Vol. 3 No. 2 · 5 February 1981

Ian McEwan writes about his television plays

3514 words

I first wrote a television play in 1974 because I wanted to break the isolation of writing fiction. I had no other job and I was far less reconciled than I am now to the essentially crackpot activity of sitting down alone several hours a day with an assortment of ghosts. I envied people who, even while they often complained about each other, collaborated, sped in taxis to urgent conferences; they appeared (I begin to doubt this now) saner and happier for having to do with each other. I thought of writing for television rather than for the stage because, like most people, I had spent far more hours in front of television sets than in theatres; I felt familiar with television’s ‘grammar’, with its conventions and how they might be broken. As a short-story writer I was attracted by its scale, its intimacy. The possibilities and limitations presented by the 30, 50 or even 75-minute television play seemed very close in some ways to those presented by the short story: the need for highly selective detail and for the rapid establishment of people and situations, the possibility of chasing one or two ideas to logical, or even illogical, conclusions, the dangers of becoming merely anecdotal.

Finally, television was, and is, dominated by the powerful, cohesive conventions of its naturalism. The programme-maker who departs radically from these conventions can be sure of at least irritating or surprising the audience – there is a baseline of expectation. Literary fiction, on the other hand, as the older form, is not similarly dominated: there are authors writing comfortably inside the narrative conventions of the 19th century and publishing alongside writers of ‘postmodernist’ pastiches of 18th-century novels. Naturalism is the common language of television – not the language we speak, but one we are accustomed to listen to. Simply by association it has become the language of the state, of an illusory consensus, and prone to all its contradictions. The centrality of television naturalism suggested, or so I thought, that formal experiment could therefore really matter, that by calling into question the rules of the common language the viewer could be disoriented and tempted to regard the world afresh. These, of course, were grand expectations. The non-stop omnivorousness of television, aided by the tone of vacuous after-dinner chat of much television reviewing, tends to make such pronouncements of intent sound a little reedy.

Of the three plays now published, the first two were attempts, however weak, to kick over the traces. The third, The Imitation Game, is not formally experimental at all. I had begun to think there might be more effective, if well-tried, means of trying to regard the world afresh.

Jack Flea’s Birthday Celebration was written in 1974, shortly after I had finished writing the last of the stories that were to make up my first collection, First Love, Last Rites, and I think of this play as really belonging in that volume. It was commissioned originally by Barry Hanson, who was producing from Birmingham half-hour plays by new writers – hence the series title, ‘Second City Firsts’. A standard procedure in the commissioning of a play, especially one by an unknown author, is for a synopsis to be written and then, once the producer is satisfied that the writer’s ‘idea’ is sound and feasible, for a contract to be offered. It seemed to me a deadening process. I duly presented my ‘idea’, discussed it at length with the producer, signed a contract and wrote a play whose every line was stillborn. Rewrites failed to rescue it. I explained to Barry Hanson that I could not know what I was writing about until I had written it. He promptly sent a second contract for a play entitled Blind Date, and, encouraged by his willingness to take a chance on me, I set to work. When Hanson left Birmingham, Tara Prem inherited the project. She and Pedr James, the script editor, made numerous suggestions for improvement and the play’s final shape owes a lot to them.

My intention was to take a television cliché – a kind of family reunion, a dinner party – and to transform it by degrees and by logical extension to a point where fantasy had become reality. The self-reflecting fiction at the centre of the play is perhaps one of those conceits that many writers new to a form are tempted to exploit. As it turned out, it was not, as I had feared, too literary or undramatic. It simply became a feature of the central character’s illusory sense of control.

The play was helped enormously by the fact that the actors thought it very funny. Producing the play in Birmingham had one distinct advantage: at the end of a day’s rehearsal the four actors – who all came from far away – could not go home. They had to hang about together in restaurants or in the hotel bar. No one could quite escape his or her part. By the end of ten days a very odd and gratifying level of controlled hysteria had been reached and this suited the claustrophobic nature of the play perfectly, as did the detached quality of Mike Newell’s camera script.

