Archive for the ‘theatre’ Category


Commentary: Sir Humphrey on Newsnight

29 April 2010

As part of Newsnight‘s Election 2010 coverage, Yes, Minister co-creator Sir Anthony Jay has written a set of three new sketches featuring the quintessential civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Henry Goodman (who will be portraying Sir Humphrey in the new Yes, Prime Minister stage play opening in May at the Chichester Festival Theatre). According to the BBC’s description: ‘In three episodes we will see him flick through the main party manifestos and offer his unique advice for any incoming minister on handling, or getting around, aspects of potential future policy.

For now, the clips are available here: Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour [to be aired on 4 May].

Overall, I found the writing to be fairly clever, with some good turns of phrase in the best mandarin style. Though it is nigh-impossible to live up to the memory of Sir Nigel Hawthorne’s performance, I would say that Henry Goodman’s portrayal is well up to par — though I do wish he hadn’t said ‘Lib Dem’, which would be far too crude for the Sir Humphrey Appleby I recall. But my primary reservation about these sketches is that they would be a good deal more funny, and more in keeping with the spirit of the original series, if we weren’t told which party’s manifesto was actually being read.

One of the most prized aspects of the series was that it carefully avoided party-political issues in favour of highlighting the underlying conflict between government and administration, an approach that allows it to have continued relevance more than three decades later. It doesn’t seem entirely appropriate to have Sir Humphrey, always so scrupulous about drawing the line between the sordid world of party politics and the tidy machinery of the Civil Service, offering commentary in this muddled grey area between the policy and the policymakers. Sir Humphrey himself would be the first to say that to the Civil Service, it barely matters what party is in power…or rather, in government, because no party is ever truly in ‘power’ in that sense of the word.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, so perhaps I’m somewhat protective of the original series and resistant to the prospect of its ‘modernization’ in this fashion — even when modernised by the creators. But even setting that aside and attempting to judge the sketches purely on their own merits, they seem somewhat lacking in the classic Yes, Minister message that first attracted my interest.


Conferences: Fiction and British Politics

4 November 2009

Though I’m heading off to the Berlin Wall conference this weekend, I already have one eye on another conference I’m slated to present at in mid-December. The University of Nottingham’s Centre for British Politics is hosting a one-day conference on fiction and British politics, and rather predictably I’m giving a paper on Yes, Minister. (For the curious, here’s the official conference flyer.)

Since my article on the impact and influence of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister went to press before I found out about this conference, I decided to look through the rest of my research on the series to see if there was another aspect of fiction and British politics that captured my interest. And then I recalled that my earliest interest in researching the series had been sparked when I read that on 9 January 1986, when Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine walked out of Cabinet over the furore known as the Westland Affair, Margaret Thatcher spent that evening watching the first episode of Yes, Prime Minister. That juxtaposition of political fiction and political reality ended up becoming the basis for my planned paper: ‘Yes, Prime Minister and the Westland Affair: A Tale of Two Resignations’.

As it’s a one-day conference, I’m sure the whole thing will be a bit of a whirlwind. (I do wish it was longer; there’s certainly enough material on fiction and British politics to fill up several days’ worth of panels and papers and plenary lectures.) All the same, I’m greatly looking forward to it — the scheduled conference papers sound fascinating, as do the invited guest speakers. Two conferences in two months is daunting, but I wouldn’t miss either of them for the world.


Never Had It So Good and White Heat by Dominic Sandbrook

27 October 2009

I’ve had these books for quite a while now, and finally have had a chance to pull my thoughts on them together into a single combined review. For those who might be interested in another set of opinions, David Edgar also reviewed these two books in the 7 June 2007 issue of the London Review of Books (subscription required to view the full article).

Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles by Dominic Sandbrook

When Historian Dominic Sandbrook wanted to write a history of Britain in the 1960s, he soon realised that merely covering the years 1960-1969 wouldn’t do justice to a period that refused to be confined by something as arbitrary as a set of dates. As a result, he split his work into two parts: the first volume covering 1956 to 1963 (from the Suez Crisis to Harold Macmillan’s resignation), and the second volume covering 1964 to 1970 (the span of Harold Wilson’s first Labour Government). The title of the first volume comes from a comment made by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan — not the phrase ‘you’ve never had it so good’, as it is often misquoted. The actual comment comes from a speech made in mid-1957, in which Macmillan attempted to reassure the public on the state of Britain under his new Conservative Government:

Let’s be frank about it, most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country, go to the industrial towns, go to the farms, and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime — nor indeed ever in the history of this country. What is worrying some of us is ‘Is it too good to be true?’ or perhaps I should say ‘Is it too good to last?’

Macmillan’s assessment did indeed reflect the real improvement in the general standard of living. By 1956, the last official remnants of the years of austerity following World War II were finally fading. Rationing had ended, National Service was on the way out, and with unemployment figures at markedly low levels a new sense of consumer confidence translated into increased spending. And yet as Never Had It So Good presents it, Macmillan’s statement reflected the very real concerns that many people had about the changes taking place in British society in the late 1950s, in a world where many of the old political, social, and economic standards no longer seemed to apply.

For the political highlights, Sandbrook’s chapter on the events of Suez crisis is fascinating and tightly written, illustrating Anthony Eden’s sudden and steep decline from one of the more capable and experienced British politicians of his time to an ‘enraged elephant’ utterly obsessed with engineering Nasser’s downfall. Sandbrook also provides concise assessments of the 1962 Cabinet reshuffle known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ and the various upheavals within the long-suffering Labour Party. Never Had It So Good‘s chapters on social history cover the big developments very well, examining broad trends in drama and art and literature, the growth of teenage culture — and, of course, the rise of the Beatles and other popular music groups that profited from the new affluence. Throughout the book, though, Sandbrook constantly emphasises that the trend-setting youngsters flocking to London and Liverpool around this time were by no means the majority of the population. If anything, he attempts to push the pendulum in the other direction, suggesting that most people were far likely to go home and listen to the cozy dramas of The Archers than to any of the more esoteric productions aired by the Third Programme. Though it’s an admirable attempt at balancing out the narrative, Sandbrook seems so determined to protect his silent majority that he seems to dismiss off-hand many of the real changes that were affecting the United Kingdom at the time. The shifts in public attitudes on immigration, women’s rights, abortion and divorce, and other social issues would receive greater prominence in 1960s, but the groundwork for their changes was laid in the Macmillan years.

Never Had It So Good concludes with the various scandals that plagued the end of Harold Macmillan’s time in office, followed soon after by his resignation due to ill health and the Conservative Party’s leadership fracas from which Lord Home (shortly to renounce his hereditary peerage and become Sir Alec Douglas-Home) emerged as Prime Minister. Yet Sandbrook does not end on the sour note of the resignation — he is already looking ahead to 1964, with the Beatles at the top of the charts and the new television programme Doctor Who sending thousands of children racing to hide behind the sofa as the terrifying Daleks advanced across the screen. After almost 13 years of Tory rule, a country whose people had never had it so good were looking for the new, the fresh, and the exciting, and were preparing to vote in (by a very narrow margin) a Government whose leader promised all of those things and more, with a buoyant optimism that he hoped would be contagious. Never Had It So Good does not invite the reader to linger on the Macmillan years. Everyone, including Sandbrook, seems to be on the way to somewhere else — in this case, on to the next book.

White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties by Dominic Sandbrook

White Heat takes its title from a quotation from the Leader of the Opposition Harold Wilson, given during a speech at the 1963 Labour Party Conference. Wilson urged his fellow party members to equate Labour’s socialism with the seemingly boundless capacity of scientific progress, ready to revolutionise how Britain saw itself at home and abroad:

The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry….In the Cabinet room and the boardroom alike, those charged with the control of our affairs must be ready to think and to speak in the language of our scientific age.

Wilson’s words reflected the themes of science, progress, and revolution that were a constant background of the early 1960s. The pressure to be ‘new’ and ‘modern’ produced visible changes, as glass-and-concrete tower blocks replaced Victorian terraced housing and designers embraced synthetic materials and sleekly futuristic lines in fashion and furniture. The Labour Government, despite the slim majority with which it entered power in 1964, intended to push Britain forward to meet the challenges of the Space Age, and the public seemed quite happy to go along — for a time, at least.

