Huw should be so lucky

Philip Purser

  • Sir Huge: The Life of Huw Wheldon by Paul Ferris
    Joseph, 307 pp, £18.99, June 1990, ISBN 0 7181 3464 8

Early in Huw Wheldon’s television career, when the programme with which he made his name, Monitor, was about a year old, he had to deal with a minor ethical point. He had flown to Switzerland with a film unit to interview Georges Simenon, still in his prime and turning out five or six novels a year. Wheldon was fascinated by Simenon’s method of work: the preliminaries of choosing names and backgrounds for his characters, undergoing a medical check, setting Mme Simenon to clean dozens of pipes, sharpening eighty pencils and then immuring himself in a turret room for exactly eleven days, at the end of which he emerged wearing the same shirt as when he went in but bearing a finished manuscript. Little was then known of the equally concentrated bout of sexual activity which followed: Simenon’s invariable habit, pausing (presumably) to change his shirt, was to drive into town and take a succession of young women he referred to as ‘dancers’. Would not dwelling on the author’s writing habits be seen as mere gossip and triviality? The question was gravely discussed as the film was edited. Wheldon declared that it was relevant to the consideration of Simenon as a writer. It was part of his creative process. The seclusion and the pencils and the shirt showed how he needed to impose a ritual on himself in order to make his subconscious operate. Whether Huw would have made the same claim for the subsequent part of the ritual, had he known about it, can only be a matter for speculation, but as recounted by Paul Ferris in Sir Huge the episode quaintly anticipates the row which has broken out over the publication of this biography, and brought such champions of Wheldon’s reputation as Sir Denis Forman, Ludovic Kennedy and Melvyn Bragg trumpeting into the field.

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