I adapted Solid Geometry in 1978 from the short story I had written in 1973. The story had very distinct origins. A mathematician friend from Chile had recently told me of a ‘proof’ for a plane without a surface and had outlined for me the consequences of such a proof being valid. Independently of this, I had been reading Bertrand Russell’s diaries and I wanted to write a story which would somehow illustrate the way diary writing, in its selectivity, closely resembles fiction writing. Thirdly, I wanted to write about the collision of two intellectual worlds. In 1972 I bought a bus in Amsterdam with two friends and travelled the hippy trail to Afghanistan and into the North-West Frontier Province. During the preceding year in England and all along the route to Kabul I met people who spoke of the world in specifically anti-rationalist terms. The talk was of Alan Watts, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Ouspensky, of bits and pieces of Jung, of the I Ching and the Tarot cards and of how psychotropic drugs, which we consumed in large quantities, might transform the mechanistic, aggressive world we had left behind into the peaceable kingdom. At the time it was a great liberation from a formal education that had seemed to have gone on too long – I had finished a Master’s degree the year before. When I returned to England, determined to carry on writing (I had published two stories by then), I found the cautious, analytical voices of a literary education vying with the intuitive and carefree. Albert and Maisie became the exaggerated representatives of each – the highly rational and destructive against the loving but self-deluded. The intended irony was that Albert uses the very system (‘the mathematics of the Absolute’) to dispose of her which Maisie endorses and which he has repudiated.

Solid Geometry is hardly a profound story. It is a little too neat, and at best simply clever. It gave me great satisfaction at the time because it seemed to tie up odds and ends that at one point seemed to belong to two or three stories. Its three-layered time-scheme suggested that it might adapt well to television and I first suggested it to the BBC in 1975, but without success. Then, early in 1978, Stephen Gilbert commissioned it for a series called ‘The Other Side’, also being made from Pebble Mill, Birmingham.

The immediate problem was to dramatise the relationship between Great-grandfather and Maxwell, which is merely reported in the story. It was also important to prevent Albert from becoming too sympathetic. It could easily happen, because he is the one with the diaries, and through whom we have access to Great-grandfather, Maxwell and Vienna. Correspondingly, it was necessary to make Maisie as sympathetic as possible in her attempts to rescue the marriage: that way, Albert’s disposing of her would appear all the more callous. When the play went into production I discovered that dazzling electronic techniques were on hand, not only for the paper flowers and Maisie’s final disappearance, but also in moving us from one time-level to another through the medium of a glowing page of the diary. The scenes of the mathematicians’ conference in Vienna were to be shot through glass, a film technique adapted for tape.

After a week’s rehearsal in March 1979 I began to think that this was, potentially at least, a far better play than a short story. It had a resonance and life that had not been present previously. The relationships between Maisie and Albert, on the one hand, and Great-grandfather and Maxwell, on the other, seemed to parallel and reflect each other. What was merely anecdotal in the story now seemed a strong narrative line. The mere cleverness of the story was easily displaced by the rapport between the two sets of actors, particularly between Mary Maddox and Clive Merrison.

On 20 March, four days before we were due to record the play in the studio, the BBC management called a halt to production: exactly why, and why we could not have been consulted first, I am unlikely now ever to discover. Mr Philip Sidey, Head of Network Centre, the administrative head of BBC Birmingham, objected strongly to the play, and Mr Shaun Sutton, Head of Drama Group, Television, effected the ban. At a meeting with the latter, I was told the play was ‘untransmittable’ and that this was not a time for adventurous projects. Specific objections to the play were not mentioned then or at any other time during the minor storm that followed. While we were meeting, the BBC put out a press notice that announced the ban and referred to ‘grotesque and bizarre sexual elements in the play’. The decision was presented as irrevocable. There could be no negotiation or compromise.

Naturally we would have resented compromise, but we were too deeply committed to the project not to explore every conceivable way of keeping it alive. For example, if the ban originated from a simple visceral response to a preserved penis in a jar, then we should have talked because there may have been room for manoeuvre. Who knows, if the contents of the preserving-jar had been shrouded in murky liquid, its contents only to be glimpsed and guessed at, if it had been seen, once Maisie had broken the jar open, as undifferentiated grey tissue on Albert’s desk, then it could have been effective enough for being inexplicit. It would have been immensely irritating to deal at such a trivial level, but worth it.

