Washington’s Birthday Roundup

–In the TLS, backpage columnist M.C. is reminded of the

BBC television quiz show Take It or Leave It. Devised by Brigid Brophy, this quiz show ran from 1964 until 1971 on BBC Two. “Preference and prejudice towards books and writers” was one witty tagline by which the quiz described itself (the line has a Brophyan ring to it, we think); John Betjeman, one of its regular panellists, preferred to think of it as “Money for Jam”.

This summary is possibly ringing a bell with some readers while sounding somewhat absurd to others. The show’s guests – who included A. S. Byatt, David Cecil, Cyril Connolly, Michael Frayn, Francis Hope, Claire Tomalin and Angus Wilson – were simply asked to listen to an excerpt from some literary work being read out, to identify its author and maybe the work itself, and to discuss it. The presenter was Robert Robinson.

After offering several examples (two of which survive on YouTube) of how this worked (or didn’t, as the case may be), this one was mentioned:

Evelyn Waugh’s A Little Learning is easily identified and then enjoyably put in its place. “It seemed to me … to be full of the usual sort of clichés of attitude”, [Anthony] Burgess remarks. [John] Gross says it is written in a “sitting in the club armchair style”. “Rather a slack piece of work”, [Anthony] Blond adds. By which they all mean that they prefer the novels. We look forward to seeing Take It or Leave It revived for the age of critic-as-influencer (and vice versa).

–On the website MercatorNet.com, Irish-based critic James Bradshaw reviews Waugh’s novel Sword of Honour, a 1965 recension of the three shorter novels in his war trilogy. The review begins with this context:

Taken individually, the short novels are an absorbing and entertaining insight into the war, and the small part which Waugh played in it. When read together, Sword of Honour represents the pinnacle of his achievements as a writer, where he provided the deepest insights into religious faith.

Bradshaw then offers an interesting comparison of this novel with Brideshead Revisited (both book and 1981 TV version) with which Sword of Honour competes for top billing among Waugh’s novels. The review continues with a consideration of the book’s characters and their story, with particular reference to Guy Crouchback and his father. It also offers this insightful description of a few of the secondary characters:

Aside from his usual sharp-eyed critique of upper-class English life, the close assessment of the officer corps means that the reader is treated to a range of characters which leap off the page: the imposter Trimmer, the professional hero Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook and the socially inept Apthorpe, with whom the Brigadier wages a psychological war over a portaloo.

The review does a good job of summarizing Guy’s journey from enthusiasm for the war to his final disillusionment and how those attitudes tracked with the trajectory of Waugh’s own wartime career. It concludes with this:

The strange workings of Providence in perpetuating one family and one Church are foreshadowed early on in a tale which stretches out over the course of a decade. One day, Sword of Honour may be brought to a broader audience, but even if this never happens it will remain the highest testament to the skills of the greatest novelist of the 20th century.

–The website Comedy.co.uk has posted a fairly detailed survey of the career of a TV producer of the 1950s-70s who has gone largely unsung in recent days. This was Michael Mills. The survey by Graham McCann opens with this:

‘Dark satanic Mills’ is what some of his colleagues used to call him, and, with that Mephistophelian beard and somewhat steely-eyed and grim-lipped expression, one can see why. Drape a black cloak over his shoulders or drop a white cat on his lap and he would have looked eerily at home as a Moriarty-like crime master or a coolly sadistic Bond villain. His appearance, however, was deceptive, because, behind that sombre exterior, Michael Mills was actually one of the most sharp-witted, enthusiastic and inspirational creative forces in the history of British comedy.

He made things happen. This is not merely to suggest that he signed contracts and flicked switches. He was immersed in every stage of the programme-making process. He spotted talent, started careers, put together partnerships, turned ideas into things and made people believe in themselves and their projects and their audiences. He could do anything and everything himself, from writing and directing to producing and commissioning, but he also helped many others to do one or another of these things even better than they had thought possible.

McCann explains how Mills ranged from network to network and back again contributing to their decisions to make such landmark productions as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Dad’s Army and Wodehouse Playhouse. But he also engendered some brilliant productions that have not survived so successfully among reruns:

Always too attached to the hustle and bustle of the factory floor to find the lofty executive life entirely tolerable, Mills relinquished the post of [BBC] Head of Comedy in 1971 in order to return to producing full-time. Now free of the regular burden of having to plough through piles of paperwork, he proceeded to make more impressive shows and series, including in 1972 Clochemerle (Galton & Simpson’s critically acclaimed, and beautifully filmed, nine-part adaptation of Gabriel Chevallier’s comic novel) and Scoop (Barry Took’s audacious reimagining of the Evelyn Waugh novel with Harry Worth as William Boot); in 1973 a memorably unruly Spike Milligan special, even by his standards, called Milligan In Summer; and in 1976 another set of widely celebrated Wodehouse plays.

