Sunday, 20 December 2009

Sir Terry moves on

I listened to Terry Wogan's last Radio 2 breakfast show on Friday. More accurately, I listened to it on Friday and Saturday, thanks of course to the BBC's iPlayer. I've been around long enough to remember the first time Terry Wogan left Radio 2, twenty-five years ago. In those days Terry was a youngster of 46, moving on from the radio to take up a thrice-weekly chat show on BBC 1 television. I think that there was a lengthy handover to Jimmy Young. I suspect that those more familiar with that phase of Wogan's career would tell me that there was always a lengthy handover to Jimmy Young, or at least would say that they remembered that having been the case, as Wogan-Young badinage seemed to be part of the programme. There was some kind of presentation, and I am fairly sure that Wogan's recording of 'The Floral Dance' was faded up (as seen on a 1978 David 'Kid' Jensen-fronted Top of the Pops); but it is the kind of move I'd have made had I been editing the programme. Appropriate, because the sub-Rex Harrison sung-spoken, self-conscious overextension of a DJ's irony was exactly the sort of painful thing Wogan did in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he went from being ubiquitous on TV panel games, to a successful game show host himself, and rising chat show presenter. His early Saturday evening show of summer 1980, What's on Wogan?, looked even to my nine-year-old self as if it had a budget of tuppence and its guest record was patchy, but the fact it only ran for that summer etches it in my mind as a bridge between two epochs of my life, between first and middle schools. The appearance of K-9 and Lalla Ward on one programme probably helped. More importantly for Terry Wogan, the programme showed someone that he could interview guests on television in a live setting (though he'd been the anchor of interview formats before, including an ATV daytime series in 1972, and a Radio 4 series in 1974). It may even have established him as heir presumptive to Michael Parkinson in the late Saturday evening slot, a succession which duly operated in 1982 when Parkinson left for TV-am. Wogan seemed an unlikely successor to the argumentative, incisive, journalistic Parkinson, but the move was probably in keeping with the times; Parkinson had interrogated the twentieth century, a march of golden age Hollywood stars, political figures and latterday television celebrities hauled up to prove that they had substance. Wogan - particularly after it became an early evening weekday show in 1985 - was a pageant, celebrating its guests who were more gently molested than Parkinson had managed as they plugged their books, though this method was itself able to produce unexpected revelations.

Part of the reason for the resentment at Wogan's rise was probably that Radio 2 wasn't expected to be the launching ground for stars - at least, not disc jockeys. After the Light Programme was rearranged into Radio 1 and Radio 2 in 1967, almost all the new format, music and presenter-led programmes shared between both channels were badged as Radio 1 shows; music sequence programmes which were Radio 2 only, or Radio 2 after 7am such as Breakfast Special, tended to be presented by people with a traditional BBC announcer training, such as John Dunn. Terry Wogan had not been a 'pirate' like the leading younger Radio 1 DJs, but he had come from Ireland. Even staid RTE could be considered outside the BBC tradition. Moving Wogan from his old mid-afternoon slot on Radio 1 (Radio Rewind has clips from his Radio 1 days), to become a 'personality' presenter on Radio 2 in a slot where Radio 2 had previously deferred to Tony Blackburn on Radio 1, was doubtless part of the move to give Radio 2 more definition as a contemporary service in its own right. This ambition, presaged by the BBC's 1969 strategic plan Broadcasting in the Seventies, took Radio 2 beyond being a pool in which antiquated Light Programme formats were sent to await scuttling. It also allowed Wogan to gradually shed his comedic Irishman persona ('Banjaxed!') and become a wry commentator on the concerns of the broadest possible audience.

The media most remember him pointing out the absurdities of Dallas, but a trawl through 1970s press cuttings reveals him being alternately rubbished as the most banal of the banal while other critics recognize, at least, that such a character took some effort. For every Clive James in The Observer ridiculing him as a cyborg par excellence among cyborg television presenters, there is a Val Arnold-Forster praising him in The Guardian in 1976 as the ideal anchor for Radio 2's morning coverage of the Montreal Olympics. Wogan was not afraid to admit that he didn't understand many of the sports or what they were doing in the Olympics, a point of view shared by many listeners who in some cases must have felt they were listening to the Olympics under duress. As between 1970 and 1990 Radio 2 was the main radio channel for sport coverage in Britain, it's not surprising that sport is well-represented in Wogan's press coverage. "Back to Terry Wogan at Broadcasting House" is a phrase that crops up for years after he had left the Radio 1/Radio 2 afternoon show from which Radio 2 would opt out with racing coverage. 'Wogan's Wager' saw Wogan play the role of racing tipster. There was even a Terry Wogan handicap chase, and Wogan owned at least one racehorse.

When Terry Wogan returned to Radio 2 from television in 1993, he was joining a changed network. In the early 1980s Radio 2 was not only where I heard lots of mid-century Broadway show tunes, 1960s pop and much older material, but where I first heard new singles by Queen and, indeed, French and Saunders. Realignment in the late 1980s and early 1990s under Frances Line, first as controller of music and then as controller herself, had deliberately sought an older audience and deleted almost all references to popular culture after 1960. By 1992, when she replaced Derek Jameson as breakfast host with Brian Hayes, she was admitting this strategy had misjudged her target audience's taste: the average age of the audience was in its mid-sixties, ten years older than her calculations. Circulating Hayes into evening programmes and restoring Wogan helped Line retrench without compromising her earlier dictate that Radio 2 should not be a star-making station - only people already established in the public eye should present on Radio 2. By 1993, Wogan had been a prominent media personality for so long that it could be forgotten that Radio 2 had been where he found much of his fame in the first place.

