MALCOLM BRADBURY writer and critic


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


First I have to tell you the story of my life. Not the story of how I first fell in love, or how I became the kind of mess I am today. I want to tell you how I became the kind of writer I am, which is a novelist who also writes a great deal for television, and is very interested in both of these two different artistic activities. I started writing at about the age of sixteen, and I wanted to be a novelist; it was the great dream of my life. I couldn't play sport, the army didn't want me, and so I was inevitably unattractive to women, especially in the Fifties. And I was in love with stories, with Dickens and Trollope and D.H. Lawrence.

I then did a rather foolish thing. Thinking it would help my literary ambitions, I went to university to read English. It so happened I went to an excellent redbrick university, the University College of Leicester, which actually awarded an external degree of the University of London. It was a degree devised for people in Sierra Leone and Hong Kong, and various other distant places, and it was assumed that people in such colleges needed a very special kind of literary education. So most of my degree was spent learning Old Norse, Old Icelandic, Old Danish, Old Hittite (or maybe it was New Hittite, I can't remember) and I learned very little about literature at all. The study of English literature stopped at the death of Martin Tupper (the death of Martin Tupper occurred, I believe, in 1889, also the year when Nietzsche went mad, though the two things were probably not connected). Modern literature, Modernist literature, got no place in the programme at all, and to be frank I was badly put off wanting to be a novelist, since according to my teachers one of the things that distinguished novelists was that they were all dead.

Luckily I was saved from all this by a piece of excellent fortune; I went on to do graduate work in the USA. There, as you know, they don't bother quite so much with the literature and language of the past, and they study literature that was being written this week, or probably even next week. Many of the people who teach in American universities are themselves writers, who can show you the manuscript of the next era of American literature before they've even published it, and who also teach courses in creative writing, a subject I have now ended up teaching myself. Anyway, my faith in the contemporary novel, and my ambitions to be a writer, were restored. And so I ended up being both a novelist and a university teacher, which is what I still am to this day. In the course of all this, I found myself developing that curious form of fiction which creates an intimate marriage between the novel and the academic world; I mean "the campus novel." The advantage of the campus novel is that you can put your university in the novel, and write your novel in the university, and so keep both parts of your life useful to you at the same time.

As a result of all this, I ended up as a rather distinctive kind of novelist – that is, a novelist who was also an academic, a writer who was also a critic. A campus novelist is, almost by definition, a literary novelist – if only because the presumed audience of this kind of book is an educated audience, a graduate audience, an audience that actually knows something about universities and probably about the literary tradition. So, certainly with my early fiction, I could almost take it for granted that my audience, not just in Britain but in almost every country where, happily, it was translated, including Germany, Scandinavia, Japan, and so on, was an educated or graduate audience. That was true even of my third novel, The History Man, which was published in 1975 and became very successful. And then, one day at the beginning of the Eighties, the BBC in Britain came along to me with a proposition I couldn't refuse. They said: "We want to adapt your novel The History Man as a television series. There's a very able young man, Christopher Hampton, who will do it for you, so you don't need to worry. He'll send you the scripts when he's finished, and you can change a few words if you like. Then we'll make it and you can come and see it, and if you don't enjoy it we'll still show it anyway. All right?" So I said all right.

And all of this was done. My novel was adapted for television in four parts by Christopher Hampton, a brilliant playwright who also, as you probably know, did the movie script of Dangerous Liaisons, and who is a splendid screen writer. I watched the process carefully, and learned a great deal. I was also fascinated by the result, because my campus novel, which in Britain sold around 10,000 copies in the hardback, suddenly, over several nights, reached an audience of 10 million. So the same story had, by process of being moved into a different medium, become a different book, with a different and much vaster audience. And that audience was no longer a graduate audience, it was the great British public. My work had changed in meaning, my audience was now transformed, and you will not be surprised to learn that I spent some time analyzing the strange process by which all of this had happened.

What had happened, I understood, was that a transformation had occurred which was on a far larger scale than simply taking a story that had been told in one medium and then been reconstructed in visual form for another. Many different things had been adapted, and let us think about what some of them were.

First, my novel -– as I say, definitely a literary novel – had been shifted from a verbal mode into a visual one. Now mine is a very ironic novel, with a very distinctive narrative tone. That is to say, it is a novel which distances itself from the characters, and in a way from the reader, by the nature of its discourse. It was then moved across to a visual medium where many of the things that could be done in the original medium could not be directly reproduced. It's hard to have an ironic camera, or tell a story where there is a good deal of parody. Even the world created inside the novel needs to be explained in a different way, to a different audience. So what Christopher Hampton had done was to take a literary text and make it into a not so literary one, though the result was no less cunning and no less sophisticated.

