The year is 1986, and the cuts imposed by Margaret Thatcher’s government have trickled down to university life, where departments are being forced to shave their payrolls to account for reduced public funding. Meanwhile, at Eldorado Television, a different kind of cut is about to wreak havoc. Lord Mellow, head of the declining studio, watches as his last-ditch effort to produce a hit series falls to pieces. The show’s star, the volatile but vaunted Sir Luke Trimingham, has just declared that he will quit unless the script is entirely rewritten. Desperate to save the project, Eldorado brings university lecturer and author Henry Babbacombe into the fold to write thirteen new episodes of ambitious television—something so grand that the leading man cannot possibly refuse it. But the production is plagued from the start, suffering endless calamities with its unpredictable actors and crew, whose behind-the-scenes drama rivals anything Babbacombe could dream up.
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By Malcolm Bradbury
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Malcolm Bradbury
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IT WAS THE summer of 1986, and everywhere there were cuts. Every morning, when you opened the morning newspaper—if, that is, you read the serious ones, the ones where the brave reporters went out of the office every day and over the razor-sharp barbed wire to come back with something that more or less resembled news—'cut' was the most common noun, 'cut' was the most regular verb. They were incising heavy industry, they were slicing steel, they were—by no longer cutting much coal—cutting coal. They were axing the arts, slimming the sciences, cutting inflation and the external services of the BBC. They were reducing public expenditure, bringing down interest rates, eliminating over-production and unnecessary jobs. Ministers were cutting the ribbon to open small new stretches of motorway; in the Treasury they were cutting their coats according to their cloths. They were chopping at the schools, hewing away at the universities, scissoring at the health service, sculpting the hospitals, shutting down operating theatres—so that, in one sense at least, there were actually far fewer cuts than before. They were whittling away at waste, slashing out at superfluity, excising rampant excess. There were some people who said they were cutting the country in two—the North from the South, the rich from the poor. There were others, mostly the ones who had themselves been cut, who complained that the cuts were a kind of national hara-kiri, the self-mutilation of a country in its ultimate stage of decline. There were yet others, mostly those who had done quite a lot of the cutting, and who now wanted to see their taxes cut, who explained that it had all been a form of healthy surgery, an elimination of waste, rot and canker, and that the country would be better, much better, than it had been before.
All this was helped by the useful ambiguity of the handy word 'cut'. To trim, to hew, to prune, to shape; to pierce, to incise, to gash, to stab; to mow, to carve, to whittle, to sculpt; to reduce, to curtail, to disbranch, to eliminate; to slash, to geld, to dismember, to castrate; to delete, to assemble, to improve, to edit, as with a book or a film; to ignore, to avoid, to pass by, to pretend not to know at all—all these are just some of the many interesting and various meanings of the elusive word 'cut'.
So it was, that summer of 1986, a time for purpose, for realism, for burnishing and cleansing, for doing away with far too much of this and a wasteful excess of that. It was a time for getting rid of the old soft illusions, and replacing them with the new hard illusions. Realism was back in philosophy and economics, in commerce and commodities, and in paintings and plays, poems and novels—though from novels it had only just begun to leave anyway. It was a time for enterprise, for commercial adventure, for communal capitalism, for opportunity, and more people were buying shares than ever before. And everyone was growing leaner and cleaner, keener and meaner, for after all in a time of cuts it is better to be tough than tender, much more hardware than software. The people who used to talk art now talked only money, and they murmured of the texture of Telecom, the lure of Britoil, the glamour of gas. They got out of Japan and into Europe, out of offshore and into unit trusts. In money, only in money, were there fantasies and dreams, and though work had been cut there was somehow quite a lot of money about. For what is pruned here usually springs up there, this being what happens when you cut things; and this was a summer of market forces, consumer capitalism, heavy trading, mergers and takeovers. Everyone you sat down with at dinner was a company or a conglomerate, a partnership or a plc, a gnome in Zürich or a name at Lloyd's, if, that is, they were not out of work. One was usually the one or the other, that summer of the cuts.
They were cutting clothes that year, neat edgy clothes that came from the busy High Street designer revolution: the lapels and the shoulderpads were as sharp as knives on the suits of the lady accountants who sat in the clean-cut offices, giving their advice on when to cut and thrust, when to cut and run. They were cutting hair, plain flat-top styles of hair that, apart from the odd fancy slavetail, gave people the military, trimmed look of the austere and moral Fifties, which were coming back. They were cutting out smoking, cutting down drinking; everyone had a bottle of Perrier on the restaurant table that summer, if they went out to lunch at all. For they were cutting down flab by cutting out food; that was the summer of jogging executives in Adidas sweatbands and of cuisine minceur, illustrated food, abstract sauceboat pictures without much content. They were cutting wasteful entertaining by fitting in hardworking breakfasts at the Connaught; that was where a lot of business was done that year. They were cutting out sex, and fornication, when practised, grew very staccato and short, for women now had so much to do. In any case sex transmitted mortal diseases, much as Egyptian hotels were once thought to do. It was wise not to touch someone who might have touched someone else who in turn had touched someone else. Serial monogamy was in, sex was being replaced by gender, and women who had once talked of love now talked only of sexual harassment. But money was sexy, very sexy. It was the summer of fiscal foreplay, with the prospect in the autumn of the Big Bang. Women in black suits with bright red stockings practised their serial monogamy with young men in Turnbull and Asser shirts, red scarves and blue loden coats who shaved with cut-throat razors and had river-view flats in Wapping, a silver Porsche, and a part-interest in a small vineyard on the Côtes de Gascogne. In designer flats they talked, over the falafel, of financing a film, buying a timeshare in the Seychelles, investing in a piece of a snooker player, and getting divorced.
