1980s BBC BBC drama Billy Smart Forgotten Television Drama Great Expectations Interviews Jane Eyre Obituary Terrance Dicks The Invisible Man Vanity Fair Writers

Terrance Dicks (1935-2019): The BBC1 Classic Serial in the 1980s

Snapshot-2019-09-02 at 04_00_34 PM-1041006930
Terrance Dicks interviewed by Susan Rae on Open Air (BBC1 25 September 1987)

Terrance Dicks (1935-2019) will forever be synonymous with Doctor Who (BBC 1963-89, 1996, 2005-present) for which he was script editor from 1968-74, instrumental in the introduction of Jon Pertwee as the Doctor, the earthbound military UNIT storylines and the creation of the Master. After departing as script editor he continued writing for Doctor Who over several different media, creating five further television stories, over 70 novels (original stories and novelizations) and two stage plays. His work on the Target Doctor Who books was instrumental in his career as a leading author of children’s fiction, having over a hundred titles published.

Terrance’s other work always tended to get overshadowed by the tremendous, perennial, interest in Doctor Who. Before starting in television, he read English at Downham College, Cambridge. After working as an advertising copywriter for five years, he became a radio dramatist and then TV writer, penning episodes of The Avengers (ABC 1961-69) and Crossroads (ATV/ Central 1964-88).

In 1981 he became script editor of the BBC1 Classic Serial, working on, amongst others, Great Expectations (1981), Jane Eyre (1983), Dombey and Son (1983), The Invisible Man (1984) and The Pickwick Papers (1985). In 1985 he succeeded his great friend and colleague Barry Letts as (the last) producer of the Classic Serial, where his productions included Oliver Twist (1985), Alice in Wonderland (1986), David Copperfield (1986), The Diary of Anne Frank (1987) and Vanity Fair (1987). I’d always felt that the popular Classic Serial had been a neglected topic in studies of British Television Drama, and knew that Terrance was an exceptionally skilled public speaker, so when we were inviting guest speakers to the ‘Forgotten Television Drama’ conference at Royal Holloway in 2015, I invited him to speak about his experiences and reflections.

Terrance was amused to see that his old BBC boss, Jonathan Powell, was now a Media lecturer at Royal Holloway, and was pleased to be able to be on friendly terms with him again as their last contact had ended with Dicks slamming the phone down on Powell almost thirty years before. He seemed very pleased to have the chance to talk about the Classic Serials for a change, and enjoyed the audience’s enthusiasm for the programmes that he had made.

[This is an incomplete transcript of Terrance Dicks in conversation on that day. Two sections are missing from my recording, discussing the 1986 Alice in Wonderland (which was not a great success) and – more frustratingly – the 1985 version of Oliver Twist that was Terrance’s career-favourite production.]

(Text of an interview held at ‘Television Drama: The Forgotten, the Lost and the Neglected’ at Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham on Friday 24 April 2015)

Billy Smart: As you know, our conference is about forgotten and neglected television and I’m very pleased to have as our guest Terrance Dicks. Terrance will be forever synonymous with Doctor Who (BBC1, 1963-89, 1996, 2005-), but he did other things with equal distinction and he’s very pleased to be asked to remember them, as opposed to Doctor Who for once. We’re talking in particular about the Sunday afternoon BBC1 Classic Serial, for which Terrance was first script editor and then producer for eight years in the 1980s. I wonder if you could tell us a little about what the classic serial was and its status?

Terrance Dicks: Although I’ve promised not to mention it and I won’t again, it was curiously similar in format to Doctor Who, in that it was a series of serials, which practically no-one else did, I think, before or since. And it had been around for quite a while. Barry Letts, who had been my producer on Doctor Who – I’d left the BBC for about five years after Doctor Who – Barry eventually ended up as producer of the classic serial. And we’d kept in touch, because we had always been very good friends. And one day he announced that his script editor was retiring, and I said, ‘Why don’t I take his place?’ and Barry said, I was going to ask you’, so that was it. It was a kind of a link – five years on Who, five years freelancing and back for another eight years with the BBC. The classic serial had been around for a long time. Not much thought of, like Doctor Who when I joined it. I used to say it was like getting a job as cabin boy on the Titanic – I constantly joined shows that were supposed to be doomed and have to try to un-doom them. It was called the Sunday classic, the teatime classic, both of which were expressions that Barry and I hated. It was called the children’s classic, and I think the Children’s Department always thought they should be doing it, not Series and Serials. It was not much loved or much thought of at the BBC – partly, of course, because it was expensive. Both the genres I’d worked in, science fiction and historical period fiction, are expensive by definition. I didn’t realise until I became a producer – you have to blank out the telephone lines and paint over the white lines on the road and God knows what. It’s a hell of a business, as well as the costumes and the horses and carriages and everything else.

