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.

Aberfan – Dennis Potter in New Society, 27 October 1966

A man-made mountain of lumpy black treacle collapsed into itself last Friday and slid down upon the school at Aberfan ‘just after morning prayers.’ The phrase is not, as I had first assumed, a distasteful journalistic device for somehow mixing inappropriate irony with an even more cruel piety. The phrase was also used in my presence by some of the stricken people of Aberfan, and with just enough frequency to force one to look for the bleak significance that seems to lurk behind the words.

When people are faced with a disaster so complete and so terrible, they cluster in small, hapless groups and begin to manufacture their own sort of optimism as though to try and keep at bay the resignation and despair they know will have to come. At Aberfan, before and after daybreak on Saturday, ‘hope’ was created among some of the bruised bands of people standing ankle-deep in slime. It was an unbearable thing to witness, a collective self-deception that was as inevitable as it was tormenting.

‘Hey. Hey,’ cried an old man in a tight muffler to a young woman standing with splashed stockings in the queue outside a telephone box. ‘I’ve just heard that some little boy dug himself out and wandered off on his own without telling anybody!’

‘Do they know who?’ her voice lifted itself beyond the normal upward inflexion of the Welsh lilt.

The old man’s head seemed to shrink back into his shoulders. ‘No,’ he said, very quietly, probably realising at that very moment that what he had almost shouted was completely untrue and unforgivably cruel. He stood still awhile, then mumbled again and shuffled off towards the growling yellow machinery at the top of the rubble. The woman stared after him.

‘It’s what a boy might do,’ she said, either laughing or crying, ‘wander off like that. He might think he’d done something wrong, see.’ The others in the queue moved their heads or twitched their hands in a tiny conspiracy of guilt.

The wild rumours were about as helpful, and fell into exactly the same category, as the redundant prayers. As the chill morning dragged on into first light the incredible, almost cretinous tales and miracles ebbed away, leaving only a miniscule and hardly discernible residue of hope to temper reality. ‘That stuff’s like roof insulation,’ someone said. ‘It don’t leave any gaps.’ Pause. ‘You never know, though.’ The bereaved either waited on the steps of their grim Bethania or retreated back into the splattered rows of shrivelled, rust-coloured houses. White smoke from their chimneys climbed up in a dead straight line towards the surrounding hills where a few sheep grazed. A man said that this was a sure sign of rain. Everyone looked up at the invading slag once more.

aberfan

As the rain came again, thickening and darkening the sky above the surrounding mounds of black, brown and grey-green, anxious eyes turned once more to the gigantic conical slag still towering so malignantly above the village. All hope had done by now, but the tip might still slide further into the beleaguered houses, might yet scatter the busy yellow machines and shovelling men. It was then, especially, that one felt the enormity of the dead slag’s power, and the disgust that such gargantuan waste should have been piled at people’s backyards. Why should it be? Why is it thought necessary to be so loathsomely uncivilized?

The past is piled all around one here, and the bad, mean-minded, short-sighted methods of the past have not yet been discarded. Hence the fatalistic language and the half-formulated idea that some God has cheated. ‘If only…’ people kept saying at Aberfan. ‘If only’ it had collapsed earlier in the morning. ‘If only’ it had fallen after midday, when the children would have dispersed in noisily happy throngs for their half-term holiday. ‘If only’ it had stopped raining a day earlier. ‘If only’ someone had rung the Coal Board the night before. ‘If only’ the powers that be had taken the slightest notice of all the earlier fears and warnings about the tip. If only… If only… If only…the inevitable, tragic punctuation of any disaster.

But there are much more resounding, much more accusing, much more fundamental If Onlys.

If only the National Coal Board took seriously the conception of a publicly owned industry designed to serve the whole community, not least that section upon which it depends for all its wealth.

If only the so-called socialists who run this ugly country would yap less about their glorious heritage and do a damned sight more to remove the inglorious legacy which is still rammed down so many people’s throats every time they open their mouths to breathe.

And not even then, especially not then, will it be possible to say that Aberfan ‘was not in vain.’ Do not dare to say that. Aberfan was in vain. Those children were murdered. This was no senseless Act of God, but a crime committed by senseless man.

This is an edited extract from Dennis Potter’s article, originally published in New Society on 27 October 1966, now published in full in The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953–1994.

“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.

Forty Years On – How they Made a Mess of a Miracle

Dennis Potter would have been 80 today, and in honour of the occasion here’s a rare article he wrote in October 1969 for the short-lived Mirror Magazine. It shows Potter in typically combative mood as he contemplates four decades of television since the birth of the BBC. This is exclusive to the Oberon Books blog but you can find plenty more of Potter’s thoughts on television in The Art of Invective. Our thanks go to William Ham Bevan who brought the article to light.


