06 June 2013

Bringing Barbara to the small screen


Long time readers of My Porch will remember a few years ago when I fantasized about seeing a Pym novel adapted to the big screen. I even included a wish list of actors I thought would make great Pym characters (Fiona Shaw, Fenella Woolgar, Imelda Staunton, etc.). As I was looking for a picture of Sophie Thompson, I stumbled across her sister Emma. In addition to Sophie, it seemed natural that Emma would also make a good Pym character so I included her as well. Incidentally, I also included a few pictures of the incredibly handsome Mr. Emma Thompson, Gregory Wise just because, well, just because he is incredibly handsome. But now, having just read No Fond Return of Love for the first time, it occurs to me that Wise would make a great Aylwin Forbes.

But, I digress.

It is quite amazing to me that there hasn't been any adaptations of Pym's work to the big or small screens. Not likely to be blockbusters sure, but certainly exactly the kind of thing for those that like that kind of thing. Rather than just fantasize about bring Pym to life on screen, television producer Linda McDougall decided to do something about it.

McDougall is a British TV producer who has made many well received documentaries with subjects as diverse as Margaret Thatcher and Cot Death. She has twice won awards from the Royal Television Society and is the author of Cherie, the perfect life of Mrs Blair and Westminster Women. McDougall also writes for The Times (London) and the Daily Mail.

What she did and how it ended up is best left to her own words. So I turn over today's Pym post to guest blogger Linda McDougall.

In 1982 my husband and I bought number 9 Brooksville Avenue in Queen’s Park in northwest London.  I was then a very busy producer/director on This Week, a much watched British current affairs show which could sometimes score nine million viewers. Work was stressful and I was away a great deal. When I was home the demands of four mouthy teenagers kept me firmly focused on the goings on inside number nine. It was quite a few weeks, or even months, before I noticed a blue plaque nestling under the first floor bay window on number 42 on the other side of the street.
Barbara Pym, novelist, 1913-1980 lived here 1960-72

Ours seemed such a modest collection of Edwardian semi- detached brick houses that I couldn’t believe anyone famous had come anywhere near it.
I had never heard of Barbara Pym but I had been a passionate reader of novels since my childhood in New Zealand. My mother and grandmother changed their library books every week, and I scored my own library card when I was five. The habit had lasted so I chose a couple of Pym novels from the Queen’s Park library and took them with me on my next shoot. Television production in the 1980s was still very much a male preserve, especially in news and current affairs, accompanied so a bit of female company was very necessary. I was delighted by Pym from the first page. I think it was Jane and Prudence.  I felt as if I had taken a huge box of chocolates on location and I was going to be able to keep them all to myself.
Thirty years have gone by and wherever I go, I still make sure I have a Pym novel tucked in my bag. I’ve changed, Pym hasn’t. But these days rather than a chocolate feast she provides me with a glass of my favourite New Zealand sauvignon blanc:  dry, cold, sophisticated and delicious. How I love the irony and the wry eye.

In 2009 when I’d given up working abroad all the time, I discovered the English arm of the Barbara Pym Society based at St Hilda’s College Oxford. For the first couple of years of my membership I was unusually quiet but very admiring as I watched many excellent women enjoying and honouring Barbara and her work at the annual UK conference. There was some discussion in 2011 about Barbara’s centenary, then only two years ahead. Without thinking it through I jumped to my feet, confessed I was a TV producer, and suggested that Barbara needed at the very least a scripted comedy series with accompanying documentary at prime time on the BBC to celebrate her centenary. “Oh yes!” cried around two hundred Pymsters in unison and I promised I would do what I could to persuade the BBC to commission a series to remember Barbara Pym.

Now, as we mark Barbara’s 100th birthday, I have to admit to humiliating failure. I tried and tried and tried again, but my every attempt was met with the same sort of rejection Barbara had suffered for 17 years when her work went out of fashion in the early nineteen sixties. I started out with high hopes. I fixed a meeting with a good friend who is a talented producer of scripted comedy series. I had employed him to produce a satirical political awards show when he was still in his twenties. He went on to become a commissioning editor at the BBC, and is now the managing director of one of the most powerful and successful production companies in the UK. Together we developed an idea for a six-part series around the Oxford based humour in Jane and Prudence and Crampton Hodnet. We would hire a brilliant script-writer. All the best comedy writers were discussed. We even whispered behind our hands about Alan Bennett. I dreamed all the time of Miranda Hart playing Barbara in the documentary/ biopic.