According to IMDB, the Michael Mills/Barry Took Scoop adaptation was broadcast on BBC 2 in 1972. It included in the cast James Beck (the spiv Pvt Walker from Dad’s Army in what may have been one of his final performances) as Corker, Sheila Hancock as Mrs Stitch and Sinead Cusack as Katchen. If it still exists in the BBC archive, it might be worth considering a revival during this post-Covid period when there is so little new material on offer. On the other hand, the critical reception of the 7-part serial when it was broadcast between 8 Oct-19 Nov 1972 was negative, at least in the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times and Observer. In the latter paper, Clive James wrote:

About Scoop (BBC-2) one’s feelings are mixed. Harry Worth is a funny man all right, but whoever dreamed that Boot was supposed to be funny? It’s what happens around him that is supposed to be funny. If Waugh is one’s favorite comic novelist, and Scoop close to being  one’s favorite among his books, it’s a debilitating experience to find the compression of his writing prised open, the velocity of his elisions paralyzed, and the elegant outlines of his characterisaton scrawled over with crayons : and all of this is what you’re bound to get when the thing is put on in front of a studio audience. The decision I understand was taken at a high level. Just the right level to jump from.

The DT and ST attributed the problem to the assigning 0f the project to Michael Mills of BBC Light Entertainment rather than some one from BBC Classic Serials. So it is probably the case that this sleeping dog will remain undisturbed in the BBC archive.

–Two new writers whose earlier successes have been noted are queried about their own reading. Hanya Yanagihara is intervewed in the Evening Standard as she begins a UK tour promoting her new novel To Paradise on the back of her success with her first novel A Little Life:

Yanagihara seems happier talking about visual culture — ceramicists, experimental land artists, those leading figurative portraiture’s resurgence —than fellow authors. “I don’t follow the contemporary literary scene or who’s on it,” she says. Asked whom she has been reading, she mentions only dead white British men: Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Trollope. Her plans for her visit to London this week are more visual than bookish: to visit the John Soane Museum, the New Craftsmen shop and the studio of floral installation artist Silke Rittson-Thomas.

In the New Yorker, poet, novelist and tweeter, Patricia Lockwood, is interviewed. The interviewer Deborah Treisman explains by way of background:

[Lockwood’s] first novel, “No One Is Talking About This,” which was excerpted in The New Yorker, tells the story of a woman who lives very much online, in what she calls “the portal,” until she is pulled back to the real world by the birth of a niece with a lethal genetic syndrome.

As the interview progresses, Lockwood explains that one of her early influences was L M Montgomery and this exchange follows

How did you come across the L. M. Montgomery books?

I’m not sure. I mean, “Anne of Green Gables” makes its way into a lot of girls’ hands. “Emily of New Moon” [by Montgomery] much less so. I think that I had a tendency to read down rabbit holes, so if I read “Anne of Green Gables” and recognized something in that, I would seek out everything else I could find by that person. If she mentioned a book, say, in one of her journals, something like “The Story of an African Farm,” I would seek that out and it would just lead me to everything. I found a copy of “The Loved One,” by Evelyn Waugh, when I was really young. How did I recognize the quality in these things? But there is something almost tangible, so I went by feel. It was obsessiveness, I think, and a sort of persistence in tracking down these people who were interesting to me.

–Finally, an article in The Critic considers why contemporary novels have been deemed “boring” by commentators such as novelist Philip Hensher as cited in Private Eye:

…the real reason why most modern fiction is so dull is that it is insufficiently middle class. To make this point is not to pretend that most novels don’t have traditional middle class settings, for at least 90 per cent of their characters are surrounded by the usual accoutrements of houses, cars, university degrees and status anxiety.

What is lacking, on the other hand, is a failure — or perhaps only an unwillingness — to recognise that the novel is essentially a bourgeois art form, and that the moment it ceases to reflect the desires of the aspirational middle-classes is the moment it fails to fulfil its original function and becomes duller and less interesting to the majority of its potential readers.

What single factor connects Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), H.G. Wells’s Kipps (1910), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954) and Martin Amis’s Money (1984)?

The answer is that, once you strip aside the incidentals of plot, character and milieu or the fact their authors are exclusively male, they are all about upward social mobility. Like the eighteenth-century picaresques that preceded them, their heroes are young men on the make, climbing over or sometimes crawling underneath the hurdles erected by a vigilant authority with the aim of frustrating their passage through life.

The Critic’s article is written by “Secret Author” and makes its point rather well.

UPDATE: After this was posted, additional research was done on the 1972 BBC 2 serial of Scoop,  and this has been added to the Michael Mill discussion.



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