Philip Martin, who died last December, was the author of two Play for Todays – Gangsters (1975, which subsequently spun off into two BBC series, 1976-78) and The Remainder Man (1982). Forgotten Television Drama pays tribute by publishing an article in three parts, drawn from extensive interviews with Martin conducted by Tom May last year. In Part One Martin talked about his memories of Gangsters. In this second part Martin discusses The Remainder Man and The Unborn (1980), while Part Three forms a tribute with contributions from Peter Ansorge, David Edgar and David Rudkin.
(Text taken from two Zoom interviews with Philip Martin by Tom May, 17 June and 1 July 2020. Transcribed by Juliette Jones and edited by Billy Smart.)
PM: I was born in Liverpool. My education was pretty rudimentary. I left school at 15, I was…
I rarely comment publicly in any depth on American affairs, but an attempted fascist insurrection, spurred by an incumbent unable to accept actual election results needs some comment. This ‘coup’ was an inept, often buffoonish successor to the Munich Beer Hall Putsch of November 1923, that may yet presage more organised, violent threats to democracy from the far right. No-one can deny there was at least some neo-Nazis among the number of protestors nor that one man carried a Confederate flag.
While I await more evidence about the complexion of ‘Antifa’, I currently fail to see any equivalence in proportionate threat between the far right and the far left. Where in the Western World have we seen the far left commit the sort of mass murder committed by the far right that we saw in the 22 July attacks in Norway? In 2011 there, 77 people were killed in a politically motivated domestic terrorist attack.
In the protest marches I have attended in my life, against the Iraq War on 15 February 2003 and as a public sector worker against austerity on 26 March 2011, I didn’t witness any violence or storming of democratic premises. Indelibly etched in my mind is how student protests in November 2010 over tuition fees were marred by the irresponsible violence of one idiot throwing a fire extinguisher from a roof towards a crowded courtyard. Exactly five year later, further student protests were undermined in the public consciousness by reported instigation of violence by the anarchist Black Bloc. Such acts must be unreservedly condemned. These conceited political actors were not directly facing a Nazi threat, as with the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 or the Rock Against Racism marchers of 1977-78, but were needlessly threatening the safety of neutral members of the public.
The “threat” from the anti-democratic left in the UK is paltry and entirely negligible besides that posed by fundamentalist Islamism and, increasingly, far right Nazism. In November 2014, a plot by a disaffected teenager to kill people in my workplace in Newcastle upon Tyne was foiled by police, who raided his home and found a stockpile of bombs and a 9mm Glock handgun. The 19 year was given a life sentence for his planned massacre specifically inspired by the events in Norway 3 years earlier.
Since then, police and intelligence evidence suggests that the threat level from the far right hasincreased, approaching that of its cousin in ideological nihilism, violent and fundamentalist Jihadism. In 2019, Europol reported that the UK had the highest number of far-right terror attacks and plots in Europe.
As any sensible person would, Andrew Neil squarely lays the blame for last night’s events in Washington, DC on ‘TRUMP’. However offended his, Matthew Goodwin or Spiked Online‘s “sensibilities” might be, you just cannot elide though the underlying culpability of the British and American media eco-systems which supported and abetted Trump’s demagoguery at every stage. As Ed Miliband rightly stresses, we cannot be so “high and mighty” in the UK over this as we might like. In 2016 , during the divisive EU membership Referendum campaign – with its abysmal level of debate and rhetoric on both sides – a Leave-backing Nazi killed the Labour MP Jo Cox in Birstall, West Yorkshire.
Thankfully, enough ordinary Americans of all ethnicities in Georgia have pointed towards a way out of this. They voted at the ballot box to deny a fascist President and his many willing senatorial accomplices in the Republican Party their way in thwarting the results of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. Importantly, this means that, in 14 days, the Democrats are in a position where they control all three branches of US government – the Presidency, the House of Representatives and the Senate. More recently, they have only held this strong, unimpeded position for 2 year spells: 1993-95 under Bill Clinton and 2009-11 under Barack Obama. You have to go back as far as to the Jimmy Carter-Tip O’Neill-Robert Byrd Democrat triumverate of 1977-81 to find such an arrangement that has lasted more than one electoral window.
