An interview with Christopher Morahan
The television, film and theatre director talks to Colin MacCabe about his career and collaborations with Simon Gray
Colin MacCabe: Christopher Morahan is one of the most successful directors of post war British theatre and television and also had a very considerable career as an administrator in both. You obviously made a choice for theatre very early in your career. When was your first attraction to acting and producing and directing?
Christopher Morahan: I think it started in the dramatics society at school. The biggest part I ever played was Mrs Dubedat in The Doctor’s Dilemma at the age of thirteen. I was going to be an architect. My father was an artist and a film designer and producer; he and I had always fancied the idea of my being an architect, but towards the end of my national service, at the ripe age of 20, I became impatient at the notion of it. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to make my living as an architect for seven years, so I wrote to him and said look I think I really would like to be a film director. Which was in a sense rather absurd but nevertheless quite feasible because my uncle was in it, my mother had been as well and so on and so forth, even my grandfather at one time worked in the plasterer’s shop, in one of the Elstree studios. And he said fine. I thought I was going to come up against a parental refusal, or shall we say disapproval. But he said no, no. But he said: “You ought to ask some advice about this”. So he put me on to Thorold Dickinson, a really marvellous English director – film director – who had worked with my father a number of times. And I asked his advice and he said: don’t go into the film industry. It’s a craft business, and in a way it’s a slightly closed shop. Find out about acting and plays. Then you’ll be able to see really where you want to go. So I wrote to a lot of repertory theatres and got no reply. And I decided to hitchhike around the home counties. There used to be a repertory in every small town, in the south of England, and I got a job at Henley-on-Thames. I worked there in weekly rep for about nine months and thereafter I was very fortunate, I went to a very good theatre school. I went to the Old Vic Theatre School, which was headed by Michel Saint-Denis, and George Devine. I had two years of that and worked one summer vacation for Percy Harris, Motley, as an assistant designer on the Orson Welles Othello, and the following year did research for George Devine when he was doing Volpone in Stratford. So I had an introduction to big theatre, but decided not to become a director directly because I wanted more experience, so I worked for a time as a stage manager. But I found the theatre at that time pretty dreadful, dominated by the well-made play. I’m talking about the early 50s. In the mid 50s I decided it might be more interesting to go into television, so I went to the BBC and became an assistant floor manager. When I said I wanted to be a director they said, it’s not possible. Couldn’t possibly have you as a director because we always get our directors from the film industry or the theatre or from broadcasting. Four months later I doubled my salary going to ATV, as a floor manager. But then I had the good fortune to be one of the floor managers on a soap which immediately became a national event – not my working for them – but it became a national event, Emergency Ward 10. It ran for about 30 years and I floor managed episodes two, four and six and directed episode nine, I think it was.
Emergency Ward 10
MacCabe: So that was your first outing as a director……
CM: Yes, yes that’s right. I went to the boss of ATV, and I said look I’d like to be a director, and he said start in three weeks. No training at all. But it was marvellous. I did eighty of them in two years.…
MacCabe: One has the sensation hearing people talk about those early years, when ITV opened up and the BBC responded to it, that it was an extraordinarily adventurous moment.
CM: It was like the wild west. If you rode into town and only had a pair of pistols you could get a job. Or nerve to say I want to be a director – they said fine, ok start. And ITV did revolutionise television in this country. The BBC was very conservative, dull, most of the people had been there for rather too long and they used to do a big play on Sundays, and then they’d go back on Thursdays to repeat it. Whereas at ITV a number of very bright people came, notably from Canada, because American television – New York television in the 50s was remarkably strong – that’s where the centre of television drama was in America, it hadn’t gone to California at that time, it was New York, United States Steel Hour and so on and a number of distinguished and highly regarded people started there at that time. You know – George Roy Hill and Sidney Lumet and Franklin Schaffner: considerable figures, and good writing, very good writing indeed. And that was imported to ABC when Sidney Newman came over. Sydney Newman who had been running CBC drama in Toronto. And he brought over a number of directors – Ted Kotcheff, for instance. Charles Jarrott. And he recruited Alan Cooke and Philip Saville over here. And it was a must. Every Sunday evening we would be in to watch Armchair Theatre. It was a revelation, what could be done in 52 minutes, exciting plays, good acting, good story telling. And they set a mark to which one aspired. In the fullness of time, three or four years, I became a freelance, and went to the BBC to do Z Cars, and then increasingly, during the 60s, I found myself working more and more at the BBC. I enjoyed literate plays, and liked, particularly the range that was suddenly open to us when BBC 2 was created. A season of George Orwell, for instance – Coming up for Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying – and two plays by de Montherlant – you know, strange thing to do, but I found them fascinating – The Master of Santiago and Malatesta
MacCabe: How was what is now called the commissioning process? How did something get to the screen?
