s own presence is brief. The allegorical significance of her surname is never openly commented on, but it seems likely that Hilton wants the reader to see Katherine as the force which directs and guides the middle-aged Chips to the second, more rewarding, part of his life.

In the novel Chips is trying to save Katherine from a mountain ledge but he hurts himself in the process: “Thus he found himself the rescued instead the rescuer”. In the 1939 film director Sam Wood shrouds Chips in mists on the mountain and it is Katherine’s voice which guides him to a safe place.

 

A scene from the Lake District photographed in 1996. Chips meets Katherine while on holiday there. “He went up… with Rowden, a colleague; they walked and climbed for a week, until Rowden had to leave suddenly on some family business. Chips stayed alone at Wasdale Head, where he boarded in a small farmhouse. One day, climbing on Great Gable, he noticed a girl … ”

 

Chips has always been shy of women, and Katherine is more intimidating than most. She is an example of “that monstrous creature… the New Woman of the nineties”. She is a political radical who believes women should have the vote, an admirer of Shaw and Ibsen and William Morris, who enjoys cycling and is unafraid to visit a single older man alone in his lodgings. However she also believes that teaching is a noble and important profession and is attracted to Chips’ gentle manner and to his opinions which, although old-fashioned, are held honestly. To the modern reader it still seems an unlikely match. The 2002 TV version felt it necessary to add a scene where she leaves Chips a book by Shaw as a farewell gift, which encourages him to cycle after her in a classically bold romantic gesture. Her fatherly group leader cautions, “I hope you are not going to forget yourself, my dear”, to which she calmly replies “I believe I already have”.

Married and at Brookfield, Katherine is popular with other teachers and all the pupils. Hilton says she is also popular with other teachers’ wives – but both TV and film versions felt it too complicated to introduce such characters. The novel mentions the school concerts and the prize-giving garden party, the TV version shows afternoon tea and picnics. She organises a football match between Brookfield and a mission school in working-class Poplar in east London, which is remembered years later by one of the Poplar boys when an adult. (The TV producers perhaps felt there had been enough scenes of sport already when it was decided to change the latter social inclusion initiative into a dance with a nearby girls’ school).

Hilton says that Katherine often asks Chips to be lenient in dealing with pupil misbehavior – because she understands that the boys had often been sent to boarding school against their will and that living together with others was “an unnatural arrangement” – but she is described as shrewd enough to realise that leniency is not appropriate in every situation. The TV version shows her use the Aesop’s fable of the sun and the north wind in her argument against “uncivilized” bullying to the shocked Brookfield headmaster, which the latter recalls when he compliments her later at the mixed gender dance.

Katherine’s death in childbirth is dealt with briskly by Hilton and in both adaptations. Chips refuses to take any time off after the tragedy and returns immediately to his class. Because it is 1 April, the pupils have already organized an April Fool’s joke which he tolerates. Hilton adds that Chips “nearly” says “ ‘you can go to blazes for all I care. My wife is dead and my child is dead and I wish I were dead myself’ ” –  but he is held back by social formality and professional dedication.

The story is still only half-way through, and Hilton makes clear that Chips’ continuing popularity and status and success within the school is due to the influence of the deceased Katherine. So although one theme of the story could be said to be tradition or service or the English class system, another could certainly be the positive influence which one person can exercise in unlikely circumstances when will and effort are applied.

For me, Hilton’s most insightful description is that Katherine’s “radical-socialist… idealism” has combined with Chips’ more conservative “maturity” to produce “an amalgam gentle and wise”. With the new century, despite the pain of his bereavement, Chips gains “a mellowness (and) harmony” and becomes “supremely and confidently himself”.

 

Reference:  Hilton, James (1980)   Goodbye Mr Chips    London: Coronet

 

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Supporting film history

 

My most valuable new cultural resource in the past year has definitely been the television channel Talking Pictures TV.

Free throughout the UK, it has been an unceasing supplier at all times of the day of fascinating and rewarding films and television programmes from the past.