Perhaps ironically for someone brought in to add a touch of Radio 1 personality broadcasting to Radio 2 back in 1972, the emergence of the defiantly and gleefully ageing TOGs as his listeners helped form continuity with the Line era audience as Radio 2 (including Wogan's show) renewed its engagement with younger strands of popular culture under controllers Jim Moir (1996-2003) and Lesley Douglas (2003-2008). The adoption of elements of a zoo format further distanced Wake Up to Wogan from the old Terry Wogan show, but perhaps most important was that Wogan returned to Radio 2 ready to become an elder statesman. One of his early irreverences as a television commentator on a beauty pageant was to say that he was doing it for the same reason as the bikini-clad contestants: "for the exposure". He didn't need exposure in the same way any more. While television work was not as easily come by as in the 1970s and 1980s there was Children in Need every year, Points of View and experiments such as The Terry and Gaby Show which provided income, coverage and helped Wogan remain a contemporary figure rather than the subject of nostalgic profiles. The innuendos and double entendres of the 'Janet and John' stories and others were likewise signs of modernity.

This is where I admit that I have never really grasped how Terry Wogan maintains such a rapport with his audience. Unlike several of the 1970s newspaper critics, brought up in the stratified days of Light, Home and Third, his reign over the airwaves seems less inexplicable than those of more recent personalities. In a 1979 Guardian review of an edition of Parkinson, Peter Fiddick expressed his surprise that he felt outraged by the use of Terry Wogan as "mute butt" of a "love-in" between Michael Parkinson and Carol Channing. "He is actually too interesting a figure to most of the British public, and too good a professional broadcaster, and maybe even too bright a bloke, to be handed out that treatment." Fiddick managed to acknowledge how a man he'd previously seen as only a representative of the unadventurous and unexciting was revealed as a sophisticated practitioner when taken for granted. Despite his septugenarian age and the premature obituaries of this week, Wogan and his capacity to surprise are still with us. Expect occasional ripples but above all an astutely composed dialogue with audience and with guests on Sunday lunchtimes from February.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Hemingses of Monticello

I've submitted another reader review to History Today's books blog, on The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed. My text as submitted was overlength, but it has been carefully edited by History Today's web editor, Kathryn Hadley.

I write in the review that in referring to his household of free relations and slaves as his 'family' Thomas Jefferson was employing the same terminology an eighteenth-century Englishman would have used of his spouse and their offspring and free servants and others living under his roof. Likewise Jefferson preferred to refer to his slaves as his 'servants', obscuring the fact that the control which he exercised over them as his property was different from his authority over free employees.

The fact that Sally Hemings, her siblings and her mother were enslaved is unavoidable to the early twenty-first century reader and is the foremost consideration when assessing their careers. While legally and socially degraded from the status of free people in Virginia, this was not a status which late eighteenth-century Virginians took entirely for granted; Jefferson's use of the term 'servant' echoes the classification of African plantation workers in early seventeenth-century Virginia as indentured labourers; only in mid-century were moves successfully made in the courts to deny them their freedom and convert them into human property, a controlled population both guaranteeing a source of cheap labour and protecting what was probably thought of as the English character of the colony from apprehensions of Africanization.

Jefferson was not alone in playing the ideal white landed Virginian patriarch, with Sally Hemings as lower-status mother of his 'private' family; but he may have been aware of parallels in England too, where high-status males, whether unmarried, married or widowed, enjoyed second families of lower social status than enjoyed by their official property-inheriting children. Jefferson's setting up his male Hemings in-laws and children as artisans not only suggests that Jefferson was flattering his political ideals, experimenting with the Hemingses as the foundations of a new free Virginian society, but also echoes a greater English male of the earlier century. Charles II is said to have been reluctant to ennoble either his children with Nell Gwyn or Nell Gwyn herself, and I have long wondered whether the king was entertained by the idea of having recognised descendants somehow placed among the 'middling sort'.

Situations emerging from these second families could be found among the eighteenth-century English nobility, which might suggest to a white ascendancy in Virginia, holding tightly to race privilege, just how a Sally Hemings who had simply been Jefferson's 'servant' might have threatened it. On the death of Edmund Sheffield, second duke of Buckingham and Normanby, in 1735, he left the Sheffield estates to his mother. Katherine, duchess of Buckingham and Normanby, had been the third wife of John Sheffield, first duke of Buckingham and Normanby, who was himself her second husband. On her death in 1743 she bequeathed the estates to her grandson Constantine Phipps, the son of her daughter from her first marriage, Lady Catherine Annesley. The estates were alienated from the Sheffield line of descent, but kept within a legitimate kinship network which included several peers of the realm. Phipps's inheritance of the entire estate was challenged by one Charles Herbert, who turned out to be an illegitimate son of the first duke of Buckingham and Normanby by a woman described in The Complete Peerage as 'Frances, "Mrs. Lambert"'. After lengthy judicial proceedings the Sheffield inheritance was divided between Charles Herbert and Constantine Phipps. Herbert, brought up outside the property-owning elite, became a landed gentleman, took the surname of Sheffield and was in due course admitted to the foothills of the hereditary titled nobility with a baronetcy, though neither he nor his male-line descendants (unlike those of Phipps) reached the House of Lords. (The most famous member of the family in 2009 is Samantha Cameron, nee Sheffield, wife of the leader of the Conservative Party.) While the Phippses did better in terms of status the core of the Sheffield estate in Lincolnshire was lost to them. There was a slight irony that Duchess Katherine, who had attempted to engineer the painless succession of the Phipps family to the Sheffield estate, was herself an illegitimate daughter of King James II, but had she seen Charles Herbert's case she could with some force have replied that she had not made any attempt to become queen.