CM: Well, Sydney created three departments: a Series department, Serials department and a Plays department. Each of which was the creative home for up to about a dozen producers. A producer, with the script editor, would submit ideas to his Head of Department, and then up to the head of drama. It was an extraordinarily simple system. The controllers at the time were audacious –Hugh Greene the director general, had created a sense of change and excitement at the BBC, particularly when, BBC 2 started, allowed it to look for a very, very rich mix. A number of young people came in to television. Ken Loach, Waris Hussein, John McKenzie for instance, – it was a lovely time, one could do practically anything. Out of that I had the good fortune to work very closely with John Hopkins, and I did a couple of his plays, and then he showed me the script of Talking to a Stranger. And Talking to a Stranger was a kind of milestone for me, with Judi Dench and Michael Bryant –it was a critical success. Very painful, very, very painful. Television had been a kind of blunt instrument, at that point – you broadcast what you’d made in the studio. Gradually as video tape editing became more common place, Ken Loach drove a horse and cart through the BBC system. You weren’t supposed to film a drama unless some part of it could be made in the studio. So he did about four scenes in the studio for Up the Junction. and with Tony Imi just went and shot stuff on 16mm, and of course the BBC engineers had all been saying – you can’t have 16mm, you’ve got to have 35.
Up the Junction
Well, he challenged that, and brought back Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home, which were just astonishing. And suddenly one felt television was the place where things were happening. It became vividly exciting. I think at that time Dennis Potter was asked to do one of his first Wednesday plays. And Laurence Olivier was starting the National Theatre, and Dennis said what is all this fuss about a national theatre? The National Theatre exists here, it’s here in the BBC that we are talking to the nation. It’s a dialogue, and before recording, home recording, we had this phenomenon, you know, the water cooler phenomenon, that everybody saw the same programme, and they talked about it the next day, and it was that kind of dialogue between an excited audience, sometimes a shocked audience, and sometimes shocked critics, that the directors, and the actors and the writers and, this goes back to Sydney, the script editors and the producers, and a whole generation of writers began to write and treat television seriously. By this time, of course, George Devine at the Royal Court had changed attitudes in the theatre. The angry young men – John Osborne, Harold Pinter – were also doing exciting things in the theatre. So it was a most lively time. I had no sense of moving away from television, except that I was rung up one day by Peter Hall who said look would you like to come and direct a play at the RSC – Little Murders at the Aldwych. Peter had seen Talking to a Stranger. He said, it’s family drama, this business about talking to strangers. Little Murders is it’s all about families. Well of course Little Murders wasn’t a family drama, it was the most savage political satire about New York and about American violence. But it was marvellous to do, and suddenly my life changed, suddenly I had the opportunity of working in the theatre.
MacCabe: That wasn’t a normal career path, was it? It’s one of the things that’s very striking about your career is, certainly from that moment on, you’re working as much in theatre as in television.
CM: Alan Bridges, who was a magnificent television director was asked at the same time by Peter, and did a production in the same season. But he didn’t stay with it. He had a different kind of ambition. He had an ambition to go to Hollywood. He kept himself at arms length from theatre, I think. But not many people in television did actually cross over to the theatre. Ted Kotcheff did a very good production – the first production – of Progress to the Park, the Alun Owen play, at Stratford East. Bill Hayes, a very interesting and lively director, did a lovely play called Close the Coalhouse Door which came out of Newcastle, which was also very fine, very fine indeed. But it was exceptional – no, not exceptional, that makes it seem too important, but we were the exception.
MacCabe: Can I just take you back to Talking to a Stranger for a moment. For plays of over an hour and 15 minutes each, how long did it take you to make it? What was the process? How was such a long, serious, difficult drama commissioned?