BS: These series were a popular export for the BBC, though.

TD: I think it probably made money selling around the world and it got moderate audiences in England, at least before I joined, after which they picked up a bit. Luckily, the show I joined on, Great Expectations, as a considerable success.

Barry and I always hated this thing, the teatime children’s classic. We always called it the family classic and said it was a family show. And we used to stretch the boundaries as much as we could get away with on the type of show we did.

BS: Could you say a little about how being a script editor on the classic serial was particularly distinct from other shows?

TD: It wasn’t really. It was pretty much the same job, which is planning with your producer the show – What are you going to do? What’s going to take up those four or five serials? So that’s the most important thing. Choosing who’s going to write it, asking the writer to do it – which they are mostly quite happy to do – and then talking the show through with them, how you see it, your approach, that kind of thing. And then getting the writer started on the scripts, seeing the scripts as they come in, and chasing the writer for delivery on time.

The bane of the BBC is late scripts. I once went to a huge BBC meeting, chaired I think by Huw Weldon. It was discussing why the BBC had so many problems, why there were overspends and delays, and the thing that came out of it time and time again was late scripts. At a certain fixed time a director joins, bringing with him an entourage of highly skilled and highly paid people. If they haven’t got a script they can’t work, they can’t do anything. They haven’t got enough time to do what they’ve got to do anyway – if they’ve got to sit on their arses for a week not doing anything it worsens an already difficult situation. So that’s the most important thing, scripts in on time. I remember at the end of the meeting we’d agreed, scripts in on time, and a weary voice said ‘and are they any bloody good when you get them?’ I sort of made that my motto: “Good scripts, in on time!” In order to do this, if you’ve got someone who can deliver, you tend to go back to him or her. So on the classic serial we had James Andrew Hall and Alexander Baron.

BS: The first serial you script edited was Great Expectations, adapted by James Andrew Hall. There is a famous scene where Pip is visiting Miss Havisham for the first time and there’s a particularly horrible tension to that episode. It draws you in, just getting nastier and nastier.

(Clip: Great Expectations: Episode 2 – Pip visits Miss Havisham and Estella)


TD: Dickens was our bread and butter and our mainstay, but you can’t always be doing Dickens and not all Dickens is suitable for that slot.

BS: Yes, Great Expectations and Jane Eyre are the two most produced classic serials in the history of British television. Adapting Great Expectations into half-hour chunks is an interesting exercise. Something I noticed about that serialisation (and it’s a feeling that you don’t get with contemporary adaptations) is that each episode works as a little play in itself about a certain aspect of Pip’s life. It starts off with how to deal with a convict who’s making demands on you, then how to visit this frightening old woman and then later on how to have riches put upon you and just become slightly unpleasant.

TD: I’m very fond of the half hour thing but then again I always worked in it, you see, on Doctor Who and then I worked with it on this. But it’s a thing of the past, sitcom does it but drama doesn’t anymore, they always got longer.

BS: The BBC tried to reintroduce it with Bleak House (2005) and Little Dorrit (2008). Unlike your adaptations, it felt like they were trying to pack a lot of different narratives into each episode.

TD: People were used to half-hour dramas, of course, that was the way most things worked then. What happened with the Classic Serial is that the BBC eventually decided they couldn’t afford it in the end. But there was a time when people were saying, ‘oh god every time you switch on the BBC it’s hats and bonnets and horses in carriages and “gadzooks oh!” and all that kind of thing. Can’t they do anything else?’ So gradually they faded away and we didn’t do anything else. Then people started saying, ‘what happened to those wonderful old BBC Classic Serials we all loved so much?’ In fact they came back with Louis Marks and Middlemarch (1994) many years later, which suddenly was a huge success. Then they came back in that form, which is the annual or biannual big prestige production and that’s it. The serial approach has gone for good.

BS: Another script you edited from about the same time is Jane Eyre (1983), and there’s a particularly famous scene of Mrs. Rochester.

(Clip: Jane Eyre: Episode 8 – Revelation of the first Mrs Rochester in the attic.)