Hopefully, we are going to see more and more Americans making the sort of humane turn the West Virginian senator Byrd made in his career – from opposing 1964 civil rights reforms to strong anti-racist, from supporting the Vietnam War to opposing. Evidently, it is not hard for Biden to achieve a civilising improvement in the level of rhetoric and optics in comparison to his frankly evil predecessor. However, Democrats will seriously need to act in helping people with jobs and wages and work hard to win over voters they have complacently took for granted in Texas and Florida, as Mike Davis has counselled in this excellent essay.
Americans have got to hope that Trump will be the last US President to have had a father being a prominent member of the KKK. They also need to demand that the Democrats make a fairer economy than the Republicans have presided over when controlling 2/3 of the arms of government from 2015 to date.
To end Limited British Take On This #29997, I can do no better than directing you to Albany Georgia-born Ray Charles performing Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s 1930 song ‘Georgia on My Mind’:
‘Other arms reach out to me Other eyes smile tenderly Still in peaceful dreams I see The road leads back to you, yeah’
Mangrove (dir. Steve McQueen, BBC1, 15 November 20200
This is the first in an occasional series of television reviews. No spoiler alert – this television film is about historical events. Yet, perhaps, best if you watch it here before watching or reading this review.
Today, we discuss Small Axe – Mangrove, which was on BBC1, Sunday 15 November, directed by Steve McQueen, not a great album by Prefab Sprout, not a great Hollywood actor, but Sir Stephen Rodney McQueen, CBE, a British filmmaker and video artist, born in Hanwell, West London, 1969.
Mangrove is about the events of 1969 to 1971 when Frank Crichlow opened a West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill as a community meeting place, but faced three incidences of police harassment and attacks on the Mangrove. The film presents the eventual, Black Power-inspired community counter-attack, which takes the form of an angry but peaceful demonstration which is disrupted and attacked by the police. The “Mangrove 9”, who included Crichlow and many others, end up on trial, in the Old Bailey, which tended to be used for the most heinous legal cases like treason.
McQueen and Alasdair Siddon’s script is careful, incisive and intelligent, not portraying a uniform group, but an often fractious and complex Notting Hill community, assailed by the mostly hostile Metropolitan Police force. Yet a peaceful and joyous community it is, as in the scenes with the Trinidadian steel band playing and the customers dancing, or with members of the community simply getting together and talking in what they see as a welcoming, safe space. All of this is facilitated by the devoutly religious, hard-working owner Frank Crichlow, brilliantly brought to world-weary life by Shaun Parkes.
Mangrove emphasises the importance in life of telling the truth and making a stand when you see something wrong happening. Related is the need for leader figures within the Black British community which is rooted deep within that community’s own experiences – we see this in the roles 2 of the Mangrove 9 take – Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) – who defend themselves and their fellow defendants in court.
For me, the crucial line is when Rhodan claims naively that he can represent himself in court like Darcus and Altheia, telling Frank that “It’s every man for him own self.” To which Frank wisely replies: “Eh! It’s dem and we…” Which ends the scene and emphasises the need for preparation and skill, which Darcus and Altheia have in abundance, and how callow individualism would reduce the strength of the community’s collective voice.
The tone includes humour – there is considerable situational irony in the scene when Judge Clarke tells Darcus off for wearing a beanie-style hat when he himself and all other legal officials are wearing their grey wigs. It is also deeply incisive about wider social ills when PC Pulley gives his dishonest testimony in court about how the Mangrove restaurant was “a haunt of criminals, prostitutes, ponces and the like…” which Darcus Howe later claims is “a myth that has been created about us”, the West Indian community in Notting Hill. A myth which has unfortunately persisted, still resonating in what gets said and printed in our media.
