Stephen Fry

With Sensitivity

 

I have not watched a single screen second of the BBC’s adaptation of Tender is the Night and have not the slightest intention of ever doing so. Nor, if you are half the reader I take you for, will you. I understand from some friends that the piece is, in fact, excellently done: beautifully filmed, nobly acted, intelligently written and tastefully directed. But that is a snare and a delusion. For all I care it can represent the high water mark, trig point, watershed, rift valley, terminal moraine and celestial zenith of European art and thought in the twentieth century but still, to borrow from Alan Bennett, wild horses on their bended knees wouldn’t drag me within smelling distance of the thing.

What has set my face so irrevocably against Tender is the Night is the full page advertisement the BBC saw fit to insert in some of the ‘heavy’ newspapers the week before transmission. That it was done in a style that could be mistaken for a Private Eye parody of the worst kind of adspeak imaginable, complete with verbless sentences and daffy women’s magazine layout was, by itself, unpardonably inapposite, but still not the real source of my implacable hatred. What convinced me to devote the rest of my life to the tireless persecution of the BBC man and copywriter responsible was the revoltingly conceited and vulgar substance of the piece.

In 1925 a young man sat down at a typewriter, it began, and produced a masterpiece. ‘We’ (whoever ‘we ‘ may be) decided to serialise it in that way that only ‘we’ do so well. With sensitivity. ‘We’ who brought you Bleak House, I Claudius, The Forsyte Saga etc were the only TV company fit for such a job. But ‘we’ didn’t want to spend too much of your money, so ‘we’ arranged a co-production deal with American and Australian companies. But ‘we’ (snigger snigger) didn’t want the piece to be turned into the kind of trashy mini-series those countries are so apt to make so ‘we’ insisted on one thing. Total artistic control.

What rank arrogance. What vile, rude, childish boasting. How dare ‘they’? If it is true that the BBC has produced worthwhile drama in the past , it is far from their place to go around swanking about it like some nauseating Daily Mail leader on the subject of how well ‘we’ do state occasions and royal ceremonials . What low, ill-mannered, repellent conceit. A turd i’their teeth.

There’s a dreadful old cliche, very much in the Daily Mail mould, which says that ‘we’ British are always knocking our own achievements and isn’t it time we vaunted them instead? It misses the point that a large part of British achievements, such as they may be, repose in the very fact of their discretion and natural quality. Quite simply, it’s for others to say whether or not what has been done is good or bad. I have a theory that you can judge the stability and confidence of a country by its postage stamps. Tinpot dictatorships and desperately poor unstable nations produce wild fluorescent stamps of hideous design; prosperous secure nations produce small, discreet little things which hardly ever vary. Britain falls, of course, into the former category, every month churning out tackier and tackier bits of sticky paper to glorify and celebrate our ‘heritage’. The BBC may be embattled, hemmed in by such powerful adversaries as the worthless Rupert Murdoch and a maniacal central government, but there can be no excuse for such a squalid display of onanistic narcissism. To give themselves this meaningless first-person plural identity, publicly to asperse their financial partners, unabashedly to brag about achievements within one department while simultaneously financing other departments which produce the very kind of populist material they affect, for the purposes of this snobbish, deceitful little screed, to deprecate, all this touches a new low watermark.

Look, I’m sorry to be so cross, but there you are. It’s rather hard to turn back to reviewing after that. Still. Howsoever that may be.

As you read this, Happy Families, a filmed comedy serial written by Ben Elton, will be running. As I write this, however, we still lack a fortnight to transmission so it is difficult to review it as such. But from a rather privileged position of knowing how much trouble Paul Jackson the director/producer and Ben Elton the writer had in getting someone to put the thing on, I can therefore praise Michael Grade of the BBC in advance for having faith in the show and spending the necessary money on it. I just hope it proves to be good, because I must confess that, wearing my other hat of actorperson, I happen to have assumed a role in it, that of a genial doctor. It’s only fair that you should know that, though it may well make you wonder just where the yellow buggery I think I get off criticising other honest actors when I myself have a lot of answering to do at the areopagus of Thespis. Well, I could say that writers get away with such naughtiness all the time, but the truth is that to avert just such charges of moral double-dealing, I never do criticise other actors in print. Cowardice, I’m afraid. But rather than avoid talking about Happy Families at all, I will say (pausing briefly only to remark that the actor playing Dr de Quincey needs urgent cosmetic treatment and a drastic rethink of his future career directions) that it was an excellent idea to produce this kind of filmed comedy. In Happy Families there are six 35-minute episodes containing 75 speaking parts and employing some of the very best young comic talents in the country. Many are not well known outside the small world of the particular brand of comedy often labelled alternative, but they represent a large body of intelligent talent for which we can be justly grateful.

Even as I submit this to the editor, the BBC may be approving a piece of advertising copy for Happy Families, boasting about past comedy successes that individual producers within the corporation had the courage to fight for against the worst judgement of its management, in which case you will rightly have given the programme the miss-in-baulk. Never mind.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter