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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.