I would link Mangrove with certain recent BBC1 drama series that also depict institutional biases and blind spots of the British legal system with entertaining and illuminating courtroom scenes: Russell T. Davies’s A Very English Scandal (2018) and Amanda Coe’s The Trial of Christine Keeler (2019). These variously dramatized ingrained biases towards straight men and imbalances in power according to social class. Mangrove depicts the British legal system reluctantly being forced to come to terms with racial biases and the truth does out, in this case. Magna Carta, she did not die in vain! Traditional English trial by jury works here the truth is told with sufficient eloquence by Howe and Jones-LeCointe who are juxtaposed with PC Pulley’s arrant, errant lies.
Yet, any “feel good” triumphalist tone is rightly undercut and dissipated at the film’s end: a battle has been won, yes, Britain does make a notable step towards becoming a more inclusive place, but, as the factual on-screen captions inform us, the London Metropolitan police harassment of the Mangrove and its founder Frank Crichlow continued until 18 years later, in 1989… I sense we will get the jubilant, upbeat story with film #2, Lovers Rock, but before that, McQueen here delivers a necessary historical reality check.
Rachel Cooke, television critic of the New Statesman, welcomed this kind of story being told on British television, but added what I feel is an absurd caveat to her evaluation. She expresses reservations about there being too many lengthy speeches. Yes, apparently, a dramatization of one of the most significant trials ever held in this country, at the Old Bailey, needed long speeches cutting down! Surely, a drama of history and ideas and conflict like Mangrove needs this discursive element: it is great to see lots of stimulating and passionate talk on television. While I am certainly not saying that all TV drama needs complex, lengthy speeches, I do feel a bit of the old Trevor Griffiths approach of writing passionate, uncompromising talk is something we need as part of TV drama.
And the actors brilliantly perform these speeches, and other briefer exchanges. Jack Lowden is wonderfully chastened and responsive, adding the lawyer Ian MacDonald to his repertoire of historical British figures: Thomas Wyatt, Stephen Patrick Morrissey, Tony Benn and, perhaps, post-Covid, Siegfried Sassoon… Rochenda Sandall, who I remember seeing in the most recent Line of Duty series, is combative, open, humane but tough. I was talking there about Trevor Griffiths, well what about Derek Griffiths here, wonderfully cast as the Marxist historian, C.L.R. James, long after Play Away, Play School and Play for Today but fully channelling their spirit. Sam Spruell as PC Pulley plays the part with venal deceit, conveying this Constable’s ingrained, unearned sense of racial superiority and casual corruption. This is a fine performance from Spruell in a very difficult role… We still have to come to terms with the history of people like Pulley and their presence today.
Ultimately, this first Small Axe film, Mangrove is a tremendous, carefully calibrated and emotionally and intellectually powerful drama based on real events in 1970: worthy of the name of a 2020 Play for Today. Anyone remotely interested in British history, law or politics, or indeed film or TV drama, should watch it. Really anyone, globally, should try and tune in and watch this on BBC iPlayer, as it has universal resonance beyond its fascinating historical particularities.
Does anyone know whether there were any drama anthology strands of unconnected one-off plays similar to the BBC’s Play for Today (1970-84) from other countries? I ask as I am studying a PhD project that aims to be a history and analysis of PFT and I am conscious of a certain parochialism in my research which I want to address, plus, I am just genuinely stumped on this and wanting to find out!
I am aware of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU)’s 1960s-70s transnational pan-European project ‘The Largest Theatre in the World’. Plus, that there were US strands which broadcast plays by Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, Gore Vidal, Rod Serling and others: the one I am aware of is Playhouse 90 (1956-60). I am also aware there was much “authored” TV work in Europe by film and theatre luminaries such as Ingmar Bergman, Jacques Rivette and Rainer Werner Fassbinder – though these were, I gather, primarily TV films or mini-series rather than for anthologies?