Mirror Magazine

11 October 1969

All television’s yesterdays… one September day in 1929, the first BBC television transmission was made using John Logie Baird’s equipment from station 2LO high on the roof of Selfridges in London. Dennis Potter, prize-winning author of the Nigel Barton plays and the controversial Son of Man, looks back on forty years.

BBC_Television_Symbol_1953If those well-heeled ladies and gentlemen shopping in Selfridges forty years ago had gone home and found tonight’s programmes awaiting them they would either clap their hands in exultation or – more likely – cower in terror behind their furniture.

For TV is both the wonder and the disgrace of our times. A magic paintbox and a dreary bore. A window on the universe and just another humdrum, pap-fed domestic appliance.

Licensed like a dog, a mad dog, it squats in the corner of the living room, a wall-eyed beast which sicks up the world on to our nylon carpets. You can put on your slippers, sink into your favourite armchair, sip a nice hot cup of tea, and watch a man being burnt to death.

Don’t choke. In a minute or two a row of teeth will smile at you, mouthing a reassuring bromide. Or you can switch channels and sweep into the sweeter world of the commercials: striped toothpaste, coloured toilet rolls and extra-mileage ingredients, the hip-hip-happy moods of what is called, by Act of Parliament, a natural break.

Every night of the week, every week of the year, the pictures go swirling by – a ship breaking its back on the rocks, a bomber dropping napalm on Asian peasants, tea with the Queen, a Hollywood cowboy sprawled on a plastic rock, spangled dancing girls, football from South America, an assassin weeping in the death cell, a pub in a Lancashire backstreet or an American hopping on the moon.

By the time you have drained your tea you can have zoomed along a quarter of a million miles, or have been bored and irritated enough to bite a chunk out of the china.9781783192038

Hey diddle-diddle, the quiz
            and the twaddle,
The telly jumps over the moon
Hughie Green laughs to see
            such fun
For the tosh runs away with
            the boon.

Our children take the technical marvels for granted. They have grown up with what used to be called, defensively, the gogglebox. They are not in the least bit astonished by the sight of a toothbrush floating in a capsule half way to the moon. As far as they are concerned, water comes out of the tap, gas out of the cooker, and pictures out of the TV set. An ordinary sort of machine. Something to pass the time when it is raining.

But years ago, on a very boozy Christmas day, I had a tipsy uncle who was so overcome by the sight of the Queen delivering her stilted seasonal message that he hiccupped, lurched forward to the set, kissed the flickering image with two resounding Christmas_broadcast_1957smacks and, unable to stop his momentum, cut his lip badly on the little table which carried the TV and Her Majesty.

‘I ne-ne-never thought I’d l-l-live to see such a thing!’ he burbled through the hilarity and the blood. It is about the only time I have seen anyone so physically moved by something pumping out of the telly.

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Dennis Potter and Me

Sunday marks 80 years since the birth of Dennis Potter. He remains one of the most influential figures in the history of British television, both as the writer of the seminal dramas Son of Man, Pennies from Heaven, Blue Remembered Hills and The Singing Detective and as a ferocious TV critic and essayist. One of Potter’s most devoted disciples is Peter Bowker, creator of the acclaimed BBC serials Blackpool and Occupation, whose BBC2 biopic Marvellous won the BAFTA for Best Single Drama last night (10 May 2015).  

In his foreword to The Art of Invective Peter Bowker reflects on Potter’s ‘cruel and witheringly precise humour’ and what this new collection reveals about a spikey and uncompromising character.

Like many a 1970s hysteric, I can lay claim to having been titillated by the work of Dennis Potter long before I had actually seen any of it. Our family didn’t get BBC2 till the mid-Seventies so, for some time, my only acquaintance with his work was the BBC1 announcer intoning, ‘And now over on BBC2, Casanova’ for six weeks. In fairness, that was probably all the TV filth a 13-year-old in 1970s Stockport could handle without imploding.

But the real beginning – the real meeting with his work – was the moment in Pennies from Heaven when Bob Hoskins’ Arthur first turned to camera and opened his mouth and Elsie Carlisle’s voice came out. I can remember sitting there and thinking, ‘Are they allowed to do that?’ It was so audacious but yet it made perfect sense. It was experimental but it was impossible to imagine the story being told in a better way. And like all great ideas, you were left wondering why nobody had thought to do it before.

