MALCOLM BRADBURY writer and critic


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


I need to start by telling you a bit about myself. I'm a novelist and a literary critic; I'm also a university teacher of literature, and one of the chief things I did was run a course in creative writing (it included screenwriting). What this means is I am in TV and film terms a 'literary writer.' It also means that my view of TV, especially British and European TV, is not driven first by the 'Hollywood experience.' And though I'll be talking about story structure it won't be like a seminar by Robert McKee.

This has a good deal to do with the way I came into writing, and television. In 1959 I published my first novel and got my first academic job; and then, by a piece of wonderful good luck, I moved to Birmingham at the start of the 60s. At that time the BBC had just built themselves a splendid new TV complex called Pebble Mill. At that time the building was too big for its use, and had a number of large studios it wasn't completely sure what to do with. It decided to go for drama, and a number of key people who belonged to the age when the BBC was led by its creatives – and not by its accountants and managers – moved to Birmingham, which became an important production centre. These people included David Rose as Head of Drama; he went on to be Head of Drama at Channel 4. They also included Peter Ansorge, and Roger Gregory – who is involved in Prospect.

Those were the days of the single play, the 75 or 90 minute drama mostly or even entirely shot in studio. There were major drama slots in the schedules – Play for Today, Saturday Night Theatre, and so on. It was a time of new theatre in Britain, following on from the impact of LOOK BACK IN ANGER in 1956, and new playwrights were emerging who were signed up for television. Dennis Potter, David Turner, David Rudkin, Alan Plater, as well as Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and David Hare were all writing for television. In fact it was a writers' theatre. The plays were rehearsed theatrically, and it was a theatre of script and words. At the same time there was a strong sense of social realism, partly as a result of the political and social energies of the playwrights (many were concerned with key political issues, like the famous CATHY COME HOME), but also because cameras were becoming more moveable and the possibilities of a greater actuality increased. In fact during the Sixties the whole character of TV drama began to change greatly – away from the studio, away from the dramatic set-piece, away from the author-led play; and onto location, to documentary styles of filming, actuality, wild-track, and so on.

I remember this as a great era of television drama, and especially in Britain. It's unfortunate that because of the state of the technology a good deal of the many programmes that were made then have simply been lost, either because the tapes were deleted or they were never properly taped in the first place. But it truly was a remarkable period, with two or three often brilliant plays going out every week, and a good many of them out of Birmingham. I wrote several myself, working with a number of directors including Rob Knights, with whom I'm still working. But as we all know television drama is constantly changing, led on not just by commissioning policies but breakthroughs in the technology. And by the end of the Sixties the increased use of location, the multiplication of channels, and the problems of holding a large audience had altered the way in which we thought about the medium.

I don't think we should forget that period, for two reasons. One is that it did produce some of our greatest TV playwrights and TV drama scripts. And the other is that it did give British TV drama a distinct character, quite different, say, from American TV drama, which was essentially far more generic and far more film-led. That still means today that, to a point at least, there is something different and distinctive about the way TV drama works in Britain. It developed writers and a notion of how to work with script; it developed directors and production teams; it created a willingness among a wonderful repertory of good actors from stage and film to work in television drama.

In some ways, though, that period is well and truly over. The death of Dennis Potter recently is one mark of the climacteric. I suppose the truth is that he embodied what was good and to a degree what was bad about that age of television drama production. He was a brilliant visualizer, an obsessed person, an creator of strong compelling themes, an explorer of new techniques (like the dramatic use of music). He also suffered from the obsession that many writers acquire, to control and direct the entirety of their own work. A Potter play had to be a Potter play, and nothing else. Since one essential fact about television drama is that it is teamwork, the coming together of a wide variety of different talents, Potter's drama, brilliant as it was, often went against the grain of television itself.

Today we've gone from drama that is writer led to drama that is director led; from drama staged in studio to drama shot fluently on location; from a drama of words and ideas to a drama of quick scenes, fast cutting, plentiful action. You could say we've gone, in effect, from a TV drama that was close to theatre to a TV drama that's close to film. Sometimes too close, a kind of poor relation, where Hollywood rules prevail.

By the beginning of the 80s the single play was becoming a thing of the past, replaced either by the single author serial, or the dramatization or adaptation. One part of TV drama, especially after the start of Channel 4, was going filmic, and indeed Channel 4 became one of Britain's primary producers of British movies. But another part was growing more generic. It was reaching for ratings, for the genres of popular entertainment. It was also looking for more continuity – the long running series, the classic serial, or the actor-led show.

During the 80s there were some remarkable ventures – BOYS FROM THE BLACKSTUFF, OUR FRIENDS FROM THE NORTH, and so on, on the one hand; BRIDESHEAD REVISITED and THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN on the other. But as the commissioning editors well knew, the popular audience could best be summoned by something strong, generic, consistently familiar, and something too that would reach the international audience.

One of the most successful of these genres was something the British had always been good at: crime. I used to think we were not a criminal nation, that we were a law abiding lot; but recent crime statistics have dented that view (it's said there's a greater risk of experiencing crime in Britain now than in the USA, a strange reversal). But we've always loved crime stories, and been very good at producing them, from Sherlock Holmes onward. And by raiding the existing kitty, or creating new variants, we've been able to make the crime, the blue lamp story, one of our TV staples.

Until quite recently, most of the work I've done for television has not come from this corner. I've done a fair number of literary adaptations, mostly from truly literary novels for which I had a very high regard – Tom Sharpe's BLOTT ON THE LANDSCAPE and PORTERHOUSE BLUE, farcical comedies; Alison Lurie's IMAGINARY FRIENDS; Kingsley Amis's THE GREEN MAN, COLD COMFORT FARM, and so on. I've also done some originals which were mostly satires – one, THE GRAVY TRAIN, on the European Community.

