English and Drama blog

3 posts from September 2013

20 September 2013

Scientists Behaving Badly

In his current television series, Science Britannica, Professor Brian Cox argues that real-life scientists receive something of a bad press. They are, he argues, regarded with undue suspicion by the public, frequently seen as either dabblers meddling with forces they don't understand or else as out-and-out madmen trying to play God. He does, undeniably, have a point although I fear it will ever be thus. Cox cites the example of the Italian physicist Giovanni Aldini whose work on galvanism and its medical applications stands in a direct line with the development of today's defibrillator devices. Aldini, however, is now best remembered (and even that possibly erroneously) as the inspiration for a much more famous scientist - the less than ethically rigorous Victor Frankenstein. Aldini may have made dead limbs twitch under the application of an electric current but Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein made an entire stitched-together body come to life only to somewhat irresponsibly abandon his creation at the first sign of trouble, allowing it to engage in a murderous rampage across the countryside. Here, perhaps, is the beginning of a whole new level of scientist-bashing. Scientists may receive a bad press at the hands of the general public who misunderstand their aims and methods but in the hands of the literary establishment they quite frequently receive nothing less than a glossy makeover into the realms of nightmare. The trouble is, as a literary device, when it comes to providing a potential for villany and chaos on an epic scale the mad scientist is terrifically hard to beat.

Of course Science and the Humanities do have previous. Like two children squabbling over the same toy they rarely manage to play nicely together. C.P. Snow's famous 1959 lecture 'The Two Cultures' argued that science teaching had been unfairly and dangerously neglected due to an exaggerated emphasis on the arts and humanities. Ideally the two disciplines would be granted an equal weight but somehow an air of distrust always lurks between the two as though they are on opposite sides, rather than two components of a balanced whole. Nowhere was this more obvious than during the Victorian fin de siècle. Scientists such as T.H. Huxley were hugely respected in real life but in the pages of fiction readers were presented with one misbehaving lunatic in a laboratory after another. Famous examples include Dr Moreau, conducting experiments into accelerated evolution on his island via means of vivisection; Dr Jekyll, unleashing the beast within as he explores the darker implications of evolutionary theory; Dr Griffin, conducting a murderous spree as his experiments into invisibility leave him isolated and insane and Dr Ledsmar from Harold Frederic's brilliant The Damnation of Theron Ware, living in his isolated house up on the hill, experimenting upon his collection of lizards and dosing his Chinese manservant with vast doses of opium merely to observe the effects. Amoral, arrogant and brilliantly twisted Dr Ledsmar is a horror. He is also terrifically good fun to read about. The well-behaved considerate scientist acting responsibly under an impeccable moral and ethical code would, on the other hand, be something of a bore.


(Above: A scientist - if he's late-Victorian and in a novel chances are that whatever he's up to it isn't going to end well).

The 1880s and 1890s witnessed the conclusions - both good and ill - of Darwinism being thought through together with their possible implications for religion, humankind's place in Nature, evolution and degeneration. Fears about the heat death of the universe haunted the final pages of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine while up and down the county debate raged about the need and usefulness of animal vivisection experiments. Science was achieving brilliant things in medicine, communications and engineering but it was also unveiling some depressing possibilities for humankind. Respect for the scientist, and fear of what may be unleashed as a result of scientific research went hand in hand. Literature held a mirror to the potentially dark side of scientific endeavour. I suspect, for better or worse, it will always be so. Misbehaving scientists simply make for brilliant and cautionary stories .

13 September 2013

Jokes for David Frost

Sir David Frost, who died recently, made his name on the satirical ‘60s TV show That Was the Week That Was. Whilst working on Keith Waterhouse’s archive I came across Keith’s account of the meeting which led to the commissioning of the ground-breaking TW3, as it was known. In Keith’s memoirs Streets Ahead (1995) he recalls the discussion with BBC producers dwelling on the finer points of German cabaret. David Frost’s contribution to this historic moment was not quite so distinguished: Keith remembers Frost advising him and writing partner Willis Hall that it was ‘never too early to start’ saving for their pensions. 


Sir David Frost interviewing Donald Rumsfeld. Photo by Robert D Ward. 