Sandbrook writes a crisp political history of the 1960s, drawing heavily on published diaries and memoirs of politicians and other celebrities for good gossip and anecdotes. But when it comes to social history, Sandbrook warns readers against taking a romantic view of the period. He is of the opinion that most of the fashionable movements and trendy ideas of the 1960s lacked real permanence: the protesting students go home at the end of term, the daringly avant-garde play closes within a month, the popular new boutique shuts its doors when the losses from shoplifting and poor business management become too great. To remain popular in the music world, he suggests, even the Beatles had to move away from their cheerful clean-cut image and experiment with mysticism and drugs. Meanwhile, many people distrusted the changes taking place, fearing that immigration and the always-scare-quoted ‘permissive society’ were eroding traditional values and doing irreparable damage to the British way of life. Sandbrook chips away at the myths of a carefree Swinging Britain, focusing more on the fracture points (such as Northern Ireland and growing labour unrest) that would lead to the greater trouble and strife of the 1970s.

Though the concluding chapter of Never Had It So Good looks ahead with interest to the Wilson years, White Heat closes with a wistful look at the popularity of the World War II sitcom Dad’s Army, a symbol of the growing cult of nostalgia that Sandbrook claims is the real legacy of the 1960s. Poets like Philip Larkin and John Betjeman wrote paens to a simpler Britain of sleepy country churches and soot-covered northern towns, and the Kinks and the Beatles popularised openly nostalgic songs like ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ and ‘Penny Lane’. Even miniskirts, one of the most iconic symbols of the Swinging Sixties, warred with ankle-length Victorian-inspired dresses in fashionable circles towards the end of the decade. Sandbrook’s melancholy message is really that Britain in the 1960s was not all that keen on change; at least, not at the speed with which it seemed to be happening. And in spite of the real advancements that was made during the decade in the women’s movement and in other broader campaigns for social progress, White Heat suggests that the decade burned itself out long before it actually came to an end.


The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century by John Brewer

10 February 2009

In addition to this rather glowing review, I ought to mention that even though I first came across this book as a library book, I enjoyed it enough to purchase my own copy for my shelves. That’s a rare enough occurrence for me in this day and age to be worth mentioning as a preface to the review itself.

The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century by John Brewer

At the start of the eighteenth century, it was increasingly plain to a number of English painters, writers, composers, actors, and other producers of arts and literature that their livelihoods were in a precarious state. The 1600s had been a time of great social and political upheavals in which the traditional support structures of the fine arts had been severely weakened or even destroyed. The Civil War had swept away the vast art collections and stately court masques of Charles I and Henrietta Maria; the stage plays and public performances suppressed under Cromwell had revived during the Restoration but were struggling to establish ‘respectability’ in a public mind that equated theatres with vice and debauchery; and artists, writers, and composers found that the old aristrocratic patrons were not as generous with their commissions as they had been even a half-century before. At the same time, too, philosophers and writers were pondering weighty aesthetic questions, attempting to define concepts such as ‘beauty’ and ‘good taste’ and to set generally accepted standards for the kind of art and literature that ought to be supported. But now that the court and aristocracy had lost much of their cultural pull in England, who or what would be the new arbiters of artistic quality and literary merit? How, in fact, would this new culture be defined?

John Brewer’s The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century provides a sweeping overview of the literary, artistic, and societal development of English culture in the ‘long eighteenth century’, roughly spanning the ascension of King William III and Queen Mary II to the throne vacated by Charles II and ending shortly before Victoria’s coronation. Brewer examines how the growth of trade and commercial enterprises and the expansion of literacy and education brought culture down from its aristocratic heights and into the coffee houses, the printers’ cooperatives, the debating societies, the amateur literary and musical groups, and any number of other associations that sprang up to meet a growing public demand for access to culture and refinement. Separate sections describe the clever and witty but often vicious publishing coteries of Samuel Johnson and Joseph Addison, the art world that produced both William Hogarth’s wicked satirical prints and Joshua Reynolds’ grand portraits, the musical contributions of George F. Handel and Joseph Haydn (two German expatriates who relished the freedom and lucrative contracts that London provided), and the theatre circles dominated by the playwright and actor David Garrick. And whether the audience was a wealthy gentleman who subscribed to a concert series or a prostitute who solicited her clients in the theatre district and pleasure gardens, Brewer looks into how the providers of art and literature had to keep up with the public demand — even if it meant re-evaluating their opinions on what the public ought to be demanding.

