Like a duck to vodka

24SEVEN Playwright Michael Frayn has been moonlighting as a TV presenter. His secret? Turn up shaved and sober. James Rampton speaks to him
Click to follow
The TV schedules these days read like the noticeboard at the job centre. Programmes are presented by nuns, steeplejacks, taxi-drivers, academics, politicians, rugby players and footballers. Many of them tempt you to utter the old cliche: "Don't give up the day-job". (Remember the queasy experience of watching Jeffrey Archer and Paul Boateng co-host a newsy BBC2 teatime talkshow?) Skills in one discipline do not necessarily translate into ease in front of the camera.

Just occasionally, though, you happen on a moonlighter who is a TV natural. Michael Frayn is one such. The playwright/screenwriter/novelist brings an effortless authority - not to mention an artist's eye - to the task of tour-guiding us around Budapest in "Written on Water", this week's Omnibus. And it's all his own work - he doesn't cut away to endless talking- head experts. To borrow a simile from his own commentary, he takes to it like a duck to vodka.

Talking during a break in the filming of his new screenplay, Remember Me?, he laughs long and hard when asked what his strengths are as a television frontman. "I always say the only strength I've got is I turn up shaved and sober to do my piece to camera in the morning," he avers. "I wouldn't think anybody watching television has the faintest idea who I am. They just think, 'at least he's shaved and sober and getting the words in the right order'."

In his seventh filmic collaboration with the playwright, Dennis Marks, himself moonlighting as director of this Omnibus from his day-job as General Director of English National Opera, offers a rather less modest assessment of Frayn's talents. "Michael is almost unique in writing for pictures in a way that is genuinely literate," he enthuses. "Peter Lennon, television critic of the Sunday Times, once used the phrase about our first film that 'there was a natural and happy marriage between word and picture'. Michael's a writer/presenter. The quality of the writing lives within the pictures."

In one striking sequence during "Written on Water", Frayn describes the the city's cramped Jewish quarter as "a world of inner courts that opened off each other like a chain of obsessive dreams" to the accompaniment of a long tracking shot through the courts.

The other asset at Frayn's disposal is his sense of self-effacement. "Unlike some presenters," opines Paul Neuburg, producer of the film, "Michael is entirely at the service of the subject rather than busy with himself. You don't have to bother about his personality because he just gets on with what he's dealing with. He subordinates himself to the subject, so the subject becomes interesting as opposed to him. This makes him all the more appealing, but, of course, he's not doing it for that reason."

Marks concurs. "He's not a star turn. There are one or two others who do this sort of film and it's all about them. This film is not about Michael, it's about the world he sees. What he does is let the subject pass through him rather than push himself in front of the subject. It's like the subject being refracted through coloured glass."

The director terms the films he's made over 23 years working with Frayn as "cultural-historical travelogues, or travelogues with attitude. You come at them out of the left-field. One of our first films was called 'Imagine a City Called Berlin'. They are all about the way in which cities express the human imagination, and you have to get behind the surface of them. That was almost impossible in Prague because the surface is so ravishingly beautiful.

"Everything in Budapest is a chronicle of disappointment," he continues, in full flow. "The standard attitude of the Hungarian is the shrug. There's this sense of a city with a history of great defeats. Michael's plays - think of Noises Off or Clouds - are about that, too: the vanity of human aspirations. There are San Andreas faults in history, lines down which history cracks. Sarejevo, Budapest, Prague - all of those places are now coming back into the news because there's a crack in the middle of Europe."

Frayn's way of portraying this in the film is as a conflict between water and stone. "All over the city," he reflects, "the water goes on emerging from the stonework - triumphantly, slyly, as ever renewed as hope, as endless as the flux of time that undermines everything we try to build against it."

Neuburg, who left Hungary after the 1956 Russian invasion, asserts that "this is a very good symbol for the city's struggle against transience. Budapest has been invaded 31 times, and it's come back time and again."

This sort of artistic, intellectual programme is never going to grab Noel's House Party-sized ratings, but Frayn still thinks that "having one person telling you something makes a nice contrast, because most of television seems impersonal, made by large teams working as collectives. Some of the best TV I ever saw was AJP Taylor simply lecturing at Oxford. Another series I tremendously enjoyed was Michael Woods' In Search of Troy. To see him bounding enthusiastically around the Middle East was a very attractive sight."

So are we seeing a recrudescence of the authored documentary? Marks reckons so. "The television essay has come back with people like Simon Schama and his Landscape and Memory. I also have high hopes for Andrew Graham- Dixon's History of British Art [which starts on Sunday]. Michael falls into the category of literate, informed essays which were once made by James Cameron and John Betjeman. They came out of the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s and then died for a while. But they're coming back now because as JK Galbraith said about his own series, 'there are occasions where one word is worth a thousand pictures'."

Omnibus: 'Written on Water', Mon 10.40pm BBC1