No regrets – a biographer’s celebration

We’re all told not to speak ill of the dead, but what about the living? When award-winning biographer and book reviewer W. Sydney Robinson began tackling a living subject for the first time in his career, he found it an altogether more lively experience! Robinson is the author of Muckraker: the scandalous life and times of WT Stead, Britain’s first investigative journalist, and The Last Victorians: a daring reassessment of four twentieth century eccentrics. He lives in Northamptonshire and teaches full-time.

“It is a truism among biographers that one must wait until a subject is ‘nice and dead’. However, when I was given the opportunity to write the authorised biography of Sir Ronald, I did not hesitate. Nor do I, at the end of the four year journey writing the book, have any regrets.

Sir Ronald Harwood in his study

I appreciate that in many ways I was extremely fortunate. Firstly, Sir Ronald could not have been more generous in his terms. As well as granting me over ten hours to interview him, he also threw open all of his papers and gave me unrestricted access to his wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Secondly, once the book was completed he did not demand any cuts or alterations that were not of a purely factual nature. When one reads the horror stories of biographers unable to publish their books because of objections of a more subjective nature, it is impossible not to feel incredibly grateful – and lucky.

W. Sydney Robinson

Yet the main reason that I am delighted to have been able to write the Life of a living subject is more personal. For a long time it has saddened me to be told by people ‘in the know’ that one must write about famous authors and journalists from years ago – one agent insisted that yet another biography of Charles Dickens was the ideal way to follow up on my first books about Victorian and post-Victorian public figures. And there are many professional biographers now combing archives and newspaper databases for material about writers of even lesser quality – when we have many great authors alive and well.

Sir Ronald Harwood’s oeuvre stretches from the dawn of the 1960s, when he wrote a novel about Civil Rights in South Africa, to 2012, when he wrote the screenplay adaptation of his poignant play Quartet. In between these impressive milestones he has done a plethora of novels, plays, films, and an excellent biography of Sir Donald Wolfit, who provided the inspiration for his most enduring work of drama, The Dresser.

If Speak Well of Me succeeds in charting these achievements and capturing the spirit of Sir Ronald’s lively and engaging personality, then I will happily endure the slings and arrows of those who remain obstinate that one can never write a satisfactory biography of a living subject. For what is a biography if it is not alive – be the subject living or dead?”

Speak Well of Me is available to order now from the Oberon Books website. For your chance to win a copy signed by both W. Sydney Robinson and Sir Ronald Harwood, email your name & postal address to info@oberonbooks.com and we’ll enter you into the prize draw.

The heat-death of the universe – from Beyond the Fringe

Beyond the Fringe opened as part of the Edinburgh Festival on 22 August 1960. The earliest known performance of Jonathan Miller’s monologue below, however, was as part of Bright Periods, a revue at University College Hospital, in 1957.
The monologue is now available in One Thing and Another: Selected Writings 1954 – 2016, a new collection of Jonathan Miller’s writing, edited by Ian Greaves. 

Some years ago, when I was rather hard up, I wanted to buy myself a new
pair of trousers – but, being rather hard up, I was quite unable to buy
myself a new pair. Until some very kind friend whispered into my earhole
that if I looked sharp about it I could get myself quite a nice second-hand
pair from the Sales Department of the London Passenger Transport Board
Lost Property. Now before I accepted this interesting offer I got involved
in a great deal of fastidious struggling with my inner soul, because I wasn’t
very keen to assume the trousers which some lunatic had taken off on a
train going eastbound towards Whitechapel.

jonathan-miller

However, after a great deal of moral contortion, I steeled myself to the
alien crutch, and made my way towards the London Passenger Transport
Board Lost Property Sales Department in Portman Square, praying as I
did so, ‘Oh God, let them be dry-cleaned when I get there.’ And when
I arrived there, you can imagine my pleasure and surprise when I found,
instead of a tumbled heap of lunatics’ trousers, a very neat heap of brand
new, bright-blue corduroy trousers. There were 400 of them! How can
anyone lose 400 pairs of trousers on a train? I mean, it’s hard enough to
lose a brown paper bag full of old orange peel when you really want to.
And anyway, 400 men wearing no trousers would attract some sort of
attention. No, it’s clearly part of a complex economic scheme on the part of the London Passenger Transport Board – a complex economic scheme
along Galbraithian or Keynesian lines, presumably. So over now to the
Economics Planning Division of the London Passenger Transport Board
Ops Room:
‘All right, men. Operation Cerulean Trouser. Now, we are going to
issue each one of you men with a brand new, bright blue pair of corduroy
trousers. Your job will be to disperse to all parts of London, to empty railway
carriages, and there to divest yourselves of these garments and leave them
in horrid little heaps on the floors of the carriages concerned. Once the
trousers have left your body, your job ends there, and I mean that! All right,
now – are there any questions? Good – now, chins up and trousers down!’

