British Writers on TV

I’ve been watching, and partially enjoying, the series “In Their Own Words: British Novelists” on BBC 4 over the last couple of weeks. The third and final episode is on Monday (30 August), and you can watch the previous two on iPlayer here and here. The first episode looked at British fiction between the wars, as the age of Empire collapsed into the age of ideology. The second episode looked at the post-war world from 1945 until the end of the 1960s, and how social and cultural change were addressed by a new generation of writers.

I’ll get to everything I thought was wrong with this series in a moment, but the main thing I took away from it was a realisation of how many interesting British writers there are who I’ve yet to read, and, I’m ashamed to say, how many of them are women. Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt are two major novelists who I have never even glanced at, and all I’ve read by Iris Murdoch is her first (and I thought terrible) novel “Under the Net”. Apart from that, it was fascinating to see writers I revere, like William Golding, strolling awkwardly about or pretending to type (in every archive piece there’s a scene where the writer has to sit and type, or stare out of the window and muse) while a cut-glass voiceover described his work, or to see Evelyn Waugh exercise his most vile persona when being interviewed about his books. It was broadly successful in trying to interrogate trends in literary history, and demonstrated well how much the background noise of history and society seeps into a writer’s consciousness, sometimes without them being aware of it. Postwar fiction has been dominated by big American novelists, who seem streets ahead in both style and substance, so it was a useful corrective to see how spiky and obdurate and odd so many British writers have been in this period. What American writers like Philip Roth and John Updike achieved through the scale of their ambition and the energy of their prose, British writers like Golding and JG Ballard made up with sheer weirdness and idiosyncrasy.

The series is let down by the format though, specifically by the clue in the title – that this is “in their own words”. Writers seem to be included in this programme purely on the basis of there being extant archive footage of them, so although the iPlayer frontispiece for the first episode is a brooding picture of him, and despite his vast importance in early 20th century British (and global) literature, there’s nothing here about DH Lawrence. Weirdly, there’s a good ten minutes about Barbara Cartland in the first episode, and although I enjoy the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, I don’t really see that JRR Tolkein is a “British novelist” in the same way Iris Murdoch, or Kingsley Amis, or Ballard, is. Even more ridiculously, while the second episode had an excellent archive interview with Sam Selvon, author of the immigrant classic “The Lonely Londoners”, there was absolutely nothing about VS Naipaul, the man who effectively invented postcolonial literature. Naipaul only featured in the first episode, in the section on Elizabeth Bowen.

Similarly, and given how quick Scottish commentators are to fly at any perceived slight I’d be amazed if I was the first person to point this out, for a series about British novelists, no Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish writers featured at all. I’m sure the final episode, taking us up to the present day, will have something about Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner, for example, but it seems an odd lacuna all the same. It’s probable the omission of writers like Alexander Trocchi, or Naomi Mitchison, to name just two Scottish writers working at this time, was because there was nothing in the BBC archives about them, and, if so, demonstrates the shortcomings of the whole series’ approach.

Despite all this, I love any documentary about writers and writing, and I’m glad I’ve been given the chance to see some rare footage of some extraordinary people (and Barbara Cartland … ) I remember in the 1990s there was a series called “Bookmark” which had some excellent hour-long documentaries about Albert Camus, Lawrence Durrell, and (my favourite) Martin Amis jetting off to Chicago to interview Saul Bellow. And these were peak-time programmes on BBC2. Although most people can get BBC4 on Freeview, or can watch on the internet, it says a lot for the cultural confidence of the broadcaster to put a series like “In Their Own Words” on the digital station. This is to say nothing of the archive programmes themselves, serious discussions with major novelists, broadcast (necessarily) on BBC1 at peak time. What this programme unintentionally illustrates more than anything is that serious writers were once newsworthy and were assumed to have something of importance to say, about culture, society and politics. It’s seems inescapable that novelists are no longer in the forefront of the culture, or at least not in the same way. When Lawrence Durrell admitted in the second episode that he didn’t believe women had souls, perhaps overall this could be seen as a good thing …

It’s interesting to think of novelists operating on the margins of culture though. Often, it’s on the margins where the most provocative work gets done.

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