Some of its schedule are celebrated films which I have known about and would have sought out at any time. For instance, Joseph Losey’s The Servant with its still transgressive story and cinematography of the manipulative manservant and his supposed sister, or Seven Days to Noon, an early nuclear terror drama with an authentic newsreel tone, or Chance of a Lifetime with its attractive political narrative, in keeping with the mood of the times, about how the workers of an agricultural machinery firm take over its management, or The Swimmer, the simultaneously bizarre but convincing allegory of 1960s US middle-class society.

Many more are titles which I knew slightly or had never heard of.

Almost all, even during a few minutes’ viewing, provide wonderful insight into the customs, behaviour, fashions and landscapes of previous generations, plus the earlier performances of dozens of actors you know from later films and TV.
As well as conventional movies from the 1930s to the 1970s, the channel provides short informational films of the type which would have once been a regular part of cinema programmes, plus TV drama from both Britain and the USA.

The channel was launched by Noel Cronin who runs it with his daughter Sarah. An interview with Cronin with BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme gave rather too little information for an aficionado like me about how you might go about setting up such a TV channel – although I did work out it was helped by libraries of old films which could be bought cheaply because they were deemed to have no commercial value and also by available television bandwidth.

“Thank you for supporting film history by watching Talking Pictures TV”, is its regular on-screen announcement. I’m not sure how much practical support I am actually providing, Noel and Sarah, but “appreciating”? Certainly yes.

 

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Men, fathers and grandfathers

 

It is not unusual that writers share similar biographies and write about similar topics. Nevertheless, Andrew O’Hagan and William McIlvanney  are two particularly interesting examples.

They both grew up in Ayrshire although 30 years apart, and each has written fiction which draws heavily on their national and regional backgrounds and which also deals with families and politics.

McIlvanney began his career as a teacher until early book successes allowed him to write full-time. He appeared regularly in newspapers and on TV but through most of his life he might fairly have been regarded as a big fish in the small cultural pool of Scotland. In contrast, O’Hagan became a full-time writer soon after university and established himself promptly within the London literati. His brief biography to my paperback edition of his novel Our Fathers (published in 1999 when he was 31) says, “He is on the editorial board of the London Review of Books and is a contributing editor to Granta”. While his name appears on the website of neither publication now, he still enjoys sufficient prestige to have been allocated a full issue of the LRB for a long article about the Grenfell Tower fire.

O’Hagan’s Our Fathers and McIlvanney’s 1975 novel Docherty each share at their centre an older powerful male character who exerts strong influence on the younger members of his family.

In Our Fathers, he is Hugh Bawn, a long-serving Labour councillor in Glasgow with a personal devotion to housing, influenced explicitly by two great real-life socialists John McLean and John Wheatley and by one fictional one, his mother Effie Bawn, supposedly a comrade activist of Mary Barbour.

 

The centre of Ayr where the New Bridge crosses the River Ayr. “Hugh (Bawn) was born in Ayr in the winter of 1913…”

 

O’Hagan seems to have based Bawn at least partly on Robert Bruce of Glasgow Corporation who produced the Bruce Report of 1945, with its wartime fondness for grand plans, tower blocks and architectural brutalism. Hugh’s powerful personality and political dedication alienates his son Robert, who shares none of his father’s ideas, suffers from alcoholism and moves away to England. However Hugh and his wife Margaret have positively influenced their grandson James who goes to live with them when his parents’ marriage break up. Much of Our Fathers deals with the adult James’ return to Ayrshire to his grandparents and to his family roots.

 

Govan Old Parish Church in 2013, looking north towards the River Clyde. “(The Bawns) moved to Govan with a bundle of blankets and the map of Cork…(They) were only in Govan a month when Britain went to war.”

 

Similar to the relationship between Hugh and Robert Bawn is the stormy relationship which William McIlvanney portrays between Tam Docherty and his three sons, especially with Angus, who believes much less than his father in community and much more on self-improvement and financial independence.

Reading Our Fathers brought back memories not just of Docherty but also of Just a Boy’s Game, the TV film written by Peter McDougall and screened by the BBC in 1979. Where O’Hagan and McIlvanney come from Ayrshire, McDougall grew up in Greenock and Just a Boy’s Game is set in the town. Here the patriarch is McQuillan: like Hugh Bawn at the end of his life, but, unlike him, a veteran gangland street fighter. McQuillan also has an adult grandson who is influenced by him. Jake McQuillan, a restless surly taciturn young man with a taste for street violence, seems to have grown up with his grandparents, estranged from his mother and with his father dead when young apparently in a street brawl. The relationship between the McQuillans is much less close than that between the Bawns: Jake’s grandfather’s dying message to him is that he has never liked him and considers himself a better fighter than Jake is.