But more recently, and partly by accident, I've become part of the blood and guts trend. This is partly because this was the direction TV was moving in, but also because some of the most successful and carefully produced drama on TV now is indeed in the sphere of crime. So MORSE, TAGGART, MISS MARPLE, POIROT, the P.D. James Adam Dalgliesh novels, Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford mysteries, A TOUCH OF FROST – these have become the way the British public most likes to enjoy itself in front of the box.

I've been involved with several of these. I've written four episodes of A TOUCH OF FROST, a detective series starring David Jason – the main reason for that being that I'd already written for David Jason, who plays the central character, a college porter, in PORTERHOUSE BLUE. I also was keen to write for John Thaw, and I've done so twice – once for an episode of KAVANAGH QC, the other time for MORSE. Then, with Alan Plater, I was asked to look at the crime novels of Reginald Hill and consider them for adaptation, and so between us we wrote the first six of the BBC series DALZIEL AND PASCOE, which is just starting another season right now. I'm now developing for the BBC the work of another, American crime novelist Elizabeth George, so I do indeed have plenty of blood on my hands.

I'll remind you of the temptations. One is working with brilliant actors, like David Jason and John Thaw, and excellent directors. Another is the pleasure of writing for huge audiences, since these programmes can draw ratings of something like 20 million. Yet these are, in a sense, literary series. The scripts are distinctive, and they are not team-written in the way that some other series – THE BILL or whatever – are. They do have a dependence on the writer, and they often are virtual adaptations, based on previously published books by well-known authors – Colin Dexter, who invented Morse, Reginald Hill, or R.D. Wingfield, the creator of Jack Frost – or using their characters to tell a story consistent with the characters and the world view of the original author. All of these series have become, in their own ways, television classics, and are constantly reshown.


I was asked to say something about story structure, and I will, in a minute; but it seems important to tell you more about the history of these series and why I think they work so well. Let's look at MORSE, which was developed, by Central, from the novels of Colin Dexter, and which I imagine everyone here has seen. Colin is a very clever and highly educated writer, and he is quite consciously working in and developing a genre most of us know very well: the donnish crime story. MORSE is actually a version of campus fiction – something else I also write. For reasons I'm not entirely sure of, it seems that according to fiction a very large proportion of the crimes committed in Britain actually take place in the common rooms of our great universities. The master of the college is done to death, or does someone else to death, or the professor of history is found poisoned after drinking that exceedingly good claret, or whatever. One explanation for this genre is that quite a lot of our best detective writers have actually been university teachers: Michael Innes, Dorothy Sayers, and many more. In fact writing detective novels became a customary thing for the don to do when you were not writing a definitive history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, or whatever.

This is the genre Dexter works in, bringing to it many remarkable skills. He happens to be a university teacher and also great puzzle-maker – in fact a setter of crosswords. Morse himself is a bit of a puzzle, as well as being a 'code.' It's taken about thirty years and over thirty programmes for Dexter to reveal to us his first name – which happens to be Endeavour (his father was obsessed by Captain Cook). Morse went to Oxford and is almost a don himself, so his is the spirit of scholarly sleuthing; he intellectually works things out. The crimes he encounters must be, suitably, obscure and puzzle-causing, which means that like Sherlock Holmes, another academic manquee, he needs to have brilliant adversaries, people who conceal their crimes.

Our pleasure is in seeing this now quite elderly gentleman apply his puzzle-solving powers, his intuitions and instincts, to what is clearly a problem. It helps that he has as side-kick Sergeant Lewis, who is not university educated, works by the book, and does most of the dull leg-work. Lewis is the necessary foil, and the reliable friend on whom Morse can release his intellectual snobbery, to whom he can display his good taste. Naturally he is sometimes wiser or more alert than the master, and their connection and contrast is a main dramatic motor for the stories

Colin Dexter has written, I believe, fourteen Morse novels. Last year he said he would write no more, but he seems now to have changed his mind – raising an interesting problem for resolving the episode I was involved with. But while there are only fourteen novels there have been something like 35 Morses on TV – meaning that more than half of the stories have not been drawn from the novels themselves. Some have arisen from an idea or suggestion by Colin Dexter, which a writer has then fleshed out, others have been generated by writers or producers.

The writers themselves have been notable for their quality. Quite a number of the scripts were by the brilliant playwright Julian Mitchell (who I think did the screenplay for MRS BROWN) and some were by Anthony Minghella, of ENGLISH PATIENT fame. The tv writer's contributions have been important to the whole history of Morse. It is possible to see their effect on the novels themselves. Where in the early books there is quite a difference between Morse in print and Morse on the screen, the characters have grown closer together. Lewis developed substantially as a character thanks to Kevin Whateley's performance, and that in turn has had an impact on Dexter's portrayal in his more recent books.

Morse is in fact an excellent example of how a series can be developed for television, much of the credit for this going to the producer Ted Childs. The stories are single two hour episodes, and have generally been separately shown, sometimes at a rate of as little as one a year. Realistic and careful location filming in Oxford plays a very important part, and this has helped develop the whole Morse mythology – nowadays when you go to Oxford you can take the Inspector Morse tour. The casting of John Thaw was ideal, since he brings a sense of concentrated intelligence to the central character. The character is not entirely sympathetic, and might have been found too dry, donnish and over-elderly by a popular audience. But Thaw always remains engaging and charismatic, the thinking woman's crumpet, they say. There are a number of well-established structural devices – the opening credit sequence, interrupted by short clips of prime action, for instance. A fair time is spent on the development of character. Two hours is dramatically a very long slot to fill, especially with one single continuous story…