The tricky job of showing writers on TV

Cuz basically our lives are so damn boring. Sitting and writing? Talking and writing? Watching TV and writing? Telling your partner how much you love him or her and writing? How the hell do we make great television out of that?

To tell the truth, we aren’t sure. But the Brits certainly are trying:

arthur and georgeby Mark Lawson

The novelist Robert Harris recently criticised broadcasters – and especially the BBC – for not doing enough to cover books. This recurrent debate, though, depends on your definition of coverage?.? Harris seemed to mean publicity, calling for television chat shows dedicated to literature. ?But for viewers who remember when Play for Today and other strands regularly screened scripts originally written for the medium, TV can sometimes seem too dependent on books.

The big winter dramas on the BBC’s main channels? were The Casual Vacancy and Wolf Hall?, derived from bestsellers by JK Rowling and Hilary Mantel respectively, while even ITV, which has no public service remit to support reading, ?is currently airing a three-part version of Julian Barnes’ 2005 novel Man Booker prize-shortlisted novel Arthur & George. This one should earn double “Harris points” because ?not only does it come from a novel but the central character is a novelist – ?so extend?ing the small list of dramas that have attempted to put the life of a writer on screen.

?Primarily that’s because? the act of literary composition is inherently undramatic, happening largely in the subconscious, almost always silently and over long periods of time. Th?e result is the visual cliche of a writer playing waste-bin basketball with rolled-up sheets of blank paper, which might ?be ridiculous but is at least more interesting than the contemporary equivalent of an author staring blankly at an equally unblinking screen. Although some novelists do, in fact, speak their words aloud after writing them, it seems a hammily unrealistic device if one does so on screen.

So the first rule of dramatising authors is that they should do as little writing as possible. And Arthur & George is careful to avoid becoming Author and George, ?Ed Whitmore’s scripts ?helped by the fact that the Barnes novel was itself wary of writing about writing. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pointedly tells the publishers that they can wait for the next Sherlock Holmes book while he investigates a potential real-life miscarriage of justice.

The use of a detective novelist as an investigator echoes TV’s highest-profile writer-protagonist: Murder She Wrote (CBS, 1984-2007). Some of the episodes featuring Angela Lansbury as crime-writer Jessica Fletcher turned on aspects of the writing life – publicity tours, visits to the sets of movie adaptations – and occasional instalments purported to be dramatisations of Jessica’s stories; but sleuthing was the work that the character was mainly seen doing.

Apart from Mrs Fletcher, the novelist character brought to the broadest audience was Mel Hutchwright, the author of a Northern realist novel called Hard Grinding, who was played in several episodes of Coronation Street by Sir Ian McKellen. The suggestion that Hutchwright was a fake or poseur seemed typical of a fear in TV that mainstream ?viewers will find literature boring or pretentious.

When the subject of the drama is a well-known actual writer, a crucial question is to what extent the manner or personality should reflect the work. Whereas Barnes avoided any structural or prose pastiche of the Holmes stories, the TV Arthur & George makes allusions as loud as the howl of the hound of the Baskervilles. Conan Doyle, for instance, frequently makes deductions or assumptions from a first sight of someone. As the insights are often medical and the writer was a qualified doctor, these moments are biographically plausible; ?viewers may diagnose painful ribs ? as a result of Sherlockian nudging from the script….

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