Friday, 29 March 2013

Some Women at BFI 8 May 2013

A celebration of Producer Tony Garnett at the BFI brings Some Women to the screen on 8th May. Definitely worth a trip to see it in the cinema.

Here's the link for the full Tony Garnett celebration.
And here's the link for Some Women.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Fuss About Five Women: The Radio Times position, Jan 1969

In the Radio Times, January 16th, 1969 (p4), an anonymous essay, Keeping Faith with the Viewer, was printed under the heading 'Talking Point'. It was not made explicit that it touched on the ban on Five Women, but in the next week, the letter from Tony Garnett et al made clear what the underlying argument was really about.  I found both the essay and the letter in the BFI archive, on the microfilm, and have typed them out here for easier reference. Here is the anonymous piece from the Radio Times, quoted in full, the reply is linked here and above:

"Television is a demanding medium in the way that it compels the viewer to move more quickly in place, mood, and indeed emotion, than could ever be possible in real life; and because it can confuse him by the rapid succession of varying images presented on the screen. At one moment the viewer may be watching a fictional drama, at another a factual wartime scene in Nigeria or Vietnam, at another a sporting event unfolding as it happened, the result of which he can already have read about in  his newspaper.

As television techniques develop what are the safeguards for the public? What confidence can the viewer have that what he is watching is what it appears to be? The answer is that the BBC bears the responsibility for ensuring that whatever happens the viewer is not tricked. Bearing in mind that every kind of programme has to appear on the same screen, what he sees must be true to fact or true to art.

Over the years the viewer has learned to distinguish between those programmes which he knows to be fact and those he knows to be fiction by means of a series of conventions which he has come to respect. The first and in many ways the most important indication of the nature of a programme is given in RADIO TIMES. Aside from that, when the set is switched on, the signature tune and a related set of captions indicate whether a news bulletin is about to be shown or a current affairs programme, a documentary, a play, or a light entertainment show.

In a news or current affairs programme the viewer will see a selection of events that have really happened with comments about them by real people. If any world event is shown he knows that this really has taken place and has not been fabricated as were - say - the sequences in Eisenstein's film about the 1917 Revolution in Russia. These are great pieces of film-making, but they were not shots of what actually happened.

Through a different set of conventions the viewer knows that in plays, series or serials what he will see will be true to art: a good story or one episode in a continuing piece of fiction. He knows that this kind of programme will not be a photographic record of real events. It will be art presented as art.

In recent years this simple situation has been complicated by the emergence of many different variations in programme formula and the development of a new tradition of realistic writing. In fictional series great trouble has been taken by writers like Elwyn Jones in 'Softly Softly' to create brilliantly down-to-earth stories, which they have set in a most convincing framework. Elwyn Jones has made a special study of police cases, and he has talked at length to policemen. The result is a credible set of adventures, which can on occasion even startle the audience with their realism, as when one episode which dealt with a major disaster was felt by some viewers to be too close to the recent and real Aberfan tragedy.

Such realism in dramatic writing graphically illustrates how people behave in given situations in a way that a factual programme can never quite achieve. The viewer knows very well that what he is watching is only a story, but a series like 'The Troubleshooters' or 'Champion House' can illuminate, for instance, what it really feels like to be an industrial executive under pressure in a competitive world.

In a creative medium like television, experiments are always taking place, and new programmes are being devised with formulae that are slightly different from anything ever done before. Wednesday Plays like 'Cathy Come Home,' 'Golden Vision,' and 'Mrs. Lawrence Will Look After It' were experimental in the sense that although all three were well-acted dramas, each made a deliberate comment on an important social problem. And it was known that actual real-life material had been used to shape their preparation. This was the essential ingredient that made their impact so outstanding.

