Openly reticent

Jonathan Coe

  • Grand Inquisitor: Memoirs by Robin Day
    Weidenfeld, 296 pp, £14.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 297 79660 7
  • Beginning by Kenneth Branagh
    Chatto, 244 pp, £12.99, September 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3388 0
  • Storm over 4: A Personal Account by Jeremy Isaacs
    Weidenfeld, 215 pp, £14.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 297 79538 4

There comes a time in the lives of most public figures, it seems, when the exhortation of agents and publishers becomes too much to resist and there is nothing for it but to start writing books about themselves. In the case of Robin Day (Sir Robin, I suppose, if one is not to repeat Mrs Thatcher’s famous gaffe) that time has come at the age of 68; in the case of Kenneth Branagh, at the age of 28. Make of that what you will.

Actually I had never thought that Kenneth Branagh was a particularly interesting person until the press started to tell me that he was, whereas Robin Day has been a pleasingly enigmatic presence on the political scene for as long as I can remember (and for longer than Branagh has been alive). The initial attraction of his memoirs lay in the prospect of penetrating the wobbly façade of neutrality behind which he has always conducted his public interrogations. But while Sir Robin clearly has strong opinions on some subjects – the wickedness of allowing terrorists to appear on television, or the role of the autocue in devaluing the broadcaster’s art – he has no intention of spilling the beans on spicier topics, such as how he voted in the last election. ‘Autobiographical “candour” is liable to be selective and deceptive,’ he writes. ‘Better to be openly reticent than spuriously candid.’ Should the autobiography of a public man reveal details of his private life? ‘Only if the revelations are directly related to his public position or career, or are relevant to an understanding of his work.’ In his view, this doesn’t extend to the question of his own party allegiances: which is strange, when you think about it.

Of course he stood as a Liberal candidate for Parliament in 1959, but he now regards this escapade as the product of a misguided idealism, from which he learned two important lessons: ‘that the Liberal Party would never have become an effective vehicle for Liberal principles and values, and that it did not have a cat in hell’s chance of achieving national power.’ Nonetheless, his idealism in other areas seems to have survived. Among the more revealing passages in this not particularly revealing book are those in which the author describes his schooldays, which was when he absorbed (from his headmaster) ‘a healthy lack of reverence for people in important positions’, but was also, more significantly, ‘taught to revere parliamentary institutions’. The same phrase crops up only a few pages earlier: ‘I was brought up by my father to love political argument, to revere parliamentary institutions and to admire great parliamentarians.’ This tone of high seriousness is maintained throughout the book, especially when Day is arguing for his own importance as a television interviewer. ‘Democracy cannot flourish without fair and reasoned dialogue. In the television age, the television interview is an important element of that dialogue.’ Such interviews should be founded, he believes, on ‘the ancient Socratic method of imparting or gathering information by the process of question and answer.’

What Day’s solemnity in this area brings out, obliquely, is the extent to which he has been out of step with BBC thinking ever since Hugh Carleton Greene took over as Director-General in 1960. A couple of surprisingly vitriolic pages are devoted to the ‘excesses’ of the satire boom – particularly TW3, the very existence of which he considers ‘an obvious breach of BBC standards’ and ‘a gross error of judgment for which the Director-General, Sir Hugh Greene, was responsible’. These views are stated with a passion and a frankness which make the author seem almost romantic, or at least Quixotic, and the subsequent accounts of his tangles with errant young producers and his helpless dismay at the behaviour of reprobate D-Gs lend this book an unexpectedly poignant edge. Copious memos are sent to various Heads of Department, full of suggestions which are never taken up, and the sad climax is provided by Day’s unsuccessful bid to become Director-General himself in 1976. Like anyone who has spent time studying political institutions, Day knows where to look for the centres of power, and he is keenly aware that in the BBC hierarchy power is concentrated in the hands of the administrators, not the performers. At heart, then, this is a book about thwarted ambition.

Which brings us on to Kenneth Branagh. Ambition, that is, not thwarted ambition. In fact Ambition would surely have been the best title for this memoir if Julie Burchill hadn’t gone and beaten him to it. For the characters in Burchill’s little novel, after all, ambition is really nothing more than the sum of their routine material aspirations: but for Branagh, as he portrays himself on these pages, it seems to be a genuinely pathological condition, and the last third of Beginning makes gruelling reading. The commercial, personal and artistic pressures to which Branagh subjected himself seem inexplicable. On location in Yugoslavia for Fortunes of War he dreams up the Renaissance Theatre Company; no sooner has he started the Renaissance Theatre Company than he decides to direct and star in a film of Henry V; he combines post-production on Henry V with writing his autobiography. He whizzes from meeting to meeting and deal to deal, occasionally dropping by at the theatre at seven o’clock to knock off a quick performance of Hamlet. ‘I must never play Hamlet under these conditions again,’ he tells himself sternly. Quite right too. Write it out 100 times before prep, Branagh.