I had offered myself to make the documentary. Much grander folk would put the scripted comedy series together. It took weeks to write the pitch. I was certain we would succeed but I got nervous. For the first time in my life I started filming before anyone agreed to broadcast the programme. I was terrified that in a documentary where all the important characters were in their eighties or nineties we could wake up one morning and find that some of them had gone to join Barbara. 
I became friendly with Hazel Holt. Fifteen years younger than Barbara, Hazel is a Cambridge English graduate and had been one of her close friends. Unable to find meaningful work in journalism, Hazel ended up sharing a sharing a room with Barbara and becoming her deputy at the Africa Institute. The two spent their working days together until Barbara’s retirement. After Barbara’s early death, Hazel began her writing career co-editing A Very Private Eye, an annotated volume of Pym’s letters and papers, with Barbara’s sister Hilary Pym Walton. Hazel also went on to complete, edit, and tidy Pym’s unfinished work. She also wrote A Lot to Ask, a marvelous biography of her best friend. In her sixties she wrote her first novel about Sheila Malory, a West Country investigator with Pym’s eager curiosity put to use solving crimes. Since the early 1990s she has been turning out one a year and they are published and enjoyed on both sides of the Atlantic.  

When I first met Hazel in 2011 she was recently widowed and had moved into a small modern bungalow in Taunton, Somerset with her beloved cat Flip, to be near her son the novelist Tom Holt and his family. At the time her health and Flip’s were a cause for concern. Looking back I can see that she was still grieving for her husband and getting used to living alone on a soulless estate after a happy marriage in a seventeenth century country house with grounds.  So I persuaded my son Jonathan Mitchell, an experienced documentary maker, to film a long chat between Hazel and me about her life with her friend Barbara.

Back at the BBC things were moving slowly, and mostly backwards. I was told an executive at BBC2 was a Pym fan, but she liked the later, more serious novels rather than the early comedy of Jane and Prudence and Crampton Hodnet.  Still, we had high hopes at her promise to ponder for a while on the project.  The result, however, was that the project was moved from scripted comedy to the drama department where my producer friend and I had no contacts. The idea for a Pym project still hanging on, but our proposal,  thousands of words with just the right photographs, and a star cast list dropped out of the front line and probably now lies behind some virtual filing cabinet ready to be digitally rediscovered in time for Barbara’s bicentenary.

Undeterred, I began writing to senior people I knew across the BBC and literary London to see if I could get the documentary off the ground.  Total failure. Don’t get me wrong. There may well be Pym fans out there but it seems my passion for Pym was not shared by industry movers and shakers. A high profile documentary boss said Pym did nothing for him and maybe I should talk to a friend of his who had just published a popular love story about an old couple. I wasn’t smart enough to work out why.

I once made a documentary with a British novelist who is grand enough to publish pieces in the New York Review of Books and sits on the board of the London Review of Books. I emailed him and suggested I might write a piece for the London Review which might spark some interest in Barbara for her anniversary and get the documentary off the ground.

“I'm not very up on Barbara Pym. I'm just gay enough to want to read them, but not gay enough to have! But I'll mention your story to the LRB and see if they bite. “

Of course they didn’t.

By now I had become so determined to make the documentary and found so many wonderful reminiscences about Barbara that I started filming again.

There’s Frances Kendrick in her mid nineties, a former prison governor who was a life-long friend of Barbara. The two met in the Wrens when they were both posted to Whitehall after World War II. She has intriguing stories of her life with Barbara. Frances didn’t marry until she was in her forties so she shared a lot of female single life with Barbara and Hilary.

There’s Julian Glover the actor. He’s in Game of Thrones. He was a boy when his father C.Gordon Glover had a brief fling with Barbara. Glover’s mother Honor Wyatt, a BBC producer and another lifelong friend of Barbara, was furious with her ex husband. How dare he misuse her dearest friend? Julian remembers it all.

And finally, and most intriguing of all there’s Skipper, the last love of Barbara’s life. A gay man, now 84, he lives on a remote island in the Bahamas. “Why do so many women fall in love with homosexuals?” He sighed, and began to tell me the story of his relationship with Barbara.

For the first time in my fifty year career I have filmed a documentary which won’t be broadcast, but somehow I feel I owe it to Barbara. It will have its first showing at the British Pym Conference on August 31st and then it will be available on DVD.


  1. How wonderful! I can't wait to see the documentary. It's a shame about the drama series (Miranda Hart would have been perfect) but how interesting to read about the behind the scenes machinations.

  2. Fascinating story and that is great news about the dvd!

  3. Yes, a fascinating story. Thank you for this guest post, Ms. McDougall!

  4. What a fabulous post! I'm looking forward to getting my hands on that DVD someday. And I agree with you that these books would make great tv -- I've certainly seen some BBC productions that weren't nearly as interesting as these stories...

  5. Sounds brilliant!
    I've just posting another review and here it is:

  6. I'm surprised, too, at the lack of film adaptations. "Quartet in Autumn" is crying out to be made. Merchant and Ivory should have done "Excellent Women."

  7. What on earth is BBC4 for if not for things like this?? Well, at least there will be a DVD.


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