Can these new programme techniques be carried too far? Is there any danger that they will lead to confusion in the mind of the viewer, so that he is uncertain whether he is watching a play or a documentary - a criticism which was made of 'Cathy Come Home' by one or two panellists in a recent edition of 'Talkback'? This is in fact one of the problems with which the BBC has to grapple every day as part of its overall task of editorial control. Many factors are involved. Among these are professional judgement and contemporary taste. In order to provide a constant opportunity for development and variety in programme style it is important that both authors and programme makers should be left reasonably free. A work of fiction may borrow some of the techniques of a factual programme. 'Up the Junction' was a programme which did this, and one television critic praised it as a 'fiction which had the immediacy of real life, the raucousness, the feel, the smell of documented life, without being a documentary. It was the realistic convention heightened to the nth degree, and very exciting it was.'

As Christopher Ralling wrote in a recent article in The Listener:
"Many of the things worth discussing in human life are never going to happen of their own accord in front of a camera. This has led people working in films and television to move further away from the old ground rules ..."
But obviously there are limits beyond which experimental techniques ought not to trespass. All the time the BBC is walking a tightrope, but even in its most experimental programmes it seeks to keep faith with the viewers. People like and have a right to know what it is they are looking at. In the history of protest about broadcasting trouble has most frequently been caused when the audience got  - not what it did not want - but what it did not expect." 

Obit: Letters to the Guardian, October 1996; Roy Battersby, Director

Guardian, 23/10/96 p15
Roy Battersby writes: Wherever Tony Parker went he brought his healing discipline of listening to people, whether they were imprisoned in jails, barracks, mines, lighthouses, housing estates, or in their lives. The profundity and integrity of his witness produced work that illuminated every life he explored and the society in which it was lived.
Reading The Courage of His Convictions 30 years ago had a profound influence on my life. We made Five Women into a film for the BBC-TV Wednesday Play series in 1967 and I began a period of prison visiting under his influence. He wrote the documentary People Like Us on the two polar approaches to psychiatry. I directed some of his compassionate television series Couples on Counselling, and we tried to make films from his work on sex offenders and from The People of Providence.
Tony was a poet; his books have the pulse of poetic insight and passion. The BBC must now show Five Women, described by the Observer as “the first masterpiece for television,” in its original form as a tribute to a great man.

Obit: Letters to the Guardian, October 1996; Anthony Sheil, lit agent

Guardian 23/10/96 p15
Letters: Tony Parker
Anthony Sheil writes: The oral historian Tony Parker (obituary, October 5) stayed up all night in anger and frustration at the execution of Timothy Evans. His remarkable wife, Margery, said: “Well, why don’t you do something about it?” Tony did: he set about writing his first book: The Courage of His Convictions.
His first half dozen books were all about the identity we all have with what is now referred to as “the excluded”; the pariahs with whom we have difficulty in sympathizing. In the romantic political fervour of the late 1960s, I remember thinking that Tony was all very well, but not in the forefront of political activism. He soon changed my view; he was a one-man political party fighting with enormous passion.
He once described to me leaving a south London down-and-outs hostel and being approached by a man who said: “Do you think there might be another piece of bread?”. In his downbeat Mancunian way, he manifested his fury at this level of need in an affluent society.
Austere though he was, his humour and irony were all-pervading. He was a Manchester United supporter from childhood who, when he went to live in Suffolk, supported Ipswich. You have to have irony to do that. A master of his craft he certainly was, but also a fighter for reform and a delightful and unforgettable man.

