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Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir

Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

December 5, 2016
5 min read

octnov book1Tony Garnett’s memoir The Day the Music Died begins with two puzzles: how a private person goes public, and how to tell the truth while recognising every telling is partial. During the 1960s and 70s, along with Ken Loach and other socialist film-makers, Garnett was responsible for path-breaking television dramas that attracted large audiences. Films such as Up the Junction (1965), Cathy Come Home (1966), In Two Minds (1967), The Lump (1967), The Big Flame (1969), Days of Hope (1975), Spongers (1978) and Law and Order (1978) dealt with the suffering caused by illegal abortions, homelessness, oppressive family relations, exploitative work, welfare cuts and police corruption. Most controversially they showed workers’ resistance sympathetically. The over-arching theme was the injustice and destructive waste of class inequality in capitalism, but told from surprising angles.

These were years of possibility for radical film-making but nevertheless the obstacles of cash and culture were formidable. The initial funding for Kes, directed by Ken Loach, came from Garnett selling his house. From a novel by Barry Hines about a boy in a secondary modern in Barnsley who rears and trains a kestrel, it became an instant success when it was released in 1969 and is now on the British Film Industry list of the top ten films to see before you are 14.

While working within the BBC, Garnett, from a grammar school in Birmingham, found the public school and Oxbridge codes of nods and winks incomprehensible. The head of drama, Sydney Newman, critical of class-bound Britain and himself an outsider as a Russian Jewish Canadian, was an ally – up to a point. After one angry confrontation he whispered to Garnett in desperation, ‘How can I explain this? Look. In this country. For instance. You understand this. You cannot piss on the Queen. But if you do . . . you have to do it very carefully’.

Garnett niftily learned how to duck, dive and hide, but the parameters of the possible narrowed from the early 1980s and he left the BBC for Hollywood. A frustrating decade followed. Returning to Britain in the 1990s, he became an executive producer at World Productions, fostering a new generation of film-makers and actors with TV series such as Between the Lines on the police, Cardiac Arrest on junior doctors, This Life on young lawyers, and then The Cops in 2004 to 2005. In 1994, with director Hettie MacDonald, he produced Beautiful Thing, a tender film about gay love on a London housing estate.

Garnett probes traumatic personal experiences buried under his external achievements. Born into the respectable Birmingham working class, his mother died of an abortion when they were illegal and his father, facing a police investigation, committed suicide. In 1941, aged five, he was separated from his younger brother and sent to live with Uncle Harold and Aunty Pom. Amid their orderly, careful world he closed down on his grief and learned a pretend self. The next separation struck at 11, when he passed the 11-plus exam and went to grammar school. Like many others he felt guilty about being selected for privilege, but he loved reading and acting.

As a teenager he grew his hair, despised the class system and fell in love with Topsy Jane Legge. A new world of warmth and ideas opened. Her father had been an electrician, blacklisted for being in the Communist Party; her mother was middle class and worked as a teacher. When he and Topsy moved to London they began to be offered parts. Her gift for acting was exceptional. But after The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner she suffered a psychological breakdown from which she never recovered.

Already interested in Marxism, by 1967, when he helped organise ‘The Dialectics of Liberation’ at London’s Round House, like many of his contemporaries he wanted to open up interconnections to subjectivity. The mind-boggling event featured radical therapist Ronnie Laing, the black power activist Stokely Carmichael and beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

At 80, Garnett is still looking both within and without to tell his truth. The result is a theoretically exploratory memoir that is acute and often touchingly ironic.

Two intriguing paradoxes emerge. On cultural power Garnett is decisive about the media’s hegemonic bias towards class privilege and the status quo. Nonetheless he and many others have hewn oppositional spaces within it, which suggests control is never uniform or absolute.

Emphatic in his critique of capitalism as a system of society, he is committed to comprehending and empathising with individuals whose lives are embedded within it. When he was young, Garnett rejected the working-class conservatism of Uncle Harold and Aunty Pom; at 80 he acknowledges how it imparted self-respect. Because analysis and feeling tug in contrary ways, there are skeins within skeins of dramatic meaning in The Day the Music Died.

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