If his Postscript is to be believed, however, young Ken has now learned his lesson and is going to take things a bit more slowly in future: ‘it is clear to me in retrospect that my success has not been accompanied by any real sense of sustained enjoyment or achievement. I have never given myself the chance to make any serious assessment of my work, and I have thus denied myself many chances to improve as an actor, which now stands as my primary concern.’ Finishing the book and the film has also given him an afternoon off on which to marry Emma Thompson, but the poor woman only rates about half a dozen mentions in this book, none of them in the sort of tone you would expect when talking about a Mrs Branagh-to-be. He even manages to drop in two references to The Magic Roundabout without appearing to recall that the programme was the work of his late father-in-law.

Sadly, Branagh seems to have written Beginning in such a hurry that he hasn’t had time during the last year to get his hands on a copy of Nicholas Craig’s I, An Actor, which has delivered a single, fatal blow to this sort of theatrical reminiscence. Consequently his book is stuffed full of embarrassing actorisms about hugs and first-night presents, friends are referred to as ‘mates’, and he keeps slipping into that silly verbless shorthand which inexperienced writers seem to think will convey immediacy. Here, for example, is his account of a fracas with the school bully:

‘You’re a divvy, ain’t you? What are you?’ ...

Squirming. More breathless fear. Cornered now.

Literally against the wall. My lapels were seized.

‘What are you?’

Mumble.

What?’

‘A divvy.’

Hysterical sneering. Flashman laughter. The bell rang. Escape, thank Christ.

Is it only actors who use the word ‘Christ’ like this any more? Branagh does it all the time, especially whenever Hamlet is mentioned: ‘Thank Christ for that,’ he exclaims, on discovering that RADA have cast ‘Yours truly as the Prince’. Derek Jacobi offers to direct him as Hamlet for Renaissance and he gulps: ‘Christ. I hadn’t bargained on that one.’ More predictable mannerisms include the camp words of actorly encouragement (‘Not worth it, love’) and wild over-enthusiasm for unfunny actorly behaviour: Brian Blessed (‘a wild anarchic presence’) yells, ‘You can’t direct for toffee, you big pouf,’ and Branagh recalls that ‘I laughed loudest and decided I loved the man to death.’ At the end of the Henry V shoot, in fact, Branagh ‘shook as many hands as I could without giving in to sobs and reserved my warmest hugs for Brian and for Emma’. Sounds as though that marriage was a close thing, after all. Personally, Ken, I think you made the right choice.

Jeremy Isaac’s account of his years at Channel 4 seems quite sober by comparison, although even in that rarefied corner of Charlotte Street it seems that the rank breeze of actorliness has made itself felt occasionally. The worst offender, of course, is ‘Dickie’ Attenborough (‘Darling – we are all, you know, in show business; never forget that, will you?’) but even Isaacs himself confesses to having made a habit, every 2 November (‘our anniversary’) of going round the building ‘presenting everyone with a packet of sweets, a flower and, if permitted, a kiss’.

His book is a none too readable amalgam of official history – there are a lot of statistics and endless paragraphs listing the names of various old Channel 4 programmes – plus some random personal details, such as the passages describing pleasant holidays spent with his late wife Tamara. You can tell that Isaacs, who has produced many programmes in his time but rarely presented them, doesn’t quite have Robin Day’s finely-tuned sense of how to address his audience: and when he announces that ‘since my earliest days in it, I have been sure that broadcasting is not for broadcasters but for the audience it serves,’ we can only hope that this was a realisation which came easily to him.

He rightly singles out Film on Four as the channel’s most impressive achievement, but is as indulgent of the series’s faults as he is proud of its virtues. He admits that Bill Douglas’s Comrades is far too long and slow, but insists that ‘I would rather have funded it than a hundred whizz-bang thrillers that start at a cracking pace and never let up.’ This seems an extraordinary statement, one which perversely elevates intention over achievement and which, if it represents the prevailing ethos among contemporary British film financers, must account for our inability to churn out anything these days other than the clod-hopping polemic of Paris by Night and How to get ahead in Advertising.

Doubtless Isaacs has serious achievements to celebrate, as indeed does Branagh, but we should perhaps start questioning whether this sort of book offers the best form in which to do it. Their memoirs convey a palpable sense of having been conceived in haste over a publisher’s lunch and composed at speed into a dictaphone. Against this backdrop it’s Robin Day’s book, with its ponderous judgments and rolling, Johnsonian periods, which leaves the most lasting impression.