I am aware of the more populist, ‘genre’-based TV anthology traditions of the US and UK – The Twilight Zone (CBS, 1959-64), The Outer Limits (ABC, 1963-65), Night Gallery (NBC, 1970-73) and UK equivalents Thriller (ATV, 1973-76), Armchair Thriller (Thames/Southern, 1978-80) and Tales of the Unexpected (Anglia, 1979-88), some of which involved creative personnel who also worked on Play for Today: notably, John Bowen, Robin Chapman and Alan Gibson.
Many thanks in advance for any help you can give: you’ll be acknowledged in my published PhD if you can assist! Please comment here or email me at email@example.com.
I was delighted to speak yesterday at a fantastic event, Play for Today at 50, from 10.50am, on a panel including Simon Farquhar and John Cook and chaired by Katie Crosson. This necessarily Zoom-based event was on the fiftieth anniversary day of the first broadcast of PFT, as rebranded from The Wednesday Play (1964-70). I outlined a statistical history of the PFT strand, using data visualisation, which would have been infinitely less striking without Rachel Queen’s help!
Simon Farquhar (writer and dramatist) spoke eloquently and emotionally about the small domestic strain of PFT which is rooted in deep emotional truths, lovingly explaining the quality of Julia Jones, Colin Welland and John Challen’s work. John Cook (Glasgow Caledonian University) added to Simon’s extolling of the video studio aesthetic, in deeply questioning “the inexorable logic of film”. John also gave an invaluable account of interviewing Graeme McDonald and made the point that while seen by some as a bland figure, he was a very efficient producer, responsible for producing 4 of the 6 Plays for Today that won BAFTAs for ‘Best Single Drama’, including Spend Spend Spend (1977) – plus, two McDonald-produced PFTs contained ‘Best Actor’ performances: John Le Mesurier in Traitor (1971) and Celia Johnson in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1973). John’s critical account of institutional change and the anti-video turn was compelling and elegiac with an underlying polemical edge.
The next panel, which I chaired, featured Vicky Ball (De Montfort University) outlining statistics which complemented my own, discerning a decline in the percentage of women working on TV plays from the 1950s to 70s. However, her findings, which accord with mine, noted the significant fact that in Play for Today’s final third (1980-84), 50 per-cent of PFT‘s total credited women writers were employed. There was a definite improvement, following Margaret Matheson’s enabling of Mary O’Malley (RIP) and Caryl Churchill, producers like Innes Lloyd, John Norton, W. Stephen Gilbert, Kenith Trodd and Alan Shallcross all commissioned work by women writers in this era. Vicky also presented interview testimony from writer Paula Milne about her experiences in working at the BBC, some of which were, as Katie Crosson rightly claimed, was “harrowing”. Next, Eleni Liarou (Birkbeck, University of London) outlined a fascinating range of Plays for Today that engaged in complex representations of race including many I must watch: Murder Rap (1980) and Three Minute Heroes (1982), which Helen Wheatley (Warwick University) and others presented for a public screening in Coventry Cathedral in 2018.
Then, Katie Crosson (Royal Holloway, University of London) discussed elisions from the canon of publicly remembered creative personnel on Play for Today, especially championing writer Carol Bunyan (Ladies 1980, Sorry 1981) and producer Irene Shubik and eloquently adding to mine and Simon’s case for Colin Welland as an incredible powerhouse of an actor-writer. Katie’s timely and forceful talk is supplemented by her evocative online exhibition hosted by the BFI and BBC here.
The Q and A included an intelligent discussion from all of the narratively well justified blackface sequence in Barrie Keeffe’s Waterloo Sunset (1979), as well as a lament that nobody seemed to have interviewed Rita May, who wrote England’s Green and Peasant Land (1982). In response to a question from John Wyver, Eleni persuasively argued that PFT was generally one of the more progressive programmes in its representations.
