Monday, 23 July 2012

Listen With Mother - Nostalgia

People of my generation brought up in the UK may remember that there was a radio programme for children called Listen with Mother. It opened with a piece of music and the presenter's voice saying "Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin." 

Listening to this clip sends me into a nostalgic dwam. In fact, I don't remember listening to 'Listen With Mother'. I do remember listening to MY mother. I know I was read to as a child, by both parents, and remember very strongly the feeling of not wanting the story to end, of not wanting the precious one-to-one time to stop because of something inconvenient like the advance of sleep with its dark smothering blanket... No, no, tell me more about how the wolf escapes from those horrible three little pigs, please, please... But I digress.

My own mother - Frances Campbell - presented a television series in the early '60s for Scottish Television, called For The Youngest Scot. She would read a story, make a toy or a diorama from some scraps of material or other household objects (a circular box from those triangles of Dairylea cheese became a glittering miniature roundabout, complete with cut-out horses that whirled round a central pole; a small handbag mirror became an icy loch surrounded by twigs with green sponge for foliage and cotton wool for snow). For each day of the week there was a differently dressed doll.
"What day is it? Can you remember? It's the milkmaid doll, so it's... a Tuesday."
Alas, STV in their wisdom appear to have wiped them all. We still have somewhere a page from the Radio Times circa 1964, a promotional photo in which, with carefully coiffed hair, Ma is featured demonstrating her Scottish and motherly qualities for the camera.

I've been thinking and writing a lot about my father's work and influence recently, and of course my mother's work and influence matter just as much, even if there are fewer ways to demonstrate it. (Thanks, STV.) (Hey! Watch the sarcasm! Ed.) This doll for instance, is not one that Ma used from the TV programme but a doppleganger found years later and with great joy in a local charity shop.

Our childhoods are constructs, aren't they? Formulated from real memories, amplified by significant and treasured objects, held together by a large amount of information gathered later from variously un/reliable sources, filtered through our imaginations.

However they're composed, they're real to us, and their effects may often be present in how we view the world, what moves us or drives us, throughout our later lives.

I 'remember' lying in my childhood bedroom, looking up at a loved (if weary) face telling me a story, but that probably comes from my mother telling me about her reading to me, about her difficulty in staying awake as she tried to get me to 'close your bloody little eyes' and go to sleep... another layer of that memory might come from a visit in the early '90s to our old house (in Edinburgh's Regent Terrace, the building which is now the Norwegian Consulate). The shape of the room, the way the light came through the window, all felt familiar, even though the rose-strewn wallpaper and twin beds with pink cotton chenille bedspreads and puffy quilts had been replaced by bland office furnishings.

Memory and the past can often feel like lobster traps, tricky to negotiate a way into and even trickier to exit. On the other hand, if you're as cunning or persistent as, say, an octopus, or an otter, you're probably able to visit and leave at will. One of the things my mother produced for children's radio was dramatised readings from books by a former neighbour, Major-General R.N. Stewart, who wrote about salmon and wildlife and boats and the Yukon and huskies and... some of the books were anthropomorphic tales, others were practical and adventurous and For Boys. I was a tomboy and I liked them. It was my mother's working with the General's books at the BBC that led to our family moving, for a while, to live in Ardnamurchan.  That, in my memory, was mostly a very happy time.

But that's another story for another day. Listening time is over now, children.

ps - that obituary-link gets several facts wrong. I remember giving the information by phone, just after her funeral, to a young journalist who must have mixed up his details. It says there that my mother's participation in For The Youngest Scot was as producer; no, she was a producer/director of hundreds of children's programmes for BBC Radio Scotland, up until 1958, but she was the presenter only of this particular TV programme.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Behind The Scenes - researching a life

While researching my late father's life and work for the BBC's Great Lives series (this one is due to air on Radio 4 on 21st August 2012) it was clear that there were going to be problems finding suitable audio material. The producer sent me a list of what the BBC had in their sound archives; lots of short programme descriptions of weekly Radio Scotland Arts/Magazine programmes he presented in the 1950s, (i.e. before I was born), but there was little that seemed to me to demonstrate the variety of his abilities as a broadcaster, or indeed as a writer.