Snapshot-2019-09-02 at 05_11_01 PM-2143959887

TD: One thing always tickled me about that production. In the standard Hollywood production, they’ve got somebody like Susan Hampshire playing Jane Eyre and they scrape her hair back and put her in the gown and people say ‘you’ll never get a husband, a plain-looking little thing like you’ and there’s this raving beauty sitting there on the set.

We did the opposite – Rochester is supposed to be frightening, slightly ugly. There’s a scene where when he first meets Jane he says to her ‘do you think me handsome?’ and she says ‘no sir’. No disrespect to the actress (Zelah Clarke), but we had reasonably plain, not stunningly beautiful Jane Eyre and a ravishingly handsome Mr. Rochester. Timothy Dalton, for God’s sake, the fan letters we got in from ladies all over the continent. Really in the scene she should have said ‘yes you’re gorgeous!’

BS: Talking about casting, you had a really interesting problem with a lot of Dickens in particular and Jane Eyre for a serial production. In the first two or three episodes you have to have a juvenile lead and then have to cross over a few years.

TD: That was always a problem. One of the reasons we justified doing it in that slot was that the first part of the book is Jane Eyre as a child being given an absolutely terrible time by her aunt. It’s not till later that it turns into what people think of as Jane Eyre, which is the romance with Mr Rochester.

BS: You put the entire school story in the one episode, like a single play about that situation. Oddly it was nominated for a BAFTA, but for Best Children’s Series. That was one of the ones written by Alexander Baron. He was an interesting person, he’d been a Communist for a long time and fought in the Second World War and was a novelist.

TD: I know he was a corporal leading a platoon ashore on D-Day. A small, mild, bespectacled little man and he’d been absolutely heroic on D-Day, he got blown up once but he’d say ‘I wasn’t too badly hurt, I just got up and just went back to the beach!’ Utterly good, reliable, sensitive writer, so he was a great find.

BS: One distinctive thing about that production, and several other classic serials, was that BBC Birmingham made it.

TD: I think there was always pressure on studio space at that time and the studio people, the technicians in London, gave you the idea that they were doing you a favour by actually letting you produce a show in their wonderful studio. Birmingham were desperate, they were incredibly grateful. They weren’t quite as good as the BBC London people but by God they made up for it in willingness and cooperativeness. They would do anything for you; they gave you no trouble about overruns and things like that. So having been driven to it by necessity, we gradually started doing it from choice.

BD: The design in Jane Eyre is incredible – you can’t work out if it’s outside broadcast in a real home.

Something I particularly cherished when I was 12 years old was your production of The Invisible Man (1984). This is the introduction of Griffin, the Invisible Man, at the start of Episode One.

(Clip: The Invisible Man: Episode 1: The Strange Man’s Arrival – Griffin arrives at Iping and finds a room at the inn)

Snapshot-2019-09-02 at 05_13_39 PM-1938947221

The structure of The Invisible Man is particularly interesting. In script editing terms I think it must be anomalous because The Invisible Man is a really short book, you can read it in a couple of hours, and this production has six episodes. It extends a lot of things that are only referred to in backstory in the book. The first three episodes, which are particularly enjoyable and frightening, involve the Invisible Man appearing in the village and the villagers responding to him. But they were a creation of James Andrew Hall, all the scenes are much extended from the book.

TD: I guess we had a 6-part slot to fill. The problem was always choosing the books you were going to do. It couldn’t always be Dickens. We were doing books that everybody had heard of but very few people had read. It has to be a title that resonates, that works with people, which they have at least heard of, or they’ve got a vague idea what it might be about. The Invisible Man was a very good example of that. So we accepted the shortness and got Andrew to stretch it a bit, which as I remember worked reasonably well.

BS: It stands up really well now. In terms of production, you have an interesting approach to the problem of invisibility in that you do it through several different ways. Sometimes it’s colour separation overlaid images, sometimes it’s puppetry of empty clothes, sometimes its trick shots, where you can’t see where the hand would be.

TD: That was a sort of maxim of Barry’s. CSO (Colour Separation Overlay) and that kind of thing was a particular interest of Barry’s. He loved to use it and always took an interest in that side of the production. One of the things he said was ‘don’t always do it the same way’. If you always do it the same way they say ‘ah, I can see how he’s doing that’. So, next time you do it a different way and they can’t see how you’re doing it, until it’s too late. So variety is the thing.

BS: It makes it continually exciting and surprising to watch, and also if you have an effect that doesn’t quite come off, it gets glossed over, by having the other effects. This was also transmitted at an unusual time?