Secondly, my novel was not just adapted from one form to another, less literary one, and from one audience to another; it was also adapted in time. The History Man is a story about the dying of the liberationist culture of the Sixties, the fading of the era of student revolution, and the book was set, appropriately, in 1972. It was published in 1975, just, as it were, on the cusp between the end of Sixties radical culture and the emergence of a new form of cultural attitude during the Seventies – a very contemporary work. But by the time it appeared on British television in 1981, Mrs Thatcher had been elected to office. We were in the era of Thatcherismus, of the new conservatism. Under Thatcherismus, the entire cultural and political attitude toward the Sixties had been transformed; it was an adversary that had to be overcome. So where the novel version of The History Man in 1975 was a kind of half-tragic and half-ironic version of a generation that was dying, the television version of The History Man is really a commentary from a later era on what was wrong with an earlier one. So the values of the story, the myth and meaning of the story, had also been adapted in the process of translation from novel to screen.

There was another kind of adaptation too, perhaps the one that interests me most. This is the adaptation from the very individual medium of fiction to the collective medium of tv drama. I have always believed that one of the characteristics of the novel (at least as it is practised in Britain) is that it is a very "authored" form, in which the great Barthes-ian "Death of the Author" has not really occurred. That is to say, novels are or can be written very much from the standpoint and vision of the original, individual, distinctive author, rather than being generic objects, and this is part of the magic of the form. Let me try and explain a bit more what I mean.

When I sit down to write a novel, I imagine a society, a world, a verbal universe, a set of styles, in my head, and I try to transcribe these into a developing narrative. I seek to observe and comment on culture, human behaviour, individual psychology, particular feelings and types of feeling. I try to discover something about language and the nature of literary form. Each novel is a new discovery and, in the process of that discovery, I attempt to reach the reader through the magic of a very particular set of words and emotions. Through words, and words alone, I want to devise a contract with each individual reader who, recreating the world I have imagined, will do a good part of the work for me. A conspiratorial writer-reader contract is devised, where I do a great deal of imagining, but then you, the reader, do a great deal more imagining in return. The theatre in which the drama is performed is the mind of the reader, and the reader re-reading and re-working my process of writing is one of the great ways in which the novel works.

It's said that if the match had been invented after the cigarette writer, people would have said it was a great improvement. I often feel the same about the novel and the visual media. If the book had been invented after the cinema and tv screen, people would have said it was an improvement. Think of it. Here is a device, with so many pages enfolded on tiny sheets of paper, which can be scanned without a set or a screen. You can put it in your pocket, take it on a train, you can stop reading, put it away, and pick it up at the same place next day. You can scan backward and forward, and read the ending first if you want. Admittedly, you can now do a good deal of this with a videorecorder, but not with the wonderful freedom of the book. But above all you can recreate the entire drama of a novel without actually performing it. This process costs nothing, because all the theatricalization goes on in the reader's head – where every version is different. You don't need to go on location in Vienna, or pay Anthony Hopkins a million pounds to be in it. It's all for free.

In the same way, the freedom that the novelist has to exploit this situation is extraordinary. Anything can go into a novel; casts of thousands, travel anywhere, sudden shifts in time, space, values or form. When you are writing a tv script, it is like sitting in a taxi; the meter is always running, and everything has to be paid for. You can always see the price turning over everywhere you go, or the difficulties of performance and production; that is the art of writing for the medium. But the novel has the meter switched off; you can write what you like, have Buenos Aires, have the moon, have whatever you want. That is part of the wonder of the novel, the wonder of being a novelist. And by contrast the tv script or the film is a limited medium; the characters are defined, the actions are fixed, the rooms are there, the imagination wanders only as far as the director or the camera permit. So the novel is never replaced by the tv drama, or the tv version. It has its own form of artistic and imaginative life, as well as its own distinct language and author. And often when we return to a novel after seeing the film or tv version, we are amazed by how much richer it is.


You might ask, if that is my feeling, and it is, why I have done so much work in tv drama myself. Well, I certainly have. During the Sixties and Seventies, partly because I lived in Birmingham where I met a good number of writers and directors working in BBC Drama, which had an important regional base there under David Rose, I was greatly seduced by tv, and wrote a number of scripts for various tv theatres, like "Play for Today." And the experience of watching Christopher Hampton adapt my own novel increased my interest in the skills and arts of tv adaptation. So over the Eighties I did a great many adaptations myself. There were drama series versions of two novels by Tom Sharpe, Blott on the Landscape and Porterhouse Blue, which I adapted as series for the BBC and then Channel 4. There was a novel by Alison Lurie, Imaginary Friends, adapted for ITV, and Kingsley Amis's The Green Man, done for the BBC, and so on.