Of his 3 award-winning plays - The Wasting of Dunbar, Navigator In The 7th Circle and Henrysoun and the Ploomdam - the Dunbar had been broadcast on Radio Scotland and the Navigator on the Third Programme (as it was then called) in the same years as their theatrical premieres; but the actual tapes were gone. I'd heard it was common practice to re-use/recycle those big expensive reels of tape, but the knowledge that those particular plays no longer existed was depressing, and on behalf of my late Pa I undertook some grumbling and cursing.

However, after hours of scrabbling about in our own family archive (a series of boxes underneath a staircase) I found a parcel, tucked into my father's old briefcase. It contained three boxes of 1/4 inch BBC magnetic recording tape, purporting to be from the 1976 studio recording The Wasting of Dunbar. I had no idea if they were the originals, or copies made by some friendly sound engineer with a nod from the Producer, or if they might contain only sound effects, either from the broadcast or from the original stage production. No way to know unless I could get them transferred to digital format. Luckily, the Radio Media Manager at the BBC's new Pacific Quay HQ in Glasgow agreed to try this, so I handed them over, and she did the job, and sent the sound files by email to the producer in Bristol.

Emboldened by that discovery, and having been reminded by my father's actor friend David McKail (himself author and performer of several plays) of an enterprise called 'Diversity' which is, among other things, a non-BBC archive for culled radio programmes, I wrote to Diversity, asking what they might have from Leonard Maguire's radio days; to my great surprise they replied that there was indeed a copy of his Coleridge play, Navigator in the 7th Circle. With generosity and with great speed, Nigel of Diversity reformatted and emailed it to the programme producer in Bristol, just in time. I was hugely relieved that now we'd have at least two elements from his own written and performed work to include.

So on the day of recording of the programme, I got up at 5.30am and caught a plane to Bristol, spent the morning walking around (the Zoo is nice) and arrived at BBC for 2pm. Met Bill Paterson (whom I'd met once before, on a boat in the firth of Forth, but that's another story) and Matthew Pariss and we settled in the studio to begin the 'conversation' - that's what it was, really, Matthew asking questions, Bill and I dredging our memories to supply detailed personal answers and anecdotes. During the recording, a number of audio clips were played. The sound quality of the 'lost & found' Dunbar play was not great - (perhaps years of lying in a briefcase had damaged the oxide) - but it was astonishing to hear my father's voice once again speaking this poem:
Now, of wemen, this I say for me:
Off erthly thingis nane may bettir be,
They shuld haf wirchip and honouring
Off men aboif al uthir erthly thing...
(Trans: Of women, this I say for me/Of earthly things none may better be/They should have worship and honouring/Of men above all other earthly thing.)

It took me straight back to 1976, to standing inside the door of the Salisbury Church hall in Edinburgh, taking tickets, and hovering at the back throughout many performances, every time transfixed by watching Pa become a 15th Century poet...

(to be continued)

Friday, 13 July 2012

'Great Lives' studio day

Yesterday I was in Bristol for the day, to participate as 'expert' on a BBC Radio 4 Great Lives programme featuring my father's life and career (the two being entirely separate things, to my mind, but joined for the purposes of discussion). 

The programme is presented by Matthew Parris, who was not familiar with Pa's work or life, but he seemed to relish hearing the voice (a number of archive clips) and seeing photos from some of Pa's theatre, TV and film appearances.

The 'proposer' or nominator of Leonard Maguire as a 'Great Life' was actor Bill Paterson. Bill worked with him on several occasions, including in Panto one year, (Cinderella at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum in the '70s) when Pa played Baron Hardup and Bill was 'his lovely daughter Snowdrop' - one of the ugly Sisters (the other was John Bett, who wrote - and has read for the programme - a wonderful poem about my father.)

I won't pre-empt the programme's revelations (I hope it's good; we talked for nearly 2 hours but it will all be edited down to 30 minutes, and frankly I never remember much about my own contribution to a thing other than too-late anxiety about fluffs or getting dates or details wrong), but what struck me most, when Bill talked about my father, was the impression of affectionate regard in which he was held, not only by Bill himself but by others of his generation of Scottish actors - the ones whose names are known now - and that was very touching.

