TELEVISION / Fable talk: Thomas Sutcliffe on Omnibus on Angela Carter

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
OMNIBUS' (BBC 2) profile of Angela Carter was effectively converted into a late obituary by her premature death earlier this year. It was all the more to its credit, then, that in its broadcast form it preserved some irreverent questions about her work - not 'was it any good?' so much as 'was it bearable?' Literary programmes (indeed arts programmes as a whole) often take it for granted that the object of their attentions has an uncontested virtue - conveying by implication the strong message that only philistines would demur.

So it was an extra strength of Lorna Sage's defence of the writer that she actually gave voice to the fact that some people wouldn't like the writing. She suggested that it was due to some insufficiency in the readers (Carter's refusal to segregate fantasy in some fairy-tale ghetto frightened them apparently, the wimps) but that's fair enough in literary dispute and the simple acknowledgement that it wasn't an open and shut case was refreshing enough.

The producer had obviously put the question a little more directly, one which could only be inferred from Carter's flaring response - 'I'm an arty person. OK, I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose. So what?' This was said with a little giggle but came out with just a little too much pressure to be passed off as relaxed self-deprecation. In fact it fitted the youthful pictures of her rather better than the other more equable extracts from her interview. In almost all the snapshots she had a tilt to the head which was a little essay on the ambiguity of the word 'teasing' - its compound of coquetry and aggression.

With the biography, that siren lure for the makers of literary documentaries, the right decisions had been made too. Carter delivered her own early life as a fable itself, using the local Odeon (a grand Art Deco building in Tooting) as a symbol of her adult preoccupations, the tension between an ordered exterior and the fantastic gimcrack liberty of the interior. She wasn't entirely dependable in her memories - recalling her upbringing as bohemian then making comic mileage out of her mother's strict insistence that she go to work in black stockings, long black skirt and no make-up - dress that had been the epitome of respectability in the 1920s but which had become a badge of beatnik wildness by Carter's time. The inconsistency didn't matter because it was consistent with her passion for self-constructed images. It was, paradoxically, what you rarely get in literary profiles, an author at work.