I don’t have a laptop connected to the net – (see ‘How I Write’ ) and sometimes have to wait a bit before posting these ‘essays’ – and this failure to be instantaneous is perhaps what separates essays from blogs. So when I say I watched ‘The Go-Between’ on television last night , I’m not going to launch into a rapid critique, but reflect rather on what distinguishes the adaptation of the L.P. Hartley novel from its – superior – film equivalent. It’s not that the TV film wasn’t ‘handsomely mounted’ (as they say) and generally well cast – the boy, Jack Hollington, was terrific. But we are dealing with the difference between a BAFTA contender and, if we can put it like that, a Nobel Prize of a script. I say ‘script’ because I was ever so slightly disappointed in the film when it came out, having read the Pinter script first and had my own version of the film in my head first. I’d bought Harold Pinter’s ‘Five Screenplays’ not long after leaving Cambridge. I hadn’t much money – it was thirty bob, but there were few screenplays available at that time to me as a would-be writer living a hundred and sixty miles from London with its better bookshops and libraries. Three of Pinter’s screenplays – the three he did for Joe Losey (‘The Servant’, ‘Accident’ and ‘The Go-Between’ ) are masterpieces, and I read them again and again. All, I would argue, improve on the books on which they are based, which I also read - of which ‘The Go-Between’, as a minor classic, is easily the best. Those are the books to pick to adapt, by the way, not copper bottomed masterpieces. The L.P. Hartley book (a sad man himself apparently) suffers from a certain ‘woe is me’ tone (‘these events ruined my life’) and takes time to get going with what feels like an autobiographical section of a little boy interested in spells and magic. Pinter disposes almost completely with the first person narrator, and propels us – lyrically – in a carriage to the great hall where young (struggling middle class) Leo is to spend his summer. He is out of his depth socially, and missing his widowed mother. The TV version was more precise about the social gradations – the Maudsleys, who are renting the hall, and Trimingham, who owns it (I had forgotten or not registered this). But in a way those fine gradations don’t matter – they all seem posh and strange to young Leo, with Mrs. Maudsley as, finally, devil mother, Evil Queen. How expertly the plot kicks in: Leo’s visit to Norwich with the beautiful daughter, Marian Maudsley, to buy new clothes, and then his being ‘employed’ as postman between the lovers, Marian and the tenant farmer Ted Burgess. It’s here the differences between a competent dramatization and a masterpiece begin to show. In the film Margaret Leighton (an ‘old fashioned’ film actress) has only to raise a single eyebrow at Marion’s insistence on accompanying Leo to Norwich (and a presumed assignation with Ted Burgess) for us to realise some of the underlying tensions between mother and (quietly) wilful daughter. In the TV film we get a full scene, a bit of an argument, and too many close ups of Mrs. Maudsley’s scepticism and suspicion. Lesley Manville, not my favourite actress, played Mrs. Maudsley. I’ve seen too much of Lesley Manville in Mike Leigh and at the Royal Court to believe in her as haut bourgeois, but it’s her habit of commenting on characters as she’s playing them that always narks me a bit - too many Mike Leigh external mannerisms, as if these constituted ‘reality’ and character. If there was an insect bothering her, as there was – conveniently - last night, of course she would flick it away irritably, anticipating a near terminal twitchiness. And, aided and abetted by the director and Adrian Hodges, the adapter, she went onto full fright neurotic breakdown at the end of the piece. OTT. I know of no more frightening sequence in a film as when Margaret Leighton drags the boy, Leo, to the abandoned garden house where the lovers are – at that moment - copulating. ‘No, you will go with me…’ I suppose I’m talking about restraint, of less being more. The climax of the BBC TV film was straight out of ‘Shutter Island’ with stuff – snowflakes? - raining down from above. Roll on the final sequence, I thought: the aged Leo and Marian in the dower house and Marian’s observation that her visitor was withered up emotionally. ‘Tell him..’ she instructs the adult Leo, trying to use him again in a matter involving her and Ted Burgess’s grandson. In the Pinter film there were the famous and bold ‘flash forwards’ where Leo, a hunched old man in dark coat and chauffeured motor car, seeks out those scenes of his childhood. We glimpsed his sombre posture: we didn’t need telling, as in the TV film, that his life had been blighted. Nor did we need the little boy reappearing, charmingly, to his aged self, or the last shot – what was the point of it? – of his walking in a wide landscape to the hall, music swelling – a spectacular shot, but empty – as was the TV film’s first, jarring, helicopter shot of the Norfolk landscape. But maybe Sunday night TV viewers need to get their license money’s worth and be left with a certain woozy sympathy for what happened to Leo that hot summer fifty years before. A film is not all script, of course, and I also missed the genius of that urgent piano score of the Losey film. Julie Christie was perhaps a little too old to play Marian Maudsley, but she and Alan Bates were an established screen duo, and I missed, in particular, Bates’ warmth as Ted Burgess last night.
