Both accusation and defence ran through Mary Dickinson's film for Arena, 'Only the names have been changed' (BBC 2). Melvyn Bragg insisted that those who linked his unflattering portrait of a journalist in Crystal Rooms with the writer Lynn Barber were merely responding to the 'resonance' of the character. He should have taken the Fifth (as several other writers did) because this couldn't help sound a little backed into the corner. It may have been 'mischievous' of journalists to pursue the connection but then shortly before the appearance of that section of Crystal Rooms Barber had published a particularly acidic profile of Bragg, a piece of circumstantial evidence not mentioned here. It might have been more pertinent for the film's purposes to ask the real Melvyn Bragg what he had felt like when he appeared as a character in a Lynn Barber column.
But then the film seemed muddled throughout as to the best way to proceed. It began with William Amos, a writer who has compiled a dictionary of real-life models for fictional characters. As though aware that this was a something of a train-spotter's approach to literature, Dickinson decided to cast a veil of mystery over him with a thriller soundtrack and an elaborate story about an identity parade.
'Feel free to disbelieve what I am now about to tell you', he said, 'I wouldn't believe it myself if it hadn't happened to me.' This was rather tantalising but unfortunately the film seemed to lose interest in the notion halfway through, returning occasionally for shots of a photo-fit picture being assembled but never finally delivering a punch-line.
You had a glimmer of what they were up to when Nicholas Frazer observed that he would probably have recognised his wife in a Philip Roth novel, even if he hadn't known about her affair with the writer, given that Roth had accurately described her broken tooth and a birth-mark on the back of her leg, but the conceit confused more than it illuminated. Some of the other touches seemed a little clumsy too; attempts to conceal the fact that this was essentially a cuttings job (they even read an old review out at one point) rather than images essential to the argument.
There were good things here - Lord Longford confessing that at times he did feel a little like the ghastly Widmerpool, Penelope Mortimer's fresh common-sense when asked whether she had drawn on her own marriage for The Pumpkin Eater ('Of course - I couldn't draw on anyone else's') - but you were left at the end with the sense of a plain programme wearing heavy make-up.Reuse content