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.

In common with other young men of his generation (he was born in 1916), Wheldon was slow to come to terms with his sexual drive. Sent to stay with a Westphalian family and learn German during the first years of the Nazi regime, he wrote to friends back home of his conquests, doubtless imaginary. (Ferris omits, or perhaps never came across, a much more interesting claim belonging to this sojourn: Wheldon once told me that he had been allowed to join the local Hitler Youth.) As a student at LSE, then in a variety of jobs he didn’t suit, finally in the Army – where he got on famously – he had a number of love affairs. Ferris enterprisingly tracked down two or three of the ladies and is fairly discreet about what he learned: Huw couldn’t reconcile love with lust; the affairs were only occasionally consummated, and he often hinted that only with little actresses and tarts (the exact equivalent of Simenon’s dancers) could he really spend himself.

So far, so good – or anyway, so not too bad. But years later in the narrative, when Wheldon is happily married and on course for great things, his biographer is suddenly and unaccountably obsessed by some letters written to his wife from a trip to America for Monitor. Wheldon confesses in his nonstop, ampersand-studded prose that he is much beset in his hotel room with sexual fantasies. I have to say that my first reaction was to marvel that reporting so commonplace a phenomenon should have aroused such an outcry. Sexual fantasies? Huw should be so lucky. Nothing is more helpful in getting off to sleep when jet-lagged in the USA. On the other hand, a ridiculously disproportionate amount of space is devoted to the matter – ten pages. As I waded through the letters, I, too, began to feel unease and then impatience, probably because they are letters. The whole tradition of English biography is based, I know, on the supremacy of the document. Letters, as documents, are admissible evidence. But they can also be, as here, communications between man and wife of the most intimate and confidential nature, and fishing them out to no particular end can’t avoid seeming smelly.

If they had some bearing on Wheldon’s later career, when he had to adjudicate on the acceptability or otherwise of certain programmes, that might have been different. But as confirmed by the two examples Ferris gives later in the book, his attitudes to sex and nudity on the screen were ordinary, middle-of-the-roadish, and firmly related to the intention and quality of the programme in question. He defended Nigel Kneale’s Year of the Sex Olympics because it was a serious play; he wondered mildly if there were not some house taboo against the bare breasts on view in Nana. Incidentally, in a consideration of television and the way a television panjandrum exercises authority it really isn’t enough to cite a couple of titles without placing them in context. The reader could at least be told that the Zola dramatisation (1968) was one of the first costume, or in this case uncostumed, serials to exploit the atmospheric possibilities of colour as well as the relaxation of taboos, or that Katherine Schofield as Nana actually bared all, thereby introducing BBC 2 classic serials to an entirely new audience. The Year of the Sex Olympics was one of two striking cautionary tales (the other was Wine of India) in which Nigel Kneale used the imaginative leaps of the Science Fiction writer to suggest how future governments might try to check what will arguably be the greatest problem facing the world in the next century, the inexorable rise in its population. Their appetites sated by official pornography, the increasingly passive TV audience would breed less.

Once past the night thoughts from America, thank goodness, Ferris is sound on the Monitor period. He catches the fiercely proprietorial attitude Wheldon displayed towards the programme both on the screen and behind it. With his great chin and nose he was not unlike Mr Punch, I used to think: always liable – with any luck – to close proceedings by laying about him with his stick. Ferris has a story I never heard before, of how Wheldon and the BBC went to inordinate lengths to block the publication of John Bowen’s novel The Birdcage because it featured the presenter of a television arts programme who in appearance and manner (‘a kind of scoutmaster of culture presenting units from his troop to the viewers for 45 minutes every Friday night’) seemed to be a mocking version of Huw Wheldon. Despite changes to the character and his programme, Wheldon insisted that the fictional set-up would still be thought of as Monitor’s. In the end, the luckless Bowen was forced to abandon television as his setting and make his hero, implausibly, a presenter of short art films in the cinema.

Wheldon could be extraordinarily insensitive. I remember the silver wedding party given by dear friends who lived on the banks of the Thames in an idyllic setting but where the architecture ran to the kind of bungalow celebrated by Kingsley Amis in The Riverside Villa Murder. Deputed to propose the couple’s health, Huw looked around perplexedly and said something about this ‘funny little house’ in which X and Y had chosen to settle. In much the same way he could be an extraordinarily irritating performer, particularly in the early days of Monitor. Paul Ferris is also good on this, so far as he pursues it. He has spotted, or been told of, the basic, schoolmasterly manner in which Wheldon would introduce a topic, spelling out Darius Milhaud’s name or inserting a line into his script to remind everyone of the facts of Tolstoy’s life and death. He also makes it clear that Wheldon chose to do so quite deliberately, and indeed quite properly. Among his watching millions would be many who knew little of Tolstoy and had never heard of Milhaud.