Brewer’s greatest skill is in showing the intricate connections and networks that encouraged the growth of commerce and the arts, especially the influence of the publishing trade. He explores how the tensions between ‘polite’ society and popular entertainment spurred ongoing debate about the meaning of culture, and fostered no small amount of animosity between wealthy amateurs (or ‘dilettantes’) and the less-well-off professionals who sought to scrape together a living from their work and fretted over the social stigma of being ‘in trade’. In addition, Brewer expands his purview beyond London and looks into the contributions of the literati and artistic circles that attracted followers in smaller cities like Manchester and Birmingham, as well as towns and villages scattered across the country. To further widen his perspective, he also considers the role played by women as both patrons and artists in their own right, demonstrating that both sexes could influence the standards of the culture they sought to appreciate.

To get the most out of this masterful book, it helps to have a very basic familiarity with a few of the most well-known artistic and literary figures of the time; name recognition alone will suffice, for the most part. And even though Brewer admits from the outset that he could not cover every facet of English culture in the 1700s — he mentions architecture and dance as two areas he might be accused of neglecting — there is more than enough material in The Pleasures of the Imagination to whet the appetite and encourage further exploration of particular fields of interest. As a comprehensive work of social and cultural history, The Pleasures of the Imagination sets a very high bar and clears it almost effortlessly, all the more so for its broad and ambitious scope.


Freedom’s Frontier: Censorship in Modern Britain by Donald Thomas

27 May 2008

I’m finding it a bit rough going after a holiday weekend, but I think this review will suffice.

Freedom’s Frontier: Censorship in Modern Britain by Donald Thomas

Nearly 40 years ago, a young scholar named Donald Thomas wrote a book called A Long Time Burning: A History of Literary Censorship in England. Based on Thomas’s PhD work, the book was a sweeping overview of four centuries of prosecutions for the publication of seditious, obscene, or blasphemous literature in England, spanning the late 1400s through the 1890s. Yet during the publication process of his own book, Thomas learned that he and his publishers might very well face charges under the Obscene Publications Act for reprinting some of the troublesome passages that had come up before the magistrates in the past. Even cited in their historical context and treated as scholarly material, some works were still not considered fit for public eyes. Although Thomas and Routledge Press were never brought to court for A Long Time Burning (a fact which actually surprised a few of the book’s reviewers), the possibility of a book on censorship itself being censored prompted Thomas to consider the history of censorship in a far more recent time.

As the title indicates, Freedom’s Frontier looks at the history of censorship in twentieth-century (and early twenty-first century) Britain. Thomas focuses primarily on the censorship of printed texts, from the attempts to ban Oscar Wilde’s various writings, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and James Joyce’s Ulysses, to the classic case study of Regina v. Penguin Books (the 1960 Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial) to the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses. Outside of the literary scene, Thomas occasionally broadens his scope to take in other kinds of censorship. He includes accounts of government-ordered prosecutions in the interests of national security, such as the banning of the Communist Daily Worker during World War II and various attempts to suppress the publication of news stories and political memoirs under the tenets of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) and the Official Secrets Act. He also looks at theatre censorship by the Lord Chamberlain’s office, the public outcry against the violence and sadism of American ‘pulp mags’ and horror comics, the creation of the British Board of Film Censors (later the British Board of Film Classification), and recent attempts to pass legislation against speech or writings that promote racial or religious hatred. Few details escape Thomas’s notice, particularly those that have a touch of humour or absurdity to them, and the wide variety of materials he covers provides a catalogue of the challenges to freedom of speech and expressions.

The research in Freedom’s Frontier is unquestionably good, solid and thorough and designed to pique the reader’s interest. One point of concern in the book’s organisation is that it starts to run into a few difficulties in the second half. Thomas begins Freedom’s Frontier by looking at the history in semi-chronological stages, breaking down his overviews into recognisable dividing lines — pre-World War I, World War I, the interwar period, the run-up to World War II. After World War II, though, he mostly shifts his approach into separate sections by genre (literature, government/defence, and so on), and then runs with the section almost up to the present day. The genre approach has its merits, particularly when there is a lot of material to cover, but after the smooth single narrative of the chronological sections it feels very jarring to have to break off and jump back half a century with each succeeding chapter in order to tackle the next genre.

The new censorship challenges of this century have much to do with the power of technology — such as the projects by China and other countries to restrict their citizens’ ability to view specific Internet sites — but the old arguments about the potential limits of the free expression of ideas have not greatly changed. The main targets of official censorship may have changed over the past century, but in many ways governments are still relying on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tactics used to implement it, rewriting old laws to tackle new foes. Freedom’s Frontier, more often than not, is the story of how modern legal battles over censorship have forced society to confront attitudes and values, matters of personal taste and individual judgment, that it had not thought to question. It is a story worth telling, and worth reading.