The landowning class and titled nobility of Great Britain were sufficiently complex and enduring groups to withstand such challenges to caste; but the planter society of Virginia was newer and its pretensions to gentle status more fragile. A caste which clung to whiteness of skin and unambiguous European pedigree as the marks of the right to liberty and the right to own other people allowed itself to ignore a very small number of members of the elite who were possibly African descent - Gordon-Reed notes one possible case, that of Frances Bland Randolph Tucker, on page 537 of The Hemingses of Monticello - but anything more would have raised too many questions destructive to the Virginian status quo. Virginia had no peerage but property, and Jefferson supported and promoted efforts to dilute the concentration of Virginian land ownership in a few white hands; but self-preservation prevented the emergence of an African-American Charles Herbert, or (to give two examples among near-contemporaries of Jefferson where the sons of servant mothers inherited the estates of British peers) a George Finch of Burley-on-the-Hill, Rutland, or a John Bowes of Streatlam, Co. Durham. The Hemingses, freed, either forsook their heritage, left Virginia, or both, before white-dominated slave society collapsed under economic realities, war and the brutal consequences of its own self-deception.

Monday, 23 November 2009

The Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia

Returning from Oxford this evening, I found The Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia waiting for me. Edited by Annette Landgraf and David Vickers, it aims to be a comprehensive guide to Handel's life, works and historical context. I have no claims to be a musicologist but was able to contribute the entries on Queen Anne; on Baron Johann Adolf von Kielmansegg (master of the horse to George I, who commissioned the waterborne concert at which Water Music was first performed); on George I's mistress Melusine von der Schulenberg, duchess of Kendal, and her daughter Petronilla, countess of Walsingham, best-known simply as the wife of the politician and literatus Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth earl of Chesterfield, but a doughty defender of Handel during a period when he courted unfashionability with his music for the English language Semele. This is a useful volume for anyone interested in the musical and cultural history of early eighteenth-century Britain, to which I'm glad to have contributed.

I've been a bit less visible since I left the staff of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, so have been less obviously available to contribute to projects like this in the last couple of years; a pity, as I enjoy doing them.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

On styling life peers

I know that this is a matter of limited interest, but as long as the House of Lords is around, I'd like to see its members styled properly. So, Seumas Milne in The Guardian, 'Lord Mandelson', not 'Lord Mandelson of Foy'. Peter Mandelson's peerage was gazetted as 'Baron Mandelson, of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and of Hartlepool in the County of Durham'. That first comma tells you what the everyday substantive part of the title is.

And yes, there are too many lords for a media staffed by those bred up in egalitarian times to cope, hence the confusion over when to use a territorial designation. 'The Rt Hon Peter Mandelson, LP' [Life Peer] or (hence it be inferred that such a peer revolves at 33.3 per minute on a turntable) 'The Rt Hon Peter Mandelson, MHL' [Member of the House of Lords] would be welcome options.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography - October 2009 update

It was not my intention in establishing this blog simply to point to my publications elsewhere, but this is the second of two posts doing just that. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography yesterday published its fifteenth online update since the new dictionary first appeared in September 2004. As usual, a comprehensive introduction to the new material has been provided by the dictionary's editorial team at Oxford University Press. Among the new entries, and curently on the 'public shelves' allowing non-subscribers to read them, is my entry on William and Blanche Gibbs, nineteenth-century philanthropists and master and mistress of the Victorian Gothic house of Tyntesfield in Somerset, their lifestyle funded by an export monopoly for Peruvian guano.

The fifth anniversary of publication has been celebrated by taking a selection of articles published online since then and allowing them to be accessed free of charge, presumably for a limited period. These entries include the writer Douglas Adams as well as the judge Dame Rose Heilbron, Sarah Moulton (Sir Thomas Lawrence's 'Pinkie'), sanitary engineer Jesse Cooper Dawes and first woman American presidential candidate Victoria Claflin Woodhull.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Book of English Magic

I have contributed a reader review of The Book of English Magic to History Today's books blog.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Pitmen Painters

Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters is revived for the second time at the National Theatre, still with its original principal cast - led by Ian Kelly (himself something of a Renaissance man, being an award-winning biographer as well as an actor and director) as art lecturer Robert Lyon, and Christopher Connel (also recently seen in Newcastle as Alan Shearer in You Really Couldn't Make It Up, alongside Mark Benton as Newcastle United chairman Mike Ashley) as the 'star' of the Ashington Group of painters, Oliver Kilbourn. My placing of the tutor before the student may be unintentionally revelatory, but inadequately represents how far the painters led their own development. Ideology is a theme - principally the inadequacy of any of the dogmas current in the 1930s to explain what the pitmen painters did, and the packaging of the mining painters as a 'group' by the art establishment of professionals and patrons, obscuring their varied talent as individuals. The first half is practically a play in itself; the second, a coda set during the Second World War and after on the eve of nationalization, dwells on the aspirations of the Attlee era, building up to the unfurling of Kilbourn's Ellington Colliery banner and its promise of mock Tudor houses and gardens for the workers, symbolizing in the play the storming of the bastions of cultural privilege by the working class. As a surtitle notes as the end, as Hetton Silver Band's recording of the mining composer Robert Saint's hymn tune Gresford, the miners' University of Ashington never arose, and there are today no working collieries in the area. Perhaps the most powerful scene for our times, though, shortly before the end, comes when Oliver Kilbourn visits Robert Lyon in his studio, relocated from Newcastle to Edinburgh after Lyon was appointed professor at Edinburgh College of Art largely (the play suggests) on the back of his self-promotion as tutor of the Ashington Group, and is rendered in chalk and charcoal by Lyon as a sentimentalized rustic labourer. The exchange on privilege, where it lies, who has it and what it means to use it is certainly one for today's cultural commentators to chew upon.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

British comic reprints in The Guardian and The Observer

The Guardian this week launched a week of 1970s and 1980s comic reprints with a 1975 edition of Jackie. I was never in its target audience, though a long time ago I met a housing journalist who claimed to have worked at D C Thomson writing the letters page. Pages of small text (minuscule by today's standards - though I seem to recall that Jackie in the mid-70s was published in a larger format than the A4 size used by The Guardian reprint) reflect the readers' interest in David Essex and Donny Osmond, likewise text-heavy adverts for the WRNS and Barclays Clearing Department aim to lure the mid-teenage girls who would soon be leaving school, while adverts for Anadin and Feminax help the reader cope with the state of being "well on the way to being a woman." Though generally promoting positive images of womanhood, the advert for the Woman's Royal Army Corps still shows an uncertain looking girl being instructed in cooking by a moustachioed male chef. Tomorrow, the 2000th issue of The Beano - the copy which I bought on publication is in a box at my parents' somewhere - and then on Monday over from D C Thomson to IPC (now Egmont) for the football-led Roy of the Rovers, which was as little my territory as Jackie.

The decline of British comics is as much the result of underinvestment and the freezing out within the businesses concerned of many of those with the mental agility and sense of the market which could have found avenues to perpetuate them, as it is the result of the growth of alternative forms of entertainment for the target audience. Memorabilia magazine published an article in 2002 examining the place of girls' comics in the magazine world in what we might call the age of Bunty - the longest running of a generation of girls' titles, and published by D C Thomson between 1958 and 1991 - written by John Freeman (himself a comics editor, writer and designer of note) and which was reprinted on the very informative official fan site for IPC's gothic girls' title Misty here.

That The Guardian and The Observer are running this promotion at all shows how long ago the age of these comics is. The target audience is presumably those thirty- and fortysomethings who juggle mortgages with employment instability which defies the security promised by those adverts in Jackie, while battling to comprehend, let alone meet, the demands made by their children, inspired by today's globalized youth consumer culture. A dose of escapism into a remote comfort zone, when five pence a week bought you another thirty-six, thirty-two or twenty-four pages of turf in a shared world (though only sixteen if you were one of the hapless loyal readers of Polystyle's TV Comic after spring 1979) perhaps less universally accessible, and perhaps less immediate, than today's piped forms of information and entertainment, might be a tempting proposition. Jackie in 1975 looks like a product of a transitional age, fascinated by visual culture but in its heart wanting to converse with its readers through densely-composited text stories and the stark monochrome Helvetica and Roman of its problem pages. The rest of the week is dominated by boys' and humour titles, both more self-consciously visual forms.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Apologies for my absence

It strikes me that I have been neglecting this blog, continuing to make frequent posts pseudonymously elsewhere and not under my own name under this proud eighteenth-century masthead. I will remedy this soon.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

From Russia with Love

I dipped into the James Bond season currently running at the Phoenix in Oxford today, and joined a thronged screen 2 for the remastered From Russia with Love. I'd not actually seen this one, though discussion a few nights ago had revealed the secret of the opening tag scene, which asserts and promotes Sean Connery's Bond as a cinematic icon as well as demonstrating how well Connery can act.

The Bondian world of From Russia with Love is less self-consciously fantastical than it would become in later films, but there's already a joy in the expression of dialogue such as the assessment of Grant as a "homicidal paranoid" and thus perfect agent material for SPECTRE. The regular cast are at ease with one another, and Desmond Llewelyn delivers his reactions to Connery's blithely cocksure Bond with such imperceptible effort that it's no surprise that his brief walk-on and off here as the officer from 'Q division' becomes a regular role.