And they disperse to places far out on the reaches of the Central Line.
Places with unlikely names like Chipping Ongar; places presumably out
on the Essex marshes, totally uninhabited except for a few rather rangy
marsh birds mournfully pacing the primeval slime.
And there in the empty railway carriages they let themselves separately
and individually into the empty compartments; and then, before they
commit the final existential act of detrouserment, they do those little
personal things which people sometimes do when they think they’re alone
in railway carriages. Things like…things like smelling their own armpits.

The Beyond the Fringe gang

The Beyond the Fringe gang

It’s all part of the human condition, I suppose. Anyway, it’s quite
possible they didn’t even take their trousers off in the compartments but
made their way along the narrow corridor towards the lavatory at the end
– that wonderful little room, where there’s that marvellous unpunctuated
motto over the lavatory saying, ‘Gentlemen lift the seat.’ What exactly
does this mean? Is it a sociological description – a definition of a gentleman
which I can either take or leave? Or perhaps it’s a Loyal Toast? It could
be a blunt military order…or an invitation to upper-class larceny…but
anyway, willy-nilly, they strip stark naked; and then, nude – entirely
nude, nude that is except for cellular underwear (for man is born free
but everywhere is in cellular underwear) – they make their way back to
headquarters through the chilly nocturnal streets of sleeping Whitechapel
– 400 fleet-white figures in the night, their 800 horny feet pattering on
the pavements and arousing small children from their slumbers in upstairs
bedrooms. Children, who are soothed back into their sleep by their parents with the ancient words: ‘Turn your face to the wall, my darling, while the
gentlemen trot by.’

The new collection One Thing and Another: Selected Writings 1954 – 2016 is published by Oberon Books and is now available to pre-order ahead of publication in March ’17. In keeping with Miller’s grasshopper mind, One Thing and Another leaps from discussions of human behaviour, atheism, satire, cinema and television, to analyses of the work of M.R. James, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens and Truman Capote, by way of reflections on directing Shakespeare, Chekhov, Olivier and opera.
Jonathan Miller is internationally celebrated as one of the last great public intellectuals. Read One Thing and Another to find out why.

“We finally managed to crucify Jesus at midnight.” On the perils of directing Dennis Potter’s ‘Son of Man’

Ahead of its screening at BFI Southbank, Gareth Davies – director of many of Dennis Potter’s early television hits – recalls the challenges of bringing Son of Man to the screen on something close to a shoestring.

Son of Man 3

‘Son of Man’, 1969

Dennis Potter‘s work will one day be critically reassessed and in that process I believe Son of Man will be judged a pretty shoddy production which did not serve the excellent script and cast.

It’s a platitude that critics can only judge what they see and should not concern themselves with the problems, technical and structural, that existed in the 1960s.  An historical analysis, however, might usefully consider the factors that led to poor production values.

First of all no excuses, the main fault was mine. I knew that four days in Studio 1 would be inadequate to stage the production. I suggested that we delay the production until the arrival of Colour TV and try to assemble a coalition of European TV stations and shoot all the crowd scenes in a desert location with each station feeding in its own Jesus and disciples.

I was told not to be silly and to get on with mounting a studio production. Ironically Son of Man was later shown to the European Federation with several members regretting they could not afford to make their own production.

Decisions now had to be taken over the set design and this is where the errors of judgement started.

Son of Man 1

Brian Blessed prepares to snare a cameraman.

Having fantasised about shooting in a real desert I foolishly concurred with the idea of a realistic set in the studio. A desert would be constructed out of sandbags topped off with real sand which would double as Golgotha. The Sea of Galilee measured 8′ x 4′ which meant that when Brian Blessed as Peter cast his net he caught more cameramen than fish.