There’s a danger of nostalgia creeping into these comments. I watched the Sixties’ ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ again the other week, having decided to not to see the Carey Mulligan version. Bates and Christie again, and it didn’t really stand up, I’m sorry to say. In the star fucking spirit of these essays, I came across Julie Christie at a big Labour Party do in 1987. I was talking to the Guardian journalist, Duncan Campbell, and he said, as someone approached from behind: ‘Have you met Julie?’ (his girlfriend) and there she was, breathy, modest, radiant. I felt, as with once sitting on the same table in the Granada canteen (eating my sausage and chips) alongside Annie Walker/Doris Speed, ten years before, that I had ‘made it’. Recently, dealing with some builders at one of the houses I look after, I tried to describe the owner of the house by saying ‘She looks like Julie Christie’ and the – young – gang had no idea who I meant. Well, Sic Transit (as I like to say) Gloria Steinem.
I realised, watching ‘The Go-Between’ that I had worked with both actors playing Trimingham: Stephen Campbell Moore, last night, and Edward Fox, in the Pinter film. It’s a cinch of a part, spurned aristocratic lover with a disfiguring facial scar, but both were good. The Pinter script had more sly humour and Fox brought that out. After the read though of the TV film we made, ‘Circles of Deceit’, he came up to me. ‘I’m going to ask you to cut some lines,’ he said. ‘I think I can do what you want with a gesture.’ Indeed, he did, and I learnt a lesson. Stephen Campbell Moore can be heard on the ‘Listen’ section at the end of this web site, as E.M. Forster in ‘A Dose of Fame’. As I walked into the rehearsal room, and he glanced up from underneath a flat cap, where he was seated by the door (he’s an astonishingly handsome man) he said to me, ‘You’re going to have to tell me what to do. I’ve never done radio before.’ Well, he does it beautifully, from the most insidious first line (always important) I have ever written onwards (the phrase is taken from Forster’s diaries): ‘Take today…’ And blam! we’re into it. Diana Quick (‘Brideshead’) plays his mother, Lily, beautifully. I still get a kick from working with these people - and still retain the orange covered copy of Pinter’s ‘Five Screenplays’, that helped get me going. I went, sometime in the late Eighties with Glenys Kinnock to see Fiona Shaw in the funniest ‘Hedda Gabler,’ I have ever seen - well, the only funny ‘Hedda’. It didn’t completely work, but who’s ever seen a ‘Hedda’ with laughs? As we were walking away Glenys said, ‘I must have a word with Harold.’ Harold Pinter, there with Antonia, his wife. I scarpered. ‘Where did you disappear to?’ Glenys said as she re-joined me. ‘He’s too much of a hero,’ I said. I think those screenplays of his for Losey – elliptical – are up there with his greatest plays. I have only one gripe with the late Nobel Prize winner. I look at myself and my own output and often think, ‘Why bother?’ A very down to earth director I once worked with, Janet Whitaker (‘Answered Prayers’ in the ‘Listen’ section is hers) once directed Pinter – towards the end of his life – in a radio play. ‘Now, Harold’, she would say, coming onto the studio floor from the control room, ‘do you think you can get a bit more’ whatever ‘into that line?’ There he was, just another actor, once David Barron (his pseudonym) in his rep days. Well, there’s hope for all of us…