Obituaries for Tony Paker, October 1996. The Independent; Colin Ward

The Independent
Obituaries: Tony Parker
Colin Ward
Friday, 11 October 1996

Thanks to the tape-recorder the post-war decades have witnessed a boom in oral history, gathering the experiences of people whose voices seldom reach the written record.
Most of us are not neutral observers and arrange the evidence to support a point of view. In America Studs Terkel assembled several vast collections of humble people's opinions, and has never left us in any doubt as to where his sympathies lie. It is intriguing to learn that his English equivalent, Tony Parker, had, shortly before his death, completed a book quite different from his 22 earlier ones, since it was about Terkel, as seen by his colleagues, friends and family in Chicago. It will appear in February.
Tony Parker had equally strong opinions. He was a convinced socialist, pacifist and atheist, but sought to be a silent witness making no comments and no interpolations in the stories he was told. One result of his quiet empathy was that people talked to him and his recorder with immense openness and trust, and plenty of them became friends for years after they met.
He was born in 1923 in Stockport, the son of a bookseller. In the 1940s he was a conscientious objector to military service and was sent to work in a coal-mine, developing an intense sympathy for the isolated colliery villages of the North-East. Forty years later this early background served him well when he compiled his book Red Hill: a mining community (1986) about the experience of the 1984-85 miners' strike.
His discovery of his unique vocation came almost by chance. After the war he had a job with Odhams Press, publishers of the Daily Herald, and in the evenings became a prison visitor, a task which stretched his capacity as a good listener and a non-judgemental observer. A chance meeting with a BBC radio producer, and an inevitable battle with the Home Office, led to a broadcast interview with one particular hard case, which was subsequently printed in The Listener. This resulted in a publisher's commissioning the book by Tony Parker and Robert Allerton: The Courage of His Convictions (1962), which was followed by The Unknown Citizen (1963), Five Women (1965) and The Twisting Lane: some sex offenders (1969).
The last two of these provided powerful material for television drama documentaries, and led to two further books, for one of which he lived in Grendon Underwood Prison for three months patiently gathering 200 hours of taped conversations. In all these books he carefully kept his own opinions out of the story, while being ever-willing to express them in the alternative press, from Anarchy to Peace News.
By this time, Parker had developed his techniques of transcribing and editing tapes, meticulously preparing a text without comment or interpretation, and talked to street people in People of the Streets (1968), to unmarried mothers with In No Man's Land (1972). Lighthouse (1975) was the result of six months of recording the recollections of lighthouse keepers from all over Britain.
Recognition of his devotion and integrity brought increasing demands for his approach to particular communities like the residents of a London council estate, Catholic and Protestant households in Belfast, and even the Army. Who but a lifelong anti-militarist could be trusted to report faithfully on the experiences of soldiers and their wives?
By this time, Margery Parker, his wife of 43 years, was accompanying him in his travels and laborious transcriptions. In Russia, the rooms were carefully arranged. He was sitting slightly below the level of the people he was questioning, with an interpreter behind his shoulder. At the beginning of the interviews people's gaze would be fixed on the interpreter, but before long they were addressing Parker, eye to eye.
It was inevitable that his publisher should invite him for lunch and ask him to spend three months talking to people somewhere in the middle of the United States. It turned out to be A Place Called Bird (1989), a town of 2,000 inhabitants at the crossing of two state highways in Kansas, surrounded by a sea of endless prairie under a vast blue sky. The Parkers listened and recorded everyone as they talked about their hopes and fears and hidden assumptions, from the incomer, groping for the word "circumscribed" to describe the place, to the 16- year-old high-school student who blamed herself for thinking that "sometimes in Bird you feel you can't breathe".
In the same year Studs Terkel was gathering material for his book The Great Divide, recounting people's second thoughts on the American dream. It will be fascinating to read the self-effacing Parker's examination of the approach of the committed and ebullient Terkel. His own triumphs were the result of his gentleness and modesty, which led the most taciturn or suspicious of people to open up with confidences they would not dream of revealing to more self-assertive questioners.
Tony Parker, writer and interviewer: born Stockport, Cheshire 25 June 1923; married twice (two sons, one daughter); died Westleton, Suffolk 3 October 1996.