Talking to a Stranger
CM: It was commissioned by Cedric Messina, and the script editor was a writer called James Brabazon, and they always knew it was going to be four ninety minuters. It seemed to be perfectly possible, because the BBC was ambitious at that time. The financial climate was continually good, because of BBC 2 audiences grew, and then of course the clincher was impending colour, there was an extra levy to get a colour licence. The BBC income during the 60s and 70s, and ITV too, was buoyant. So a great many risks were taken, both in ITV and at the BBC. There was no real risk in taking four times 90 minute plays. It was a lovely time, we had four weeks rehearsal, and then one would go into the studio for three days, and then edit afterwards, so I suppose the whole thing took about – probably about four and half months – it was possible, everybody really thought it was a reasonable thing to do.
MacCabe: It was a huge critical hit, even at the time. Were you aware of that as you were making it? Did you think this was something really extraordinary?
CM: I didn’t know it was going to be a hit, but I did know while doing it, that it was very worthwhile. I remember one particular day when I was rehearsing with Maurice Denham, Michael Bryant and Judi Dench, a long scene, in the very painful third episode. And I said, I think I’d rather like to work in the theatre. I really do want to work in the theatre. Because of the intelligence, the concern for character, the value of the material, the discovery of it, the whole process seemed to have a depth to it, which I found immensely rewarding. So when Peter Hall – well, I pinched myself, to be rung up by Peter Hall – to come and do a play. And I leapt at it.
MacCabe: You were a very successful director, working both in television and the theatre. And then you become Head of Plays for BBC in 1972. That looks like quite an unusual step. Did it seem an unusual step at the time?
CM: Huw Wheldon had tried to get me to go there earlier. And I turned him down. I said no I’m going to be a film director. And I made a couple of films which were terribly unsuccessful. So you say, alright, ok, you go on. And then it came again, the request, whether you would come along to be Head of Plays. I’d been frustrated by some elements of the climate at the BBC. And I felt alright, I will do it, but for a limited time, not on the staff, but on a contract, because I felt it was a tribute to the talent that there was around, you know amongst the directors and the producers, that they should recruit somebody from the making part of it. And I thought yes, I’ll do this, and I’ll do it for a limited time, and I did for three – four years. And Jimmy Cellan Jones, who succeeded me, who had been a superb director, particularly of serials, had exactly the same attitude. It’s rather like saying, if it’s our turn to take responsibility, there may be an influence we can have historically over events, to continue to make the kind of television we believed should be made.
MacCabe: If you look back to those four years, what are the real high points? What are the things that you say – I did that!
CM: Yes, there are three directors that seem to figure very much in that. Alan Clarke – who I asked to do The Love-Girl and Innocent – by Solzhenitsyn – and he did it superbly, quite marvellously. He created a gulag in a Norfolk aerodrome in the winter. The continued work of Stephen Frears, who was looked after marvellously by a very good producer, Innes Lloyd. He did a whole number of really lovely films for us. Humane and moving. Most particularly working with Alan Bennet. And Ken – Ken Loach and with Tony Garnett. Because Ken – Ken wanted to continue his radical position. There was one occasion when Tony approached me he said, look Ken’d like to do three plays by Jim Allen about the Labour party between 1919 and 1926. I’d read the first one – it’d been knocking around for some time – and I said, no, no, no it doesn’t really go very far. But, no he said, no Allen wants to write three plays about the history. And we went to Paul Fox, Controller at BBC 1, and said we’d very much like to do this – it’s outside the offers, it’s outside the agreed amount we’re going to do next year, would you be able to find some money for us, would you support us? And he listened to us, and he said, yes, do it. Simple.
MacCabe: And that was Days of Hope?
CM: Days of Hope. Which was extraordinary. A marvellous film. But it was done – Huw was livid. Huw Wheldon said why do you always do these films, which run down the English. No, no. It’s going to be very, very good. He said it’ll never be repeated –ever. And it was of course. It turned out to be a masterpiece.
MacCabe: So you’ve come to the end of your period of taking your turn, and you become much more closely allied with the National Theatre.
CM: Yes. I wrote to Peter Hall and said, look you’re starting at the National Theatre. Can I be part of it? When I’d done Little Murders, the RSC said would you like to do a play in Stratford next summer, and I said no I’m doing this film, and the film was no good. I was very grateful to Peter for the opportunity he’d given me, and liked working with him, he was a very good producer. And also my wife was an actor in the company at the time – she was in John Gabriel Borkman – my second wife – my first wife had died about four years previously. So I wrote to Peter and said can I come. And he said yes. I worked there for about four years. It was exactly what I wanted to do. At the end I said I wanted to go and make something of my own, because being a selfless administrator in the theatre is up to a point very exciting, but after that you actually want to go out and make your own thing. Actually, two things happened very, very close to each other. One that Jeremy Isaacs asked me to go to Channel Four, and I said no I’m not I’m going to be making something in India – the Paul Scott – and he said, OK fine, who shall I have? And I said, well, why don’t you try David Rose? He said David Rose? I said yes.