Again, if the objection was to the love/disappearance act at the end, then we certainly should have talked. Mary Maddox was to have played the scene naked, it is true, but nakedness is not new to television, and Mike Newell had yet to write his camera script. The camera has to be told how and what to look at. From the point of view of dramatic effectiveness, discretion here was our best option: to have allowed the camera to become a voyeur, to have introduced at the climax of the play the self-consciousness of pornography, would have been completely diversionary.

But the BBC executives saw only a ‘dirty’ play, and their mood was more retributive and paranoid than constructive. Stephen Gilbert, the producer, was sacked after publicly criticising the ban. He was reinstated after a union-backed appeal but with severely reduced reponsibilities. Gillian Reynolds, a Kaleidoscope presenter, lost her job for writing about the ban in Broadcast magazine. Through a series of bungled or deliberately mismanaged statements from the BBC press office, Solid Geometry became, for ten days or so, widely celebrated in the press as a play with bizarre sex scenes. Stephen Gilbert ascended to headlines as TV SEX BOSS (ON CARPET). I sped in taxis to urgent conferences. Then the whole thing was forgotten.

I wrote The Imitation Game less from a need to collaborate than from a sense of dissatisfaction with my fiction. My novel The Cement Garden was in certain respects a synthesis of some of the concerns of my short stories, and after I had finished it, in August 1977, I felt I had written myself into too tight a corner; I had made deliberate use of material too restricted to allow me to write about the ideas that had interested me for some years. The Women’s Movement had presented ways of looking at the world, both its present and its past, that were at once profoundly dislocating and infinite in possibility. I wanted to write a novel which would assume as its background a society not primarily as a set of economic classes but as a patriarchy. The English class system, its pervasiveness, its endless subtleties, had once been a rich source for the English novel. The system whose laws, customs, religion and culture consistently sanction the economic ascendancy of one sex over another could be a still richer source: men and women have to do with each other in ways that economic classes do not. Patriarchy corrupts our most intimate relationships with comic and tragic consequences, and as a system it can be described in microcosm through its smallest and most potent unit, the family. The Cement Garden embodied something of this, and so did some of my short stories, particularly as parodies of male attitudes in ‘Home-Made’ and ‘Dead as they come’. But my narrators were frequently too idiosyncratic or solipsistic to allow me the freedom to explore.

After eight months of writing notes and instructions to myself, and of false starts, I had found no way into the kind of novel I wanted to write. I worked on a short story about a man who lives in the American Mid-West (where I had been living) and who divides his time between looking after his daughter and polishing his performance of Mozart’s Fantasia for piano, K 475, a piece of music that obsessed me. Then Richard Eyre, who had just moved from the Nottingham Playhouse to the BBC, asked me to write a television play and I abandoned the story. I thought that by distracting myself, by doing something completely different, I could come back refreshed to my non-existent novel.

Initially I wanted to write a play about Alan Turing, the brilliant young mathematician who was brought to Bletchley Park from Cambridge during the war to work on Ultra, the decipherment of the German Enigma codes. He was one of the founding fathers of modern computers. He was a homosexual and suffered for it at the hands of the law. He died in 1953 in circumstances so far not completely explained.

I first heard of Turing in 1975 when I was writing a magazine piece on machine intelligence. Dr Christopher Evans of the National Physical Laboratories gave me an article by Turing, published in 1950 in Mind, entitled ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’. In it he proposed the ‘imitation game’ as an operational procedure for approaching the question: ‘Can machines think?’ I heard more about the importance of Bletchley from Donald Michie, Professor of Robotology at Edinburgh University. Three years later I read Angus Calder’s The People’s War, a social history of World War Two, and resolved to write something one day about the war. I come from an Army background, and although I was born three years after the war ended, it was a living presence throughout my childhood. Sometimes I found it hard to believe I had not been alive in the summer of 1940.

