Tuesday, 15 December 2015

ANTHONY READ remembered

A personal tribute to the writer Anthony Read, who recently died aged 80.

David Agnew himself. (Photo: Anthony Read estate)

Friday 11 December didn’t start well. I’d been suffering from an agonising attack of gout all week and, with the aid of a walking stick, had first managed to get out of the house on Thursday. On Friday, come hell or high water, I was heading from South East London to Taplow, near Reading, for the memorial service of Anthony Read, the godfather of my ex-wife and a writer I’ve always admired. Naturally I couldn’t find the walking stick. Even it looked like my foot would hold up (and it did), I was in a panicked rush to find some appropriate clothing: Should have sorted it out last night! I raged at myself. I got a ticket and the train from Paddington with minutes to spare. My mood wasn’t helped when, after changing at Slough, none other than arch-Tory Michael Portillo and his glamorous companion took the seats opposite. I bet he’s only slumming it because there’s no First Class carriage on this train, I seethed privately.

On arrival at Taplow station under a leaden sky, the day continued in a way that would tax the grumpiest of old men. Not wanting to risk the foot, I ordered a mini cab to St. Nicholas Church, which I was told would be 5 or 10 minutes; in elastic taxi speak, this turned out to be 30. Hmph. 

Once in Taplow, my mood began to change. Have you ever been there? If ever there was a place that looked as if it had sprung fully formed from the pages of an H.E. Bates novel, it’s Taplow. Like you always imagined a mythical rural England to be, everything’s centred around the village green: the church, the single pub, the reception school, with the village hall nearby down a side road. You’d never believe this place has Slough on one side and Reading on the other. And no wonder that when Tony – to his friends – and his family moved here, they never wanted to move again.

The church was full. As the service went on, what amazed and humbled me about this quietly spoken, mild man was just how much he’d done in his life. Husband, father and grandfather, actor, TV scriptwriter, producer, historian… Tony even once taught himself German, so he could research first-hand archive material for a German history book. One of the speakers paying tribute was Bernie Corbett, General Secretary of the Writers’ Guild, who revealed another side of Tony’s very full life: spending a lot of time on committees to thrash out deals with TV companies ensuring that scriptwriters got a more than fair deal. Corbett finished his eulogy by saying that he believed Tony was one of the greatest TV writers this country has produced. I don’t disagree.

Doctor Who: 'The Invasion of Time'.
(Image copyright: BBC)
The list of his achievements is amazing: Persuading the Conan Doyle estate to allow the first TV adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes short stories. Commissioning from Callan creator James Mitchell the first teleplay, ‘A Magnum for Schneider’, which Mitchell subsequently sold to ITV and led to one of the most popular series in that network’s history. Giving Douglas Adams his break in television. Writing a TV version of the John Wyndham novel Chocky that the Wyndham estate considered the best dramatic adaptation of any of the science fiction author’s stories. The only non-Jew to win the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Literary Prize for Kristallnacht, his book on the Holocaust. Script-editing and writing for Doctor Who between 1977 and 1979, which is where I first knew his name from. Under the pseudonym David Agnew with producer Graham Williams, he wrote one of my favourite stories, the ramshackle but epic 'The Invasion of Time'. Tony always modestly recalled that the BBC hoped he would stay on for a third year as script editor, and from what was said it seems that his role in the three Williams-produced seasons was larger than he ever took credit for. 

But that was him all over. Speaking to his neighbours of 38 and 20 years respectively, neither of them had any idea he’d done so much: he was just the amiable guy who went to work in the shed at the bottom of his garden every day who was very active in village life.

(Image copyright: BBC)
The most remarkable story I heard was about Tony’s producership of The Troubleshooters, the BBC’s oil industry drama. Some overseas filming took place in Kenya in the 1960s a few years after the violent Mau Mau uprising. One evening, Tony was drinking with leading man Ray Barrett (left) in the bar of their hotel when a squad of heavily-armed Mau Mau entered and demanded to drink vodka with them. Wary of what was happening, Tony persuaded the barman to give him water so he could stay sober. As the night wore on, Barrett said something that upset the squad’s commander and the Mau Mau prepared to execute him on the spot. Calmly and quietly, Tony stepped in and diffused the situation. His skill with words clearly wasn’t confined to writing.

How many of today’s TV writers would, or could, save someone’s life, I wonder? If they did, there’s an odds-on chance it would immediately be plastered all over social media. The nearest Tony got to celebrity was being one of many content residents immortalised in the village fete mural that graces the walls of Taplow’s village hall, something I’m sure he was far happier with.

Like many creative people I admire – Anthony Valentine, John Thaw, James Mitchell and Terry Nation to name a few – he came from a generation where social mobility was prized. Tony’s Dad was a miner, and determined that his son wouldn’t have to endure the harsh working life that he had. Sadly, he died in a mine disaster when Tony was 7. Via grammar school, the Central School of Speech and Drama, television and then publishing, Tony went onto fulfil both his father’s wish and his own ambitions.

The first time I met Tony, in the 1980s, my ex-wife’s Dad introduced me thus: ‘This is Robert. He’s a Doctor Who fan.’ ‘Oh no,’ said Tony seriously but with the hint of a twinkle in his eye, ‘you’re not one of those are, you?’ After I got over this crippling social embarrassment, I found him happy to discuss his career and encouraging to someone who was then only stumbling around in terms of writing. His advice was the same as it was to his to daughter Emma when she started her own company – ‘Just go for it.’ He did – quietly, firmly, without bragging about what he’d done – and, with good manners and an even temper, achieved so much. Only recently, he was happy to provide some inside information for the Callan book Mike Kenwood and myself are writing.

On the train back to London, my perspective on the day, and what has been going on recently in my life, was very different to the glum way I’d started Friday. Illness, losing a walking stick, not having the right clothes, taxi drivers telling porkies, even bloody Portillo… you shouldn’t let transitory stuff like that drag you down (and, of course, I’ve now found the walking stick). I learned two very important things: even if we don’t think so, if we’re good people, and without realising it, we touch so many people’s lives. Also, for those of us lucky enough to be creatives – writers, artists, whatever – it’s not the drive for success we should focus on, but the fact that we’re doing it all we should cherish. After all, how many people get to do what they really want to do in life?

Thanks Tony. For everything.

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