MacCabe: A little bit of history written.
CM: David knows about it. And, yes, it was one of the nicest recommendations I’ve ever given in my life. Because he’s a fine man, David, absolutely fine man. And of course was the producer of Z Cars, I’d known him for some years. But anyway – I did the Indian thing.
MacCabe: Yes, let’s talk just a little bit about Jewel in the Crown. You had an urge to go and do something yourself?
CM: Yes. By chance I’d been given the books at Christmas time. And my new in-laws were ex-India – Anna’s father had been a colonel, no he’d risen to the rank of colonel, but he’d been a captain in the lancers, in the Indian army, and I looked at the family photos, and I found a vanished world. You remember there was a very good documentary programme called One Pair of Eyes. There was one interview with a memsahib, which I remember acutely, and she said when I came to the station and the CO’s wife interviewed me, she said – you know you’re going to lose some of your children. And I was fascinated by that. By what people did, to go a long long way, to rule this vast place, and the prices they probably had to pay. So when then I read the books – and I found them fascinating too because they had an alternative view to the received Empire view of our rule in India, and Ken Taylor had been asked to do six scripts, for Granada, and somebody else had been asked to do the other six. I wrote to the producer, Irene Shubik, and said that I’d like to be the lead director. And she said yes. I knew the people at Granada well and had done a number of plays there. So I did some spadework just finding out about what it was like in India when they made Staying On. Silvio Narizzano had made that in India with Trevor Howard. And I did a report for them, and the long and the short of it was they asked me to produce. They were marvellous stories, and I said yes I’d do this, as long as I’m able to choose the director I work with, and also I want you to commission Ken to do further six scripts. And they did. And it now had a unity to it. I asked a director who had an excellent film in Ireland, in Londonderry – Derry – Shadows on Our Skin – Jim O’Brien. And he leapt at it, and we became good friends, and good partners, and it was a really rewarding experience.
MacCabe: That must have taken a little more than four and a half months.
CM: It took about three and a half years.
MacCabe: We now approach the period, or at least I think we approach the period when you meet and work with Simon – we certainly approach the period when you worked with Simon, but when did you first meet him?
CM: I think I met him when I was Head of Plays – there were two plays that Ken Trodd, when I’d asked him to join the plays department, there are two plays by Simon Gray. They were terribly good. Two Sundays and Plaintiffs and Defendants.
Human and witty and compassionate, and they were done beautifully. I met Simon then. And then at the National he was doing – there was a play of his, Close of Play, which had a rather sad history – in that Peggy Ashcroft – they were in the Lyttlelton, I was running the Lyttelton at the time – Peggy Aschcoft broke her Achilles tendon, and wasn’t able to play – a lot of conversations at the theatre about whether they should go on with the understudy. It was about ten days before they should have opened. And the decision was to go ahead. And I think it was the wrong decision, and I said so at the time, and I think Simon agreed with me. So I met him then and it was about two years later that Duncan Weldon put on Melon at the Haymarket, and obviously he had talked it through with Simon and I was asked to direct it. With Alan Bates.
Plaintiffs and Defendants
MacCabe: So Melon was the first play that you directed, all the films come in the period just after that?
MacCabe: So, directing Alan Bates – what was that like?
CM: It was a delight. Charming, and brave, audacious. Funny. Serious. He was frightfully good in Melon. Simon did re-write it. We’ll probably talk about that later – Simon’s desire to continually work on his material was always fascinating – it comes up again and again in Unnatural Pursuits – wants a few changes to the first act, or the second act, or the first scene of the first act, or the second scene of the first act, and so on and so forth. He wanted to re-work Melon, make it an interior play, and he did that in America, but I didn’t do the production in the West End with Simon Callow, as far as I can recollect – called –
MacCabe: The Holy Terror
CM: The Holy Terror– that’s right. We didn’t actually work together until Kenith Trodd asked me, he said look, there’s this BBC film called Porker –
MacCabe: Before we get on to Porker, which I think will be a change of title – working on Melon, did Simon work very closely with the director, did he come into the theatre a lot? What was the working process, was he sitting there scribbling notes all the time?
