Children’s television in my youth was an electic collection of styles and genres, maybe more than it is today. I suppose it was a complete television service in miniature. The BBC used to show drama series under the umbrella title of ‘Tales from Europe’ and the one that stood out, possibly because it was so unusual, was ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ from East Germany.
I saw the series in the 60s; it was repeated several times over the years. It was actually made in 1957 by the East German DEFA studio as a film. The rather surreal story of a difficult and spoilt princess who rejects the proposal of a prince and all the gifts he offers has to be seen to be believed. She challenges him to present her with the mythical singing ringing tree of the title.
The series involves a bear, an evil dwarf and a giant fish. The singing, ringing tree will only sing if the prince and princess are in love so the ending is always in sight with no great surprises but a lot of fun on the way.
‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This is an interesting book even if it wasn’t the book I thought it would be! Peter Mayne moved to Morocco in the early 50s to write a novel. Instead of the fiction work he imagined, his time in the country resulted in this journal of his year in Marrakesh.
Having lived in Pakistan, Mayne knew something of the Muslim way of life but the year spent in Morocco proved to be eye-opening for many reasons. He was determined not to be seen as a tourist, to live in the old city even though this meant giving up the modern comforts, and to forge friendships with the local people.
The resulting journal is a record of his daily efforts to fit in. His accommodation changes several times and much of the book is taken up with efforts to secure a roof over his head on reasonable terms. He also talks about his relationships with locals who have different expectations about trade and financial understandings.
The time he writes about has passed and with it many of the attitudes expressed here by ‘westerners’ and the Moroccans. I expected a book where the author led us through the sites and gave us local flavour. He does the latter but only in as much as it relates to the business of buying, eating, seeking accommodation. There is little of Mayne himself revealed in this book. We do not find out much about him. I was keen to know how he could afford a year without income from any work. There is no hinterland of interest or experience. What we have instead is a picture of a city in a country before it went through great changes- Morocco became independent in 1956. He captures life in one place at one time and does it well. ‘A Year in Marrakesh’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This film from director Peter Weir dates back to 1989 and remains in my hinterland as it was the perfect reflection of creativity as a means of forging an identity. In a superior and self- regarding school in Vermont, USA in the 50s, a new English teacher is appointed. He, too, is a former pupil of the school so knows the expectations and the code of such an institution. Yet, he sees English Literature as the perfect model for teenage boys to learn about life. His teaching methods are unusual but they inspire one group of boys in particular.
Enamoured of their teacher, the boys research his time at the school to discover that he was part of a club- the ‘Dead Poets Society’ of the title. Without telling him, they re-form the club and use it to celebrate poetry and the idea of living life to the full.
I saw this film on the day of its release in UK and loved it. Over the many years since then, I have seen it from time to time and. while understanding that the conventions (and clichés) of Hollywood can be clearly seen, it is still a heartwarming film.
The idea that teachers can change lives is a key theme and so is the idea that enthusiasts can ignite interest in people who thought they might not be interested. So, too, is the idea that breaking out from conformity brings risks to all involved. The film caught Robin Williams, so good as the inspirational teacher, at the cusp of his career from comedian to more sentimental roles. His performance here is more restrained than some of the later crowd pleasing turns. The performances of the younger actors, Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke in particular, were also strong.
‘Dead Poets Society’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The recent radio dramatisation of Salman Rusdie’s 1981 novel was fantastic. Not having (yet) read the book, I was ambivalent about listening to the drama as it was broadcast over one day in August by BBC Radio. However, once I started I had to see it through to the end.
The drama was split into episodes of varying lengths, a creative touch that made the broadcasting special. The first episode was broadcast before midnight on the day before the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan. The rest were broadcast throughout the next day.
The story of Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight with the creation of two new countries is a brilliant one. Nikesh Patel played the adult Saleem who narrates the story of his life as well as the background story of his grandparents and parents. It is a story that follows the history of the new countries as well as the young man. His life weaves in and out of important moments in the life of India and Pakistan.
There is something satisfying about a radio adaptation, especially as voices coming through the air is a significant idea in the novel. The term magical realism is often applied to this story and this may be a reason why I haven’t read it; or the 600 page length may have put me off. However, when brought to you across the airwaves, the concept of magical realism is less off- putting and in fact works very well.
