It was in 1999 that the public remarks of the overpaid mandarins who control our television became even stranger than before.
What most of the public really wanted in their dramas was plenty of sex, one of them authoritatively opined. However it must not be any old sex. The men involved must not be too dominant, the women not too submissive. It must not happen too quickly. There must be plenty of foreplay. Above all their underwear must be clean. The sight of dirty underwear was the one thing, above all others, that our viewers would not be wanting.
‘How shall we,’ wrote [Shakespeare] three hundred years before, ‘within the compass of this little ‘O’ ...’
And so, three hundred years later, we dramatists who speak the same tongue that Shakespeare spoke are given our marching orders, our noble task or challenge to set beside the aspirations of the bard; how and where in our dramas to fit in the foreplay and the sex and how in the layered psychic further reaches of our storied minds find that unique corner rich in poesie and newly laundered underwear.
Even stranger was the unsigned and unsolicited directive which the BBC was sending out to those it thought might want to write for television at that time.
‘With regard to your recent enquiry/submission,’ the document, unsigned but carrying the inspiring title of ‘BBC Single Drama Submission Guidelines’, sent out to both inexperienced writers and those at the top of their profession, begins. ‘... Writers should ensure all submissions are clearly marked,’ it continues, in a slipshod use of language that would not be allowed, for example, by any newspaper. Murkier and murkier becomes the gobbledegook, leading on to this classic very choice bloom in the garden of literacy;
‘If sending in a treatment, you do not need to complete the following: Each script should be accompanied by the following: Up to two lines with the title and genre of the piece, including when and where it is set.’
This is not taken out of context. It really is as obscure as it sounds. ‘The quality of writing we expect from a BBC drama is of the highest standard,’ the same slovenly document continues. It then is gracious enough to give a piece of toffy-nosed advice, which professional writers must have found particularly irksome, about where guidelines on screenplay format, writing courses and writing workshops can be found. It’s as if entrants to the Royal Academy summer show were sent a document detailing where they can access courses in painting by numbers; or those musicians wishing to perform at the Queen Elizabeth Hall were handed details of where to buy keyboards with a one finger auto chord accompaniment facility.
Some of those writers who already worked for television were left wondering how writers new to television would ever be able to learn to use language well when those in authority over us used words so sloppily.
Such basic literacy malfunction at so fundamental a level did not harbinger well for ability in those who have the power to commission programmes.
1999, too, was the year when, for the first time for 500 years, our Home Secretary incited to racial hatred at the highest level.
He had nothing against Romany Gypsies, he said, but he was angered by the phenomenon of Travellers masquerading as bona fide Romanies.
That was a sad day for Britain, it seemed to me. The people his remarks were directed against were not so much the New Age Hippy Travellers (they had been ‘dealt with’ at the famous ‘trashing in the beanfield’ fourteen years before). It was the Irish Pavee Travellers his anger was directed at.
In my own county they’d been parking on the lawns outside the Sidonia swimming pool in some twenty caravans which seems a bit unreasonable until one learns that there is a twenty caravan site in the county where they could have gone. It has closed.
It is hard for many Romanies to prove that they are Romanies because at the start of the last war, while it was not known that extermination was on the books, it was known that Hitler had been rounding up Gypsies into big concentration camps for some years. Fearing the same fate if Hitler was victorious here, many destroyed their identification documents little knowing that, fifty years later, it would be to their family’s advantage to prove that they are Gypsies.
That problem apart, it appears to me to be a far more disastrous situation than has been generally realised, that racism has now publicly been advocated at the highest level. And was Britain, and were television and radio, to whom I’ve devoted some of my working life, ever other than that?
A memory. I am sitting in a rose covered pergola, there is a mellow brick wall behind us, my mother and father, Christopher and Lettice, and myself. On the table, a yard high mahogany radio and from its depths psyched up abrasive sexy women’s voices are singing.
‘It’s Monday night at eight o’clock, the show is on the air ...’ breathlessly, as if corks were sticking up their bums.
A few weeks later it’s Saturday night in Knighton in Welsh border country. I’m doing a weekend hike for Midlands Region Radio. The rain is streaming down, I’m soaking. I turn up at the bed and breakfast place that I’d booked from a callbox earlier that afternoon.
I stumble up the uncarpeted stairs, turn the key in the lock of room number three. There’s no way of getting warm so I take my clothes off and climb into bed to get warmer. There’s a banging on the door. They’ve decided to demand my money in advance.
I look through my drenched pockets and then I realise; I’ve forgotten to bring money with me. Quite easy, I think to myself. I explain to them that I’m working for the BBC, that a recording lorry will be drawing up at a nearby location tomorrow. I’ll be doing a broadcast. I’ll be paid and will drive back in the recording car to pay them.
The landlord clears his throat. His wife begins to sing. They don’t believe me. Five minutes later I’m outside again in the streaming rain.
I stagger on to sleep fitfully in a hay barn on the edge of town. Never mind, I soothe my discomfort, it’ll make a good story on radio tonight.
Next morning I resume my walk, heading for Llanfairwaterdine where the recording car is to meet us, rehearsing in my mind the tale I’m going to tell.
But when I arrive at the pub my producer, Paul Humphries, draws me aside. ‘I think it’s better not to tell the story of what happened to you last night.’
‘How did you know about it?’
‘We’ve been doing trailers for the programme during the day and the proprietor of the guest house where you tried to stay last night rang us in a terrible state. They didn’t believe you when you said you were working for the BBC but when they heard out trailer they realised you must be genuine and now they’re mortified and they’re really alarmed that you may talk about it on the radio, and they’ll be the laughing stock of town.’
‘Well, I was thinking of telling the story. Serve them right.’
‘Better not, old boy.’
Already then, just as so often in the BBC today, reality was being distanced, kept at arm’s length. But there was something else about the BBC at that time, an element of poetry.
It has been said that the tragedy of the BBC is that it used to be run by journalists and now is run by accountants. Could things be other than that? In those days there was a different category of people running at least one department at the BBC. They were poets. At least half of the department that I always worked for, features department, were poets.
After making a number of programmes for Midland Region, I went for my first London ...
[Description of meeting poets in The Stag.]
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