Tag Archives: Television

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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Desire, deception and devilry by candlelight

 

Leslie Megahey is not the best-known UK film director, so it is interesting to find around the internet so much evidence of admiration for one of his films, Schalcken the Painter.

This was first screened by the BBC at Christmas 1979 , both as an edition of the arts programme Omnibus and also the latest in a series of annual Yuletide ghost stories. Its main value is in its photography which brilliantly recreates the look of 17th century Dutch paintings.

Film critic Graham Fuller points out that it is in particular the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, Jan Steen and Pieter de Hooch which provide the template for the film and this is certainly convincing if you look at the artists’ work on the Essential Vermeer website.

Leslie Megahey’s script was based on a 19th century story by the Irishman Joseph Sheridan Lefanu, which constructed a plot around an non-existent (as far as I can find out) painting by a real-life Dutch artist Gottfried Schalcken.

The original story describes how Schalcken loses his betrothed, Rose, niece of the artist to whom he is apprenticed, the real-life Gerrit Dou, to a rich old man. Once married, Rose disappears without trace but later Schalcken has a nightmare in which Rose and her rich husband appear to him. Megahey’s updating provides more detail about Schalcken’s life and more detail of his fictional nightmare.

 

The original story of “Schalcken the Painter” mentions Leyden and Rotterdam, but these pictures of period Dutch architecture were taken in Amsterdam in 2001.

 

 

One reason why the drama remained in my memory, it must be confessed, was because it included a certain amount of exposed female flesh (still rare on television at that time and usually irresistible to the younger male viewer). It ended with a particularly provocative scene where, in Schalcken’s nightmare, he imagines watching his lost love Rose invite him to watch her making love to her monstrously frightening and ugly husband.

 

 

 

Dou and Schalcken are still among the less famous artists of their period, so I remember the different frisson, prompted by strong memories of the drama carried over the years, when I later unexpectedly came across a Dou painting in the Palais des Beaux Arts in Lille.

Watching Schalcken the Painter again, I was reminded about other interesting works of fiction which imagine the lives and work of forgotten painters. First, Ali Smith’s novel How to be Both which includes the work of the Italian Francesco del Cossa and Leslie Megahey’s own later Cariani and the Courtesans which features his slightly later compatriot Giovanni Cariani.

 

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Reading, watching, eating

 

Cookery has been a growth area in publishing for many years. As soon as an amateur cook does well on one of the numerous television competitions or through a website, or as soon as a professional’s restaurant becomes successful, a personal cookery book is rarely far behind.

I admit to being part of that inflating audience. While I have read many fewer books in the past 20 years than in the previous 20, one subject which I have definitely read about more often is food and drink and cooking.

 

Rural France – Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny, photographed in 2005.

 

Urban France – Paris, probably photographed from the Eiffel Tower, in 1995.

 

In the 1970s, the highest status cooking in the UK was influenced by France, although the most commonly eaten food was probably Italian, or even Asian. Around that time my father did a good deal of the weekend cooking in our house, and consulted in particular two books, The Constance Spry Cookery Book and French Provincial Cookery by the more famous Elizabeth David.

My own first cookery book in the mid-1980s was a Delia Smith. One is Fun was on TV and much publicised but I remember it wasn’t that title, so it must have been one of the volumes of Delia Smith’s Cookery Course. It was a valuable source of particular recipes although soon enough I did gain enough basic knowledge not to have to refer to it regularly. I do remember her almost coy description of mackerel which seemed to betray the period in which she had grown up: “it has a strong taste which men like”.

Another TV programme which provided cooking ideas around that time was the first Master Chef – lower budget, less cool than the current version, with its Sunday tea-time scheduling and including some restaurant chefs as judges.

We were entering the era of the Celebrity Chef. Expert and/or professional cooks had been on TV for a while but this was the time when the term was coined and they were now more likely to be male. An episode of the Gary Rhodes series Rhodes Around Britain encouraged my wife and me to visit the wonderful area of St Ives.

 

St Ives, Cornwall, in 1994.

 

Soon after came the very first Jamie Oliver series The Naked Chef, with its pretend bijou city centre apartment, and for a long time after I copied a recipe of his for baked salmon wrapped in parma ham.

My biggest influence over the past twenty years has probably been Nigel Slater through his regular columns in The Observer newspaper. His recipe for a spicy aubergine stew, first suggested as an informal Christmas Eve dish for a large group, is perhaps the single recipe which I have used, adapted and shared the most often.

 

A few Nigel Slater recipes from over the years.

