Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Don't Forget to Write: Favourite TV Programme ever...


I had a very interesting experience over the Christmas period relating to what has been - for more than 35 years - officially My Favourite TV Programme Ever.

This was a BBC comedy drama called Don't Forget to Write, broadcast in two series of six episodes  in 1977 and 1979 - written by Charles Wood, starring George Cole (as Gordon Maple) and Gwen Watford as his wife.

It was never repeated, and has never been available in any format such as video or DVD - so the only thing I had to go on were my memories of the one-off experience. The series was (as can be inferred) not very successful or popular, and I can pretty much guarantee that nobody reading this has watched all twelve episodes as I did.


On that basis and memory, I absolutely loved Don't Forget to Write - for years and years it was a depiction of an ideal dream of how I would like to live.

It had a writer who initially lived in or near Bristol (as I did - although in the second series they moved to a rambling country house), with an attractive and devoted wife, two kids (boy and girl) - and with his best friend (and his family) living within easy walking distance.

What happened was based around the trials and tribulations of being a writer, the financial uncertainties and writing blocks, the writing aids and triumphs, and the petty ambitions and jealousies of having a more successful best friend who was also a writer. There was the cosiness of the family, and an underlying love and dedication; there was also the glamour and status of having an agent, plays put on, reading about yourself in the newspapers, writing movie scripts and attending the shooting...

As a package, for me, for most of my life - this was an ideal thing.


Imagine my excitement when I discovered about three months ago that, for some incomprehensible reason, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation had released both series of Don't Forget to Write on DVD! At last I could see it again!

My brother imported it and gave it to me for Christmas - and on Christmas day and over the period before New Year I watched all twelve, hour long episodes...


To say that I was disappointed does not begin to describe the strange, complex feelings which re-watching DFTW brought to me - I have been brooding on it for the past few weeks. 

It was not so much that DFTW was bad -  although a couple of the episodes were almost unwatchably bad; and one of them deliberately so, since (presumably as a joke/ discipline) ALL the dialogue (for an hour length drama) consisted of questions; while another episode featured a telephone ringing loudly in the background for long periods - but I brooded about the revelation concerning my former self.

The ideal DFTW that I had enjoyed and recalled in the manner described above, did have some very slender basis in fact - but the overwhelming tone was shallow, spiteful, seedy, accepting of sexual corruption and gross dishonesty, full of horrible characters, gratuitous nastiness and hatreds... in sum it looks very much as if the young me was idealizing the selfish shenanigans of a bunch of smug, spoilt pseuds...


So far I have concluded that:

1. My tastes have changed

2. Being a Christian makes a big difference to 'artistic' evaluations.

3. What somebody gets from a work of art may be very different from that which is most obvious in a work of art.

4. The bad, evil aspects of a work of art (the casual acceptance of marital infidelity and promiscuity, for example) can nonetheless be corrupting; by normalizing evil and making it an accepted background to life, such that even when it is not indulged in, it is not effectively resisted.

5. Yet good can come from evil - on the basis that the idyll I manufactured from DFTW does, in many aspects, closely resemble the best and happiest aspects of my own life - and perhaps subliminally guided me toward this life.

It seems that I actually became (pretty much, in the essentials) the 'good' Gordon Maple of my own idealized recollections - but living in the city of my childhood imaginings (ie Newcastle) rather than the city of my actual childhood (Bristol).



Boethius said...

"accepting of sexual corruption"

I know you didn't see it,but in the new Hobbit film there is even a sex joke.

Karl said...

"the causal acceptance of marital infidelity and promiscuity": an interesting typo. I take it that it was their casual acceptance that you meant to deprecate. The world could do with a bit more causal acceptance of these things, in the sense of admitting public morals into the realm of observable cause and effect.

Bruce Charlton said...

@B - I have heard about the 'trouser' humour - a 'pork pie' joke as WS Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan) would have called it (from Wiki):

In 1883, The Times, reviewing a matinee performance of Iolanthe, wrote: "Mr. Grossmith's impersonation of the Lord Chancellor has ... become an exquisitely refined satire." On the other hand, his sketch comedy background had trained Grossmith to improvise comic business. Gilbert and the actor had a famous exchange during rehearsals for The Mikado about an improvised bit of "business" in which Jessie Bond pushed Grossmith, as they kneeled before the Mikado, and he rolled completely over. Gilbert requested that they cut out the gag, and Grossmith replied: "but I get an enormous laugh by it". Replied Gilbert: "So you would if you sat on a pork-pie."


Typo fixed, but you are quite correct: the casual is causal. One of the major radicalizing functions of (the best) fashionable and successful TV sitcoms and soaps over the past 40 years has been to use casual assumptions as causal propaganda (from the Mary Tyler More show, through Cheers and Frasier and Friends and Seinfeld - all top-notch in their genre - onwards to Big Bang Theory).

Jables said...

On point 2. I have found this to be profoundly true. For instance, my favourite book ever in my younger years was the Catcher in the Rye. It wasn't a depiction of my ideal dream life, obviously; but Holden Caulfield certainly did present some sort of ideal, albeit tragically flawed.

Since becoming a Christian I have been unable to bring myself to re-read it. I anticipate reading the Catcher in the Rye now to be a painful and disgusting experience, and perhaps I would not even be able to finish it. Granted I cannot say for sure, not having tried the experiment... but I have little doubt!

But now I'm having second thoughts about whether it is Christianity that has really made the difference... maybe it's just age and experience?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jables - wrt Catcher - I feel the same way, except that I never liked it as much the the Glass Family saga - which I continue to re-read fairly frequently. By contrast, I haven't looked at Catcher for about 30 years. Certainly it was (like Saul Bellow's Herzog a few years later) a virtuoso piece of writing that deserved its reputation, but...

