Books: Fame in the 20th Century — Introduction |
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Fame in the 20th Century

Fame is the sum total of all the misunderstandings that can gather around one name.
— Rilke
The print edition of this book was dedicated to the late Richard Drewett, who would have approved my dedicating this web edition to the memory of Wendy Gaye.


Not all books are collaborations, although some are. All television programmes are collaborations without exception. So there is no use my writing an introduction to this book — essentially the book of the series — as if it were all my own work. The book wouldn’t exist without the series and the series wouldn’t exist without its Producer, Beatrice Ballard. Fame in the Twentieth Century started as an idea by her. It took her three years of fanatically dedicated work, supervising every detail of its immense effort in scripting, research, editing and administration, to make the idea a reality. You have to imagine a whole corridor lined with cutting rooms full of editors toiling like troglodytes; another corridor lined with viewing rooms manned by red-eyed researchers working a two-shift system; a block-long open plan office full of sweating personnel hunched at word processors — and this mere slip of a woman controlling it all with a smile here, a quiet word there, and only the occasional flourish of her fifteen-foot Australian stock whip. Watching her in action through the slit in my cell door, I was able to remind myself that my part was the easy part, even when it didn’t feel like it.

Actually it never felt like it. From my angle the whole deal, from the very first meeting, had the same leisure opportunities as a life sentence in the engine room of a trireme. It took a dozen of us almost all of the first week to agree on the 250 twentieth-century people who were genuinely, undeniably world-famous. Placido Domingo was out because his name was known only to everyone on Earth who liked the sound of good singing. Luciano Pavarotti was known even to people who couldn’t tell good singing from bad, so he was in. Picasso was in and Matisse was out. Stefan Edberg was out because you had to be interested in tennis. John McEnroe was in because everybody was interested in bad behaviour. Those who were in got a blue card each so they could be pinned to the wall. It was incredible, the magnitude of some of the names that didn’t get on that wall. When I realized that Margaret Mitchell was going to rate a mention but T. S. Eliot wasn’t, I argued for a pink card category for people who should get a fleeting mention. Pink cards joined the blue cards. When the wall looked like a tennis court painted by Piet Mondrian, I was led away, locked up in my office and told to come out when I had a rough draft of the script.
It took two years. We were doing other programmes as well, of course, but every minute I didn’t spend on them I spent driving myself nuts trying to crack the format of Fame. I was determined to make the narrative chronological. When I first studied history at Sydney University in the late 1950s, a big debate was going on about whether individual personalities had any effect on the flow of events. My own belief, then as now, was that nothing else did. History is just the sum total of what personalities do. The complication arises from the awkward fact that absolutely everybody’s personality counts, anonymous people included. But to deny that famous people influence events is essentially fatuous. Of course they do. A history of the twentieth century without Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, Churchill, Roosevelt, Einstein — no matter how full of sociological jargon, it would be hopelessly empty. Conversely, to talk about the famous people of the twentieth century must be to talk about its history. By now, having lived a full half of that century myself, I had my own interpretation of what had been going on. On the first day of writing the script I sketched an outline of what I took to be the big story of modern times — the long conflict between democracy and totalitarianism. My main task would be to unfold that narrative while simultaneously reflecting on the biographies of the leading characters, and doing all that while simultaneously reflecting on the development of the means of communication that made fame increasingly pervasive, and doing all that while simultaneously reflecting on how the condition of actually being famous changed with circumstances, and doing all that while simultaneously specifying how everything I mentioned might be illustrated with footage, stills, posters and choice quotations read out by myself in a flatteringly lit mid-shot.
After writing twenty-two separate drafts of Episode One I was a cot-case being fed through a vein. Months had gone by and the office and the corridors were waist-deep with teetering stacks of film cans and videotapes loaded with off-line edits of famous people doing famous things. Everyone gathered around my bed while we faced reality. We had learned the hard way that we were dealing with a whole new type of television series. It was an enormous three-dimensional jigsaw of widely scattered moving parts all converging on a distant point where everything would click into place to reveal a narrative that moved forwards while its themes went sideways. Until that point was reached, narrative and themes would have to be handled separately; otherwise it was like trying to build the power source of a spaceship with components from its flight deck and vice versa.