Obituaries for Tony Paker, October 1996. The Times

The Times
Friday October 11, 1996, p23

Tony Parker, oral historian, died on October 3 aged 73. He was born on June 25, 1923.
TONY PARKER'S ears were once described as “a national treasure”. As an interviewer he saw it as his task to be quietly attentive, to record without comment or judgment. He was simply a blackboard for people to write on, he said. The impact of his interviews rested on the immediacy of recorded speech and it was this which made Parker the greatest oral historian of our day.
In the published transcripts of his interviews, Parker exposed readers to the lives of people they might otherwise have shunned. He penetrated the often violent and hostile worlds of convicted murderers and IRA terrorists, of striking miners and sex offenders. He portrayed the richness of marginalised lives, exploring the worlds of lighthouse keepers and the inhabitants of a small Kansas town, of the residents of a South London housing estate and Americans on Death Row.
Tony Parker's own upbringing was in an environment remote from those he was later to portray. He was born in Manchester into a comfortable, middle-class background. Though his mother died when he was only four years old, he was so doted upon by his father and elder sisters that he at times felt suffocated, and he would later recall his childhood with a certain unease.
Having completed his secondary education at Stockport Grammar School, he escaped to London, beginning a career as a poet and playwright with staged readings of his work on Sunday nights. He read voraciously too, including the works of Huxley and Wilfred Owen. It was probably under the influence of these writers that, when at the age of 18 he was called up, he declared himself a conscientious objector and, persuading a hostile tribunal of his convictions, was exempted from military service.
Parker was sent to work in the coalmines instead. The long hours spent down stifling shafts were a sharp contrast to his cosseted earlier life, but in his 18 months there he learnt to respect the views of those whom he worked alongside and was confirmed in his socialist beliefs.
An injury put an end to this work but Parker, with a wife and child to support, could not return to his life as a writer immediately and instead took a post as a publisher's representative. It was to be his first and last conventional job. Reading about the Craig and Bentley case in which a mentally subnormal adolescent was hanged for a murder he did not commit, Parker became a campaigner against capital punishment and a prison visitor.
After a chance encounter with a BBC radio producer, he was invited to make a programme based on an interview with one of the most difficult convicts whom he visited. It was powerfully direct, the subject encouraged to state his case with a frankness unencumbered by intervention or outside commentary.
This style was to form the basis for Parker's ensuing work as a writer. After the text of this first interview was reproduced in The Listener , a flood of work followed. His first book, The Courage of His Convictions (1962), was based on tape-recorded interviews with a recidivist criminal with multiple convictions for robbery and violence. It painted a remarkable picture of an intelligent and well-read man who had no intention of ever “going straight” and no wish to reform. It was typical of Parker that he insisted the subject should be included as a joint author.
Parker would - somewhat misleadingly - claim that he had “no personality”. But beneath his controlled exterior, a passionate resentment of the inequality and unfairness of modern society flared. His interests and sympathies lay chiefly with the underdog or the outsider. But his range was wide. Soldier, Soldier (1985) is a portrait of military life including, even, an interview with a general. Parker also aimed to give a balanced view. In May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast (1993), he included interviews with terrorists on both sides of the divide, as well as contributions from priests, housewives, teachers and the Army.
Alert to the drama and interest of everyday life, Parker would spend up to 15 hours - spread over several weeks - with his subjects, listening with patience and sympathy, allowing characters gradually to unfold through repetitions, evasions and hesitation. Several of his interviewees became friends. He rarely found anyone’s company tedious, but enjoyed the ‘perpetual surprises” of what they had to say.
Parker shied away from passing judgment and formulating theories on what he heard. “There are so many theories,” he used to say. “Childhood deprivation, alcohol, the double-Y chromosome”. He was sure that in 400 years people would look back on our current maps of human behaviour and find them as ludicrous as the old 15th-century maps of navigators who thought Africa was where America is.
Yet though Parker was perceived as having a basically “Christian” approach to his subjects, he himself was not altogether gratified by this perception. Though brought up in a fairly traditionally religious way, with weekly visits to Sunday school, he described himself later as an agnostic and ultimately as an atheist. He was content, he said, to be in a state of “invincible ignorance”. He even - as, for example, when he was writing about Northern Ireland - found this condition to be an advantage.
Parker wrote several television plays based on material gathered in interviews. Many were broadcast on the BBC's pithily realistic Play for Today series, among them Five Women , about female prisoners, and A Chariot of Fire, about a child molester.