MALCOLM BRADBURY writer and critic


  • Cold Comfort Farm
  • The Gravy Train
  • Cold Comfort Farm
  • The Gravy Train

Malcolm Bradbury

1. Background. Blott on the Landscape is one of Tom Sharpe's middle novels, first published in 1975. It isn't, perhaps, one of his very best, but it does contain a compelling and very English myth: the story of a conflict between the state powers that want to put a motorway through the heartland of the English landscape, and the forces of ancestry and nature which resist this process. Sharpe's own work interests me as such, and it makes an interesting study: from the early South African novels, where farce is used to express a political outrage and explore a modern crisis, to the later farces, where much more popular devices are used, and where extremity and vulgarity are often there for their own comic sakes. But a number of Sharpe's books are actually cunning allegories of English life. In fact the one I admire most is Porterhouse Blue, perhaps because being set in academic life it comes closest to home. And I had expressed interest in adapting that novel for television before the project with Blott started. But the rights were not available; in due course, however, that did finally come about, and the second work was made with the same producer but for a different channel at a later date.

One of the things that often energizes an adaptation, at least for me, is the relation between the source book and the adapter. I admire Sharpe's work for several reasons: his treatment of his themes, his way of using farce to explore the conflicts of British life, and the very extremity of his farce, which is on the furthest edge of comedy. I see him in essence as a cross between Waugh and Wodehouse; a writer of anarchic social satire, a playful exploiter of farce. Sharpe and I write fiction in very different ways. He writes quickly, I write slowly. He writes farce, and loves its postcard humour and carnival-like energy; I write what I suppose I would call serious comedy. He has a fairly unprotective attitude towards his books, and is very tolerant of how they are adapted; I probably feel rather more protective. He is a highly popular writer, who has come perhaps increasingly to write for wide audiences, and for profit; I am a more literary writer, who writes to explore the literary form I use. But the distances here do not seem to me enormously great, and when I was approached to write the script I felt delighted, not least because of the problems the venture posed.

2. How it began. The idea came from a casting director and producer, Sue Whatmough, who had acquired the rights to the book. Sometime in 1983-84 she discussed it with me, and at the same time began to develop the idea with an independent production company, Picture Partnership Productions, proposing me as the writer. I proposed an approach and wrote a brief treatment. From the start it was apparent that this was not a simple project (though not many are). In fact there had already been a history of difficulties in attempting to bring Tom Sharpe's work to the screen in the past; as a widely read popular novelist it had seemed logical to bring his work to the screen on TV or as a film, and a number of attempts had already been made. Sharpe himself had attempted adaptations of his own work, and the difficulties were apparent. Fictional farce is in fact intensely verbal; it stimulates the absurd imagination, and is often far better imagined than seen. A good deal of his narrative is, in fact, mayhem, his characters are often ciphers or dolls, pushed about this way and that, and his vulgarity is slapstick. Television drama, though, especially in a serial, depends on some degree of identification, an element of recognition and sympathy. Finding the means, and the level, at which the story could be told on TV was probably going to be the most difficult part of the task.

3. How it developed. An important next step was to arrange a meeting between Tom Sharpe and myself, to see how he would take to any changes. The meeting is especially notable in my recollection for the fact that Tom's nose bled into the steak for much of the meal, a product of his habits of snuff-taking. He spoke generously about my own work and seemed keen on the potential collaboration between his text and my approach to it. Indeed he said that if necessary I should throw the book away and start again. Also on board by now was a producer, Brian Eastman, from Picture Partnership Productions (now Carnival Films), who was of course an essential figure in the shaping up of the project, as from this point on it started to develop.

Brian and I started to agree on some of the fundamentals: that what we were seeking was a naturalistic comedy, with elements of social and political satire as well as of pure farce. The task would be to add more humour, more social depth, more emotion and more characterization to the story, while at the same time always retaining the one essential characteristic of farce: that every single character is obsessed by the pursuit of their own interests, and does so with a total disregard for others. The plot of the book is an intricate seesaw, with two central characters (Sir Giles and Lady Maud) scheming endlessly against each other, each one of them with their own supporters and sidekicks. The contest is one between order and anarchy itself, though even those who support order are anarchic figures – most notably Dundridge, the man from the ministry, the systems obsessive who promotes a good deal of the destruction in the attempt to defeat nature and put the world into shape. The elaborate plot of the novel clearly could keep the story as such going through several episodes (we eventually resolved on six); however the characters risked losing interest unless something of what made for their oddity and enormity was constantly kept before us.

4. Defining a style. We all agreed that the great problem of the programme would be to sustain a balance of cartoon and realism: something that, indeed, was finally imaged in the title sequence itself, where we start with a cartoon of the world and then intrude into it an image of the "real" world of Handyman Hall. There would be a similar mixture of exaggeration and familiarity in the performances; we would cast comic rather than farce actors to play the major roles. At times, in the finished product, I think there are clear examples of difficulty in balancing these elements, and things get tilted too far this way or that. But as this suggests, the problem was actually in defining the genre and the tone in which we told the story; that became one of the chief tasks in the discussion and development of the script.

5. Writing the script. Blott on the Landscape was the first major series I had written for TV. I had previously adapted, as a single 75 minute drama, John Fowles's short story "The Enigma" (in The Ebony Tower), another (and a deeper) work for which I had an especial admiration. If the pleasure of that lay in its artistic intricacy, one of the pleasures of working on Blott... was the free and inventive hand comedy offers to the writer. I expanded considerably on various comic dimensions of the story. I gave a much more flesh to many of the minor characters, and invented a few quite new small parts. At the same time I was satisfied with the basic storyline and its structural shape, and remained reasonably faithful to it through most of the script.

However, the basic relationships of the characters had to be rendered in much closer detail, and scenes briefly sketched in the novel had to be extended, dramatized and intensified. As, to some degree, this was a learning process for me, and since all involved were concerned to get the balance and structure right in what was seen as a difficult process, the script went through many revisions. Thw whole experience was made highly palatable by working with Brian Eastman, who not only invested development money in the script at an early point, and before the project had been taken by any channel, so enabling an entire first episode to be completed; but who also turned out, very instructively, to be a superb script editor (as his subsequent projects, from Porterhouse Blue to Jeeves and Wooster and the Poirot series, have shown).

6. Some key decisions. We decided to move the story forward in time to tell it as a contemporary story, and to make the basic battle – between the defenders of Cleene Gorge and Handyman Hall and the authorities – a familiar and timely conflict common in the age of urban and motorway growth. We considerably highlighted the mysterious role of the placeless character Blott, so that his presence on the landscape as somehow a force of nature and a mysterious defender of its powers became a very important element, and he turned into a central figure. Various new comic elements – some extended Whitehall satire, and a stronger account of the mysterious ways of officialdom – also softened the original story, with its many extreme scenes. This had the effect not only of making the story a good deal more accessible to the audience, but also vastly more playable. When, eventually, the script was accepted by the BBC (an early example of the BBC turning to an independent production company for drama), the basic scripting work was already highly developed and fine-tuned, and the series was indeed virtually ready to be made. A further producer, Ivgeny Gridieff, was brought in, but there was in fact no major new work to be done…