All three of these older men are portrayed as physically strong and brave and tough. Tam Docherty and Hugh Bawn have had respectable working lives, and Hugh Bawn has often been loved, we are told, by those who have benefitted from his reforming zeal. But all three are also selfish and frightening, of fixed beliefs, men who have become addicted to the power they exert over others and who have resisted disagreement and challenge.

 

The ruined Alloway Kirk outside Ayr. ”Hugh wanted to see Auld Alloway Kirk before the light went out…The stones of the kirkyard looked bent and grey…”

 

The short road leading to the old Brig o’Doon in Alloway. The hotel on the right of the picture, formerly the Burns Monument Hotel, now the Brig O’Doon Hotel, is named the Cottars’ Arms in “Our Fathers”. “We got off near the Brig o’Doon. Hugh wanted to pee. We went into a hotel, the Cottars’ Arms, and I stood at the bar whilst the old man disappeared…”

 

McIlvanney was always regarded as a major Scottish writer from the 1970s until his death in 2015. O’Hagan, although successful, does not perhaps exert the wider cultural influence within Scotland as did McIlvanney – although that is quite probably O’Hagan’s preference, since he has usually lived and worked outside Scotland. Despite similarities between the two writers, it is intriguing to note the differences in their writing styles. As already mentioned in an earlier post, McIlvanney’s writing is heavy with description and imagery and a didactic narrative voice; O’Hagan is more light and deft, more nuanced, more musical – showing more readily associations with Joyce or Lawrence or Philip Larkin. To complete the trio, McDougall is closer in age to McIlvanney and is also much more similar to him, and, as a TV writer, aims for quotable epithets and one-liners and for imagery and scenes which draw from Hollywood western and crime genres.

I am sure my characterisations of these three Scottish writers is not fanciful. When James Bawn defends his grandfather’s political record against the angry reporter in the Ayrshire pub, O’Hagan has the latter insult James as “English” and “middle-class”. In the same pub on the same evening, he describes James’ mother’s second husband as being “civilised” and showing “a feminine manner of patience”. O’Hagan seems to have a strong awareness of the way masculinity and masculine values have changed in Scotland during his lifetime and that he may be quite different from McIlvanney and his characters and his style of writing.

But, despite growing up in a later period and having absorbed many social changes, O’Hagan is clearly still fascinated by some of the classic elements of west of Scotland life. Our Fathers draws its title from the well-known Christian prayer and also deals with Catholicism and the writing of Robert Burns. The subject and style of Our Fathers shows O’Hagan as writer and man being pulled simultaneously in two different directions, back to the past and forwards to the future. As we all always are.

 

Reference:  O’Hagan, Andrew (2000) Our Fathers   London: Faber and Faber

 

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Coming home

 

It was instructive to read the report by the great journalist Hugh McIlvanney of England’s World Cup victory in July 1966. Especially because it is written in the classic journalism style of the past of clear facts expressed concisely in stylish language – which we took for granted then and see rather less often now. “Moore took the ball coolly out of defence and lifted it upfield to Hurst 10 yards inside the German half. The referee was already looking at his watch and three England supporters had prematurely invaded the pitch as Hurst took the ball on his chest.”

In 1966 I was ten years old. The World Cup was one of my first big television experiences as well as one of my first big sports experiences. I knew then that live football on television was rare – although not that it would remain that way for 20 years more, well into my adulthood.

Of the competition, one match I clearly remember was North Korea scoring three goals against Portugal in the first 25 minutes of the quarter-final before being beaten 5-3. I recall one of Hungary’s wins (most likely, based on retrospective research, the 3-1 victory against Brazil) for the impressively alliterative Daily Express headline of “Magical Magyars” ). And yes, I do remember the final, with Geoff Hurst’s dramatic concluding goal – never guessing that Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary would become one of the most endlessly replayed and repeated phrases. Even as a Scottish child, I was supporting England, because this was a year before Celtic’s European Cup win, and many more years before we were presented regularly with a choice of preferring Scotland as a World Cup country over England.