It was, in its way, a quiet summer. The number of foreign tourists was severely cut, because of the fear of terrorism and a cut in the value of the dollar. This rather cut down the number of plays and the sales of books, except for remainders, which at cut-price sold very well. There was a Royal Wedding, the prospect of an East-West summit, a superpower meeting in Reykjavik, even the prospect of a deep cut in nuclear arms. People slept in cardboard boxes in the subways, and there was a cut in social benefits; but there were left-handed mugs, designer Band-Aids and Belgian chocolates in all the boutiques. It was a rather abrasive summer all round, for the North didn't like the South, or the South the North, the poor didn't like the rich, or the rich the poor, and life seemed harsher but cleaner, harder but firmer. It was cold in England, but warmer abroad, which was no bad place to be that season, a season when the world seemed to be changing fast, and things growing very different. And that, more or less, was how it was over that particular summer, the summer of the cuts.CHAPTER 2
IN THE BOARDROOM on the fortieth floor of the great new glass tower that housed Eldorado Television, high above a great sad northern city, they were cutting steak.
It was the weekly board lunch, and Lord Mellow, the board chairman, sat at the head of the long table, in his familiar bow tie. Most of the board members, from old Lord Lenticule to the Bishop of Whiddicupthwaite, who was Eldorado's religious advisor, had struggled in, in their chauffeur-driven cars, from their manor houses on the broad acres of the nearby shires, and they sat near their chairman toward the top of the table. Lord Mellow also made it his custom to invite a few of the television executives who happened to be greatly in favour with him that week—because they had made a good programme, or were in the running for a BAFTA award, or were at risk of being poached by some other company rather bigger than Eldorado itself. For Eldorado, for all its great building, was one of the smaller and more remote of the independent programme companies. It was generally considered a great pity that, in the random lottery of the franchise, it should have had to locate its premises and talents in a northern region that seemed to specialize exclusively in rundown mills, tired industrial conurbations with bleak backstreets, dark heathen moorland where strange beasts, animal and human, roamed, and where a general economic gloom prevailed. For this part of the world had, to be frank, not done very well out of the cuts.
All the same, the landscape offered many stories of bleak human truth, set against good grainy locations, and the 600 or so talented people who worked in the Eldorado glass tower all said they enjoyed it, however much it may have been that they preferred to be in London, or better Hollywood, where in their business most of the real and exciting inaction was to be found. And there was much to be said for it; Lord Mellow may have been an intemperate man, but he was a go-ahead, ambitious chairman, and was considered to look after his staff extremely well. The fine new glass building where they sat at the lunch table was a testimony to his forward-looking instincts. It had been commissioned from a well-known hi-tech architect who was said to have worked with Richard Rogers on the Beaubourg and Norman Foster on the bank in Hong Kong, and certainly, like all the best new buildings that year, it had an atrium in the middle and cranes on the roof. You could work, if you did, in your office thirty floors up, and look out of the window to see technicians waving at you as they rushed by outside. A novel interior designer, a green-haired lady who had just done three London hotels, had turned all sorts of things into high-presentation features no one thought they were, and plastic heating vents, interior plumbing, and naked electric wires had been painted red and highlighted, giving an atmosphere of modern fun to the building. The outside caterers, who wore teeshirts with the word GNOSH on them as they served at table, were as noted for their nouvelle cuisine as they were for their nouveau Beaujolais; and Lord Mellow kept an excellent cellar, somewhere up there on the fortieth floor. It was always a pleasure to be invited to the Eldorado board lunch.
So, over the big northern city, which hummed away indifferently below, they gathered to eat heartily: the board members, in their big-prowed business suits, all of them old-looking, even when they were not, and the favoured television executives, clad in the studied informalities of their calling, all of them young-looking, even when they were not. To these lunches it was Lord Mellow's practice to ask one special guest—a distinguished figure from the world of politics, business or the arts, who had either had some special connection with Eldorado or else could probably do the company some very significant favour. This week it was Sir Luke Trimingham, the great theatrical knight. Sir Luke had been famous in youth for his exceptional beauty and his way of throwing his long limbs about the stage. Now, in his silver years, he had attained yet more eminence for a declamatory poetic diction so fine that he no longer needed to move about the stage at all.
'In my younger day, now well past,' he was saying, in that manner of slow deliberation only permitted to the most eminent celebrities, 'when I was in my filmic prime ...' 'Do refill Sir Luke's glass,' said Lord Mellow, seizing the arm of a man from GNOSH. It was well known that this was quite the best way to release Sir Luke's inexhaustible capacity for reminiscence.