The final panel began with Jonny Murray (Edinburgh University) who contrasted the Scottish-themed plays made from BBC London (though usually filmed on location in Scotland) with a corpus of 14 neglected PFTs made by BBC Scotland. Even I have only seen one of them, Alma Cullen’s neglected delight, Degree of Uncertainty (1979), video-recorded on OB in Edinburgh. In the chat, Vicky Ball and I agreed it was reminiscent of Willy Russell’s stage drama Educating Rita (1980) and Vicky compared it to Helen: A Woman of Today (1973). Simon Farquhar was vocal in criticising the calibre of some of the BBC Scotland plays, which led to lively discussion! Jonny did a vital service in bringing this neglected corpus to our attention: hopefully with a widening of access more than just a select band of academics and enthusiasts may get a chance to decide for themselves…
Finally, John Hill (Royal Holloway, University of London) characterised the 1980s Northern Ireland plays as generally conveying a more consistent bleakness regarding the Troubles, whereas he argued that a range of 1970s Northern Ireland-set PFTs were far more various and complicated in their representations of the Six Counties. Drawing on archival sources and close viewing, Hill incisively compared Carson Country (1972), Taking Leave (1974), The Dandelion Clock (1975), Your Man from Six Counties (1976) and The Last Window Cleaner (1979) – an absurdist comedy which sounded a one-off even among one-offs. John ended on the salient point that the sort of “hard man” working-class Catholic culture Peter McDougall portrayed on screen was echoed by Graham Reid and Paul Seed’s presentation of the violent Thomas Martin (James Ellis) in the Protestant Belfast-set Billy trilogy (1982-84). Aggression and a degree of toxic masculinity were common across sectarian cultural divides.
Most significantly of all, the event included interviews with several of the most important producers and script editors who worked on the show: Tara Prem, Sir Richard Eyre, Peter Ansorge and Kenith Trodd. Ken’s wonderfully rich reminiscences were a vital counterpoint to Simon and John C’s well argued cases in favour of the VT studio aesthetic. There was exemplary interviewing from Simon, Vicky, Ian Greaves and John Wyver, who wrote and directed Monday’s sterling BBC Four documentary Drama out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today.
Earlier, John had opened the event with a keynote lecture on Wednesday evening, from 6.30pm – 8pm. This discussed his personal history with Play for Today from watching Robin Redbreast as a fifteen year old to writing previews (basically review critiques!) for Time Out magazine and attending the location shoot of Plays for Today including Long Distance Information (1979).
Most crucial of all to the smooth running of this symposium was Lilly Markaki (Royal Holloway, University of London) who kept the whole Zoom show on the road. This helped facilitate what will hopefully become many new ideas, projects and friendships. It all felt like that much abused term, a community: dedicated to understanding the past better and looking forwards.
To complement my paper, which aimed ambitiously (!) to provide a broad statistical history of the Play for Today strand within 15 minutes, I have a few extra morsels of research to share. Please correct me if I have made any errors, or if you are aware of any productions I may have missed; this would be a great help and I would be most grateful.
Firstly, I have a provisional list of the Plays for Today that were original commissions for television* but which were subsequently turned into theatre productions. They are listed in chronological order of original PFT transmission date (in brackets, followed by the date of the first theatre adaptation and place of production if known):
John BOWEN – Robin Redbreast (1970 / 1974 – Guildford, Surrey)
Adrian MITCHELL – Man Friday (1972 / 1973 – London)
Dennis POTTER – Only Make Believe (1973 / 1974 – Harlow, Essex)
Bernard KOPS – Moss (1975 / 1991 – London)
Jack ROSENTHAL – Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976 / 1978 – London)
Dennis POTTER – Blue Remembered Hills (1979 / 1985 – Edinburgh)
Andrew CARR – Instant Enlightenment Including VAT (1980 / 1981)
Peter RANSLEY – Minor Complications (1980 / 1984)
Graham REID – Too Late to Talk to Billy (1982 / 1990 – Belfast)**
Appendix of an appendix! The following seem loosely related to previous PFTs rather than adaptations as such? :
Barrie KEEFFE – King of England (1988) – King (PFT 1984) Barrie KEEFFE – Not Fade Away (1990) – Waterloo Sunset (PFT 1979)
* I have also included Spend Spend Spend which was an original commission for TV, but which originated in transcripts of interviews with Vivian Nicholson that Jack Rosenthal then fashioned into a screenplay. **I am unsure as of yet whether the second and third Billy plays have been staged. Surely they have been in Belfast at some point?