During his lifetime I don't think Pa could have imagined he'd be the subject of any sort of tribute or memorial (he'd more likely have pondered the accounting he'd be obliged to give on arrival at the Pearly Gates, and whether he could smuggle his baccy & roll-up papers past St Peter). However, in a rare newspaper interview he did in the mid-70s, this quote stands out clearly: 
"Every performance is your last will and testament. Even in the matinees there may be one boy back in the gods who will be fired by what you are doing and do something great in 20 years because of it." 
He would be modestly gratified to know that, on the basis of this programme at least, others were 'fired' and indeed inspired, by his work - and by him.

(pic: from appearance in the title role, Edinburgh International Festival production of Macbeth,1965)

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Stories about my father

Recently, I've been writing about my father, Leonard Maguire. Thinking about him, his career, his professional & private personae, his talents, my perception of them, of him, over time, both during his life and since he died. It's for a programme in the BBC Radio 4 series 'Great Lives' and will air in August (date tbc).

Liaising with the producer in Bristol on the running order for clips and discussion about his life has caused me to focus on him a lot these past few weeks, and to become even more aware of the parallels between us. I'd describe him as an actor/writer, whereas I might perhaps be described as a writer/performer. Spot the difference? He really was a remarkable actor, and I've no claim to such skill (Well of course not, he had a lifetime's experience learned from working with & observing the very best: you, daft lassie, rarely worked in ensemble pieces, learned by doing stand-up & comedy presenting, and have done little performance of any kind since the '90s other than read the odd self-penned radio story. Ed.).  When I read his plays and his unpublished prose, I'm always moved by what a perceptive eye he had, how beautifully he phrased a sentence - balance, content, tone, character, direction, humour, drama, space to breathe, all in his gift. Our writing styles & themes are very different, and I'm not attempting to draw a comparison - there isn't one, except perhaps in intention or in sincerity of purpose.

He began acting when, in 1943, he joined the newly-formed Citizens' Theatre Company, after which he worked in the '40s in London's great theatres with the greatest actors of the era (Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Edith Evans, Tyrone Guthrie, John Gielgud). In the '50s, he moved back to Scotland, worked predominantly for the BBC on radio, writing dozens of scripts for Schools' programming and then presenting a magazine programme, Scope, (in collaboration with writer Eddie Boyd & producer  James McTaggart) weekly for 4 years. In the '60s, Television and Stage roles continued, with appearances in many plays and prestigious series, both historical and contemporary, and he had leading roles at Edinburgh International Festival official productions (an exhausting bear-skin-cloak-wearing Macbeth being one of them.)

Acting earned him not only a living but the respect of his peers (and his juniors, who used to imitate him); it brought accolades and - particularly in later years - opportunities to work in some very interesting places (Greenland, Mexico, Zimbabwe, Germany, Italy) and with some very talented people (Willem Dafoe, Susan Sarandon, Michael Caine and many more.)

What I'm reflecting on now, as the recording date draws near, is that although his working life brought him into contact with so many people, the man I knew was quintessentially a 'loner' - and that now, as a writer of some years myself, I understand so much better the nature of the work (the pitfalls of it too). I'm also very glad that I encouraged him to write accounts of his life, which he did in letter form; and to have so much written evidence of his love for me, his approval for my own labouring-with-words, and examples of his humour and intelligence which still delight me to rediscover.

For years after he died I felt the loss of him more deeply than I could express, and at times more than I felt able to bear. More recently, I feel that he is not 'gone' -  that people live in our minds as long as we have memory and love and the desire to commune with them.

This process (assisting in research for the Great Lives programme) has been rewarding because it's reminded me, in a very practical way, of who I am, of where I came from, of what I'm doing and why, as I write my own work. My OWN work: work which I own. With hindsight, I see that need - to say something that nobody else could say - also drove him to write his personal projects; among them, 3 Fringe-First-award winning plays on the lives of poets William Dunbar, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Henrysoun.

More on this, perhaps, when the programme has been made, or after it airs. Meanwhile, here's a pic of my father from the early 1970s - a look one might describe as wary-mischievous.

p.s. yes, that Leonard Maguire Wikipedia page is pathetic; no idea who wrote it. When I've got more time I'll update & correct it...