CM: He would come after lunch. And because he and Alan knew each other very well, because of Butley, that seemed to be acceptable – he came, you know, when he could, during the day, he wouldn’t write notes. He would just listen, and make observations, and talk to us, and maybe issue us new pieces of script to work on. But he was very close to us, which was fine as far as I was concerned, but it was interesting that when he came to do television, he wouldn’t come at all. He found filming boring.
MacCabe: Well I can’t say I disagree with him actually. The director’s always having a great time, but everybody else is bored stiff.
CM: Absolutely, waiting while the company decides where the camera’s going to be, and then they’re putting up lights and things of that nature, and they’re measuring things, you know. For heaven’s sake, what can a writer do then? You know. It takes you an hour and a half to set up a new scene – oh gosh! – you’d much prefer to be at home, writing another play.
MacCabe: So, you did Melon, and then Ken Trodd comes and says what about Porker. Tell me the history of Porker.
CM: Porker – yes. I mean, it was a very pleasing one. A very enjoyable film, and we had a superb cameraman, and as usual, as I discovered with Simon, we shot quite a lot of material which we never used. Because – Simon was continually working on his material –
MacCabe: So he didn’t come to the set but he was sending you new versions?
CM: No he allowed us to make the film as written, but he edited his film material continuously. That is, he says – look, drop that, don’t need that, don’t need that, change orders – things of that nature. He always liked shifting things round. One had to be absolutely aware of that and totally unfussed by it, because if that’s what he wanted to do, that’s what we would do. Because there was a whole sequence in Porker – which I said was a rotten title, and he said oh well think of another one, so I said, After Pilkington –
MacCabe: So that’s how it became After Pilkington –
CM: That’s right, yes. Porker – I said, no. The play’s about a man called Porker – or Piglet – but After Pilkington is more interesting. Particularly in Italian, because we had the good fortune to win the Italia prize, and I’ve got a little poster in the downstairs loo and it says ‘Dopo Pilkington’. And people think – what is ‘Dopo Pilkington’? And I say, well that’s what it is.
MacCabe: Let me probe you just a little bit more. You get the script –
MacCabe: Ken Trodd comes to you and says here’s a script I want to make.
MacCabe: At what stage does all this editing and rewriting take place? Is it being biked down to the set, or is it happening after you’ve shot the film?
CM: After we’ve shot the film.
MacCabe: Ah, so then he was very closely involved in the editing with you?
CM: Oh yes, yes, I mean he’d see the first assembly. Yes. There was – if you recollect, in After Pilkington there’s a very brief sequence between the young boy – the young Porker, and his playmate girl. He puts her to bed and he kisses her. There was another of the boy witnessing what possibly was a sexual encounter in a little shed somewhere, and there were quite a lot of them playing in the woods, and things of that nature, and Simon said – we don’t need that. It’s simply unnecessary. I don’t need this. Particularly when you actually see images up on the screen. What is it like without? I always found Simon a marvellously hands on author in the editing process. And the BBC was marvellously liberal about running times. There was a time when people said all plays have to last one hour and fifteen minutes, or one hour and a half or whatever – or on ITV 57 minutes, because of the commercial break. But at the BBC you just delivered the play. Ken was able to say, this is the film we’ve made. This is the film the author wants. And it’s that we should be broadcasting. And the BBC was honourable and very straight forward and accepted every single one of those because it happened again and again. Simon was severe with himself, he was continually writing, you know, as he finds himself not making television films he starts to write these absolutely masterly diaries. The act of writing is the vital one. Sitting at the desk and writing it. Typing it or whatever he did. Led to his extraordinary night life, like an owl. He wrote massively in the middle of the night. Just himself, his mind and his intelligence. And you think of The Common Pursuit, think about how many times that was altered and changed.
MacCabe: So, After Pilkington, we may come back to. The Common Pursuit is the next one – because there’s Old Flames –
CM: Yes I think I made Old Flames before Common Pursuit, I don’t think that changed a great deal. There was always the threat of change. If something didn’t work, he would be very ruthless. With himself. He wasn’t necessarily passing judgement on what we did. But in actual fact with himself. Though in Old Flames I don’t think there was any wastage, you understand. Though you shouldn’t actually think of it as wastage. It’s part of the process.
MacCabe: After Pilkington is a play which as it were has at least a surface of social realism, even if it’s accentuated to a very sharp point. But Old Flames is almost in another register entirely, isn’t it?