 

(Tangentially, I do miss the passing of the classic design of The Observer newspaper, once so weighty and authoritative, as it has moved significantly in the tabloid direction over many years, with many more and bigger photos and more light-weight stories in the front half of the paper. Its coverage of food and drink has definitely been one part of that “tabloid-isation”, with the Observer Food Monthly magazine and other frequent recipes supplements adding to the regular pages. But a modest periodic coverage of food and drink with accompanying photographs is hard to dislike).

As if there were not enough recipes already in books and newspapers and magazines along came the internet, full of more ideas and pictures from professionals and amateurs. Food and recipes are actually what directly led to the creation of Leaf Collecting: one particular piece of cooking research drew my attention to how many weblogs documented other areas of people’s domestic life and interests alongside the recipes and prompted me to think that I might do no worse!

Middle East food and drink has definitely become my most interesting experiment in recent years. Arto der Haroutunian’s book Middle Eastern Cookery (London: Grub Street 2010) is as informative on the history and culture of the region as on individual dishes.

Belatedly I came across the name of Claudia Roden, the Egyptian writer who was one of the first to introduce the British audience to Middle Eastern food in the 1960s. A recent article by Bee Wilson article opened with Roden’s discussion about how something she ate as a child in Cairo appeared in Australia later as “dukkah”  – which was clearly the same snack I was offered  myself at Ayers Rock last year, with its chunky bread, dry spice mix, olive oil and sparkling wine. That combination of taste and place was something I would count as one my own most memorable food experiences in recent years.

 

Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia, at dusk.

 

 

 

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“You men and the war”

 

Some photographs of Newcastle and Durham – the approximate settings of “When the Boat Comes In” – including a few buildings which would have been recognised by its 1920s characters.

 

I was a great fan of the drama series When the Boat Comes In, written mostly by James Mitchell, when it was first screened on BBC television in 1976 and 1977. While my initial viewing was random and perfunctory – it was scheduled after the essential Top of the Pops and I was already a fan of its lead actor James Bolam through Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – I was soon engrossed in its dramatization of working-class life in the north-east of England in the years directly after World War One.  In particular by the exploits of Jack Ford, played by Bolam, the handsome, clean-featured ex-sergeant who appears to have survived unscathed four years of trench warfare in France and Flanders , plus a period of unspecified “intelligence” work with the British forces supporting the White Russians against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. Ford is simultaneously presented as ambitious, charming, generous, resourceful and ruthless, whose leadership qualities are variously used in becoming the local head of his trade union and in challenging local employers, making money as an independent capitalist and promoting the careers and employment of those he regards as friends.

That historical period was a popular setting for drama then,  as it still is. It was a time of great social upheaval as people moved out of domestic service and farms into factories and as women gained a more independent and public role. The battles of the Great War were fought over small geographical areas by soldiers who knew similar small geographical areas, serving alongside men from the same locality as themselves. The scale of its casualties was horrendous and notorious so those who returned home without serious injury must have been regarded with some awe.

Watching the series again provides a striking reminder of how many ways and on how many occasions it is that recently fought war which specifically influences the present behaviour and ideas of the characters. This begins in the very first episode, pointedly entitled “A Land Fit for Heroes and Idiots”, with Jack Ford’s overt cynicism at inaccurate newsreel footage of the war and his organised political protest of throwing down campaign medals in scorn at the victorious Liberal parliamentary election candidate. 40 episodes later, in the story “High Life and Hunger”, Ford scornfully refers back to that Lloyd George “Land Fit for Heroes” promise as he watches hunger marchers .

In between those two episodes, James Mitchell and the other scriptwriters contrived many other convincing devices to show the dark shadow of war experience stretching into every area of post-war existence. For example, the way in which Ford plans a sheep-stealing expedition like “a trench raid” and how he publicly identifies the former regiments of Fitters Union members to show the union official from London that his members are professionally trained to “deal with” strike-breakers; how the unpleasant Channon knows as much about explosives as Ford or any of the more heroic characters from his own war service with the engineers and so is unpersuaded by their explanation of the destruction of the priceless Vanburgh-designed house Mandrake Place; the plight of the widow Elsie Carter who gets no war pension because her husband though killed in France was not on active duty; the reason why “Ten Bob” Tiverton the artist who had lost an arm took to forging bank notes. The war is also the source of one of the longest narrative threads: Ford’s business association and rivalry with Sir Horatio Manners, the nouveau-riche father of his former company commander. Small wonder that female characters of different social classes, whether Sarah Headley or Lady Caroline Summers, often make at different times comments like “You men and the war” at yet another memory or anecdote.

