Katherine Butler: Don't spoil a good story with the truth

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The two estranged step-sisters of the food writer Nigel Slater have complained that the BBC's dramatisation of Slater's memoir Toast, which attracted six million viewers when it aired over the holidays, was a travesty. They say their mother, who moved in with the family after Nigel's mother's death, was nothing like Mrs Potter the coarse cleaning lady in crimplene mini-dresses played by Helena Bonham Carter.

I have sympathy for the sisters if this is the case. They must feel that the memory of their dead mother has been traduced. Instead of the sensible-skirt-wearing woman they remember selflessly looking after Nigel's widowed father, this scheming, loud-mouthed creature on the make wiggled her bottom while cleaning the oven with a fag permanently between her lips. Much worse, she basically killed old Mr Slater with her artery-clogging lemon meringue pies and gooseberry fool.

It's troubling, not to mention inconvenient, when real people come forward to reveal how betrayed they feel by a book, screen or stage adaptation of family history as they recall it. To the sister of Hanif Kureishi, the novelist's 2008 Something To Tell You was such a piece of treachery that she went public with her denunciation of her brother's "cheap jibes".

I was even more disturbed to read in an obituary of Agathe Von Trapp, the eldest of the Von Trapp family singers, who died recently at the age of 97, that my guiltiest artistic pleasure, The Sound of Music, was a source of deep hurt for that family. It seems Agathe went to her grave still haunted by Christopher Plummer's screen depiction of her warm and loving widower father as a tyrant in an Austrian naval uniform. The knowledge that Agathe couldn't stand the film cast a cloud as I watched it again the other day, this time with my two nieces.

But of course a film or a play that was a faithful replay of real-life events would never work. As June Perrens, Slater's step-sister, lamented of the bum-wiggling and swearing: "It's all rubbish – without that it would have been boring."

Yes, the mundane truth is that Captain Von Trapp never made his children answer to whistles and they didn't even escape over the Alps to Switzerland, merely boarded a train for Italy. But the suspenseful Rogers and Hammerstein version, with the Nazis closing in, was worth every one of the five Oscars it won in 1965. And had the father not been the cold and authoritarian figure that Plummer played, a man whose icy heart could only be melted by Julie Andrews and the strains of "Edelweiss", it would have been, frankly, a much less entertaining story.

I wish Agathe could have seen how my nieces, six and three, were as entranced by the artistic licence even in a 45-year-old movie. For days after they hummed "Lonely Goatherd", had conversations that went: "No, I'll be Gretel and you be the Baroness", and asked why the Nazi soldiers were "so mean". I can't think of a better tribute to the memory of the Von Trapps.

We Irish still have some things of value

Discovering that I'd left a favourite silver bangle on the security conveyor belt at Dublin airport before Christmas, I resigned myself to never seeing it again, but first went through the ritual of phoning Lost Property expecting to be left on hold for several months or told to fill in an online form that would be filed in the nearest bin.

But no. It took just one attempt to reach a human being called Regina, who asked me to describe the bracelet. "Does it have a raised-up bit on one side?" she inquired, before triumphantly announcing: "I've just been admiring it!" On the return journey the officer on duty emerged with a container of bagged jewellery items awaiting owners and handed mine over with a wink.

Ireland may be in the economic mortuary chapel, never mind the casualty ward, but it retains something of value; an intangible quality in how people relate to one another. I'm not talking about the faux-Irish craic and enforced bar-room "Look at us we're Irish, we're great fun" back-slapping routine my compatriots so often feel obliged to perform. It is a more subtle thing, a warmth that many assume has been swept away by the greedy grasping years. Partly it is about informality, but it's also a patience and a compulsion to empathise, which even the most reserved feel would be shabby not to observe.

In the post-property bubble, post-banking collapse madness, this won't, on its own, get anyone out of appalling debt or sustain any livelihoods, but it must surely have a value, like the "soft power" of democracy or tolerance.

Now if only it could be marketed to rich Americans or Gulf Arab investors.

Can Keira match Audrey?

The hottest London theatre ticket of 2011opens for previews in a fortnight and if you haven't already booked, you'll be lucky, the critics are warning. Keira Knightley andElisabeth Moss (from Mad Men) will star in a revival of Lillian Hellman's 1934 play TheChildren's Hour, a dark tragedy about twoteachers running a small all-girls' boarding school in New England, whose lives areshattered after they are wrongly accused by a spiteful pupil of being in an "unnatural" relationship. It is a powerful story of intolerance and the destruction of a lie, so shocking in the 1930s that it was banned in some US cities, and in London.

But I can save you the trouble ofbegging for tickets, having caught William Wyler's 1961 film version of The Children's Hour at the wonderful BFI the other nightfor under a tenner. I predict that the wooden Keira will be every bit as thin as – but otherwise not a patch on – Audrey Hepburn in thelead role.

And since Hepburn's fine, sensitive performance was overshadowed by her mesmerically brilliant supporting star, a young Shirley MacLaine, playing the terrifyingly volatile Miss Dobie, I am confident that even Peggy from Mad Men can only disappoint.