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.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there