CM: I know. It’s fantastic, a tale. It isn’t a piece of naturalism at all. The last five minutes of Old Flames is extraordinary. A man is resurrected. Made up. He plays as he’s never played before. But does he exist? Is he there? Is it his ghost? We don’t know. Don’t ask – we mustn’t ask questions. We just accept that he’s there and he’s playing the violin. And there is music, there’s lights suddenly through this window. And when Stephen [Fry] leaves the room he goes to join his wife who’s just had twins in the next room. So everything was suddenly condensed at that time without explanation, and for us too – it’s like a La Douanier Rousseau – is he painting a forest, or is he painting an imaginary world? And it’s that capacity that Simon had for creating that imaginary world that I think is one of the most rewarding things about him as a writer. I think it marks his originality. And I think that Kenith Trodd – the producer – we must credit him for creating a climate in which his work would be understood and interpreted by a number of people. Particularly Udayan Prasad – whose marvellous production of They Never Slept, a kind of barmy and vivid picture of wartime England and the secret services, and also Running Late, which was not made by Trodd, it was made by Verity Lambert at ITV. It was that kind of richness which stood out in a naturalistic world. And I responded to that hugely. So when we came to do The Common Pursuit – it doesn’t have any of that at all. But it recurs again in Unnatural Pursuits, partly to do with the nature of his narrative and the absurd things that happened to him, and also I think probably – Simon would cringe if I mentioned this – he’d say it was a lot of nonsense – but nevertheless Dennis Potter had gone down a similar path. I’m thinking of Pennies from Heaven – a remarkable piece of work, in that case using his Al Bowlly music, and that particular notion, that particular musical notion which was very much part of Dennis’s background.
Pennies from Heaven
I don’t think that Simon had that kind of anchor, it was to do with his imagination. The use of songs in Unnatural Pursuits is I think largely to do with musicals, the Hollywood tradition that people, if they’re dancing – you know Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly move from speech to song in a kind of elegant simple way, you know that Fred Astaire’s going to sing in a moment, because something happens in the pitch of his voice, and you say ha ha it’s going to happen. There’s a marvellous song where he makes love to a woman in the room below by dancing on the carpet, with such delicacy. We owe something to the Americans for their audacity –modern musicals, have been used by them with such delight and delicacy – telling stories. And we tried that in Unnatural Pursuits. One group of critics said “silly little tunes”, but what the hell. I watched it the other day, and I laughed at it. I laughed at it because it seemed to me to be doing what he wanted to do, which was to entertain, and also it is an act of homage to the world which he was part of. The use of song. I remember he’d been to see Carousel at the National Theatre, and he said it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in the theatre. He was moved. I think that brings us, really nearly up to date.
MacCabe: Well no, I’ve got one or two questions. First of all about Old Flames. You say you didn’t ask any questions. But did you not ask any questions about the end?
MacCabe: You just shot it as written –
CM: As it was written. I assumed – by that time I knew him well enough. I don’t think he’s made a mistake. He just believes there is such love generated when the sister explains, and Stephen’s character learns about his own guilt and responsibility for the situation, and she says I want you to come upstairs and say goodbye to him. We’ve heard cries of pain and sadness – clearly he’s died. But when we see him actually resurrected, we both of us see what he really wanted. To be admired. And that makes the whole story so poignant, to see that done. And at that time we’re, shall we say, two minutes thirty seconds away from the end titles, I’m not going bother about whether people are going to go with it, because they’re not going to turn it off, they’re going to go with it and perhaps enjoy its other worldliness as a mater of fact. Quite magical, and I didn’t ask the question, I just did it.
MacCabe: And then we go back to a very different naturalism, which is The Common Pursuit.