Leaving aside this inauspicious beginning, Keith and Willis went on to write for almost every episode of TW3, and for Frost’s subsequent programmes Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life, The Frost Report and Frost on Sunday. In doing so, they wrote a lot of material for Frost, much of which now seems rather out-of-date, if not down right sexist. But Keith’s favourite gags for Frost remain as innocuously groan-inducing today as the day they were written:

    ‘Here are the results of today’s Sheepdog Trials: all the sheepdogs were found not guilty’

    ‘See a pin and pick it up, all the day you’ll have a pin’

Quite often though, the joke was on David Frost himself. ‘He combined being a satirist and someone who one satirised’, commented Peter Morgan (who wrote the play Frost/Nixon) in the Telegraph’s obituary. This is surely the key to why Frost remains such a fascinating character. How could a person jump from larking about with the Pythons to interviewing presidents and prime ministers?

Keith and Willis were among the writers who enjoyed poking fun at Frost. Not only did they cast him as a redundant satirist looking for work in one TW3 sketch, they also devoted one of their Late Show sketches to lampooning his relentlessly upbeat interviewing style (‘Super. Marvellous. Absolutely super.’) in a scenario which saw Frost interviewing the Prime Minister of Rhodesia about playing the spoons.

Keith and Willis were prolific sketch-writers for both theatre and television. Keith’s archive is testament to this large output. The four folders bulging with skits and gags from the ‘60s to the ‘80s contain material for Roy Hudd, Ned Sherrin, Roy Kinnear, Millicent Martin, Dora Bryan and Kenny Lynch. Whilst leafing through Keith and Willis’ sketches for The Frost Report, I also found two variations on the famous ‘Class Sketch’ performed by John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. You know the one – ‘I look up to him because he is upper class, but I look down on him because he is lower class.’ The original sketch, written by Marty Feldman and John Law, aired on The Frost Report on 7 April 1966. What I hadn’t realised was that Keith and Willis came up with their own versions for Cleese, Barker and Corbett for later episodes. For the episode on Crime (8 June 1967), they play an upmarket art thief, a middle-class fraudster and a common tea-leaf (who are all treated quite differently by the snobbish judiciary). The programme on Youth (22 June 1967) sees upper class John Cleese and lower class Ronnie Corbett leading vastly different lives whilst both holding the same ambition of managing a pop group.

 The original ‘Class Sketch’ is brilliant for a number of reasons, not least Ronnie Corbett’s punchline, ‘I get a pain the back of my neck.’ Perhaps it was somewhat unusual for its time in relying on a pay-off line: in Streets Ahead Keith reflected that the vogue in the early ‘60s was for sketches without punchlines (in the style of Harold Pinter and others). However, Keith and Willis were more circumspect about the lack of punchlines in some of their TW3 output. They put it down to the fact the taxi sent by the BBC to pick up their weekly contributions was often running up the meter outside their office as they hurried to finish their sketches.

The Keith Waterhouse Archive is currently being catalogued and is expected to be available for research sometime next year.


Keith Waterhouse, Streets Ahead (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995)

06 September 2013

Evelyn Waugh manuscripts at the British Library

Attending a colloquium at Leicester University earlier in the summer in connection with a new AHRC funded research project - to produce a mammoth edition of The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh - prompted me to revisit the British Library’s holdings of Waugh manuscripts. The colloquium was the first event of a five-year project, led by Leicester, whose partners include the Waugh Estate, Oxford University Press, the Bodleian Library, and the Universities of Texas, Leeds and Milan as well as the British Library. As well as the main focus – to produce a definitive critical edition of Waugh’s writing, including his travel writing, essays, journalism, criticism and incidental writing, as well as the plethora of well-known novels – the project involves a number of events and initiatives to disseminate the research to a wider audience as well as to contribute to current understanding in the art of textual editing.