So, 1974. Scotland had qualified and England hadn’t. I had just left school. The older men I worked beside were equally fascinated by the World Cup, as it was Scotland’s first qualification in 16 years and easily watchable because it was being played in Europe. So too the Scottish press. As mentioned above and elsewhere, I often find I can remember big news stories by the newspaper headlines which followed them. The Sunday Post came into our house at that time in common with the majority of Scottish households. The day after Scotland’s elimination at the group stages, its back page sports headline was the sober and irrefutable “Scotland go out without losing a game”, but the front page was filled with the inclusive and cheerleading “Out – but weren’t they all champions”.

So, 1978? The Argentina adventure is a popular exercise in media nostalgia due to the famous optimism then of Scotland’s manager and fans, especially in this its 40th anniversary year.

It has created other cultural connections. In the 1980s TV drama The Justice Game, Scottish solicitor Dominic Rossi is familiar with the political situation in central America, because he visited there after travelling to the World Cup in Argentina. (In other words, showing that he understands the ordinary person’s values as well as international affairs.) William McIlvanney, brother of the aforementioned Hugh and a novelist-journalist with a great interest in football, centred one of the stories in his Walking Wounded collection around a young man who tries to borrow money from his employer to travel to Argentina.

I do actually have definite memories of that unexpected 3-2 win against Holland and of Archie Gemmill’s confident goal which seemed to suggest Scotland might yet qualify for the later stages. Of course, I have a more vivid one of the way Irvine Welsh and Danny Boyle in Trainspotting  presented Gemmill’s goal as one of orgasmic intensity.

The 1998 championships coincided with a holiday to Switzerland. The hotel in Wengen buzzed with several nationalities sharing an interest in the results. A pub near the hotel in Lucerne was a base for Holland fans cheering their team’s journey to the semi-finals. The first finals to have used the Golden Goals rule, I recall.

 

Two alternative sites of the 1998 World Cup. Wengen, and, below, Lucerne, in Switzerland.

 

Another multi-national experience in 2006. Throughout July I was doing a CELTA course in Glasgow to teach English as a second language. The adults who were our student guinea pigs were of various nationalities, so loyalties conflicted but interest was widely shared. My strongest memory of the matches: Zinedine Zidane’s scene-stealing headbutt in the last minutes of the final.

To this year. I was attracted to the unfeted and self-restrained England manager Gareth Southgate and his young squad, while still wondering whether the latter really was more genuinely emblematic of a new inclusive modern England. As the team progressed there must have been a few pro-Brexit journalists and politicians who suggested that their success beyond most expectations was built on a rediscovered strength in the national psyche. Fortunately that theory did not have to be put to the most advanced testing.

The team’s longer residence in the tournament gave further prominence to the song “Three Lions”. I’ve never been entirely sure about the phrase “football’s coming home” – surely the explicit and implicit meaning of the song is that it is the World Cup which is coming back to its rightful home? Despite the Cup having been also won by a number of other countries? However it is one of the best football songs of the pop/rock era with a strong melody by Ian Broudie so it is hard to grudge Broudie his success.

Nobody can yet be sure which of the UK football nations will qualify for the next World Cup finals during Christmas shopping and carol-singing time in Qatar in 2022, or whether Gareth Southgate will still be around to exert his quiet charisma on fans and media – but probably “Three Lions” will still get some airplay.

 

Reference:  McIlvanney, William (1992)  Walking Wounded   London : Sceptre

 

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Where the journey is more important than the destination

 

One Holy Saturday morning some years ago, I was struck by a photograph on the Herald newspaper’s front page, showing a group of people from Northern Cross, carrying a wooden cross along the sands of the tidal island of Lindisfarne. (From memory, the picture was similar to this in the Newcastle Chronicle from another year.)

Northern Cross is an ecumenical Christian group which walks several pilgrim routes in Scotland and England every Holy Week, to arrive together at the ancient Christian site of Lindisfarne on Good Friday. To my mind, an inspiring and thrilling adventure.