TD: When the Heads of Departments saw it, they said ‘it’s too scary, you cannot put this out at 4 o’clock.’ We were in enough trouble with Doctor Who!

BS: There’s one particular scene of an axe floating through the air and hacking away.

TD: So we got an evening transmission, and we were quite pleased with that.

BS: I can remember us at school miming Invisible Man fights. Those were three productions that you script edited and then you became producer, how did that come about?

TD: Much to my own astonishment, I had always avoided any thought of being a producer because I always thought it serious grown-up work, which I have tried to avoid all my life. I’m okay with scripts, with words on paper and that’s what I can do, that’s what I’m good at, writing or directing other writers. But meetings with the scene shifters union are quite a different matter. I always used to say the great advantage of my job on both Doctor Who and The Classic Serial was that I got Barry Letts. And if some sticky technical problem came up, like the scene shifters union going on strike, I’d say ‘well, good luck Barry’ and get a pile of scripts and go home. Barry had never really wanted to be a producer. This is the main qualification for being a producer; you have not to want to do it. In those days (it may have changed) there was just too much power. You said to someone ‘can I have a word?’ and they’d go green and their knees started knocking! It’s not good for you and I had always tried to avoid it.

Barry wanted to go back to directing which was his real love. He started as an actor but what he really loved doing was directing, so he went back to that. He and I had various plans and things we were going to do and Jonathan Powell, my boss at the time, invited me out to lunch, which should have made me suspicious in the first place. He asked what we were going to do, and I told him about various projects that Barry and I had. Then he said ‘well that’s all very interesting but I was thinking of offering you the job of producer’. I was momentarily stunned and then I said ‘yep, okay’ and Jonathan looked very surprised because he said ‘I gathered from talking to Barry that I’d have to spend the entire lunch hour talking you into it!’ There must have been something inside me that wanted to do it, once the actual chance came up to do it, in spite of all my copious denials over the years. I remember Jonathan said, ‘don’t make any snap decisions, think about it over the weekend, give me a ring on Monday and let me know.’ I never had a moment’s doubt. I just rang up and said, ‘yes, fine I’d like to try it.’ Against any intention and to an extent against my will, because I had to tackle an awful lot of what was, for me, quite difficult stuff.

At the BBC you’d have a production meeting, which was very important. You’d have a big meeting with everybody who’s going to work on the show, discuss the show, talk it through, talk about what everybody’s going to do and how it’s going to be tackled. My technique as a script editor was to slide in late and sit in the corner. In my first production meeting as the producer I attempted to apply the same thing and found a large silent table and one empty chair at the top waiting for me. I thought ‘this is going to be a very different ball game!’

The other thing was, you go through this meeting and everybody is given a job to do. I realized at the end of the meeting, everybody had a job to do except me. I thought ‘I’m on a good thing here!’ Then I realized that in fact my job was to see that everybody else did his or her job! I had to be around, be available, reassure, etc. As well as the technicalities, which I had to learn about (credits and regulations and all that kind of thing) there was a great deal of people management, which is very important. The producer must look cheerful, calm and confident at all times, even if the whole bloody thing is collapsing into chaos around him. If he looks scared and worried the whole thing will collapse. So you go around being cheerful and reassuring.

You have to deal with directors who are immensely difficult and temperamental people, under enormous strain. I remember the technique I developed with directors is that they come up and say, ‘the most ghastly thing has happened, this has all gone wrong!’ and I say ‘okay sit down and tell me about it’. And they tell me and I say, ‘it’ll be alright, we’ll sort it, don’t worry.’ They tell you the whole thing, about how this has gone wrong, we can’t do this or that, and this isn’t going to work. And I’d say, ‘yeah, that’s really tough, what can we do about it?’ And they say, ‘well, I suppose we could shift this to there and then maybe do that, and then perhaps that’ll work and we could do that.’ After a bit they’re saying ‘thank you Terrance, you’ve been so much help’ and they’ve done it themselves. You just gave them a certain amount of calm and reassurance that somehow it’s going to work.

BS: I think the absolute masterpiece of The Classic Serial is the 1987 Vanity Fair, which must have caused quite a lot of logistical problems. In one scene on the outskirts of the Battle of Waterloo, Becky Sharp is attracting attention at a ball and commiserating with Amelia Osborne whose husband, George, she’s stealing off her.

