The Weekend's TV: A brief spell in the chamber of secrets
JK Rowling: A Year In The Life, ITV1; The Shadow In The North, BBC1
Monday 31 December 2007
There were times last year when the frenzy surrounding J K Rowling reached such a pitch that you wouldn't have been very surprised to find that Her Majesty had been bumped from the traditional Christmas afternoon slot, so that the creator of Harry Potter could address the nation instead. In the event, the Queen managed to hold on to her annual gig and J K had to make do with J K Rowling: a Year in the Life, a behind- the-scenes documentary with the distinct air of a regal audience. This isn't anything to do with how Rowling behaved, incidentally. She came across rather well in James Runcie's film, with an edge of that nervousness that can easily look steely and dismissive, but also serious and thoughtful and open about her feelings. It's just that the writing of the Harry Potter series has been attended by such a circus of adulation and red-carpet hysteria that you can't help but bracket her with the Head of State. It probably helps that she's got nearly as much money, and that whenever she's in a room she tends to be the one everyone is deferring to. I don't know whether they touch up the paint before she arrives and fit a fresh toilet seat, but it wouldn't be a huge surprise if they had that in common too.
Runcie began his film by explaining that he wanted "to find out the secret of J K Rowling's success". Well, join the queue, mate, along with every other writer and literary dreamer. The secret, it seems, is to start writing and keep at it, even when you can't be sure that anyone gives a damn about what you're writing. Runcie then subjected her to a kind of personalised Mastermind quiz, the camera closed in as he rattled through questions at Magnus Magnusson pace. Specialist subject: the values of J K Rowling, revealing that, obviously, some revision had taken place. "What's your favourite virtue?" "Courage." "What vice do you most despise?" "Bigotry." "Most forgivable weakness?" "Gluttony." And so on...
Although the film was partly about exclusive access in the year she finally finished the Potter cycle (if the footage was to be believed, Runcie was actually in the room when she dusted off her hands and pressed "save" for the last time), it was also a biography, one that steered well clear of current privacies (her children never appeared) but that did go into her troubled relationship with her father and the impact of her mother's death through multiple sclerosis. Times were hard enough when she and her sister were young for a professional hairdresser to be a luxury, resulting in the kind of wonky home-cropped fringes that could easily scar a child for life. The father didn't sound to be much fun either, presented here as a controlling and intimidating figure. One of Rowling's regrets was that she never saw her mother's body after she died: "I wanted to see her and he didn't want me to see her and, mistakenly, I agreed not to and I really deeply regret that." She hasn't had contact with him for several years. "The whole of Harry Potter," Runcie had theorised a little earlier, "is one giant attempt to reclaim a childhood," and there was no evidence that Rowling would have had strong objections to that analysis. The film finished with her returning to the modest Leith flat in which she'd completed the first book, where she found several Harry Potter novels in the bedside bookcase and enough powerful memories to move her to tears. Not just a decorous sniffle either, but sobs of unexpected feeling: "This is really where I turned my life around... I feel I really became myself here." If it all went wrong, she added, she'd often thought this was where she would come back to. Since the last book in the series sold more than 10 million in the first 24 hours of publication - around 7,000 copies a minute - there seems little chance of that, but it was touching all the same to see how much she cared.
In The Shadow in the North, Sally Lockhart returned to do battle with a dastardly Scandinavian arms manufacturer and confront her feelings for Fred, her colleague and sidekick. She started off by saying she wouldn't marry Fred, but it turned out that she was just waiting to get past the watershed before sliding in between the sheets with him. Oh, dear, I thought, as he exchanged loving pillow talk with her, you've not got long to live. I didn't expect him to go so fast though. They didn't even get to have breakfast together the next morning, the house being burned down that very night by the villains. Sally got her own back by luring the villain in front of his steam gun, which, we'd been told earlier on, could fire five bullets a second from its 1,000 muzzles. Disappointingly, we weren't shown his body. It was well after the watershed too.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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