The film is also a lesson in 1960s attitudes to sexuality. It's implied that the training establishment at SPECTRE Island caters to all of Grant's physical needs, underlining the argument that compared to Bond (himself deeply flawed as a role model in the eyes of his deskbound colleagues in London and his girlfriend in what is presumably Cambridge, but in Istanbul able to negotiate peace between the two fighting Gypsy women by charming them into states of submission) he's emotionally stunted, dependent as he is on institutions for sex. Rosa Klebb is presented as dually deviant, both as an older woman with a sexual appetite, and also demonstrating attraction both to Grant and to Tatiana (Tania) Romanova; but this again is presented as guaranteeing her position in SPECTRE, at least making her less expendable than the coldly boastful chess grand master Kronsteen. Tania's seemingly relaxed attitude to the impermanence of her liaison with Bond at the end of the film is an obvious male fantasy; when we first encounter him Bond, in a punt with his girlfriend Eunice who makes her disapproval of his lifestyle plain, is as close to the henpecked husband stereotype as we see him. There is perhaps not that great a distance between Connery's Bond and Sidney James's Carry On characters as might first be assumed.

From Russia with Love is at times an exuberant travelogue and recalls the days of credit controls and limited foreign travel well; Hagia Sophia is rarely out of shot in Istanbul, and when the camera actually enters its walls it lingers over its architecture as much as it does on other occasions on the contours of leading lady Daniela Bianchi. The scenes in the Byzantine underwater reservoir (not Pinewood as I'd told myself and readers when I first published this review, but a location in Istanbul) are just as exotic; the audience in Britain or America is taken from one layer of an unfamiliar but familiar world, to another, stranger one. We are offered juxtapositions of confinement with open spaces throughout, whether on location in Turkey, Switzerland or Argyll (the latter doubling as the Istrian peninsula), within railway carriages or sheltering within rock chambers or the back of a florist's wagon. This language is starkly derived from Buchan via Hitchcock and eloquent in itself about the multiple worlds inhabited by the many personae of the Bondian secret agent.

An enjoyable game was spotting the Doctor Who actors in the cast. The porter on the Orient Express whose wages are regularly subsidized by Bond's Turkish ally Ali Kerim Bey is played by George Pastell, The Tomb of the Cybermen's master logician Klieg; it was only when watching the credits, after struggling to place him, that I learned that Kerim Bey's chauffeur son was Neville Jason, much later Prince Reynart and his android double in The Androids of Tara. Francis de Wolff from The Myth Makers is the Gypsy leader.

The soundtrack is memorable too, and I'd heard much of it in other contexts. One piece which has been a favourite at the National Film Theatre before screenings is, I now know thanks to the presence of the soundtrack on Spotify, '007 Takes the Lektor', by John Barry.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Reggie Perrin

Reggie Perrin, BBC 1's reinvention of the fondly-remembered 1970s sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, seems sadly on the basis of tonight's premiere largely a misfire. It needn't have been, because the seeds of something sufficiently distinct from the original were present. 'Kisses to the past' grated because they were unnecessary and invited comparison with the old series when the new Reggie Perrin needed to stand on its own two feet - being Reggie passing Sunshine Desserts on his way to Groomtech, and the nostalgic applause-seeking, and winning, "I didn't get where I am today..." from Chris.

I found it difficult to believe that Reggie's workplace adequately represents the modern office. The boss who ignores his underlings' carefully planned schedule is probably universal, but I suspect that the practices of different sectors of the economy have diverged more since the 1970s, making it more difficult for Groomtech to be representative of the middle-managerial workplace. There was indeed something oddly retro about the whole thing, when utter contemporaneity - agitational, even, in the best Sydney Newman tradition - was needed. I'd have put the Perrins in a more modern house; and I'd not have mentioned Carshalton Beeches in the script when Reggie clearly rides a Chiltern train... A Radio 4 preview in the last few days pointed to the Women's Social Action Committee as thirty years out of date, and I'd agree.

This is a second signature project commissoned by Jay Hunt which has not quite captured the spirit she was presumably seeking, as the revival of Minder was initiated by her at Five, and Reggie Perrin was her first public commission at BBC 1 (though it may have been on the books before). Martin Clunes is good enough to be about watchable, but too often comes across merely as a needlessly cruel manager rather than someone suffering in despair at the world in the manner of Leonard Rossiter. If Jay Hunt hoped to use Reggie Perrin to revive the British sitcom in the way that Doctor Who has revived family drama, I fear that she has instead only pointed to its weaknesses, revering a golden age of the 1970s without understanding why the hits of that era worked.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

The Complete Richard Hannay

The first thing to say about John Buchan's Richard Hannay is that he is probably not the man you think you know; at least, if you are anything like me. My impression, formed from fragments of film adaptations and a deep suspicion of the traditional boys' adventure story (whatever that was) inculcated (probably) in earliest childhood, was of an English gentleman, an adventurer in the service of the British Empire, an insider. Richard Hannay is perhaps all these things; but he is not simply the sum of these qualities, and none of them are automatic.