 

One of the Christian pilgrimage sites featured in “Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve”. Lindisfarne Castle, seen from the church of St Mary the Virgin.

 

Advent and Lent are the Christian seasons of preparation. Appropriate therefore that BBC TV should have screened the travel documentary series Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve during Advent (in 2013) and repeated it during Lent (this year).

I am actually not a great fan of the modern style of television documentary, invariably built around a photogenic presenter endlessly on-screen, with a predictable template of short snippets of commentary mixed with ostentatious pictures, frequent introductions and summaries, aerial camera shots, and rousing music. I was attracted to Pilgrimage more than to Simon Reeve’s other series because of its more substantial and more stimulating narrative thread – as well as because it would feature some places I had visited.

Pilgrimage, making a journey to a place of religious history in order to gain personal spiritual benefit, has been part of all major religious faiths since their earliest days. For his three programmes, Reeve visited famous places of Christian pilgrimage in the UK, in continental Europe and in the Middle East: Lindisfarne, Walsingham, Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela, Rome, Bethlehem, Jerusalem.

One of Reeve’s repeated points was the different reasons for going on pilgrimage in past centuries. Many people were indeed motivated by Christian devotion, eager to visit places which held sacred relics, and many believed they could thus make amends for past sins. However, some were just looking for adventure (even sinful adventure!), an opportunity to break a monotonous routine, to explore beyond their own town or parish. This meant that a pilgrimage group might bring together people of widely different backgrounds, as shown in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

 

The shrine to St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

 

The growth in pilgrimage in medieval times provided economic benefits to the destinations and to inns and shops and merchants en route, even while pilgrims were sometimes exploited by the sale of false relics. Other secular cultural changes developed over the longer term, suggested Reeve: it was travels to the Holy Land which led Europeans to return to the habit of washing and bathing more regularly at home, and later to British support for Zionism and the Balfour Declaration.

The “golden age” of true pilgrimage ended with the Reformation and Reeve suggested that modern pilgrims are more often “well-off adventure hikers”, interested in the physical challenge as much as the opportunity for contemplation and solitude. However, he also made the thought-provoking point about how many of those medieval pilgrims would have been sick and dying – and therefore how fortunate we are that modern medicine has removed the sound of those desperate prayers for healing and recovery from cathedrals and shrines.

 

In St Peter’s Church in Rome, a plaque listing all of the popes of the Catholic church who are buried there.

 

Another modern pilgrim I am familiar with is Gerard Hughes, who walked from the south of England to Rome in 1975 and described the experience in his book In Search of a Way. Whereas Simon Reeve showed respect for fellow travellers but agnosticism about the Christianity which empowered them, Gerard Hughes, now deceased, was a Catholic Jesuit priest who was definitely making an inner spiritual journey as well as a physical one. Hughes repeated Robert Louis Stevenson’s quote, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”, and added that, for the true pilgrim, “direction is much more important than destination” and that “searching for God is already to have found him.” Reeves extolled the “rhythm” of long-distance walking and one comparable comment by Hughes was appreciation of the Catholic prayer of the rosary, which is similarly rhythmic and repetitive and therefore particularly suited to pilgrims’ walking.

 

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Pilgrims at the Stone of Anointing, where, according to tradition, Jesus was brought down from the cross before being buried.

 

Although many of Reeve’s scenes and observations were unsurprising, his concluding observation made a strong impression. At the place of Jesus’ tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, he said that it was “the holiest site in the holiest shrine in the whole of Christianity… this is (the place where) Christianity was born …the birth of a culture, of a civilisation, so many paintings, so much music, so much joy, so much suffering, so many wars, so much of human history comes from here…”

Reeve’s series had started in Lindisfarne. The Northern Cross 2018 walks to Lindisfarne begin during the Palm Sunday weekend of 23-24 March. As their web-site says, their purpose is to “re-trace old pilgrim pathways…meet and be greeted by people on the way…(and) on Good Friday experience walking across the ancient causeway…”

 

Reference:  Hughes, Gerard W. (1986)  In Search of a Way (2nd ed)   London : Darton, Longman and Todd

 

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