Saturday, 1 November 2008
A great week for those of us who believe the least interesting things on TV happen on the screen.
The Ross-Brand saga was disgraceful. What worried me most was the insistence of BBC "suits" that this untalented pair were brilliant broadcasters on the top of their game. If that is so, I assume the BBC is now playing in the Fourth Division.
Their defenders claimed the massive reaction to their obscene telephone call was the result of a Daily Mail campaign. Rubbish. It was the BBC which kept it in the public eye by constantly showing clips and transcripts of the item. The News Division carries a lot of clout and someone was getting his own back. Ross's £18 million contract upset a lot of broadcasters and his claim to be worth more than a thousand jounalists was unwise.
The resignation of the Controller has been heralded as a noble gesture. It was an act dictated by petulance. She had sought to protect her staff by threatening to resign if they were disciplined. Dangerous tactic. She might have been wise to remember the former Director General Greg Dyke who has never quite got over having his own dramatic resignation accepted.
Brand has form. In 2002 he was kicked off a radio programme for reading pornographic material. The two pretend to be yobs but Ross is a graduate and Brand was privately educated at the Conte School.
If possible, the TV critics are worse than the programmes. After a documentary by the former Deputy Prime Minister, one Billen, in The Times, mocked the luckless John Prescott and suggested that his wife Pauline had been less than tactful in drawing attention to the fact that Lord Onslow, their host at a luncheon, had left his flies undone. Had it been Prescott and not Onslow who appeared on TV with his flies unbuttoned what a glorious time would Billen have had with it.
Had it been Onslow and not Prescott who, according to Billen, had been "an able minister" how joyfully and not grudgingly would Billen have recorded it. Had it been Prescott and not Onslow who repeatedly used the 'f' word on TV in the presence of ladies, his guests at the luncheon, how Billen would have sneered.
Idiots do not become Deputy Prime Ministers or perhaps a greater number of aristocratic Old Etonians would achieve that office.
What we saw was a devoted couple who had got over their matrimonial problems enjoying the sort of marriage which is rare in the political classes. We saw a glamorous wife, proud of her working class origins, of whom any husband would be proud. And a bruiser of a husband who worked hard as a union official and, by dint of long nights of after work study, got to Ruskin College and was awarded a degree in Economics. Certainly the most grown up of the Trinity which led Labour and one of the few socialists in the cabinet.
Finally, why has the BBC sent so many of its "stars" to America to cover the Presidential election? The BBC always believed in "oversend". I have been on stories for them where ALL the other reporters have been from BBC programmes. Their combined expenses would re-finance a bank. Nothing like Obama's, of course. He, we are told, has an unlimited budget. But no one has yet said where he got the money. Gore Vidal has frequently written that America gets the President that Big Business wants and finances. Big Business holds the only vote that counts.
What, one wonders, has attracted it to Obama?
I am standing over the nest with the insecticide and my friend Ronnie Knox Mawer is saying to the wasps within, “Prisoners at the bar, have you anything to say?”
Ronnie, a retired judge, first used these words when, at 26, he put on the black cap and sentenced a man to death. Subsequently, as Chief Justice of the South Sea Islands, he handed down many more such sentences. So I was puzzled to know why I had been lured seventy miles to kill wasps. Then I recalled my friend has a fine legal sense of precedent and my family has a long connection with executioners.
My old man was the official driver to Albert Pierrepoint, the most famous public hangman. My old man did not mind his macabre role.
It was a rest from his unofficial job whilst serving in the wartime police, running a black market cartel. Though he did find it a touch strange the way Albert, who had a fine baritone voice, liked to lead a singsong in pubs on the way home from work.
Albert had a pub himself near Blackpool called “Help the Poor Struggler“, which even my old man thought was not in the best of taste.
Though the coachloads of trippers who called there every day thought it a great joke and all wanted their photographs taken standing under the sign with Albert.
Another hangman I knew called Wade had a cafe in Yorkshire called “Rest Weary Pilgrim“, so maybe a macabre sense of humour went with the job. A third hangman, Harry Allen, was different: he kept a pub called "The Junction".