Hannay is an outsider several times over. When introduced in The Thirty-Nine Steps he is in London because that's what men who have made their 'pile' out in the Empire do. He's a successful mining engineer spending his fortune gained in the mines of southern Africa. Although born in Scotland, Hannay has lived in Africa since boyhood, but feels that he has exhausted its possibilities. A life of renting rooms in London and drifting through clubland without introductions leaves him frustrated. His career as an engineer has made his fortune and it is the part of his past which he introduces to us first; but he has also been a soldier and emerges from the first book as someone who takes for granted that the Second Matabele War, in the post-imperial era more easily understood as a war of colonial subjugation and expropriation, was a conflict of moral improvement both for the victors and the defeated. After the success of The Thirty-Nine Steps (initially serialized in Blackwood's under a pseudonym) Buchan extended Hannay's world into one he was already developing in his other contemporary novels and short stories, and added a circle of characters including Sandy Arbuthnot, later Lord Clanroyden, a Scottish aristocrat, traveller in the east and master of disguise; John S. Blenkiron, an American engineer and millionaire investor who acts in the British interest during the Great War; Peter Pienaar, mentioned in The Thirty-Nine Steps as "the best scout I ever knew"; Mary Lamington, nineteen-year-old intelligence operative who takes Hannay by surprise in such a way that he marries her; Geordie Hamilton, patriotic brawling Scots soldier who becomes first Hannay's batman then a loyal retainer of Sandy's; and Scots laird and baronet, enthusiastic and skilled pilot, Sir Archie Roylance. All are the stronger for being relayed through Hannay; when in The Courts of the Morning (not included in the combined volume) Hannay chooses not to join Sandy and Blenkiron in their South American adventure, the bulk of the novel feels emptier for its third person narration.

Hannay's opinions and prejudices are continually foregrounded by Buchan; Hannay emerges as a character through the gap between the limited outlook expected by those seeking to manipulate him, and Hannay's own broader view. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, Scudder intrigues Hannay with his tale of Jewish conspiracy, but never entirely convinces him. His African experience is crucial. Later, in The Three Hostages, Dominick Medina entirely misreads Hannay's character, fatally for Medina's ambitions. Medina's roots in England are deeper than Hannay's, and though he is descended from Iberian exiles and is influenced by an Irish mother who holds England in disgust, it is his Englishness which is emphasised and which may lead him to consider Hannay dull and an ideal pawn. Much or most of the overseas experience with which Medina is widely credited turns out to be fraudulent, and what he has learned, he lacks the understanding to interpret beyond narrow self-interest. Frequently throughout the Hannay books, the reader is implicitly asked to contemplate how little those know of England who only England know.

The great charm of The Thirty-Nine Steps arises from its combination of travelogue and adventure story. For a substantial section of the book it appears that the events which leave Hannay a wanted man are a red herring to allow Buchan to present a series of vignettes depicting Scottish types. For Hannay Lowland Scotland is an ancestral home which he has never really known; though he returns to it in a series of crises, in The Thirty-Nine Steps, in Mr Standfast, in the second climax to The Three Hostages, and the Laverlaw section of The Island of Sheep. In The Thirty-Nine Steps Hannay finds an innocence in Scotland with which he is sometimes impatient - the audience for the radical candidate he finds deluded - but those who are happy with their traditional social roles are largely trustworthy and in some cases models of charity. Characters of this type appear in some form or other throughout the books. They are appropriate for a land which in Buchan's scheme for Hannay's world is a kind of Elysium, often disturbed from the outside, but which when properly maintained - as on Sandy Clanroyden's estate where Hannay and Haraldsen retreat in The Island of Sheep - can strengthen one against those who wish harm. However, to do the work one is called to do one has to leave the sanctuary of the Lowlands. England is the principal theatre of industry and the head office for the rest of the world. Disorder comes when that head office is subverted (as in The Thirty-Nine Steps) or loses sight of a clear aim (as in The Three Hostages).

The Hannay books aren't straightforwardly simplistic adventure stories either. The Thirty-Nine Steps was famously written while Buchan was confined to bed as an experiment in writing a 'shocker' - a "romance where the incidents defy the probabilities and march just inside the borders of the possible" (quoted Lownie, John Buchan, 119). There's something self-consciously genre-challenging about it - Scudder presents the plot to assassinate the Greek prime minister, Karolides, in terms of a conspiracy of cliches: anarchists, capitalists and especially Jews - but Hannay finds the truth more prosaic and more dangerous, a foreign power determined to provoke a European war at its own convenience and whose agents in Britain are long-established and skilled at hiding in plain sight within the Imperial establishment. This scenario is presented as a more realistic depiction of European power politics, helped by the anonymity of the German agents who if having something of the diabolical masterminds of pulp fiction about them seem less prone to caricature, and more threatening, because we never learn their names - at least, not in this book.

The Three Hostages
also draws attention to the artifices of the thriller. The character of Dr Greenslade recalls Scudder, and prompts in Hannay a discussion of the way a thriller is constructed; it seems a neat joke when we learn that following the Great War Hannay's secret service contact Sir Walter Bullivant is now Lord Artinswell, and thus in terms of his signature has moved from 'B' to 'A'. The confrontation across the wild landscape of Machray, while awkward in the context of the main narrative, is called for because Buchan, through the revulsion of Hannay, has built Dominick Medina into such a fiend (if one brought down by his own arrogance) that the convention of the exercise demands that Medina seek swift personal vengeance.