University launches Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh project

Evelyn Waugh, photographed in about 1940

The British Library holds an extensive Waugh collection, at the heart of which is Waugh’s incoming correspondence. These letters, dating from 1921 to 1966, the year of his death, were acquired from the Waugh family in 1990 and were selected by Waugh himself (showing him taking some steps towards what we might term ‘self-archiving' and shaping posterity’s view of him). Waugh’s correspondents range from family members to society friends, from friends and acquaintances from the literary and arts worlds and the Roman Catholic Church, to occasional communications, many of which relate to publishing and the business side of writing. The letters vary from extended series over several decades – the most substantial being from Nancy Mitford – to single communications, often congratulating him on his most recent publication.

Among the first letters in these files is a series from Harold Acton, a fellow Oxford student who became a lifelong friend. An early letter of Acton’s, reminding us that Waugh initially saw his future in the visual arts rather than as an exponent of the written word, complements Waugh on his ‘Fires of Youth’ wood engraving and emphatically declares: “At last you are the MODERN you were always intended to be.” The majority of letters are occasioned by responses to his reading of Waugh’s works, responses that are deeply felt. He describes his experience of reading Brideshead Revisited as being “swept alternatively by pleasure and pain: pleasure at your ever-increasing virtuosity and mastery of our fast-evaporating language…; pain, at the acrid memories of so many old friends you have conjured”. Another letter by Daphne Acton recounts that everyone in her circle has been bowled over by the brilliance of Brideshead. Adding her own congratulations, she writes, diffidently: “For all that it seems to me like writing to tell Shakespeare that I think well of Macbeth”.

Waugh’s Christian faith and conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930 bear crucially on any understanding of his writing. Among the letters at the British Library are a series from Father Philip Caraman, Jesuit priest and editor of the Catholic periodical, The Month, and another from John Douglas Woodruff, editor of The Tablet. Caraman’s letters include several references to a 1948 film called The Miracle of Bells, against which Waugh has written a diatribe in one of the newspapers. Endorsing Waugh’s slating of the film’s portrayal of Catholicism, Caraman goes on to suggest that Waugh write a more general essay criticising the Hollywood concept of religion as whole, essentially, as he writes: “its treatment of Catholicism as a box-office stunt”. Other letters suggest an idea for a Jesuit biography, outline his editorial purposes with The Month (a Catholic review of literature and the arts, with an appeal mainly to non-Catholics – “an Horizon, with Catholic thinking instead of the fluff”) and refer to Waugh’s various contributions to the review (one offering remuneration in the form of caviar). Later letters from Edith Sitwell in 1955 discuss her hopes that she will soon be received into the Roman Catholic Church, and refer to her instruction by Fr Caraman.

Some intriguing snippets of information are to be found in the occasional letters. There is an interesting run, for example, from Joan Saunders at Writer’s and Speaker’s Research, a Kensington-based agency which offers a facts and figures answer service. Among these are responses to Waugh’s queries on topics including ‘Tanks for Russia Week’ in 1941, ‘Red Sunday’ (21 June 1942), London air raids and other news items in 1941. (She tells him, for instance, that clothes rationing was introduced in June of that year and that, in December, three miles of Hyde Park railings were removed in connection with the war effort.) Other letters comprise genealogical enquiries. In contrast, the final letter in the run – on a rather more esoteric note – concerns mythological sources for the rejuvenating properties of water and the information that, according to Plutarch, the average life expectancy of a water nymph is 9,620 years. I’m not sure if that detail ever found its way into any of Waugh’s writings, but it was no doubt useful knowledge to have.

As well as within other manuscripts collections at the British Library (including the archive of Edward Sackville-West, papers relating to Christopher Sykes’s 1975 biography and the Society of Authors’ Archive), important Waugh resources can be found within the Library’s collections of printed material and drama and literature recordings. The opportunity to listen to readings of works in an author’s own voice and to hear little-known broadcasts of talks, interviews and events offers an illuminating perspective on the man and the work. The Library’s Waugh recordings span a period of 25 years, from the earliest preserved recordings of his voice in 1938 to a speech given at the Royal Society of Literature in 1963, just three years before his death. Some of them were published on CD as part of the Library's Spoken Word series a few years ago.

I’m looking forward to being involved with the project as it progresses. It marks a defining moment in Waugh studies and may well prove to be the largest ever scholarly edition of a British author. More Waugh-related blog posts may be on their way between now and 2018!