The Common Pursuit
CM: Yes, yes. I’m much less happy with what I did with The Common Pursuit. I looked at it yesterday again. And I felt that I’d treated it – slightly sentimentally. And I think that if I’d – given a chance, if God would give me again a chance of going over I think I would ask Ken, and I’d say I’ll re-edit it and I’ll cut ten minutes out of it. But only because of storytelling. I think that I was sometimes too discursive. I didn’t go to university. I didn’t know Cambridge – I mean the only one that I knew anything about was the one in After Pilkington – and I had a girlfriend at Lady Margaret Hall, and I climbed over walls of other people’s colleges and things of that nature, but I wasn’t there myself. I was in weekly rep. I didn’t have first hand experience of that world in any way. I look at it and I say, no I think its a bit obvious. I think we’re just spending too much time – we’re talking seconds. We’re talking milliseconds. We’re talking about ten frames, things of that nature, all the time, I thought – no, just do this, just a little bit quicker – and don’t strive to make us all undertstand and take part in it. Just be quick and light and truthful. I think that McNally – he was superb. Very, very good. But the interesting thing is that maybe – am I taking responsibility for something that’s never quite worked? Because you could say if you look back at all the history of The Common Pursuit – is it something – well, he parodies it of course in Unnatural Pursuits, and in his books, he keeps on talking about it – just want to do a little more work on the second scene of the first act. That play I suspect is more personal to him than the others. Others are kind of imaginative notions, but The Common Pursuit was a celebration of a great deal of his life, from 18/19 to 32 – and his dear friends who were poets or editors and things like that, it was that world, which he knew and he grew up in and which of course endowed him with a fascination with groups and with literature. And I have a feeling – I wonder, if we had Simon with us – and I wish we did have Simon with us – was he happy with the script eventually, with the play, or was he always wanting to go further, just to polish it? I don’t know. Do you have any idea?
MacCabe: You’re right, he does go on in the diaries a lot about doing it and redoing it so perhaps he never did feel he’d got it right.
CM: Yes, he’d had a production that Harold had done, which I think that – he writes about in one of his books – which didn’t quite work. I think some bit of casting wasn’t quite right. It didn’t have the success it was meant to have. And of course it did lie fallow for a time. And it was done Off Broadway, and the material was written for Unnatural Pursuits, because it then went round America etc. etc., and then Simon directed it himself at the Phoenix Theatre, with Rik Mayall and Stephen Fry, so then when I was then asked to do it on television – Ken wanted to make a kind of small television feature, and that’s why he brought this American over. And I think he actually pinned more on it that the material sustained, because the material was serious, and it had notions of failure and success, and was in a sense a kind of account of British London creative life that would have probably bewildered a North American audience. It was quite special, and because it was naturalistic, we were asked to concern ourselves naturalistically with these people, whereas Old Flames and later on Unnatural Pursuit became something much bolder in his imagination.
MacCabe: Well let’s move on to Unnatural Pursuits which is, I have to say, my own favourite. Do you remember when you were first given the script of that?
CM: Yeah I loved it. I though it was terrific. Ken had a lot of difficulty – Ken and I had a lot of difficulties with each other – because we weren’t able to cast it. And there was a time when Ken made a suggestion that a certain actor should play Partt, and I said well ok fine, I’ll wrap up, I’ll go home. And he was upset by that. And we wound down the film after a period. We closed up the office. I think that Ken was perhaps hopeful that I might resign. And I decided not to. I said no, no, I’m not going to do that. And I had a conversation with Simon at the hotel he used to go to across the road, and we talked about it –
MacCabe: The Halcyon.
CM: Halcyon, that’s right – and he said, no, no, stick with it, stick with it. We’ll do this. So I stayed with it. And then we foolishly said – oh, I suppose we’ll get Alan Bates. Which was absolutely mad, we should have thought of that months before, and Alan was shown it and he said, yes I’ll do this. From that moment on it all changed. We were all identifying with it. And Alan – particularly because he knew Simon so well, because he knew about him as an individual and also the various layers that there would be in the part, leapt at it. And his performance was a joy. An absolute joy. It was charming and loving and funny, and sometimes angry.
Unnatural Pursuits: ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’
MacCabe: Did you have to direct him much or did you just point the camera at him?
CM: Well, no. He was remarkable. And we were very fortunate in our casting to get Bob Balaban, for instance, and Paul Guilfoyle, those two Americans at the beginning, and they’re seen in the bar after the auditions. It’s a delight, actually, that conversation there where he’s trying to get a drink, and the director’s wife turns them down because she doesn’t like the play. It’s enchanting. Very, very, very funny. And to do with also Simon’s own kind of dealing with events – or I will say Simon/Alan dealing with events – I found deeply funny and very touching and very true. It was just a joy. I think it was a very happy show. But even on that show, after we’d actually reviewed the final cut, even the final print, I think it was the final print – Simon said – I think that speech is too long. And I remember my editor – a very good editor, she won the Editing Bafta that year for it, got very angry: why do you do this now? I said, don’t worry, let’s look at this. He wants to cut, you know, the last third of the speech. There was a Steenbeck in the corridor, and we took the show print, and put it on the Steenbeck, and I said, alright you can take that, and in fact you won’t ruin the sound, we can make good cuts here, taking that – just take that out, join it up, there’s only one join in the whole film. And nobody can tell. And he said, I got it wrong. I just wanted to polish it.
Unnatural Pursuits: ‘I’m the Author’
MacCabe: Unnatural Pursuits seems to me one of the seeds of the diaries?
CM: I don’t know about that. I don’t know which is the chicken or the egg. I think the diaries are there, his accounts of that time, you know, of Harold directing it and then of doing it in America, I think that’s what it draws upon, it may have then informed him about his diaries. I don’t know. It may be true. But the accounts of The Common Pursuit are in the early diaries. This is why Common Pursuit is a marvellous piece of the puzzle. And it dominated really I think ten, fifteen years of his creative life. And of course the emotional history of the misunderstanding between him and Harold. So we get Hector Duff, and a season of Duff plays. Harold was deeply upset by it. And I’m not at all surprised. But nevertheless Unnatural Pursuits contains a marvellous moment of total togetherness, when they sing The Lonesome Pine together. Which I like to think is clearly something that Harold and Simon did. Richard Wilson in a way slightly seized the opportunity, because he came from a different theatrical background. You know – Glasgow, Labour – he jumped at the part.
MacCabe: Now, a relatively short period of time where I think that there’s five projects you do with Simon. And then, that’s it. Was that deliberate or did it just happen like that?
CM: Just happened like that. I mean I certainly wasn’t in the position to say no if anybody had asked. But I think partly because the BBC changed, and I found myself fairly shortly after that making much less television. The organisation of television changed radically, and an intervening class of executives emerged, it became an organisation which wished to control – they didn’t trust the people to make the programmes they wanted. Maybe they found themselves in financial problems, I’ve no idea, they felt themselves besieged. So the stories within the BBC now of attempting to get projects approved is much more painful. I remember, this is an anecdote going back a long time, a long time ago that when I was Head of Plays, I remember, during one of those explorations of broadcasting, I forget whose it was, Marghanita Laski wanted to meet the Plays Department – the producers, and the Head of Department. We met in a room in the basement of Television Centre. I said a few words. And then I asked everybody – all the producers, about twelve of them – each one of them, to say something, and they did, and I was delighted, absolutely delighted. And it was a marvellous spectrum. Tony Garnett and Ken Trodd at one end and shall we say Cedric Messina on the other. Marvellous, a panoply of difference of opinions of what television drama should be. And I heard afterwards that Marghanita Laski said the plays department is out of control, because they were different from each other. And I have a feeling that some way or another during the last 20 years television became more and more driven by formulae of one form or another, and the relationship of writers to the BBC, except with honourable exceptions – the space that they’ve given Stephen Poliakoff and also Jimmy McGovern, a marvellous writer and a marvellous producer. But generally, you know, people have been measuring people’s quality of writing by their ability to write hit six part serials or Dr Who. And the notion of a writer coming to them and saying – you know, like Alan Bennett – and saying look, I’ve got this little play about two old people, retired people in Morecambe. Did you ever see, there’s a lovely film that Stephen made called Sunset Across the Bay about these two old people. In a way a kind of portrait of Alan’s mother and father. And what happens is, the drama that happens is that the old man goes to the lavatory and dies, leaving the wife on the seafront. That’s the anecdote. And deeply human and humane. And I’m not sure whether television has lost its nerve, from that point of view. Maybe the audience too.
MacCabe: But this would fit with the dates – crudely put, you stopped working with Simon because the arena in which you worked ceased to exist?
CM: Yes, I think so. I don’t think Simon wrote a television play after Unnatural Pursuits.
MacCabe: I don’t think so, certainly not many. OK a final question, which is, you look back over a long collaboration with him, and an even longer period when you knew him. Is there one memory that stands out for you. Is there one?
CM: Yes, I think that I’ve already described the moment, when Ken and I had a difference of opinion, and I said to Simon I don’t know quite what to do. He said – we met at the Halcyon and we talked about it, and he was able to give – you know, just reassure me, it wasn’t lightly done, it was serious and intelligent, and I’m very, very, very grateful for that, because, you know, he treated my question on its merits, and I had therefore to treat what he said to me on its merits too. And he was a very, very witty, humane friend and colleague.
MaCabe: Thank you very much.