Themes of identity, belonging, national pride, cultural differences and honour all play a part. As Saleem grows up, so does India.
‘Midnight’s Children’ dramatised by Ayeesha Menon and directed by Emma Harding is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The final scene of this film moved me when I was a child. It all seems a little sentimental now but the moment when Ted Ray stepped out to face his pupils who had wrecked his chance of promotion to prevent him from leaving them is one of my all time favourite film moments.
I was a fan of the early Carry On films. This 1959 film was the third in the series that eventually totalled thirty-one. I saw it on British television in the 60s since it was released in cinemas before I was born! The black and white story of an ambitious headteacher who sees the arrival of inspectors as his opportunity to snatch the headship of a brand new school is a good one.
Two of his pupils overhear him telling a teacher that, should he get the job, there will be opportunities for others. They decide that the only way to keep their headteacher is to ensure the inspection is a disaster and they enlist their friends to make sure it is. The comedy comes from the thwarted efforts of the head to impress and the inability of the teachers to cope with the breakdown of order.
In the current British education system the inspectorate is a malign growth and there is little to amuse there but this is from a kinder age and the story leads to the final scene which I loved as a boy.
The ‘Carry On’ films continued into the 60s and 70s and I loved most of them until the bawdy humour became distasteful. Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and Charles Hawtry were favourites of mine but, in this film, Ted Ray was the star. It was his only ‘Carry on’ role.
‘Carry On Teacher’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This terrific novel by Helen Dunmore reminded me so much of ‘The Railway Children’ although it is adults who take centre stage in this story of the fall- out from espionage in 50s Britain. It is an ‘ordinary’ family that suffers when things go wrong for the husband; his wife and three children have to pick up the pieces and live with the consequences of public exposure.
Simon Callington is a man trying to escape his past but whose friendships threaten his new life with his wife and children in a comfortable corner of London. In particular, his past association with Giles causes him trouble. They were lovers when Simon was a student with Giles, as the older man, enjoying the patronage he can bestow. They have moved on but the friendship continues… and when Giles presumes on this friendship it starts a chain of events that lead to disgrace.
Lily, Simon’s wife, has already made a new start in life when her mother brought her from Germany to England and safety in an earlier era. Lily knows what it is like to start again with nothing. She did not think this would be her fate twice in her life.
Simon, Lily and Giles all feature prominently in a novel which reminds us of 50s attitudes to outsiders. The paranoia around cold war spying adds another dimension to the suffering of one family. As the novel moves towards its end, I was reminded again of the connection with ‘The Railway Children’ and I hoped for that dramatic moment (from the film at least) of a father being reunited with his children. Life is rarely so neat and tidy, though.
Acting with integrity and honour is an important theme in the book. Simon’s past has not been shared with his wife and the effect on her and his children is central in his thinking as he faces disgrace. Lily is the most impressive figure here, her determination to survive and to shield her son and daughters from the shame. 1950s Britain fares less well; the sense of who can and should belong in our society is one of the less admirable features of that era.
‘Exposure’ by Helen Dunmore is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I loved the major documentary history series that used to be broadcast by major television networks in the past. ‘The World at War’ on ITV in the 70s was the gold standard. The series, ‘The Cold War’, was produced by Jeremy Isaacs who was also the producer of ‘The World at War’. Broadcast on BBC Television in the late 90s, this series followed a similar format. People involved in the events being described relate the inside story of the Cold War.
Each of the twenty- four episodes covered a country or a theme over a span of several years with a broadly chronological progression from the end of the second world war to the start of the 90s and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Key players included former Presidents of both USA and USSR.
The reason these landmark series remain in my hinterland is because of their use of oral history. So many modern documentaries have historians as talking heads telling us how a person in the past was feeling at some significant moment. Here, at least, we have the real people talking. Important historians, such as Neal Acheson, are credited with writing particular episodes but all sides are given the space to speak.
Kenneth Branagh brings the same level of gravitas to the narration that Laurence Olivier did to ‘The World at War’. People who grew up, as I did, knowing there was this significant divide in the world were taken aback by the speed of the end of the Cold War. This series reminds us of how significant that divide was throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century and how clear it was to each side who the good guys were.
‘The Cold War’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?