(Clip: Vanity Fair: Episode 7: Amelia Invades the Low Countries – The ball in Brussels: Becky attracts attention, commiserates with Amelia and dances with George Osborne)

Snapshot-2019-09-02 at 05_17_18 PM-2092426979

BS: I was absolutely spoilt for choice for brilliant scenes from this production, but I thought that one was interesting because it combines the terrific spectacle, there’s always a really big event in each episode, and really good character material.

TD: It’s very kind of you to say that. I’ll talk a little as well about Oliver Twist (1985), which was my first production. Though I say it myself it was an absolute smash. It got record viewing figures, in fact I remember Jonathan Powell saying to me the viewing figures were so good that I was able to use them to convince Michael Grade not to cancel The Classic Serial, which had been his plan up until that time. So we got another few years of life out of it, but having started off with a triumph I ended with a disaster, which was Vanity Fair.

When we knew that the show was coming on Jonathan said ‘let’s do one big show which will run a whole season, not four or five.’ So he asked for some ideas and I chose Vanity Fair, which was a bad choice, a disastrous choice, for several reasons. Firstly it’s too big, it’s too expensive – we couldn’t contain it or control it. We tried but it finished up with one of the record overspends in the history of the BBC. It was not popular with the audience in Britain, the audience dropped away after the first few weeks. I think the reason for that is the ambiguity of the character Becky Sharp. People like to know who is the good guy, who is the bad guy. You’ve got Oliver Twist, you’ve got Fagin, you’ve got Bill Sykes, and you know where you are. People you sympathize with and love, people you hate or distrust. In Vanity Fair, Thackeray was in some ways a subtler writer than Dickens, because you never quite know where you are with Becky Sharp. She’s ruthless and amoral, she’s rotten to her children, but by God you admire her spirit and her spunk and her determination to get on in the world. Her husband Rawdon Crawley (Jack Klaff) who she eventually marries, is a big bluff man about the clubs, a duellist, a letch, and a drunkard – he’s the one who comes good in the end, looking after their children. So having been bad all that time, suddenly you begin to sympathize with him and see the good in him. And people don’t like that! They really don’t.

BS: I noticed this one was nominated for BAFTAs, but it was in adult categories by that stage. I think it’s a great production but it is a slightly odd book for a family classic. Whereas with Jane Eyre or Great Expectations you can see where an imaginative 10 year old might latch onto them.

TD: It’s not in any sense a book for children and it’s a very cynical book about life and the great British public didn’t buy it. In its defence, like you, I think it was a cracking good show, it really was. 

Audience Questions:

Q: One of my favourite Classic Serials was Beau Geste (1982), which I thought was brilliantly directed by Douglas Camfield. I understand that making it was a labour of love for him.

TD: It was the regret of Douglas’s life that when he was in the army he tried to get into the SAS and he didn’t manage it. But he was always very keen on all things military and in fact he almost caused a mutiny amongst the actors. He hired a French Foreign Legion drill sergeant and drilled the actors in the BBC car park, shouting abuse at them.

Simon Farquhar: My question is about The Hound of the Baskervilles (1982). I think that’s actually my favourite production, the music, the script, the shooting, everything. What are your particular memories of that production?

TD: Well for a start we had Tom Baker playing Sherlock Holmes. And I know I’m not supposed to talk about Doctor Who, but people had always said the Doctor was a bit like Sherlock Holmes and it suddenly came to us, let’s do The Hound of the Baskervilles and have Tom playing Sherlock Holmes. He was very, very good. Tom in his last years on Who had got a bit erratic, he’d got too much power and it was the inmates running the asylum. He’d been out of work for a bit by the time we cast him and he behaved impeccably. And it’s a hell of a part, a very long part with very long speeches.

A few nights ago, there was a programme on one of the satellite channels about ‘the faces of Sherlock Holmes’ and they did the Hammer Hound of the Baskervilles. They had the director saying ‘well of course the difficulty is realising the Hound’ and I thought ‘oh boy!’ We got a huge fierce dog and it was camera shy, every time you pointed the camera at it, it ran away! Then there was the business of giving it an unearthly green glow. There was a special effects company who said they could put it on – they couldn’t. They made a suit of spangles upon which a special light would be shone which would make it shine and I remember going and seeing an embarrassed looking dog sitting there in a pair of furry pyjamas – that didn’t work either. It refused to attack Sir Henry Baskerville (Nicholas Woodeson), so they got the idea of giving Sir Henry a sausage with which to lure the dog. But when it was supposed to do it, the dog ran away. There must be footage of this somewhere, of Sir Henry chasing the dog across the moors waving a sausage. This is not the expectation of the public for the show. So the Hound was awful, but the rest was pretty good.