Copenhagen by Michael Frayn and The Copenhagen Papers: An Intrigue by Michael Frayn and David Burke

9 December 2007

Continuing the previous post’s theme of a play by Michael Frayn, here are two books connected to another Frayn play with a similarly historical bent.

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn (playscript)

The premise of Copenhagen is based on a historical event: in 1941, German physicist Werner Heisenberg travelled to Copenhagen — which at the time was under Nazi occupation — to meet with Danish physicist Niels Bohr. It is recorded that Heisenberg met with Bohr and Bohr’s wife Margrethe, and Bohr and Heisenberg later went out for a walk so they could speak without being overheard by the Gestapo. But when Bohr returned from the walk he was absolutely furious about something, and Heisenberg left shortly afterwards. Though Bohr and Heisenberg had been close friends for many years before that meeting, they barely spoke to each other again after that. The substance of the Bohr-Heisenberg conversation has never been fully explained. Some historians say that Heisenberg was attempting to recruit Bohr to help with the Nazi nuclear energy project (on which Heisenberg was working at the time) in exchange for academic reinstatement and advancement…even though Bohr was half-Jewish. The other, more sympathetic theory is that Heisenberg was trying to give Bohr information about the Nazi nuclear project in the hope that Bohr would be able to pass that information along to the Allies — essentially, that Heisenberg was trying to derail the Nazi attempt to build atomic weapons.

Frayn’s play takes both of these theories and weaves them together, never quite promoting one or the other but (intriguingly) connecting both theories to the principles of physics that both Bohr and Heisenberg were famous for creating: Bohr’s complementarity principle and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. It’s an amazingly complex and multilayered play that only has three characters, Bohr and his wife and Heisenberg, and yet seems to contain many more voices than just those of two men and one woman.

The Copenhagen Papers: An Intrigue by Michael Frayn and David Burke

The Copenhagen Papers was jointly written by Michael Frayn and by David Burke; the latter played Niels Bohr in the original London run of the play. The subject of the book is an elaborate practical joke that Burke played on Frayn during the run of the play, and the joke is complicated enough to require a short historical background even before I can summarise it. The history hinges on the fact that at the end of World War II, Werner Heisenberg and the other scientists who had been working on the Nazi nuclear energy programme were taken to England and interned at an out-of-the-way requisitioned house called Farm Hall, where they were closely watched and interviewed by British intelligence.

David Burke decided that he wanted to play a joke on Frayn, some kind of joke related to the play that Frayn had written. Burke began by inventing a woman named Celia Rhys-Evans, who had apparently lived in Farm Hall at some point during the 1960s and had discovered a number of documents hidden under the floorboards of the house. These documents were written in cryptic, barely legible German, which nevertheless seemed to hint that the captured scientists had been communicating with each other without the knowledge of their British captors. Burke enlisted the help of some friends to fake 50-year-old German documents, and then (as Celia Rhys-Evans) he sent a number of the faked papers to Frayn, along with a letter that asked if these old papers would be useful to him if he ever wanted to write another play.

Not only did Frayn believe that the documents were genuine, but he also began a correspondence with Mrs Rhys-Evans to see if there were any other documents she might have on hand that dealt with the captured scientists. And thus Frayn and Burke set out on a strange and occasionally journey where one forgery followed another and another. Neither was willing to let go of his side of the story, but as the correspondence continued they both became so immersed in the fiction that the whole thing nearly ended in an exhausted stalemate. In the end, Frayn actually had to be told that the whole thing was a hoax.

The Copenhagen Papers is an account of the whole joke from inception to discovery — the truth was revealed by a sympathetic friend who thought that the joke had gone too far. The book is meant to be an exploration of some of the themes touched on in Copenhagen the play: the uncertainty of history and historical evidence, the ambiguous nature of language, the questions that are raised every time we learn something new about the past and how it may have shaped the future…or in this case, the present. Frayn and Burke clearly seem to have come to an understanding over this incident, enough to write a book about it and treat it fairly dispassionately. And even if my historian side almost can’t help but writhe a little to read about a deliberate forging of historical documents for a joke, The Copenhagen Papers is an intriguing exploration of what it means to be present at the creation of ‘history’.


