Last Night's TV: Lives that were stranger than fiction

In Their Own Words: British Novelists / BBC4, Who Do You Think You Are? / BBC1

BBC Radio Scotland invited me on to their breakfast show the other day. They wanted me, as the author of a book about television in the good old 1970s, when there were only three channels, to talk about the modern-day multiplicity of choice and whether it yields better telly. I noted how dispiritingly often one scrolls through the hundreds of channels and ends up watching a 35-year-old episode of Porridge.



It was the day Angus went digital, that's what prompted the discussion. By Angus, I mean the Scottish county, not an old bloke in a tam-o'-shanter, although he's probably gone digital too by now. And actually I went and undermined my own argument by adding that people too often dismiss television's entire output these days as rubbish, whereas in fact there are still some gems to be found if you look hard enough. To those listening to Good Morning Scotland, or "Are Yous Still in Yer Beeds, Yous Layaboots?", as I really think it should be called, I cited BBC4 as an example of how multi-channel TV can be a good thing, there being more quality programming there, as a general rule, than there is on BBC1 and 2.



In Their Own Words: British Novelists was a fine example; the first documentary in a three-part series that might once have found its way on to BBC2 but, with that channel increasingly the place for doughy stuff such as The Great British Bake-Off, now has a natural home on BBC4.



The opening programme concentrated on novelists between the wars and was terrific stuff, not very much more than old Broadcasting House archive material interspersed with a few earnest talking heads, but what archive material it was, from G K Chesterton showing what a frightful old racist and anti-Semite he was, "daring to dream" in the 1930s that "the English might even colonise England", to the young Elizabeth Jane Howard interviewing Evelyn Waugh on a 1960s edition of Monitor.



After giving John Freeman such a hard time on an earlier Face to Face, which we also saw, Waugh was rather more co-operative with Howard, not least because he clearly fancied her, the old goat, and apparently kept asking between takes when she was going to take her clothes off, which I don't suppose happens much to Mark Lawson.



Anyway, he asserted dyspeptically that the English-language novel between the wars had been adversely influenced by the novels of "a poor dotty Irishman" called James Joyce, whose descent into mental illness you could see happening sentence by sentence in Ulysses, and whose Finnegans Wake was nothing more than "gibberish". Some of us wouldn't disagree. Moreover, even in his objectionable interview with Freeman, Waugh offered one useful tip on how to deal with brickbats and bouquets. "If someone praises me, I think, 'What an arse', and if they abuse me I think, 'What an arse'," he said, a characteristically misanthropic version of Laurence Olivier's famous advice that if you don't take the good reviews to heart, the bad ones won't hurt.



My wife, a fledgling novelist herself, watched all this with great interest. It's fascinating to learn how other writers operate, and here were some of the 20th century's finest, among them the wonderful P G Wodehouse, who revealed that he made about 400 pages of notes before embarking on a novel and always knew precisely how the plot was going to unfold. He seemed faintly in awe of people who made it up as they went along.



The great man offered such insights into his craft with the ever-present pipe clenched between his teeth, as did T H White, the author of The Sword in the Stone, who was asked by a youthful Robert Robinson whether he enjoyed being wealthy. White promptly denied that he was, whereupon Robinson looked around the garden of the Channel Islands house and remarked impertinently, memorably: "You've got a whacking big swimming pool and a temple to Hadrian." The swimming pool was for swimming in, White replied evenly, as though it were a basic human right. And he'd had the temple built because he considered Hadrian to have been a jolly fine fellow. Those were the days; indeed, the programme was as fascinating for the glimpse it afforded of vanished conventions as for what the novelists said. Practically every interview was conducted through a fug of tobacco smoke, and every writer spoke in cut-glass BBC English. There must have been novelists with regional accents between the wars, but if there were, they apparently weren't given BBC air time. Another who was, was E M Forster, who observed that he couldn't be considered a great novelist because his characters slotted into only three categories: "The person I think I am, people who irritate me, and people I'd like to be." Tolstoy, he added, was truly great because he did not operate with any such constraints.



I liked Forster's humility so much that I resolved to read A Passage to India again, and further encouragement was offered by Who Do You Think You Are?, in which the posh actor Rupert Penry-Jones looked into, and duly found substance in, the family rumour that there was some Indian blood in his lineage. This series often promises rather more than it delivers, but this was an interesting edition, and by telling us what some relatives have long suspected, that there might have been "a touch of the tarbrush" somewhere down the line, Penry-Jones unwittingly provided another evocation of an England untouched by political correctness, an England that mercifully lives on mainly in the archives.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on