The programme’s fourth and final series, broadcast originally in 1981, stretched the story into more specific events, beyond the Wall Street Crash and into the rise of Nazism and the Spanish Civil War. These did allow some variation of the Ford character, presenting him as prone to excessive drinking, a little less impressive and a little more jaundiced, still ambivalent about how to balance and blend his competing individualist and collectivist instincts. He angrily lists at one point the only true friends he ever had: army comrades who are now dead.

Living now in London, he criticises a beggar who is exaggerating his war experience to encourage more generous donations. By this time we have heard Ford himself repeat on several occasions one particular war experience about watching the death of the young officer, Captain Manners (“What am I doing here, sergeant? I should be at the Savile Club” ) – always to impress the listener, usually female. From the very start of the series we know that he had had saved the life of Matt Headley, his later union colleague and Labour councillor, but only much later that his own life was once saved by a Sergeant Major Fred Randall. His parting advice to the beggar is “Get your story straight”. Perhaps we wonder by this time how many of Ford’s past exploits are true, how often we the audience might have been taken in by his charming loquaciousness, but nobody is now around to provide an alternative version.

Like all TV drama series from the 1970s and 1980s, When the Boat Comes In is true to its own period, showing its debt in construction and presentation to theatre plays such as by Shaw or Priestley. This means that it includes one or two comic-dramatic set-pieces which tend to slow down the excitement of the narrative, like the party turns at the Seaton family’s New Year party and the storyline of digging for coal under the Seaton front room. However, most of those first three series contained richly written and convincingly acted stories of poverty, unemployment, industrial conflict, political activism, slum living, hand-to-mouth subsistence and the slow struggle to comfort and (sometimes even) prosperity. And even the weaker episodes still show a craftmanship which is missing from 21st century TV standards.

 

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Rebuilding

 

Broken,  recently screened on UK BBC2, may seem to have several differences in tone and style from the channel’s earlier Rev. After all, the latter was scheduled as a comedy rather than a drama, in 30 minute rather than 60 minute episodes. However, at their hearts, their two presentations of society, religion, Christian ministers and their congregations are very similar.

In Broken, Fr Michael Kerrigan, a middle-aged Catholic priest from a northern English parish, attempts to help with a number of serious problems suffered by individuals in his local community. For example, Christina is a single parent who loses her job as manager of gambling arcade and then postpones reporting the death of her mother so she can illegally claim her pension income for one last week. Roz is another single parent from a slightly more prosperous background who confesses to Michael of her embezzlement and huge gambling debts and who sees suicide as the only escape from her predicament. Helen is an African mother whose mentally disturbed son Vernon, returned home prematurely, is killed by police during an episode of his violent behaviour.

Three more individuals are involved in the aftermath of Vernon’s death. Andrew, a policeman, knows that the boy was killed unnecessarily but gives into pressure from peers and superiors to compile a false report. Daniel, Vernon’s uncle, supports Helen in his fierce contact with the police, but his conservative views about homosexuality prompt him to insult and assault the compassionate but vulnerable gay neighbour Carl, who immediately makes a formal complaint of a hate crime to the same police.

Inside this multi-stranded plot, Jimmy McGovern’s script still spends a fair amount of time analysing the character of Fr Michael. Studious and interested in literature as a child, abused by a teacher-priest but then disbelieved by his parents, inheriting some of the conventional working-class morality of his 1970s childhood and passing on to others some of the cruelty he personally suffered. Nevertheless, he has sought to assuage early ills by decades of service as a priest, and is depicted as a kind and brave leader of his community even while still haunted by his past.

So the drama’s title clearly applies to its lead character. Also, unsurprisingly, it describes his community, with its areas of unemployment and poverty and a prevalence of gambling outlets, and also his parish church, an old building, architecturally impressive but perhaps overwhelming and unwelcoming, certainly shown to be frequently empty with Masses attended only by small congregations.

A striking visual comparison between Broken and Rev. is that directors of both used repeatedly a shot of high church doors being opened by the priest to let the daylight in. In Rev. this appeared to represent Anglican priest Adam Smallbone’s attempt to address his church’s diverse local community; the equivalent in Broken seems to presage Fr Michael’s regular recall of scenes of past personal anguish.

Michael’s immediate family places heavy demands on him as much as does his parish, although we do see him able to relax at church socials and with his brothers, and his relationship with his frail housebound mother clearly brings him joy. Throughout the episodes of Rev., Adam faces many of the same problems, doubts and opposition as Michael, although he is younger, has a supportive professional wife and benefits from additional administrative assistance in managing his myriad responsibilities.