Democracy by Michael Frayn

6 December 2007

This particular review is going to be more of a review of the play than of the playscript itself, but since I don’t normally buy playscripts, the fact that I’ve bought the latter is a sign of how much I would encourage anyone to see the former. (I’ve seen the play three times, twice in London and once in a touring company.) It’s one of those shows that I’ve a feeling I’ll try to see no matter when and where it’s being performed.

Democracy by Michael Frayn

Democracy is historical fiction…or rather, fictionalised history. It’s the story of G√ľnter Guillaume, the East German spy who infiltrated the office of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Guillaume and his wife Christel, both officers of the Stasi, ‘escaped’ from East Germany in the early 1950s and spent several years building a cover for themselves as members of the SPD, the left-of-centre social democratic party in West Germany. Willy Brandt, formerly the mayor of West Berlin, became the first socialist Chancellor of Germany (since the 1930s) in October 1969. And by a stroke of good fortune (for the Stasi, at least), Guillaume gained a position in Brandt’s office shortly afterwards — and he eventually became Brandt’s personal assistant, with the kind of access to documents that would make any intelligence officer dizzy with delight. Democracy is mainly Guillaume’s story, but in a way is equally Brandt’s story, because the fortunes of the two men were so closely linked that the ups and downs of one seemed to spill over into the other.

Frayn’s play is fast-paced, a whirlwind of political life, showing how Guillaume has to bounce back and forth between his workday life in Brandt’s office and his clandestine meetings with his Stasi contact. Brandt’s private life is equally important to the play: Frayn’s depiction of Brandt’s frequent extramarital affairs with attractive journalists and party workers, his love of alcohol and bad jokes, and his ‘feverish colds’ (the accepted euphemism for his periodic cycles of depression) all combine to create an image of a deeply flawed but driven, almost hunted, political leader. The most tragic aspect of the whole story is the fact that Guillaume’s arrest and Brandt’s subsequent resignation was almost the last thing that the Stasi wanted. Brandt’s Ostpolitik had given East Germany a new standing in the international community, and Guillaume’s arrest was the equivalent of an own goal for East Germany. Democracy highlights this fact, and carries it through to the end of the play — the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reuniting of Germany, and the final words from the play’s two protagonists:

BRANDT: We’re healed and whole. For a little while, at any rate. And for a little while everyone’s glad.
GUILLAUME: And wherever he goes, my shadow goes with him. Together still.

And in the stage production I saw, the lighting shifts to throw both men into shadow. A taller shadow for Brandt and a smaller one for Guillaume…but it is impossible to tell which one overlaps the other. It’s a fine and thought-provoking play, not least because it puts a fascinatingly personal dimension on the Cold War politics of East and West Germany.


Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum

29 October 2007

I originally picked up a copy of this book as a gift for a friend, and ended up getting one for myself as well — mostly to prevent myself from reading the gift copy. Is ‘one owner/reader from new’ still acceptable as a gift book? I’m never really sure.

Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum

The English writer Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975) is probably best known for Jeeves, the inimitable gentleman’s gentleman, and his rather brainless but well-intentioned master Bertie Wooster. But the team of Jeeves and Wooster was only one facet of Wodehouse’s immense literary canon. He also wrote a series of stories centred around the antics of the denizens of Blandings Castle (many of which focus on the Empress of Blandings, a corpulent prize-winning pig), another group of stories about a dashing young City gentleman named Psmith (the ‘p’ is silent, as in ‘pneumonia’ and ‘ptarmigan’), as well as many other separate novels, short stories, and song lyrics — all of which add up to an immense volume of work for any one writer.

Wodehouse had a gift for devising elaborate farcical plots that often seem so complex as to be insoluble, and his prose is pretty much unforgettable to anyone who has dipped into even one or two of his works. And yet it’s incredible to think that Wodehouse never went to university — indeed, he spent the first few years of his working life writing stories late into the night and going to a dull, uninspiring job at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank by day. In person, he appears to have been singularly uninteresting, shy and asocial, and was almost incapable of taking any situation sufficiently seriously…or at least, he preferred to make light of difficulties and display a stereotypical sort of ‘stiff-upper lip’ personality to the outside world. This last trait eventually caused no end of trouble for him in an episode that is not often remembered today. Wodehouse and his wife were stranded in occupied France during World War II, and while he was a prisoner in an enemy alien internment camp he was invited to make a series of radio broadcasts from Berlin about his life as an internee. Wodehouse’s attitude on the air was genial, almost jocular, and some of his innocent remarks led some members of the press and public to denounce him as a Nazi collaborator and propagandist along the lines of Lord Haw-Haw. After the war’s end, Wodehouse discovered that he was in deep disgrace — and that his public image had been severely damaged by his association with the Nazi propaganda machine.