List of Plays for Today that were later made as films (if adaptations the original writer is noted; in bold if they were original PFTs):
Adrian MITCHELL – Man Friday(1972 / 1975)
Colin WELLAND – Kisses at Fifty (1973 / 1985 – as Twice in a Lifetime)
Elizabeth TAYLOR (novel) – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1973 / 2005)
N.b. Not including Brimstone and Treacle (1976 / 1982) or Scum (1977 / 1979) as they weren’t broadcast as PFTs during its run. Maeve (Dir. James Ormerod, CAN, 1987) was a TV Movie follow-up to Graham Reid’s Billy trilogy.
Welcome to the last episode of series 1 of May’s Miniatures. If you’ve enjoyed this series at all, please get in touch and suggest other stories or writers you’d like featured in a possible, if not probable, future series! Feel free to add comments on the posts that are on the May’s Britain blog.
Now, this final selection is a short story from one of my favourite writers. You don’t have to be Will to self-diagnose as a Ballardian. I love his work as it is sardonic, strange and taps into undercurrents of our human consciousness that most writers shy away from. Ballard’s work is like a literary equivalent to Max Ernst’s surrealist paintings but with an utterly matter of fact tone to its weirdness. You can’t help but hear his words resounding inside your head as if delivered by a BBC announcer from the Sixties, but who has unknowingly ingested some weird substance – and we’re not talking bleach!
He is not alarmed or moralistic about modernism, about the modern life of cars, motorways and consumerism, but nor is he Panglossian about it. He perceives troubling currents and subtly under plays them. This story is from later era Ballard. He was in his fourth decade as a writer, and wrote this soon after Margaret Thatcher’s pivotal Bruges Speech of 19 September 1988 which was critical in how the UK Conservative Party changed from being a pragmatically pro-European capitalist party to one torn between this and proto-Brexiting euroscepticism. This was published on 7 July 1989 in the Guardian newspaper, accompanied by a Steve Bell cartoon. This was four months before the restrictions between East Germany and West Germany were lifted, and the Berlin Wall took on new historical meaning. This story is incredibly prescient not just of events since 2016, but seems to parallel… In some ways… the, yes, cliché-alert…! strange times we are living in RIGHT NOW…!
Broadcast here on YouTube on Tuesday 11 August 2020:
This story brilliantly depicts cross-European middle class rebellion of leisure with a distinctive English iteration with seemingly divergent tendencies – green, feminist, sporty, Thatcherite. It observes the undercurrent beneath our cultural observance of the Protestant Work Ethic, which could apply on a much wider cross-class basis, given how beloved our holidays in Spain, Italy and Greece are to us.
Ahhhh eeeekkk grotesquerie welcome in May’s Miniatures…! Numero nove!
Now, this isn’t a “nasty tale”. But it conveys something of what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”. It was written by Angus Wilson and published in his first volume of short stories, The Wrong Set. Born in 1913, he was a gay writer in the days before, during and after the Wolfenden Committee Report of 1957 and the eventual decriminalisation of homosexual acts in England and Wales in 1967 due to the amendment to the Sexual Offences Act, brought before Parliament by Leo Abse and Lord Arran.