Two of our researchers, Jonathan Smith and Chris Walker, took over the task of developing the themes that went sideways. They were promoted to the status of Assistant Producer, fed a glass of cheap champagne each, and locked up in the cell next to mine. While I went off to do a season of Saturday Night Clive and another edition of our Review of the Year — I had reached the stage where those shows, which required a lot of dedicated graft, felt like a holiday — Smith and Walker cracked the thematic structure, producing masterly documents which explained how fame affected society and society affected fame as the century progressed. Each of their eight main summaries could have been successfully submitted as a PhD thesis except for the complete absence of incomprehensible jargon. Having absorbed these dauntingly profound dossiers, I wisely resolved to adopt as my own every factual discovery they contained, along with most of the conjecture. I had the odd quarrel. Smith and Walker were young — they barely added up to my age put together — and they obviously thought I was a bit of a Cold Warrior still fighting the old battles. They thought, for example, that it was perfectly clear what a bad hat Stalin had been and I would be wasting precious time if I banged on with my favourite theme of how too many intelligent people in the West had allowed themselves to be fooled. But I remembered when it hadn’t been obvious. That, for me, was one of the points about fame. It was only a rough guide to reality, but it was a guide we all needed, so it better lead us in the right direction. In the case of Stalin it had led in the wrong direction, with dire results. Remembering when what was so obvious had still been obscure would be my contribution. So I went back to my cell for another six months and changed everything Smith and Walker had said into my own words. When they squealed too hard I changed some of my words back to something a bit nearer theirs, than changed them back closer to mine again when they weren’t looking. They started going to the gymnasium at lunchtime to work off their angst on the treadmill.
Finally we got some rough drafts we could agree on and the first programmes went into the cutting room. While the researchers went on gathering material for the later episodes, the early episodes began to form on the editing machines. Editors and their assistants struggled to match pictures to audiotape guide-tracks of the draft scripts read out by myself in hoarse tones. When I walked down the corridor past four of the editing rooms I could hear myself saying four different things. To say that I didn’t know whether I was coming or going scarcely registers the feeling. I didn’t know whether I was a barber-shop quartet in rehearsal or a bridge tournament dissolving in acrimony.
At the time of writing, the series entered on its crucial, final stage, when the rough cut heads towards the fine cut in a constant process of swapping pictures to suit words and rejigging words to suit pictures. The more of that you do, the less like a book the script sounds. The commentary of any documentary programme is, or should be, less like an essay than like a song lyric, except that it combines with pictures instead of music. As with the song, the combination becomes a mystery from the moment it happens, no longer analysable and only to be appreciated. If the words are to be read, they had better be typed up at an earlier stage. In this book I have put back quite a few phrases that I had already taken out in the cutting rooms when I realized that the footage made the point. But I haven’t tried to go back to the very beginning and write the book as I might have written it if a book had been the only thing I had in mind. Most of the sentences in this text are quite short and very few of them contain a subordinate clause. When writing for a reader you can complicate a sentence by inserting a parenthesis — whether between brackets, commas or, like this one, dashes — and the reader will have no trouble following the argument. When writing for a listener you can’t do that without running the risk that he will forget the first bit of the sentence before you get to the last bit. If you want to qualify something, you have to do it next instead of during. The loss is in subtlety. The gain is in speed. The trick is to make the speed subtle. Practice helps, but (‘but’ is a very useful word in this kind of writing) the main requirement is to be sure of what you are saying. In that regard, as in so many others, I am grateful to everyone on the project. They all had ideas and there was nobody whose brain I didn’t pick. The brains were there all day, ripe for the picking. When I got to the office early in the morning there were usually some people still there who had worked all night, and no matter how late I left I had a dozen goodbyes to say, as all those rapidly ageing youngsters slogged on, their faces haggard in the spectral light of the monitors and the VDUs. As with most of the programmes I have ever fronted, I suppose I got into this one, and stayed with it, out of an overwhelming impulse to say what I know — but it would have been worth doing just for what I was told. Besides, it does a writer good to see what real work looks like. The names of those who did it don’t take long to write down, and even then the list looks twice as long as it ought, because the attrition rate was high: there were some who made it all the way from start to finish, but there were also those who suddenly froze at the VDU some time during the night, and were discovered by the cleaners in the morning. We were never overstaffed, so it was lucky that the staff was over-eager.