Also during the Eighties I found myself interested in something I called, to myself, the television novel – that is, I took stories and narratives that ten years before I would undoubtedly have written as novels, and wrote them as television series. In fact the most recent things I have done, two satirical series about the European Community called The Gravy Train and The Gravy Train Goes East, started in this way. I began to plan a novel about Brussels and the idea of a common Europe, and did a lot of research for it. Then, I think because I began gossipping about this idea at the wrong party, I met someone who wanted to commission it as a tv series for a European audience and as a European co-production. That is what happened, and the two series, which are in the process of bein shown in a good many of the European countries, has been my main activity in the later Eighties.

I am, as it happens, desperate to return to the novel, and have just written one called Doctor Criminale, which is about to appear (it came out in 1992); though I must admit that it has already been commissioned as a tv series. My previous novel came out in 1983, so it is nine years since I published a full-length novel, and the missing years have been almost entirely filled with television writing. Why, after all I've said about my commitment to the novel, and my conviction that I am first and foremost a novelist, should I have become a novelist who spends his time writing mostly for tv?

There are three or four different possible answers, and some of them are perhaps distinctive to British tv. Because in Britain tv culture still supports the idea of a "writers' theatre" – that is, it is possible to go, as a serious writer, to the BBC or Channel 4 and say you want to do a particular project, and this will be accepted on, more or less, the writer's own terms. But another reason is one almost the opposite to this; it's the difference between the experience of being a novelist and being a tv dramatist. As I said before, one of the things about the novel is that it is a work of the private and personal imagination. In fact, if you think about it, being a novelist is a very solitary if not almost disgusting profession. You get up, have breakfast, and then go into your study and switch on your Apple (that's the name of my word processor). Then you sit all day at home in solitude, fantasizing – about life, other worlds, strange sexual couplings – and try to work these imaginings out on the screen in front of you. Then it's time for dinner, a little late night tv, and off to bed; then you get up the next morning and it's back to the strange sexual couplings again.

Writing for tv is not like that. You get up in the morning, have breakfast, switch on your Apple, write down "1. INT. JOHN'S ROOM, HOTEL, MANCHESTER. DAY," and the phone rings. Someone says: "Hi, this is Joanne, the location finder, I'm in Johannesburg. I'm looking out of my hotel window and I can just see this fantastic shot. I can see your character, Maggie, isn't it, coming round the corner and...". And I say, "Just a minute, Joanne, this story is set in Manchester." And Joanne explains that she thinks they can fix this great co-production deal with the South Africans so it would be better to set it in Johannesburg instead. So you sit down and write: "1. INT. MAGGIE'S ROOM, HOTEL, JOHANNESBURG. DAY," and then the phone rings again. It's Peter. "Yes, Peter, who are you?" you ask. "I'm Peter who does 1976, I'm looking after all your 1976 stuff. You know, car number plates, kitchen furniture, clothes, that kind of thing. We really want to get 1976 right in this series. Anyway, I've found this really great kitchen, so if you could just jump in the car and come to London, because it really is a really great kitchen, real 1976...". And I say, "Well, thanks a lot, Peter, but sorry, Paul rang up last night, and we've changed the whole thing to 1982." And so it goes on.

The point is that writing for tv is not a lonely and solitary life, and tv is fundamentally a collaborative and communal medium. Everyone gets involved – the producer and the executive producer and the production assistant and the director and the designer and the location finder, about twenty other people who ring you all the time with ideas, suggestions, input, interference. In fact, to be completely honest, a tv series isn't ever written at all. It's rewritten. Everyone feels they're involved in the rewrites, and they've often done their rewrites before you've even done the writes. Nothing is really private, the whole thing comes out of a shared world, and everything has been collaborated on. For the lonely novelist, this can sometimes be very annoying. But, when it goes right, it can also be very exciting. In fact one of the reasons for the pleasure of tv is exactly that the method of creation is so different from that of writing a novel. And so of course is the result, which is the achievement of a great team of people who have worked well, or badly, together, and produced something for which they are all responsible. The writer probably feels most responsible, though if it hasn't gone well there is always someone else to blame. But maybe this does explain to you why for over several decades I have actually enjoyed working in these two different worlds, and building various kinds of bridges between them – adaptations, tv novels, and so on – constantly carrying things backward and forward between the one world and the other.