The cast was tiny for the Sermon on the Mount but large by the standards of the time and under constant financial pressure.  ‘Mark, Luke, Thomas…..?  Yes I know they’re the Disciples but do we really need 12?’

Son of Man 2I decided that all crowds scenes should be shot with untidy edges and cameras on the move so that we would feel that there was life outside the frame.

A miniature Jewish village square would be constructed inaccessible to studio cameras. To shoot these scenes I was permitted to dress 3 cameramen as Jewish peasants and equip them with small industrial cameras under their robes.  These had never been permitted before and took a lot of bargaining.

I retreated into the security of doing what I knew best – working with Dennis and the actors to develop our understanding of the play and pretended that everything was going to be wonderful.

An anecdote:- The rehearsal room floor was covered in hundreds of yards of multi-coloured tape marking out the various sets. When the final rehearsal ended it was the job of two young floor assistants to pull up each inch of tape. This could easily take two hours and then they had to go to the studio to check their props.

We decided to make the final rehearsal a word run only, at speed and with no movement. Colin Blakely wandered the desert pulling up a few feet of tape.  All the cast followed Jesus and by the end of the run the floor was completely cleared and the two floor assistants were in tears.

Without that sort of company spirit, led by Colin, I don’t think we would have survived the next four days as well as we did.

The morning of the first Studio day:-  I was approached by a man who introduced himself as the Head of Engineering. He called me Gareth and asked was I watching the Test Match? After a few minutes of this bizarre conversation he suddenly said ‘Oh, by the way, I’ve decided you can’t have the hand held cameras. They’re not up to standard.’

Eventually I said that I would simply cut to black where every hand held shot had been planned and HoE stalked off. I got my cameras back but too late to rehearse with them and they were not successful.

Next I was approached by my Designer, white-faced. Permission to use sand in the Studio had been withdrawn as it interfered with the running wheels of the camera dollies. However, oatmeal had been ordered and would be spread over our sandbag desert as soon as possible.

Unfortunately whenever we turned the wind-machines on to make the desert seem bitterly cold, the air filled with flying oatmeal which stuck to the woollen robes of the cast. The wind had to be switched off, leading to one critic calling the production ‘Curiously airless’!  He was right.

All these factors damaged the production but I can’t pretend that they were responsible for the massive overrun that occurred. We were simply overwhelmed. With a stop time of 10pm we finally managed to crucify Jesus at midnight. None of the Pontius Pilate scenes had been recorded.

Son of Man 5

Up to this point the BBC had frankly not been at its best, now it upped a gear and responded magnificently.

Starting with chaos at midnight, within the hour the actor’s contracts had been sorted, a programme evicted from the small studio where our Roman sets were standing unused. Gerald Savory put an arm around my shoulder, told me everything was going to be wonderful and to get some sleep.

The next morning in Studio 2 a duty Vision Mixer arrived, complete with her knitting, to find two half-naked boxers rehearsing killing one another with viciously spiked gloves. ‘I’ve come to do Jackanory’ she said. Not any more.

9781783192038

‘The Art of Invective’

Everyone rallied and we finished but Dennis was not well served. My decisions on the style and design of the production were wrong although I’m still not sure what would have been the right approach. The last time I saw a recording it still had a boom in shot!

There are no villains in this tale. I imagine senior engineers believed they were correcting poor planning decisions made by their junior staff. Certainly wrong judgements were made by young programme makers swept on a tide of enthusiasm both for the play itself and for the sheer joy of walking into a big empty box and making magic.

For many of us a BBC Drama Studio was the real National Theatre, shorn of elitism and available from Land’s End to John o’Groats.

Reactions to the production were mixed. Rev Donald Soper was quoted as saying he wouldn’t watch because he knew what it would be like. The first of many telephone complainants to the BBC was disgusted that ‘…this man has hair on his body!’

A year later Graeme McDonald showed me a letter from the Mother Superior of a video-savvy Convent. They loved Son of Man so much, they had played it so often, that their 1 Inch Video reel to reel recording had worn out. Could they please buy a new copy?

How was Graeme to explain that the nun’s actions were illegal and that he should report them? The situation was resolved discreetly.

