Not long before he died, Malcolm and I were roughing out a television series with John Thaw in mind. Thaw, who was looking for a new role, was to be the Vice Chancellor of a suspect university in London. Malcolm had to wear an oxygen mask but despite that I still remember him laughing at his own jokes, even as he sipped from the glass of red wine I had slipped past his wife, Elizabeth. It was not the first time we had written together. Back in the 1970s, when he had published The History Man, the TV version of which was brilliantly adapted by Christopher Hampton, with Antony Sher as Howard Kirk, he was asked to write for Play for Today. Then, too, he had wanted to write about a university but because of The History Man felt too close to the material and so pulled me in. As a student, I had written sketches for Granada television and, like Malcolm, university reviews (Malcolm also contributed to the iconic television satire programme That Was the Week That Was). I was very much the junior partner.
The play, The After Dinner Game, was filmed at Bath University, not least because we did not want people to think it was a version of our own institution, the University of East Anglia, though in many ways it was. At its heart was a manipulative Vice Chancellor and we were somewhat leery of our own Vice Chancellor's response. He was obviously equally leery since he telephoned as the credits rolled, plainly having bolstered himself with a drink or two. Its central conflict was between a professor of history - decent but, like many of Malcolm's liberals, more than a little disorganised and socially inept - and a young professor of organisational studies, superficially attractive but cynical and hired because of his ability to raise money. At the time there was, I think, no such field as organisational studies. Now there is. His wife was played by Connie Booth, who subsequently went on to write Fawlty Towers with her then husband, John Cleese.
These were the days of studio dramas, with occasional pieces of film cut in. Union rules meant that studio time was strictly limited. When a number of retakes became necessary (food being scraped from each actor's plate only to be re-served a minute later), and when Rupert Davies (best known for playing Simenon's Maigret) consistently forgot his lines, everything had to stop. As a result the ending was not what we had intended.
We then wrote another television play, a science fiction piece called Stones, but because of a disagreement with the producer who had added dialogue, credited ourselves under the invented name of Malcolm Christopher. The Daily Mail review read: 'A new play by Malcolm Christopher is always an event.' There followed a radio series (Patterson), which we found funny but not too many other people did, except Antonia Fraser who told me she used to listen to it in the bath, which may account for her response.
All this gave Malcolm a new enthusiasm for television though, at the time, he did not himself own a set. 'You either watch television or write for it,' he once told me, though when he gave in I once found him lying on his bed watching a soap opera and refusing to talk until it had finished.
He and I used to travel around the world together for the British Council and both in turn chaired the Council's Cambridge Seminar ostensibly designed to introduce writers, critics, academics from around the world to the best of British writing. In fact, what Malcolm and I learned was a great deal about Europe and elsewhere and he would draw on this both for his later novels and some of his television work. So it was that a writer whose early novels offered a satirical account of Britain and America (where he studied and taught) broadened his canvas, first in the novel and then in his television work. He found considerable mileage, in particular, in the European Union (The Gravy Train, 1990; The Gravy Train Goes East (1991)).
Malcolm became adept at writing for the most popular detective series (A Touch of Frost, Dalziel and Pascoe), though for those who knew him it was not difficult to detect his hand. The characters were, for the most part, a given but the dialogue was often pure Bradbury. We would gather to watch at his house on a reasonably sized television, or at my house on a 14inch model, a Lilliputianism which Malcolm took in good spirit, not least because he was one of those who enjoyed his own work, laughing at his own lines.
Writing for television lured him from his study. Plays may be privately written but they are communal products and he took increasing pleasure in location shooting, getting to know directors and actors. He was always at heart a party animal. He would get off a long-distance plane and go straight to a party. He loved travelling but sometimes lacked a firm grasp on his itinerary, once calling Elizabeth from London because he had forgotten where he was supposed to be going. Somewhere in Malcolm was a shy man but it did battle with a love of the sociable.
The high points of his television career for me were his adaptations of Tom Sharpe's work (Blott on the Landscape, 1985 and Porterhouse Blue, 1987, which won an International Emmy) and of Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm, 1995, which won Best Film for TV at the Banff Film festival.
Malcolm was one of the cleverest men I ever met but also one of the wittiest, and at the same time the most modest. As a critic he wrote with an unfashionable clarity. As a novelist he created characters who became part of the national consciousness, capturing the contemporary mood. As a writer of television drama he invested his characters with his own humour and his own humanity.
© Chris Bigsby