But there were occasions when the urge for clarity led to absurd elaboration of the obvious, as when he discoursed on a large piece of sculpture about to be erected in London. ‘As you will see,’ said Huw, demonstrating with a maquette, ‘it is in three parts. There is a top part here at the top. A middle part here in the middle. And a bottom part here at the bottom.’ At other times he would slip into a stiff habit of seeming to want artists and writers to stay in familiar slots. I remember an appearance by Priestley when, approaching the age of seventy, he had just published a thriller. A thriller? The great Wheldon eyebrows were raised to full extent. J.B. Priestley was novelist, dramatist, essayist, even (one might say) man of letters. Why should he want to write a thriller? When Priestley tried to explain that it was more of an adventure story, he was then constantly interrupted with allusions to John Buchan, a comparison just inexact enough to annoy Priestley without being obviously amiss. Wheldon, I wrote in my television column the following week, had a genius for getting things narrowly wrong. The tree he barked up was always the tree that stood next to the right tree; the end of the stick he grasped was the next best end; even the red herrings he raised were only a pale shade of pink.

At the same time, as I went on to say, he was on any evidence the most gifted editor in television. He hunted down giants for Monitor – Henry Moore, Sir Thomas Beecham, E.M. Forster, Max Ernst, Robert Graves. He had the fine, if expensive idea of filming the artist or administrator in a setting germane to his or her work. They went to Athens to profile Katina Paxinou, to the Metropolitan Opera in New York to observe Rudolf Bing in the post that had been his life’s ambition. John Whiting talked about The Devils from a café table in Loudon. And then, of course, there were the young directors whom Wheldon fostered: John Schlesinger, Ken Russell, David Jones, Peter Newington, Humphrey Burton. They were encouraged, chivvied, and in Russell’s case restrained from some of his wilder excesses, all in the cause of demonstrating the nature of art by means of films which were themselves small instances of art. The one that is still remembered before all others, I suppose, is Ken Russell’s Elgar with its famous shot of the boy Elgar riding his pony over Malvern hills to the lyrical strings of the grown-up Elgar’s music. Whether Huw queried the biographical accuracy of the image is not recorded, though Ferris does tell us that Russell was not allowed to show the composer flying a kite until he’d proved that kite-flying really had been an Elgarian hobby.

From Monitor Wheldon was promoted first to the Assistant Headship of Talks (which meant documentaries). Out of the upheaval in 1965 which led to the departure of the other Welsh thruster, Donald Baverstock, he emerged triumphantly as Controller of Programmes, Television, or C.P. Tel. in the old Civil Service terminology of the BBC. Finally he succeeded Kenneth Adam in the top job to become the first managing director of the service, or M.D. Tel. It is as he charts this upward progress that Ferris reveals a more fundamental handicap in his task of understanding Sir Huw. He seems to have little regard for the medium to which, after all, Wheldon devoted half his life. He gives little impression that he has seen much television, let alone enjoyed it. His disdain for its barons is unconcealed.

Wheldon’s predecessor Kenneth Adam, for instance, is presented as an indecisive figure never of any great substance, in latter days bemused by drink. ‘Secretaries on the sixth floor of the Television Centre ... would see him with his door open, leaning down for the wine bottle in the bottom drawer of his desk.’ When he finally retires at 60, it is ‘Kenneth Adam’s unhappy reign’ fading away. Well, Adam was certainly a man who enjoyed the social side of life at the top in the BBC, the entertaining of guests, the parties to announce new ventures, the excursions to Glyndebourne. I put him as such into a novel called The Twentymen, under the non-existent but fairly identifiable initials C.Exec.Tel. Adam sent me a note to say that he’d enjoyed it very much and understood that C.Exec.Tel. would not be sueing, which in the light of Ferris’s story of The Bird-cage takes on an extra charm. But to dismiss his reign as ‘unhappy’ and by implication a failure is nonsense. The blunt fact is that Kenneth Adam presided over the greatest sunburst of creativity that BBC Television has ever seen.

When he was appointed, its average share of the then two-channel audience was down to 28 per cent, and viewers in thrall to ITV’s game shows and imported filmlet series were beginning to grumble at having to pay a licence fee for a service they said they never watched. Under Adam, as Ferris initially concedes, the BBC fought back, and not by trying to ape what the opposition did but by making its own things much better. From this period stem nearly all the home-grown blooms of BBC Television in its heyday of the Sixties and Seventies, whether good fiction, historical romps, Monitor, Horizon or Take it or leave it and Dad’s Army. Huw Wheldon’s achievement was to continue the good work and, aided by his renown as a television performer, to proclaim its worth. He was a tireless speaker at conferences and seminars; he visited every European broadcasting organisation and descended on America, carrying the word that the British had a God-given superiority in the telling of stories, especially on TV.

On the very first page of Sir Huge Ferris refers disparagingly to this enthusiasm. Wheldon behaved increasingly, he says, as if the BBC’s kind of television constituted a noble profession rather than a branch of the entertainment business. But a profession is exactly what it was to Huw: not in the sense of belonging to the Royal College of Physicians or the Bar, but in the sense of professing a faith. Wheldon’s faith was in the television combination (BBC and ITV but mostly BBC) which, by luck or by goodwill, gave this country the nearest thing to a common culture since Shakespeare’s day, or anyway Dickens’s. It’s finished now, of course.