Image: Joan Bakewell © Sukey Parnell
Chris Beckett, Cataloguer in Contemporary Literary Archives at the British Library, writes:
Joan Bakewell’s autobiography, The Centre of the Bed (2003), begins in a white room – a room as white as ‘a fresh sheet of paper’ – at the top of the house in which she has lived for many years. Boxes and packets of papers long-forgotten have been retrieved from cupboards and shelves. They hold evidence of the past, prompts for the play of memory. Can memory sew the fragments together, make good the gaps in the physical record? But Bakewell is conscious that memory is a construction of the present – a reverie of now – that that can deceive as well as illuminate:
‘Stacks of little diaries, a scattering of entries, a few oblique clues. School reports, a clutch of Cambridge bric-a-brac, invitations to sherry parties, a few enigmatic letters – who was Jonathan, who was Ben? And some from people I still know – Karl, Peter, Freddie. Serious boxes house the weightier matters – though just as transient – of a career in journalism and television.’
Those same boxes – the Cambridge ephemera and the ‘weightier matters’ (‘just as transient’) – have now made their way to the British Library, and their contents will soon be available to readers in another room, the Manuscripts Reading Room. ‘Karl’ is Karl Miller, ‘Peter’ is Sir Peter Hall, and ‘Freddie’ is Frederic Raphael (‘with whom I played tennis on long sunny, Cambridge afternoons’), three university contemporaries among many who quickly rose to become, like Bakewell herself, familiar figures in the British cultural landscape.
Joan Bakewell has been an enduring presence on British television for some fifty years, from the trail-blazing topical discussion programme ‘Late Night Line-Up’ (BBC2, 1964-72), which tumbled through the 1960s embracing the excitement and the risks of live transmission, to the retrospective and reflective interviews in ‘My Generation’ (BBC2, 2000).
Her television break began in a predictable place, in the limited daytime slots scheduled for housewives in the early 1960s, in programmes like ‘Table Talk’ and ‘Home at Four Thirty’. However, the conversation was not always about housework and babies: ‘one afternoon it fell to me to interview an eager young doctor with a shock of unruly black hair [….] In three minutes on air he outlined his theory that a dysfunctional family might be a prime cause of schizophrenia.’ The young doctor was R. D. Laing, author of The Divided Self. In the autumn of 1964, two evening appearances as chair of the BBC2 discussion programme ‘The Second Sex’ provided Bakewell with a further opportunity to demonstrate her range, and presaged an invitation to join the (otherwise all-male) ‘Late Night Line-Up’ team.
Since most of ‘Late Night Line-Up’ was transmitted live, few recordings have survived. Occasionally, items were pre-recorded, but even those have generally not been saved. In January 1969, Bakewell and camera crew spent a week in Lausanne, filming a series of interviews with Georges Simenon. Although the programme is lost, we have, in some small compensation, Bakewell’s Simenon notepads which provide a glimpse of the (fastidious and orderly) author of ‘Maigret’ at his Swiss home.
Image above: Red note book cover
Image above: Simenon notes, reproduced with the kind permission of Joan Bakewell.
At Cambridge (1951-54), Joan Rowlands, as she was then called, was heavily involved in the theatrical productions of the Cambridge Mummers. The archive includes posters, programmes and photographs from several plays, including (1952) The Importance of Being Earnest, in which Miss Rowlands played Cecily Cardew.
It was at Cambridge that Joan Rowlands met her first husband, Michael Bakewell, who preceded her at the BBC, quickly establishing himself a highly-regarded radio and television drama producer, champion of the new theatre of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, John Hopkins and David Mercer. Although acting was not to be Bakewell’s profession, certainly the art of performance – and the construction of a robust public persona – have been integral to her remarkable television career.
Bakewell’s autobiography is keyed to a larger narrative, to events and trends in the social and cultural history of her time. Her diaries include a number of yellow ‘post-it’ notes, marking where her memory has been prompted. The pocket diary for 1960, for example, includes the following highlighted entries: 18 April (Aldermaston Protest, Trafalgar Square); 27 April (Arts Theatre, Pinter, The Caretaker); 28 June (Wesker, Roots); 1 August (opening in Stratford of Michael Bakewell's production of Faustus).
Image: Aldermaston diary entry
Bakewell later recalled: ‘The Easter I was pregnant with Harriet we joined the Aldermaston marchers as they came into Trafalgar Square. Our near neighbour, the American poet W. S. Merwin, had walked all the way. His plimsolls were frayed and his feet blistered, but his wife, Dido, offered us supper that night with another young couple who’d recently moved into the area, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.’
In recent years, Bakewell has taken to writing fiction as another way of re-imagining the past, weaving new narratives from her archive. All the Nice Girls (2009) takes it cue from a World War II initiative (unimaginable today) that encouraged schools to ‘adopt’ a merchant navy ship and their pupils to exchange letters with sailors, raising pupil awareness and sailor morale. The Ship Adoption Scheme, as it was known, is recorded in the magazines of Stockport High School for Girls, which played an active part; there is a set of school magazines in Bakewell’s papers (again with ‘post-it’ notes attached). All the Nice Girls is – like the novel that followed, She’s Leaving Home (2011) – a story of love and changing sexual mores. CND marches feature in She’s Leaving Home, and so does the vividly remembered detail of Bill Merwin’s frayed plimsolls. A potent emblem from the past that has clearly lodged in Bakewell’s memory, the worn shoes make an anonymous but recognizable reappearance in a brief snatch of dialogue (p. 130): ‘I saw one bloke whose plimsolls had shredded by the time we got to Trafalgar Square’.
The comprehensive archive of Joan Bakewell at the British Library testifies to a pioneering career in television journalism and records a remarkable personal and professional journey, from pre-war Stockport to the post-millennial corridors of the House of Lords.