That backstory aside, Robert McCrum’s biography of Wodehouse is superbly done, a detailed and well-crafted account of a literary life. If I had one reservation to make about the writing style, I would draw attention to the fact that McCrum seems to want to exonerate his subject at the expense of good prose-writing. He over-emphasises Wodehouse’s relative ignorance of international politics — or if not over-emphasises it, then at least is less than subtle in his description of it. Sentences like ‘This was the conversation that would lead inexorably to his disgrace’ feel a bit forced at times. (My instinctive reaction to a sentence like that is, ‘Yes, thank you, Story, now may we continue from where you left off?’) But that is to nitpick at what is otherwise a lovely and well-researched literary biography, definitely recommended to fans of the Wodehouse canon.


The Lord Chamberlain Regrets….:A History of British Theatre Censorship by Dominic Shellard, Steve Nicholson and Miriam Handley

6 October 2007

I’ve been pulling together some research notes on various aspects of political censorship in relation to the publication of Richard Crossman’s diaries, and since I’m in a censorship sort of mood, here’s a book all about the power of blue pencils.

The Lord Chamberlain Regrets….:A History of British Theatre Censorship by Dominic Shellard, Steve Nicholson and Miriam Handley

Censorship is a subject that’s guaranteed to stir up passions, and theatre censorship touches a raw nerve at times. When politicians try to determine what the general public should and should not be allowed to see, one might say that the stage is set for a complicated drama — or quite possibly, a farce. From the early nineteenth century until Theatres Act of 1968, the Lord Chamberlain had the power to licence playscripts for performance in the major London theatres and in other theatres across Britain. Any playwright who was serious about having his or her work performed at a ‘quality’ theatre had to submit the play to the Lord Chamberlain’s blue pencil. Numerous British playwrights found that their works were deemed unsuitable for performance unless they made specific changes to the text and/or content, removing reference to major religious figures or important living persons (particularly the royal family), toning down language or violence on stage, or even altering the nature of the relationship between characters (if homosexuality, for example, seemed to be an issue). W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame took pot-shots at the Lord Chamberlain’s power of licencing in one or two of his plays, and the very notion of having a theatre censor prompted criticism and scorn — either for there being too much or too little censorship of performances on stage. But the power (or the perceived power) of the Lord Chamberlain’s office often worked as a self-censoring device, where anxious playwrights would submit their ideas for consideration and approval even before sitting down to write a script.

The complicated relationship between the Lord Chamberlain’s office and the theatre world shaped the nature of British drama for over a century. The authors of The Lord Chamberlain Regrets… have gone back to the archives, digging through the records of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office to find the actual reports that were written about plays and the comments that were made about questionable content in such key dramas as George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (the ‘profession’ in question was fairly obvious to the audience), Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (one audience member who wrote to the Lord Chamberlain to complain about the play described how it had given him nothing but two hours of ‘angry boredom’), and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (described as being like looking into ‘the anteroom of hell’). Yet some entries show the difficulty of dealing with other kinds of potentially controversial subject matter. Such was the case of J.W. Brannigan’s The Life of Christ, with which the censors could find no fault other than the fact that ‘Our Lord must not be impersonated on the stage’…and thus was not accepted for licence.

The book is a very good reference work for those interested in the history of censorship and the individual circumstances surrounding the censorship of certain plays and performances. I think that my lack of familiarity with theatre history was what kept me from enjoying the book more. Then again, not knowing anything about the plays themselves does help me to keep a more open mind about why certain plays received such a harsh treatment at the Lord Chamberlain’s hands. Oscar Wilde (who as might be expected features fairly prominently in this history) once quipped that there was no such thing as a moral or an immoral book; only a well-written or a badly-written book. I’m not so sure that the same can be entirely said of drama, but The Lord Chamberlain Regrets… offers the opportunity to examine just how concerns over morality affected the writing and performance of plays in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half (and a little more) of the twentieth.