In the days of which I speak even bars on the road to Blackpool not run by hangmen did a roaring trade. Gin and orange was the staple drink and glasses of it stood, ready poured, in rows on the bar top waiting for a charabanc to arrive. Unscrupulous landlords filled the
glasses with orange juice and wiped a gin stained finger round the rim. No one ever noticed. Another scam after a punter had drunk three genuine gin and tonics was to serve him plain tonic for subsequent orders. The punter would still taste gin. It works. Try it.
I knew a man once who advised his friends of a change of address by writing the sort of letter to The Times it could not fail to print. I use the Letters column to find out which of my friends is still with us. So I was delighted to read a letter from Michael Senior.
Laid back and leisurely, the elegant Dr Michael Senior is the archetypal Victorian Man of Letters, attached to the 20th century for purposes of rations and accommodation only.
He lives in style in an elegant mansion on a hilltop, with views up, down and across the Conwy Estuary. Every window a seascape. Sunday afternoons he hosts a croquet party for his friends; he farms, chairs historical societies, dines out and knowledgeably wine tastes. Even
his house has a relaxed name, Bryn Eisteddfod - in English the 'sitting down place'.
Do not be fooled. He is like the swan, relaxed on the surface but beneath going like hell. A driven man. He is a compulsive Open University degree collector, has written at least twenty-five books and has published prize-winning poetry and learned articles on folklore. He paints at a furious rate, studied for his doctorate in philosophy in what he laughingly calls his spare time and gardens tirelessly. His day is planned to the minute.
Although he is primarily an historian, he has written ten unpublished novels and began as a playwright. His first play, “The Coffee Table“, was broadcast on Radio 3 and in Canada and New Zealand. It had a stage production at the Toronto Playhouse. He thought he was on the threshold of a glittering career.
“The Literary Advisor of the Royal Shakespeare Company rang and asked if I had any other plays," he said. "I hadn’t, but I said ‘yes’, and he asked me to send an example. The company was putting on a season of new plays at the Barbican and he thought I might be one of
the chosen playwrights. I quickly wrote four or five and sent them off. They were liked but, before they could be put on, the company’s policy changed and they were never done. Kenneth Tynan encouraged me to write film scripts but they were never made into films.”
“I am reconciled to that sort of thing. Being a writer is like playing the one-armed bandit. You get a trickle of luck and you think the next one is going to be the big one. The next book is always the best. It’s an addiction, like gambling.”
He toured Greece to write a book on “Greece and its Myths”. That was the book he enjoyed most of the many. The most scholarly was his “Tales of King Arthur”, a rendering in modern English of Sir Thomas Malory’s immortal and largely incomprehensible “Morte d’Arthur”, out of print in the UK but still a big seller in the US.
“ It is the best story ever told but it gets bogged down in the detail of jousts and genealogies, essential to the medieval reader but lost on us. I wanted to make it more accessible to the ordinary reader.
“I believe the subject matter is related to Wales. Dinas Bran at Llangollen, for instance. Bran relates to the classic gods and there are early stories about it closely related to the Holy Grail. Bran in the Mabinogion possessed a holy vessel which I see as a grail prototype.
There are several reasons to classify Dinas Bran as the Castle of the Holy Grail. For one, a Celtic scholar R.S. Looms has suggested it was the castle of the Fisher King, who was traditionally the keeper of the Grail. Bran may well have been a river god. Parsifal is Percival, who is also connected with the Mabinogion. British myths have been neglected and I see it as my job to bring them back to the public.”
His “Figures in a Landscape” is the second in a series of eight books which tell the story of all the great men and women in northern Welsh history.
“I have written about the places. Now I am putting the people in the places.”
It is a labour of love, not money. His UK and international books made money but he writes mostly for a small Welsh publisher, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, which brings him a few hundred pounds a year.
“They are read and people enjoy them and that satisfies my reason for writing - to communicate. People write and phone me from all over the world to say they have enjoyed my books. That gives me a very good feeling and is really the only reward I want.”
Painting he also does for fun. “I paint four pictures a year. I am Chairman of the Friends of the Royal Cambrian Academy and we have open exhibitions which allow us to put up our paintings there, which is a great privilege. “
Another privilege is the situation of his house in the Conwy Gap.
“The Conwy Gap extends from Conwy to Deganwy; it is a sunshine trap. I can sit in my window and see it raining on Anglesey and up the valley at Rowen whilst my garden is bathed in sunshine.”
Symbolic of a man whose life is suffused with the stuff.