In Broken, Michael sometimes discusses his problems with Peter, a fellow priest. We learn so little about Peter (despite him being played by a well-known actor) that gradually it is tempting to see him as the personification of Michael’s conscience. Certainly the way in which the camera moves away from him in the last episode also reminds me strongly of the final exit of the angel Dudley in the film The Bishop’s Wife. That further reminded me that Rev., mostly convincingly realistic in tone, also has one notable scene towards its end which seemed more spiritual or fantastic: where Adam, in the depths of despair, meets a friendly stranger in scruffy sportswear (also played by a well-known actor) who already knows his name and who tells him “I’ll always be here” before disappearing.

Both Rev. and Broken have similar conclusions which are encouraging to those of us who believe in the value of religious faith. In Rev., Adam’s church is due to close and he to resign from the ministry, but friends and colleagues coax him back to carry out an Easter Vigil service and his daughter’s belated baptism. Broken shows Michael persuaded out of his vow to leave the priesthood both by his siblings attending Mass and receiving Communion at his mother’s funeral and by those individual parishioners from the previous crises all quietly praising him as “you wonderful priest” as they receive Communion.

Both Broken and Rev. were excellent pieces of television drama about Christianity in modern Britain, and if I find Broken prone to stereotype a little more than I do Rev. it is probably only because I know the Catholic church and the Catholic religion much better than I do the Church of England.

 

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Some linguistics research – or perhaps just complaining about the way younger people speak…

 

Words come in and out of fashion. “Groovy” came and went fairly swiftly, “cool” has stayed around longer. Of the many words which changed meanings after medieval times, one of the most widely known is “fond” : meaning “stupid” when King Lear applies it to himself in Shakespeare’s play in the early 17th century, shifting to “affectionate” by the 20th century. I am sure the phrase “disc jockey” which I grew up with amused or annoyed older people who were accustomed to use the noun to describe someone who rode horses. I remember distinctly my surprise the first time I read a sentence including the phrase “spin doctor”, around the 1992 UK General Election, and, coincidentally, also around the namesake US band’s brief fame – and this phrase it is still commonly used.

All this is a prelude to listing some phrases which have become common parlance, even among journalists and broadcasters who are not young, but which sound rather ugly and unhelpful to my ears. Probably many of these usages have emigrated from the USA or Australasia and via cinema and TV – routes of travel heavily used for many years. Of course, such a list shows that the list-maker is more prone to nostalgia and conservatism rather than looking forward in optimism…

Anything which is unlikely or unachievable is now “a big ask” rather than “asking a lot” or “expecting a lot”.

A new feeling or attitude or condition will now “kick in” rather than “take effect”.

If something which needs caution or action is about to happen to you, you now need a “heads-up” rather than a “warning”.

An event which will begin immediately starts “from the get-go” rather than “from the word go”.

A permanent happening or condition is taking place “24/7” rather than “24 hours a day”.

An event will “not happen anytime soon” rather than “not happen soon”. Always used in the negative, this one, so possibly seen just as a more forceful emphasis.

If you are making things difficult for someone, you are “playing hardball” even if you know nothing about baseball.

A cause or practice which you feel strongly about or carry out continually is one you are “passionate about” rather than “dedicated to” or “committed to”, although “passion” is also often used as a euphemism for levels of anger.

Finally, since we’re in constant voting mode, it appears that people rarely now refer to others’ political “principles” or “beliefs”, but you talk about their “ideology” if you want to be pejorative and their “values” if you want to be polite and respectful.

About 20 years ago, the writer and broadcaster Clive James commented on how the word “enervate” seemed to be getting used more often as if it meant an increase in energy and strength rather than a decrease, because its sound, like “invigorate”, suggested such a meaning. He concluded that, if the majority of people come to use a word in one particular way, even if it is the incorrect way, that has to be accepted as appropriate and reasonable practice. A prescient idea.

 

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The great over-achiever

 

Richard Curtis must surely be counted one of the great over-achievers, at least in the commercial sense, in UK cinema. He started off on television as just one of the many writers on the Not the Nine O’Clock News comedy show before bagging a high-profile job as the co-writer of the first series of Blackadder with fashionable comic performer Rowan Atkinson. Although the show was at first poorly received, it eventually became a great success with many repeats of its next three series (although this happy result was surely helped significantly by the arrival of co-writer Ben Elton) and with the final series gaining regular credit as an important contribution to the modern appreciation of World War One.

Whereas Blackadder caricatured the customs and peoples of past periods, Curtis’ solo scripts for the films Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill covered the ins and outs of contemporary romance.  Famously their cinematic machineries were oiled by a certain amount of  modern risquéness,  photogenic scenes of the UK, the burgeoning popularity of Hugh Grant and glamorous American co-stars Andie MacDowall and Julia Roberts.