'Bless you, dear boy,' said Sir Luke, beaming. 'Yes, in my heyday, when an experienced director wished to depict a couple making love, he always cut away to a field of waving corn. That was the convention. How things have changed. Now, when an experienced director wishes to depict a field of waving corn, what does he do?'
'He cuts away to a couple making love?' suggested Lord Mellow, renowned in the building for being famously quick on the uptake.
'It was my line, dear boy, but have it if you must,' said Sir Luke. 'That is what I call a change without an improvement. We must bring in sex here, brutal violence there, anything to stimulate the jaded palates of our audiences. In our living rooms we can watch the world's parade of vain and pointless egos, the random display of the most obscene and perverted desires. I know, you young people will say the boring old fart has grown stuffy in his failing years ...'
'Not at all,' said all the board and some of the executives, most of whom had, over time, grown practised in the art of showing great tolerance to the famous.
'Taste, discretion, subtlety, art,' said Sir Luke. 'For me those things have always gone together. Ah, where are the cutaways of yesteryear, où sont les coups d'antan?'
'Things have changed,' said Lord Mellow. 'The stakes are high, and getting higher every minute.' One of the men from GNOSH peered anxiously over his shoulder.
'I had always understood that British film and television drama led the field,' said Sir Luke, seizing the man from GNOSH and having him fill his glass again. 'We may be sinking giggling into the sea, but none can bow to us, surely, in the matter of filmic quality.'
'That was true, a few years back,' said Lord Mellow. 'Our work was just like a Fortnum and Mason's fruitcake. You couldn't beat it for weight and taste and quality.'
'We had the entire world wanting to revisit Brideshead,' said Sir Luke. 'And The Jewel in the Crown was definitely a jewel in our crown.'
'And that was the problem,' said Lord Mellow. 'I know quality when I see it, and those boys probably didn't know the harm they were doing.'
'What was that?' asked Sir Luke.
'They just priced quality right off the market,' said Lord Mellow. 'Do you have any idea what those big series cost?'
'Oh, money, money,' said Sir Luke. 'I have never understood it. I let my agent person think about that.'
'It's ruined the profession,' said Lord Mellow. 'The secretarial temps all come in now and talk about high production values. Every trainee cameraman expects a six-month shoot in India on triple pay before he can pull a focus. We've got young directors now who can't begin to shoot a scene unless they're up above it in a helicopter. It's destroying the small companies like Eldorado. In this building we have to cut our coats according to our cloth.'
'I must say this is a most benign concoction,' said Sir Luke, summoning over the man from GNOSH. 'What is it? An Aloxe-Corton, I fancy. Do slip a bottle or two into the pocket of my Burberry.'
'I like quality,' said Lord Mellow. 'I said so at the Edinburgh Festival and now I'm stuck with it. I like quality, but I like it cheap. And available to everyone.'
'"According to the fair play of the world, / Let me have audience,"' said Sir Luke. 'That, I take it, is what you mean?'
'Just what I mean,' said Lord Mellow.
'I feared as much,' said Sir Luke. 'Well, I have seen some of your dramatic work. The ubiquitous videotape, which I have always thought fit only for home movies. That special brand of actor who has learned the sum of his trade making voice-overs for commercials. Those endless studio sets where you fight the Battle of Waterloo with three people on each side. That charming little touch of always having the microphone boom just peeping in at the top of the picture. Yes, I know your work.'
'Fill Sir Luke's glass again,' said Lord Mellow to the man from GNOSH, and he turned back to his guest. 'Now this is just what I wanted to talk to you about. We've been thinking about a really high-quality drama with a really bankable star.'
'Are you sure this is wise?' said Sir Luke. 'There are cuts everywhere, you know.'
'The streets are choking with money if you know how to get it,' said Lord Mellow.
'Are they really?' said Sir Luke. 'I can't say I understand such matters.'
'If we had a really bankable star we could get worldwide co-production money,' said Lord Mellow. 'And prime time on the major American networks.'
'This hardly sounds like Eldorado,' said Sir Luke.
'Ah,' said Lord Mellow. 'You may not know this, but our franchise comes up for renewal quite soon. And we've been given a very heavy hint we may not get it again unless we do some high-quality drama.'
'Really?' said Sir Luke. 'I do play golf a good deal with the top people at the IBA, but I don't recall they ever mentioned this to me.'
'I think the moment has come to try for the peaks,' said Lord Mellow. 'And this is why we sent that script to you. You probably haven't had time to read it.'
'Oh yes,' said Sir Luke. 'I read it in the back of the car on the way up to this delightful repast.'
'Fill Sir Luke's glass again,' said Lord Mellow to the man from GNOSH.
'Mellow, may I tell you something?' said Sir Luke. 'I am quite an old man now, sound in wind and limb, fit in all appurtenances, but not exactly young. I have set myself two strict rules for my senior years. One is never to appear nude in any filmic drama. The other is never to be seen playing the ukelele.'
'Very natural,' said Lord Mellow. 'But what did you think of the script?'
Excerpted from Cuts by Malcolm Bradbury. Copyright © 1987 Malcolm Bradbury. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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