Vanessa Jackson: Billy mentioned that a lot of productions were hosted at Pebble Mill and I wondered what that was like, for a London production upping sticks and going up to Birmingham when presumably all the actors has been cast in London?

TD: We used to stay in the same hotel because it was near the studio and you could walk round in the morning. Although the facilities weren’t as good, or the people as expert, they were so pleased and happy to have a prestigious production. A lot of Vanity Fair was done at Pebble Mill and I went to see the Head of Production there and said ‘we’re thinking of offering this show but it’s huge, it’s very big and very demanding, it’ll put a big strain on you – do you want to do it?’ He said ‘Terrance, I’d kill for it!’ So that was their attitude, they really wanted to help and that made up for a great deal.

Jonathan Bignell: At the very beginning you touched on your tendency to go for script editor roles for productions in crisis. Were you attracted to these productions and the challenges involved?

TD: You don’t have to be attracted to them. You get them anyway! Television production is incredibly difficult. Barry used to come into the office every morning when he was producing (both on Doctor Who and the Classic Serial) and say ‘alright, what happened? Tell me, what’s today’s disaster?’ and there always is a day’s disaster. You just have to learn that’s what the job is. You just have to learn to cope with it. Personally, I don’t mind it, I like a bit of a crisis, but it upset some people quite a lot.

Jonny Murray: Were there books that you wanted to do that you never had the chance to do?

TD: Yeah, one that got away from us was War of the Worlds, which in spite of all the super-colossal Hollywood versions is a fairly short novel by HG Wells. I think just as we did The Invisible Man, we could have done that. But the American musician Jeff Wayne, who made an album version and was trying to make a War of the Worlds stage musical, owned the rights so we could never get them. Later, I very much wanted to do Maigret’s First Case (by Georges Simenon) with Maigret as a young clerk attached to the police station, not the eminent Chief Inspector. But again we just could not manage to get rights. So those are the main two that leap immediately to mind, I’m sure there must have been more. The problem was not so much getting, but choosing a book that everybody had heard of and would have at least a smidgen of interest in, that’s the hardest thing.

BS: And which hadn’t been done too recently?

TD: Yes, quite!

BS: I was thinking, that these productions aren’t forgotten, because the people who saw them do still remember them, but with classic books it always tends to be the most recent production that’s the only one in circulation.

Jonathan Powell: It’s interesting that you say that Dickens and Jane Eyre are the ones that always deliver the big audiences – and indeed getting big audiences was something significant at the time. I can’t remember now, but did you ever think of, or did we ever discuss doing Jane Austen?

TD: I think not, because we always had hanging over us slightly ‘the children’s classic’, ‘the children’s tea time serial’ and you really can’t swing any Jane Austen as a children’s show. It’s all about love, romance, marriage etc. With Jane Eyre, we could sort of drag it in, because in the first bit of the book (which everybody forgets) she’s a child. But there was nothing in Jane Austen like that. I’d love to have done Jane Austen but not in that slot, sadly.

BS: Something interesting about the classics on television is that for about 25 years there was The Sunday Classic on BBC1 and The Classic Serial on BBC2, and it was fairly obvious which great author would fit into each slot. So you could never do Henry James or Conrad, and they could never do The Three Musketeers or The Prisoner of Zenda, but the one author that fitted into both series was Dickens. So at the same time you did the Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, they’re doing their big Bleak House (1985).

JP: That was my fault!

Actually, something I always wanted to ask you about was being taught by F.R. Leavis at Downing College, Cambridge.

TD: F.R. Leavis was a mad old paranoid and he’d completely lost it by the time I was there. He had letters and replies pinned up outside his office of people he had academic controversies with and sent crushing replies to. For years and years and years he said Dickens was a minor novelist, not really a novelist to be reckoned with. He did back track later on, but he said there is one good Dickens, which is the only exception, and that’s Hard Times. That’s the one Dickens which is pretty bloody well unreadable and utterly miserable at the same time. That was typical Leavis – you’ve all got it wrong, I’ve got it right. Leavis and I did not get on well. I remember my tutor saying ‘Dr. Leavis finds it hard to comment on your work, he hasn’t seen any!’

BS: Well, you gave us an introduction to some of the classics when we were children and we’re very grateful for them and they do stand up well today.

TD: Thank you for bringing them back.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s