Both The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep are disappointments after Mr Standfast, presented as the centrepiece of the Hannay novels in the five-book Penguin combined edition, and with some justification. Both it and the second instalment, Greenmantle, read like the work of a government propagandist, which they were; but there has been a decided shift in tone and content. Greenmantle, like The Thirty-Nine Steps, takes place in a world where women are distant and mysterious - Hilda von Einem is a threat to Hannay because he has little experience of women, and she almost destroys the world-travelled but ascetic Sandy Arbuthnot. The German commander, Von Stumm, plays up to the stereotype of the physically heavy, privately effeminate officer. The book fulfils the role of reminding its readers of the importance of the Ottoman Empire as a theatre of war, and the contribution of the Russians, whose commander at Erzerum turns out to be a Russian grand duke who had once hunted with Peter Pienaar in South Africa in 1898; the Russians are thus marked as familiar and knowable.

Mr Standfast was written at the close of the war, and while Greenmantle was set in a war where combat was still thought of in terms of cavalry charges, Mr Standfast was completed once the war was over, and shows how Hannay, who is largely having a good war, deals with the deleterious effects it has on the home and western fronts. For John Buchan, successful people are adaptable ones who find something to do in changed circumstances and excel through that adaptability; Peter Pienaar is such, having trained as a pilot at an advanced age and emerged as one of the best fighters in the air, only to be shot down over Germany and one leg ruined. He is later allowed to move to Switzerland which further marks him as a non-combatant; his turn of phrase has become more elliptical and philosophical. He is one of two Fisher King figures, the other being Lancelot Wake, the conscientious objector whom Hannay first meets among the pacifist colony in "the garden city of Biggleswick" (itself a mocking of over-idealistic town planning) and whom he again encounters on Skye, and who gradually earns from Hannay a slightly uncomprehending respect. Wake eventually joins Hannay and his party on the western front as a messenger, and is killed from a shrapnel wound to his groin. Hannay's self-satisfied consignment of Wake to perpetual virginity, after Hannay has won the hand of the teenage spy Mary Lamington, comes to signify his silent recognition of Wake's status as a Grail prince, though he does not know it. There is a contrast between the honest conflict of the men on the front line, and the corrupting nature of the world of espionage; Graf von Schwabing, the chameleon-like survivor of the Black Stone defeated by Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, once captured, is not handed over to the authorities but instead offered the chance of redemption by taking his place on the front line alongside British and French troops, where the extreme circumstances would not allow him to reinvent himself one more and disappear. Redemption as a theme emerges through the books; Medina turns away from the possibility in The Three Hostages, but hard work and a morally uplifting goal transform Haraldsen and to some extent restore both Hannay and Lombard in The Island of Sheep.

Much as The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep fail to live up to the promise of Mr Standfast, they do express an aimlessness felt in Britain and Europe after 1918 which affects certainties Hannay felt in the first two books. While Greenmantle treats the Turks and Arabs with cultural condescension, the Britain of the later novels has similar vulnerabilities to Buchan's portrayal of the Ottoman Empire; the Imperialist assumptions have been swept away; even the metropolitan territory is fragmented, with the independence of the Irish Free State, and new leisure activities have sprung up, incomprehensible to Hannay, as barriers of rank and race are eroded. While an adventurer who respects risk-takers - the 'sportsmen' of the earlier novels - Hannay also takes for granted heredity, that peoples and classes have distinct characters shaped across generations. The Island of Sheep sees Haraldsen's thirteen-year-old daughter Anna assuming a natural and unchallenged leadership over the people of the Norlands, over whom her maternal ancestors had exercised lordship for centuries. She is also female and in the later novels the married Hannay is obviously less familiar with women, though he does not know his wife well enough to realise that she will have her own plans independent of his instructions and look for the eponymous three hostages herself.

The Island of Sheep concerns a grudge from Hannay's youth in South Africa coming back to haunt him and his old comrade Lombard; it is perhaps the difficulty of finding things for Hannay plausibly to do in South America that excludes him from The Courts of the Morning. The Island of Sheep is concerned only tangentially with the politics of the 1930s, as Haraldsen's father's dream of a society invigorated by a return to Nordic values could be a comment upon Nazi Germany. It's a regret that Buchan didn't live to write a Hannay novel set in the Second World War - the transformations which that conflict would have wrought on Hannay (who, like his creator, might have moved from an Imperial to an internationalist perspective, and would probably be more sensitive about the casual use of derogatory nicknames for ethnic groups) and his friends would have been entertaining.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Press Gang - first thoughts

I've recently started watching Press Gang, the first television series written by Steven Moffat, which ran on ITV between 1989 and 1993. As I've written elsewhere, when the first series began the location was too close to home, as I'd just spent a year as one of the editors of a school newspaper initially affiliated with a local weekly. I would have loved the staffing levels and the collective enthusiasm displayed by Lynda Day's team.