1970 'Angels Are So Few' promo shot

1970 ‘Angels Are So Few’ promo shot

As the years went by and I took in Blue Remembered Hills, The Singing Detective and Cream in My Coffee, I used to fantasize that me and Dennis Potter could be mates. Reading this collection does make me think that he would have been a tough mate to have.

The cruel and witheringly precise humour that we see Philip Marlow exercise in The Singing Detective is very much present in both his views on television and his views on himself. Reading this collection it is clear that critically, he didn’t appear to have a safety catch. He seemed not to recognize that simultaneously being a practising dramatist and a drama critic was problematic in any way, or, being Potter, relished the fact.

Just as his best drama simultaneously provided a critical and often musical analysis of the drama as it unfolded, so his non-fiction often reads as a dramatic monologue disguised as analysis. The musical rhythm of his dialogue and the savage put downs are all present and correct in his prose style.

Here he is reviewing a 1972 adaptation of War and Peace and taking on his familiar anti-realist position. Noting how much the director lingers on the soup plates, he goes on, ‘Naturalism might well demand that life be turned into one damned dish after another, but the insights of a great novelist are rather more interesting than the eye-line of the head waiter.’

9781783192038And here again, in a review of Till Death Us Do Part in which he worries that the character Alf Garnett has become a hero to the very racists he was invented to parody. He opens with an anecdote about a recent stay in hospital in which he found himself sharing a ward with:

assembled Alfs addressing themselves to the unpalatable fact subdued Pakistanis had somehow managed to infiltrate into the ward under the pretence of chronic sickness. We all knew as a matter of course that these cunning brown bastards were only there to draw social security payments, an argument which temporarily wavered when one of them so miscalculated his ruse that he actually went so far as to die. “There’s yer bleed’n curry for you,” observed my nearest Alf, not entirely without compassion.

As a piece of satire, I can’t think of a finer or wittier skewering of the myth of ‘health tourism’ and ‘benefits cheats’ in the space of one paragraph.

As a piece of prose it has elegance and playfulness, that final ‘not entirely without compassion’ reading almost like a stage direction and, like a perfectly weighted pass, allowing the reader to take it in their stride.

Most rewarding of all for the Potter geek, it is recognisably the blueprint for a moment in The Singing Detective where Ali – the Pakistani in the next bed to Philip Marlow – turns the expectation of racist abuse into a moment of shared hilarity between Marlow and himself at the expense of a liberal young houseman.

With his eye for absurdity and precision of language, how I would have loved to have read Dennis Potter on the likes of Iain Duncan Smith or Nigel Farage. Indeed, Farage, with his strained combination of fake bonhomie and victimized suburban bluster, could almost be a character invented by Potter – and played by Denholm Elliott. Cameron, you suspect, would be too easy a target, although I would like to see what he would have made of Nick Clegg’s avowed love of Samuel Beckett.

Dennis Potter

Dennis Potter circa 1987

There’s a tone in Potter’s prose and in his voice in interviews that reflects the masochism at the heart of his greatest work. He endlessly tortures himself with the notion that TV isn’t worthy of the same intellectual interrogation as literature or art but then makes it clear that he intends to ignore his misgivings and give the same forensic attention to an episode of Steptoe and Son or Coronation Street as he would, indeed does to War and Peace.

Naturalism, as Dennis was keen to remind us throughout his career, was just one way (and a flawed way at that) of writing television drama, but it had, partly through soaps and long running series like Z Cars, become the most familiar and dominant form by the time Pennies from Heaven burst on to our screen. Watching it now it reads as a largely naturalistic drama with music. The only time it really steps out of its realist framework is during the song sequences and during the encounters with the mystical Accordion Man. The Singing Detective then used the Pennies from Heaven template as its starting point to gloriously and triumphantly deconstruct the whole way in which we tell stories.

The towering achievement of The Singing Detective was to be simultaneously formally adventurous (A man in bed with a skin disease is writing or rewriting a detective novel, reminiscing about a traumatic childhood, peopling the film adaptation of his detective novel with characters that may or may not be characters from that troubled childhood. He is simultaneously being ripped off by his agent or wife or both for the film rights to the story he is writing. He is being psychoanalyzed. These multiple worlds bleed into each other from the beginning, and the musical sequences emphasize and restage his fears of illness, of betrayal, of loss of mind, of loss of conscience) and yet still to create a character who we cared about, who we believed and with whom we emotionally engaged. When Philip Marlow raises his still misshapen hands in triumph as he leaves the ward for the last time, I cry every time. He has won. He has beaten his sickness. He has taken up his bed and walked. He has become the triumphant hero of his own story – his own stories even.

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