Wilson published the astonishing for its time Hemlock and After (1952) and such thorny, incisive portraits of a changing Britain as Anglo Saxon Attitudes (1956) and Late Call (1964), both of which were adapted for television over the following four decades. This is a complex, atmospheric and disturbing story which depicts the results of a combination of nostalgia, paranoia and alcohol. And, no, it isn’t entirely “feel good” fare…
This episode is broadcast on YouTube here, on Tuesday 4 August 2020:
This is a fascinating source text for a 1978 film that has long bemused and delighted me in its surrealism and absurdism. I think I first saw it in around 2000 in a late-night showing on Channel Four, when I was at College. Now as certain friends might be able to tell you, I was laid-back at College, but perhaps quite not quite laid-back enough about my studies to stay up until the early hours and watch weird films. I taped Jerzy Skolimowki’s version of The Shout, and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) too, and watched them in early evenings after my days at the City of Sunderland College’s Bede Centre.
‘The Shout’ possesses a mythical power that engages, if in a mediated way, with anthropology and Aboriginal beliefs and customs. Its writer Robert Graves was born in Wimbledon, London in 1895. He served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers during the First World War. Friends during his life included Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, T.E. Lawrence and Spike Milligan. Graves’s autobiography detailing that war service Goodbye to All That was published in 1929. He made the island of Majorca his home that same year where he lived off and on until his death in 1985 but this was one of his ‘English Stories’, written five years earlier in 1924.
A ‘cromlech’ is a megalith or stone tomb. As you might expect from Robert Graves, writer of I, Claudius, there are echoes of the ancient world. The story’s narrator compares Crossley’s tale to the ‘Milesian’ style of erotic fiction written by the Platonist Roman scribe Lucius Apuleius. Please, listen, carefully, or I’ll shout your bloody head off!
Episode 8 was broadcast on YouTube on Tuesday 28 July 2020 here:
Subsequent thoughts and analysis to follow at a later date.
Now, for the most recently written story in this first series of May’s Miniatures: your most arcane of Lockdown entertainments!
Muriel Spark was born in 1918 in Edinburgh, so this was published when she was eighty years old. There is no sign here that the writer of such sharp, vivid and strange novels as The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) was in decline or losing her salience. In 1998, Britain was entering its seventh full year without a recession. The average person was doing reasonably well, economically. The home owner, say, with a permanent job, was doing extraordinarily well and these people happily voted for Blair’s New Labour in 1997.
A shout out is due to the formidable, incredible actress Tilda Swinton. My selection is really down to her selection of this story in a recent issue of Sight and Sound. I remember how she spoke on a DVD extra about the great British film director Derek Jarman and paid tribute to his profound creativity and adventurous. It is really a great shame he never got around to adapting a Muriel Spark story or novel. Expect funny. Expect pointed. Expect a dissection of that perennial British obsession: social class.
Broadcast on YouTube here on Tuesday 21 July 2020:
Further analysis to be published here, subsequently.
Imagine yourself back in Vienna in the early years of the twentieth century. This is a city with historical Celtic migration and which suffered a plague in 1679 which wiped out a third of its population. It has been known for its composers – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. The BBC has reported that in 1913, Adolf Hitler, Leon Trotsky, Josip Broz Tito, Sigmund Freud and Joseph Stalin all lived within a few miles of each other in central Vienna, some of them becoming regulars at the same coffeehouses.
Walter Benjamin is best known for his philosophical history writing which is favoured by intellectual left-wingers. No syllabus seriously aiming to analyse culture is complete without his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. This German Jewish writer committed suicide in 1940 while on the French-Spanish border and trying to escape the advancing Wehrmacht. The rooting of this short fragment in Vienna cannot be random. This was both “Red Vienna” known for its socialist agitation and also the home of the “Austrian School” of liberal capitalist economists, the most famous of whom was Friedrich August von Hayek. They saw economics, jobs and money, being governed by the motivations and actions of individuals and they saw a regulatory state as oppressive. This story consists of two individuals. How do they choose to spend their time? Are they part of a society?
Broadcast on YouTube on Tuesday 14 July 2020 here:
More detailed analysis and thoughts on this story will appear here later.