But it was not at all easy to research either Bletchley or Turing’s time there. A few books had been published, but there was a great deal of material that at that time (spring 1978) had not yet been released. I spoke to the historian Peter Calvocoressi who had been head of Air Ministry Intelligence and was well placed to write the history of the Ultra secret. He was frustrated by the lack of primary sources and said that if the papers were not released soon he would be too old to sift through them all and write his book. I spoke to Andrew Hodges who was writing Turing’s biography. Reasonably enough, he was reluctant to tell me facts that he had uncovered through painstaking research, but he told me enough about Turing’s life and death to show me how little I knew. I had been researching for three months, and I knew that Turing would have to be invented.

And by this time certain other facts about Bletchley Park were interesting me more. By the end of the war ten thousand people were working in and around Bletchley. The great majority of them were women doing vital but repetitive jobs working the ‘bombes’ – electro-mechanical computing machines (Turing was a major force in their development) which were fed ‘menus’ and ran through thousands of combinations of letters until a code was broken. The ‘need to know’ rule meant that the women knew as much as was necessary to do their jobs, which was very little. As far as I could discover, there were virtually no women in at the centre of the Ultra secret. There was a widely held view at the beginning of the war that women could not keep secrets.

Secrecy and power go hand in hand. Traditionally, women had been specifically excluded, by clearly stated rules written by men, from government, higher education, the professions, trade guilds, the priesthood and from inherited property: in effect, until recent times, from citizenship. And yet women seemed somehow essential to the conduct of war. Their moral and emotional commitment was vital, for they were the living embodiment of what the men fought to protect from the Enemy.

Their position was made more complex in modern warfare when sheer shortage of manpower impelled governments to bring women into the services. They were asked in not as fighter pilots or to mastermind intelligence operations, but as the housekeepers of war – cooks, chauffeurs, secretaries. In the Imperial War Museum library I came across the text of a wartime wireless broadcast: ‘Henceforward, as our colossal war machinery gets under way, no skilled person is to do what can be done by an unskilled person, and no man is to do what can be done by a woman.’

When I began to speak to ex-ATS and WRNS the picture became even more complicated. Nearly all of them were now married women whose children had grown up and married. They had done the repetitive tasks connected with Ultra and then, bound by the Official Secrets Act for over thirty years, had spoken to no one about their work, not even their husbands. They spoke of the great camaraderie among the women which they felt – and this was said without bitterness – was incompatible with married life. Despite the hardships of military life, the crowded living quarters, low wages, lack of privacy, exhausting work, occasional bullying, the one word which recurred in their reminiscences was ‘independence’. Without the war they would normally have expected to move straight from their father’s house to their husband’s. Despite the kinds of jobs assigned to them (I spoke to drivers and cooks as well as special operators), the war presented a unique and guiltless freedom from the strictures of family life, and from economic dependence on a particular man.

By this time I had come to think of Ultra as a microcosm, not only of the war but of a whole society. Peter Calvocoressi graphically described Ultra’s organisation on the ‘need to know’ basis as a set of concentric rings. The closer you moved to the centre, the more men you found; the further you moved to the periphery, the more women. By having a woman at the centre of the film (I no longer thought of it as a play), I could disguise my own ignorance about Ultra as hers. The idea was to have her move from the outermost ring to the very centre, where she would be destroyed. At the centre would be a sexual relationship; its misunderstandings would be a consequence of the absurdity of the structure. Turing by this time had disappeared and his place taken by Turner, who anachronistically expounds the imitation game. Music – in its written form a kind of code – became important to the film, and the heroine inherited the Mozart Fantasia.

This was the novel I had wanted to write, and after I had finished the script there were times when I regretted intensely that it was a television film. These regrets disappeared as soon as I began to work with the director, Richard Eyre. I do not think a writer could have hoped for more sensitive, imaginative direction. It was, in effect, his first film too, and this gave our collaboration during the year before going into production, and through rehearsals, shooting and editing, an open, exploratory quality that was thoroughly exhilarating.

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