This is nearly the end, and so now it is philosophy time. As you probably know, one reason why the British come to the European continent so often is to learn from its philosophers, since we do not really have a philosophical tradition in my country – one reason, perhaps, why we have the novel instead. But we do like mentioning the names of European philosophers, to show we could be a thinking nation if we cared to try. The name I want to mention is probably a familiar one on these occasions; I want to recall Walter Benjamin, and his famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," written in 1935, but still a notable guide to the current argument about writing and filming, art and the era of the moving picture.

Benjamin, you may remember, proposes in that essay that "the age of mechanical reproduction," which he believed we were just learning then to live in, and which we believe we have learned to live in, has the effect of destroying what he called the "aura" of the traditional work of art, the original artefact, whether it be a painting or a novel. The work of art ceases to be single, and ceases to be "authored." As soon as it can be endlessly reproduced through the modern technologies of mechanical reproduction, from film to, I suppose, photocopying, the mystery of its original nature and status, its scarcity and its creativity, begin to disappear. The production of the work becomes precisely the technology through which it is now created and presented, and according to Benjamin this is one of the essential characteristics of Modernist and mass culture. Today we live in the inheritance of all this, Postmodern culture, where what to Benjamin was a striking cultural transformation is now a commonplace state of affairs, the modern "imaginary museum" of multiplied styles, images, signs and art objects.

Benjamin's argument goes on even further. He argues that in time the mechanical or technological arts, the arts of serial reproduction, go to to create their own new notion of "aura." These technologies require their own skills, and invent their own methods and models of art and creative activity, driven along by the changing technologies. These in turn acquire the status of new forms of art. He gives as an example the way in which the apparently random and modest use of the camera to record something happening – an incident or a scene in a drama – in the end becomes the artistic situation that shapes the incident or drama, so we watch not what is reproduced but how it is reproduced. What's more the entire location of what is represented is changed. By the use of a studio, a particular location, or indeed by changes in the kind of performance required from the actors, the artistic occasions themselves are transformed. As the aura starts to fall away from the historical cultural forms, it is replaced by the new aura cast by everything to do with the new medium, which perhaps then goes on effectively to recycle the older one. And in time cinema produces not just a new technology but a changed idea of all the artistic components – narrative, storytelling, cultural signs, a whole new mythology of stars and settings, or conventions, references, and traditions.

One thing I have been describing here is a very familiar process where a "literary" writer like myself (as I say, essentially a novelist) discovers some new possibilities in the artistic situation by moving from sitting at home writing novels to going out and writing for and working with tv. For the writer this could be described as a psychological as well as an artistic transaction. For the passage involves the fear of losing some of the essential skills, values and artistic convictions from which you began in the first place. You can indeed feel you are losing command or control of the literary art itself, just as, in adaptation, you may feel you are losing sight of the original book that was an expression of it. At the same time, you are excited, stimulated, and invigorated by the new techniques and possibilities, the technological evolutions, that can only be born from contact with a new and obviously constantly changing medium. I think it is important for that medium that the literary "aura," the notion of artistic values derived from the tradition of the novel, indeed the very notion of an "authored" script, is of fundamental significance for film and tv, which has a tendency to be technologically exciting and creatively dull or repetitious, over-conventionalized. So I think the "writers' theatre" is very important, and must continue to have a significant role in film and tv.

But I am also interested in the reverse process. For the experiences of the mechanical media can come back into and deeply affect the literary media too, changing the fiction that you write. There is an important question to be asked about what film and tv, as modern forms of writing, are doing to our ideas of the novel and narrative, and our notion of the novelist and the novelizing imagination. Indeed any attempt to look at the way the novel itself is changing could usefully contain some consideration of the new relationship, in the minds both of creators and readers, between literature and the contemporary mechanical media. This is hardly the time to go into this in any detail, but I would just say that the different conceptions of framing and signification, of the manipulation of time, of narrative pace and interconnection and intercutting that are changing the conventions of fictional narrative are highly depend on a filmic culture. In fact many of the techniques of fiction we describe as Modernist or Postmodernist owe a lot to the fact that modern writers have, by analogy, learned to be their own cameramen, their own sound-recordists, their own editors. And the process now has become so symbiotic it is worthy of analysis.

So to my final point. There is much to be said for an attitude of literary and artistic interpretation that unites or links the activities of university departments of literature and departments of film. I hope that means looking both critically and empirically at some of the things I have been discussing here – the relation between the literary and the filmic "aura," the role of the screenplay and of the writer in the modern media, and the changing form of the novel. Anyway, I am grateful to the University of Amsterdam for the opportunity to make these comments, and I wish its film programme well in the future.