Other books I used to love but cannot bear nowadays include Iris Murdoch's Under the Net, the novels of Samuel Beckett, the comedies of David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury and Michael Frayn - the plays of Tom Stoppard... there are a lot of them!

Fernando said...

That reminds so much of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, and of the truth in Ecc 3:14

"I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him."

May G*d illuminate your path so you can find what you seek.

MC said...

Coming from the opposite direction:

I am currently re-reading Bonhoeffer's "The Cost of Discipleship," which I first read when I was 18 years old. My younger self thought the book to be basically flawless, and felt drawn to it as espousing a Christianity that was radical in its purity. I picked it up to re-read precisely for motivational reasons.

Now reading it as a man with two young children, and in a world much more hostile to my religion than when I first read it, the pacifist aspects of the book bother me. It seems ahistorical that pacifism is always and everywhere the correct response to persecution.* And since I'm now concerned not primarily for my own salvation, but also the continued existence of Christian civilization, mass martyrdom holds less appeal.

I've been wrestling with whether this change in my response to the text is a good thing or not. I'd like to say that this means I'm more mature and erudite, and thus able to see the flaws in an overly-simplistic text. Part of me sees nobility in my youthful idealism, and wishes I had some of it back. I may have to read Eric Metaxas's book on Bonhoeffer to find out how he squared his explicit pacifism with his later attempt to assassinate Hitler.

*It is interesting to note that the Book of Mormon has one very memorable instance of a people who practiced pacifism, which succeeds in converting even many of their enemies to Christianity. Yet most of the book recounts wars fought righteously in defense of the faith, and even the descendants of the pacifists decide eventually to take up arms: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammonites_%28Book_of_Mormon%29

Bruce Charlton said...

@MC - This is *way* off topic, but speaking of pacifism, if you don't know it already, Orwell's essay on Ghandi has a discussion which has stuck in my mind for several decades:

However, Gandhi's pacifism can be separated to some extent from his other teachings. Its motive was religious, but he claimed also for it that it was a definitive technique, a method, capable of producing desired political results. Gandhi's attitude was not that of most Western pacifists. Satyagraha, first evolved in South Africa, was a sort of non-violent warfare, a way of defeating the enemy without hurting him and without feeling or arousing hatred. It entailed such things as civil disobedience, strikes, lying down in front of railway trains, enduring police charges without running away and without hitting back, and the like. Gandhi objected to "passive resistance" as a translation of Satyagraha: in Gujarati, it seems, the word means "firmness in the truth." In his early days Gandhi served as a stretcher-bearer on the British side in the Boer War, and he was prepared to do the same again in the war of 1914-18. Even after he had completely abjured violence he was honest enough to see that in war it is usually necessary to take sides. He did not - indeed, since his whole political life centred round a struggle for national independence, he could not - take the sterile and dishonest line of pretending that in every war both sides are exactly the same and it makes no difference who wins. Nor did he, like most Western pacifists, specialize in avoiding awkward questions. In relation to the late war, one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to answer was: "What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them exterminated? If not, how do you propose to save them without resorting to war?" I must say that I have never heard, from any Western pacifist, an honest answer to this question, though I have heard plenty of evasions, usually of the "you're another" type. But it so happens that Gandhi was asked a somewhat similar question in 1938 and that his answer is on record in Mr. Louis Fischer's Gandhi and Stalin. According to Mr. Fischer, Gandhi's view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which "would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler's violence." After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly. One has the impression that this attitude staggered even so warm an admirer as Mr. Fischer, but Gandhi was merely being honest. If you are not prepared to take life, you must often be prepared for lives to be lost in some other way. When, in 1942, he urged non-violent resistance against a Japanese invasion, he was ready to admit that it might cost several million deaths.


Bruce Charlton said...

At the same time there is reason to think that Gandhi, who after all was born in 1869, did not understand the nature of totalitarianism and saw everything in terms of his own struggle against the British government. The important point here is not so much that the British treated him forbearingly as that he was always able to command publicity. As can be seen from the phrase quoted above, he believed in "arousing the world," which is only possible if the world gets a chance to hear what you are doing. It is difficult to see how Gandhi's methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary. Is there a Gandhi in Russia at this moment? And if there is, what is he accomplishing? The Russian masses could only practise civil disobedience if the same idea happened to occur to all of them simultaneously, and even then, to judge by the history of the Ukraine famine, it would make no difference. But let it be granted that non-violent resistance can be effective against one's own government, or against an occupying power: even so, how does one put it into practise internationally? Gandhi's various conflicting statements on the late war seem to show that he felt the difficulty of this. Applied to foreign politics, pacifism either stops being pacifist or becomes appeasement. Moreover the assumption, which served Gandhi so well in dealing with individuals, that all human beings are more or less approachable and will respond to a generous gesture, needs to be seriously questioned. It is not necessarily true, for example, when you are dealing with lunatics. Then the question becomes: Who is sane? Was Hitler sane? And is it not possible for one whole culture to be insane by the standards of another? And, so far as one can gauge the feelings of whole nations, is there any apparent connection between a generous deed and a friendly response? Is gratitude a factor in international politics?

MC said...

Yes, I read the Orwell essay several years ago and have always agreed with it. The funny thing is that I have never been a pacifist, even when I read Bonhoeffer for the first time. I seem to recall compartmentalizing the pacifist parts of Bonhoeffer's book as setting forth an ideal that I was not yet prepared to live up to (even Gandhi admitted that he wasn't righteous enough to live as a full pacifist). But now I think that pacifism is simply incorrect when taken as a universal principle rather than as one possible expression of a universal principle.