The Literary Beeb

June 5, 2014 — Leave a comment

***Contains spoilers for Game of Thrones and Mad Men***

Image credit: BBC

Image credit: BBC

The observant, and interested, may have noticed that this year has been a bonanza for those of us who enjoy watching writers sit down and talk about their lives and work. Alan Yentob has clearly lashed The Culture Show and Imagine… together to provide us with a surfeit of moveable feasts spanning the entire BBC frontier.

Hanif Kureishi came out swinging first, swaggering and courting controversy like a bad first date; Julian Barnes scintillated at his wry, precise, prickly best; Lynn Barber, the famous interviewer of the famous, complained about the politesse of Gore Vidal and the petulance of Rafa Nadal; and, most recently, Edward St Aubyn gave a rare television interview. We knew it was rare because John Mullan, his interviewer, told us so. He also told us that St Aubyn is a writer of exquisite prose, which is true, but he, Mullan, might concede that television crews won’t be swarming the St Aubyn lair begging for him to appear. He was underwhelming, but the fact that anyone could talk with any amount of eloquence about the events of his life (rape, drugs, matrimonial euthanasia) is something to be grateful for – if it attracts more readers to his books, his publisher will be too.

However, there was one writer, the heavyweight champion, whom Yentob had been trying to make a film with for years, his great white whale, the great white writer: Philip Roth. Imagine… Philip Roth Unleashed (BBC One) was a two-part cruise through the novelist’s life and fiction; a smooth production, given how intimately linked those two things are – but are they really linked at all or are they a whole? Isn’t the work part of the life? Isn’t the life the work? These are questions expertly handled by Roth himself and, if you missed the documentary, the early Nathan Zuckerman novels are painfully preoccupied with the subject. And until you’ve read those, we have Roth’s succinct-enough answer: writers can’t invent from nothing.

It is a joy to watch Yentob and Roth trade mischief and arched eyebrows as they take it in turns to read from the many books. It was something less of a joy to hear from the select handful of commentators, and not because we don’t celebrate every word that comes out of Salman Rushdie’s mouth, but because there are, of course, so few of his contemporaries left to comment at all. And, for me, it was positively sad – nigh-on tear-inducing – to hear that final “Bye bye.”

Elsewhere, in the strictly non-literary TV world, Game of Thrones (HBO/Sky Atlantic) gave us five or ten minutes of excitement after another episode of steadfastly reminding us that certain characters still exist: yes, the Night’s Watch are still sitting around like puppets in the wind; yes, Arya and the Hound are still alive and have finally reached their destination (which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the end of their journey); and yes, the Targaryen HR department is still having personnel nightmares. If this sounds like complaining – well, that’s half right, but only because during and after the fight between the Mountain and the Viper – a strong contender for the finest scene of this season – I thought my heart was going to pop like that head. Like an unripe mellon. (An aside: is Aiden Gillen’s Littlefinger becoming incrementally Irish week by week? It can’t just be me.)

The final scene of the final episode of this half season of Mad Men (AMC/Sky Atlantic) was one of the greatest ever transmitted to screens. The recently-deceased Bert Cooper doing a sock-less song-and-dance variety performance of ‘The Best Things in Life Are Free’ before a befuddled Don – what was happening? – was he going mad? – was he having a stroke? Was I? I have little idea what was going on, but it was magnificent. The final analysis will have to wait till next year and, as it’s a familiar theme in Mad Men for a last minute deal to be struck up to save the company (i.e. Don), I wonder – fearfully – if they will all get to enjoy those millions.

Line of the week: “Misery is wasted on the miserable” – Charles Grodin’s doctor in Louie (FX/FOX).

Jacob Knowles-Smith

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