A Suspect Reminiscence

In an extract from The Suspect Culture Book… Graham Eatough remembers the company’s formative influences and early creations. Dan Rebellato describes their final show, the performance piece Stage Fright

Graham Eatough: It’s interesting to think that in the space of only a few years that drama department at Bristol produced Mark Ravenhill, Tim Crouch, Sarah Kane, David Walliams, Simon Pegg, David Young, Myfanwy Moore, Suspect Culture, us … I think it’s a strange alchemy that leads to those moments. It was a good department, the teaching was great and so on. But there was something else: it was a very politicised student body on the whole, especially around gender politics. That meant if you were making work you were forced to constantly interrogate it and have it interrogated in a pretty rigorous way – I say rigorous, we were still kids really, but we would ask questions about the politics of the work and take it seriously. And second, the department was good but it was possibly a bit conservative too, traditional. And so there was a reaction against that which meant we were very motivated. What links all of those people you mention is being very driven. An odd mixture of artistic aspiration with a kind of Eighties Thatcherite drive! We all knew what we wanted to do from very early on. In my first term at Bristol, I acted in a production of Howard Barker’s Victory alongside Sarah Kane, with David Greig, Simon Pegg and others. It was a very important moment for David and me in different ways. 9781849430876In some of the early Suspect Culture shows I think you could definitely see the influence of Barker, not just on the writing but on what the shows were setting out to achieve, politically and intellectually. What Barker does, whether or not the plays are successful, he scouts out the possibilities for alternative theatres. He neither points towards a mainstream theatre style but nor is he swept up in current avant-garde movements. At that time there was a slightly ludicrous division between the ‘text-based theatre’ people and the ‘physical theatre’ people. And for those who didn’t want to leave playwriting behind, Barker was a model for something that could still be radical, which I think was important for David. And it was important for me too, because it mapped out a place that a theatre company could potentially exist. We wanted to create a text-rich theatre which was also aesthetically rich; that was interested in bodies and so on and complex stage imagery but was also about great writing.

3

Graham Eatough and Sarah Kane in Howard Barker’s ‘Victory’

A SAVAGE REMINISCENCE

A Savage Reminiscence was the first thing we did together. We did it in the Students’ Union and then at the Hen and Chickens pub theatre in a double bill with Sarah Kane’s Comic Monologue. At that point I don’t think we thought we were forming a company, just putting on a show really – and working with a friend. And that was the ambition, ‘can we do a show that is physical in interesting ways and at the same time textually rich?’ Obviously, they’re broad aspirations but even then it was about trying to draw out things from different production elements that we weren’t seeing in mainstream or even avant-garde theatre at the time. I guess we were exploring that space between those areas. Nick Powell was studying at Bristol as well and wrote the music for all of our early shows. So he, and music as a production area, became a very important part of what we were doing from the start. I saw myself as an actor in that show. It was a collaboration but that’s really where I saw myself at that point. David was always very open; he was writer/director but the directing was partly shared. Later, when we made One Way Street it was a reaction to just having done a big show (Europe) and then trying to get back to the working methods we’d used in A Savage Reminiscence, but by that stage I had a more developed sense of what I wanted the production to do visually and physically. And I suppose by then I was beginning to be focused on things like gesture and dif­ferent styles of physicality on stage. With Airport, because it was a larger ensemble, even though I was in it, I think I was more conventionally the director. Then with Timeless, because of the nature of the ideas we were working with, I wanted to step out completely and concentrate on directing.

AND THE OPERA HOUSE REMAINED UNBUILT

2

Reno Pelakanou and Graham Eatough in ‘…and the opera house remained unbuilt’

That was a pretty quick follow-up to A Savage Reminiscence. We’d been at the [Edinburgh] Festival with A Savage Reminiscence in 1991 and we took Opera House there in 1992, along with a whole bunch of other stuff. I was concentrating on acting but David, in collaboration with Andy Thompson, another Bristol graduate, wanted to run a venue, Theatre Zoo. And in a manic burst of energy that has never stopped (laughs), he managed to put on four shows: Opera House, The Garden, Stalinland, Life after Life, Sarah Kane did Dreams, Screams and Silence with Vince O’Connell, plus David and his partner Lucie ran the café. Lots of it went really well, Stalinland for example, got a Fringe First I think. But I suppose the undertaking of a major enter­prise like running a venue sort of prepared us for thinking about running a theatre company. Continue reading