The great success of these films will be at least partly responsible for the fact that Curtis’ next script, Love Actually, was a multi-character narrative, which he had the opportunity to direct himself, and which was able to recruit many big UK acting names, like Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. At the time of its release in 2003, one journalist, David Smith in the Observer, suggested that the starry romantic Christmas story was so perfectly packaged that it might become the best-selling UK film of all time! I don’t think it has reached those heights , but regular TV repeats suggest that longevity is guaranteed.

 From 1985, Comic Relief was the comedy equivalent of the musicians’ Band Aid,  popular professionals co-operating to raise money to help ease the continuing problem of Third World hunger and poverty.  The charity’s website credits Curtis as one of the founders, although in its early years on-screen performers such as Lennie Henry, Griff Rhys Jones, Jonathan Ross, Billy Connolly and French and Saunders were certainly more visible representatives. By the 21st century, perhaps as other people’s profiles had waned, Curtis had become more openly associated, and a TV film The Girl in the Café was a high-profile part of Comic Relief’s association with the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign. Almost as if Curtis was saying, “I know nobody thinks of me as cool and modern, but people should pay attention to my contribution!”

The next film Curtis wrote and directed was The Boat That Rocked, about a pirate radio station during 1966-1967. I would have thought that Curtis is a bit young (born in 1956) to harbour nostalgia for the pirate stations and their musical period, but the answer to the conundrum may lie in the theory, often repeated in the media, that the next series of Blackadder, planned for after World War One but never made, would have been set during those same Swinging Sixties, full of pop music, fashion, youth culture and sexual licence. Certainly here the character of Thick Kevin seems very similar to Blackadder’s Baldric.

The Boat That Rocked allowed Curtis the unlikely chance to blend some old-fashioned narrative ideas of harmless fun oppressed by reactionary authority such as from the St Trinian’s films with others of masculine heroics during maritime danger like from Titanic. Meanwhile, the overall picture of UK society and culture is again a fond and positive one. Alongside the elongated adventures of the staff of Radio Rock are repeated scenes of school pupils, workmates, housewives and teenagers in bedrooms, all gathered around their sets, thus arguing the illegal radio station’s role in bringing the nation together.  

It is historically true that the pop/rock music stations of the period were heavily influenced by US fashion – with the genuinely American “Emperor Rosko” on Radio 1, the faux-American Tony Prince on Radio Luxembourg and almost all other disc jockeys adopting American accents and colloquialisms – so in this case a big American star, Philip Seymour Hoffmann, in the cast could be said to be perfectly reasonable from a narrative point of view, however much it might also be connected with the film’s length, budget and commercial ambitions.     

Curtis is the British Spielberg, TV producer John Lloyd has been quoted as saying, both because he has a golden commercial touch and because he wants to make the world a happier place with his work. Perhaps a fairer reason to compare him with Steven Spielberg is that in neither case would it have been easy to foresee by looking at their earlier efforts how their careers would develop and how much they would produce. One percent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration, as Thomas Edison is supposed to have said about genius. You feel certain it is an adage that both Spielberg and Curtis live by.   

And another Hollywood quote:  George Clooney once said that he knew he would get to “play” with the film-making “toys” for only a little while, so was aware he must make as good use of them as possible. Richard Curtis must also be amazed by his good luck and how long it has lasted. Those of us of Curtis’ age who are ever tempted to sneer at any of his output might reflect that we might not have done any better with the opportunities than he has done. 

 

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Days of the counter-culture

 

Supplementing a recent BBC4 documentary, the Roundhouse website includes some great historical information about how the 160-year-old former railway shed evolved into one of London’s most active and vibrant arts venues.

The early days of the Roundhouse included performances of the new “psychedelic” pop/rock music, so it was not surprising on the documentary to hear some music by Jefferson Airplane.

Their song “White Rabbit” struck me as eerie and other-worldly when I first heard it several times without knowing its identity on a university union jukebox in 1974-1975,  with its snare drum, climbing guitar line, building crescendo and Lewis Carroll-influenced dreamscape lyrics. It still casts a decently strong eldritch spell today.

 

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San Francisco, from whence came Jefferson Airplane. Photographed in 2000.

 

The programme and web-site impressed on me that Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42 plan for the Roundhouse in 1964 must have been one of the first times anyone envisaged that a former industrial work space might be adapted to arts and cultural use. More recent high-profile examples in the UK have been the Tramway in Glasgow, the Tate Modern in London and the Baltic gallery in Gateshead.  

 

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The Baltic art gallery, constructed from a former flour mill on the banks of the river Tyne at Gateshead. Photographed in 2003.

 

 

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