Press Gang has a format built on shifting sands at the frontiers of the plausible, but which is kept alive by the cutting wit of Steven Moffat's writing and the energetic belief of the cast in what they are doing. Matt Kerr, an important character seen only occasionally, is a well-known journalist who has made the unexpected career move of moving to a local paper, where he spins off a weekly Junior Gazette produced by students from the local secondary school. The Junior Gazette's staff are initially extracted from the school's cleverest and most motivated pupils, but by the time the first edition approaches Matt Kerr is complaining that all the problem kids have been thrust in his direction too, such as Spike, American and therefore uninhibited by British reserve and also the perpetrator of an unmentionable act at the school disco. Dexter Fletcher's Spike becomes the romantic interest for Julia Sawalha's Lynda, however much she refuses to acknowledge it. The large workspace used by the Junior Gazette looked, plausibly, like an abandoned compositor's room; while early episodes of the first series look back to classic early twentieth-century depictions of the newsroom, where even the telephone is exotic (the Junior Gazette shouldn't have one, by agreement with Matt Kerr - an odd prohibition but the absence of the phone helps an episode or two along) later ones acknowledge the arrival of networked computers, as used by tetraplegic contributor Billy Homer.
Discovering Press Gang now is to look into as vanished a world as my long-ago late-1980s sixth form. ITV original children's production has long disappeared, and it's difficult to imagine the demographic-strangled CBBC commissioning this now. Too quirky for a Five commission, its entrenchment in the heightened reality of children's television makes Press Gang unlikely Channel Four material, post-Hollyoaks. The large cast alone dates it. There is an absence of toilet humour, but a sprinkling of cheery sexual innuendo every so often which marks Press Gang's attitude to growing up as an experience where enjoyment can be found amidst the anguish; unlike the by-the-numbers earnestness in what I've seen of Tracy Beaker or the hand-holding of The Sarah Jane Adventures, there is little need to heavily signpost the lessons learned by the characters.

As well as providing invaluable support for a young writer and a young cast to show how good they were, Press Gang is about teenagers coming to grips with adult responsibilities, and how the road to self-knowledge is a dangerous one, sometimes fatal. At eighteen or nineteen, I saw Lynda as repellently self-assured; two decades on, she seems very vulnerable. The self-assurance is a veneer, used for comic effect - as in her repeated insistence that she has no particular interest, romantic or otherwise, in Spike - and for tragic, such as her failure to realise how serious David Jefford's alienation actually is, prompting the harangue which leads to David's suicide in Monday-Tuesday. Lynda sustains it by her capacity for self-protecting tunnel vision, which propels the narrative of Breakfast at Czar's as she ignores the evidence which would confirm that the Junior Gazette has been misled by head of the council planning committee. How far her decision to shut the team in the office all night, so they can produce a new edition in a few hours, is consciously motivated by the fact it prevents Spike going on a date with the 'obvious' Charlotte is something Lynda could not and would not answer.

Lynda stands for integrity; opposite her is Colin, the Junior Gazette's head of sales and briefly (in Shouldn't I Be Taller?) her successor as editor. Colin's principal role is comedic - he is the class clown, his outfits get louder, and his schemes more grandiose across the season and a half. Where Lynda stresses the Junior Gazette as a responsible, campaigning 'Voice of Today's Youth', Colin learns the lessons of the red-tops and for one horrible issue has the team produce the sensationalist Gaz. A later episode has Colin build up his stooge Fraz into a chess prodigy so he can stage a chess match against local chess phenomenon Suzi Newton, played by Abigail Docherty whose general physical resemblance to teenage mathematician Ruth Lawrence, a semi-regular fixture in the media in the mid- to late-1980s, is exploited by her performance and her costuming.

The regular cast of Press Gang were all on cusps of careers at this point. Some had become established television faces as children, but would move away from regular exposure after Press Gang, like Mmoloki Christie or Kelda Holmes. Lee Ross and Charlie Creed-Miles are among those who have established solid working careers; Lucy Benjamin was in EastEnders for a while, Dexter Fletcher is rarely without period costume these days, and Gabrielle Anwar has emerged from Hollywood startletdom into leading roles on American television. Julia Sawalha is rarely off British television screens.

I'm currently a few episodes in to season two, and so have yet to see the Junior Gazette cut its ties with school and become a fully commercial enterprise in the later seasons. More when I have done so.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Tony Hart 1925-2009

It's been a week where people who influenced the popular culture of the world in which I was born and grew up have been dying - 'head Dalek' John Scott Martin, Patrick McGoohan, Angela Morley (composer of the ATV logo music, and much, much else), John Mortimer, David Vine, Ricardo Montalban. Now, Tony Hart has gone. I first remember him as a largely silent presence on Vision On, where only presenter Pat Keysell spoke for any length of time and with her microphone turned on, and where Tony Hart was the most respectable-looking of the anarchic forces of communication which Pat kept under the barest level of control. Later on, there were Take Hart and Hartbeat - Smart Hart was after my time and I hadn't realised that it had existed, though I knew that Smart continued the BBC children's television art tradition, including the Gallery. His contribution to Blue Peter as designer of the ship logo is well-known, but he was a guest presenter in that programme's early years as well.

Tony Hart visited the Oxford Union in early 1991, and kept a packed debating chamber of students absolutely rapt. We were the end of the Vision On generation, the first to know Morph, and listened to tales of his move from the army into television graphics - "Every few mornings I wake up thinking 'You're an officer, man! Is this any way to spend your life?' " (Yes! his listeners cried telepathically) - with recollections of how nice a person Colin Bennett was to work with, and carefully making sure that Peter Lord and David Sproxton received credit and praise as creators of Morph, often misattributed to Hart, including by the BBC today until Hart's former producer Christopher Pilkington corrected them on air. At one point, before telling an anecdote with post-watershed content, he asked "Are there any children in the audience?" and of course we all laughed self-consciously, because when he was there we were children again. A great communicator, who will be missed.