In addition to the redoubtable Smith and Walker (concept ramification analysis a speciality), the Assistant Producers were Nigel Leigh, Helen Bettinson, Karen Fulton, Paul Wooding, Manorma Ram, Sue Gagan and Elizabeth Ekberg, of whom the last two became pregnant, but on their own time. Jane Mercer was team leader for Film Research, a business which entails not just the tricky job of finding footage, but the sometimes frustrating job of obtaining permission to use it. The amount of clerical labour involved can soon take the romance out of the task for anyone who lacks patience. On the midnight-oil-burning Mercer task force were Valerie Evans, Carol Davies Foster, Belinda Harris, Anthony Dalton and (there from Day One to the end) Robin Keam. Colin Jones was the first Film Editor on the case, abetted by Paul Willey, Chris Woolley, Richard Brunskill and Christine Garner. Sian Salt found headlines. Joanne King was first assistant to the small, surreptitiously acquisitive Stills unit headed by Maria Chambers, who can find a photograph of anybody anywhere; they don’t have to be famous for fifteen minutes, fifteen seconds is plenty.
Requiring as it did the coordination of a monumental amount of information, the series would have been impossible without state-of-the-art word processing technology. Some of the software involved was so far beyond my capacity to understand it that I gave up asking questions and just assumed we could do anything. The Production Assistant was Deborah Black, also doubling as back-up space cadet for the unchallenged princess of the VDUs, Charlotte Wyatt, who tracked the eight episodes through an average of fifteen drafts each without losing control once, except for the day when one of the machines started to underline every word in the building. Preparing the manuscript of this book was merely one of her lighter tasks. I should also mention, while on the subject of how a project this size is made logistically feasible, that our office, which had all our other programmes to deal with as well, would have been reduced by the demands of Fame to a smouldering tangle of used plastic and frayed flex if it had not been for the D-Day-harbour-master-standard skills of our Production Managers Bhupinder Kohli and Lynn Hodgkinson. Finally my secretary Wendy Gay, who had more than enough to worry about already, also selflessly doubled as an extra Production Secretary for Fame even after she realized that her personal heroine Jayne Mansfield might not make it above the status of a yellow card awarded for a momentary mention — the next category down from a fleeting mention.
One last word before our story starts. Being the book and not the series, it can’t begin with Carl Davis’s music, Bernard Heyes’s title sequence and Ken Ledsham’s designs. For those, you’ll just have to use your imagination. But it’s the right moment to thank the man who has done so much to help me use mine — my dedicatee, Richard Drewett. Once, in one of the many office discussions out of which this series grew, I was trying to pinpoint my belief that fame helps us to make a useful drama out of reality, but only on the understanding that a civilization depends on virtue being pursued for its own sake by the anonymous. The example I chose was the policeman who telephoned me and, instead of saying, ‘There’s been a car crash but your daughters are both all right’, started the sentence by saying, ‘Your daughters are both all right.’ He thereby saved me from a heart attack and established himself in my mind as the most valuable man I had ever known, though I never knew his name. There was another good example close to hand. Richard Drewett has been Executive Producer on every television programme I have made since 1982, and Beatrice Ballard won’t mind my saying that his unmatched critical intelligence has likewise been applied to every word and frame of Fame in the Twentieth Century. He bothers about publicity only when the times comes to push a programme, and even then he would rather that the hoopla happened to me than to him. His satisfaction is in the task itself. Achievement without fame can be a good life. Fame without achievement is no life at all. Somewhere between those two principles there is a line of argument. I hope that what you are about to read is it.

— BBC White City, 1992