Preview: The Dreams of William Golding

New BBC documentary reveals unseen accounts of Lord of the Flies author.

At 42, William Golding was known to his students merely as "Scruff", the schoolmaster who scribbled stories in exercise books during lessons. His first novel, Lord of the Flies, had been rejected by publishers and dismissed as "rubbish and dull". Feelings of growing insecurity drew him into a battle with alcoholism, whilst at night he was tormented by vividly disturbing dreams. Humble and perhaps unlikely beginnings for a man who would later go on to win the 1983 Nobel Prize for Literature, and is now revered by critics and readers alike as one of the most influential British writers of the late 20th century.

This Saturday's edition of BBC 2's Arena will delve into Golding's turbulent life, examining his writing process as he sought to expose the darkest depths of the human condition. Featuring exclusive interviews with Golding's family, as well as the schoolboys he used to teach (the same youths who inspired Lord of the Flies), the documentary promises to offer a frank depiction of the novelist through times of both artistic success and personal despair. The filmmakers gained first-time access to Golding's journals and letters, piecing them together with a rich archive of video footage to reveal the man behind the works. Here, Golding's daughter Judy reads from her father's dream diary:

It's difficult to measure the influence of Golding - not only has his work been an important touchstone for bestselling novelists Stephen King and Ian McEwan, but the now infamous conceits of his most widely read works continue to permeate popular culture, from the strange tribal tensions in HBO's Lost to U2's track Shadows and Tall Trees. Many will remember Lord of the Flies from their schooldays, an experience shared with readers across the Atlantic - the novel recently overtook The Catcher in the Rye as the book most read by young people in the United States.

Golding's biographer, John Carey, also contributes to Saturday's programme. Writing last year for the New Statesman, Carey expresses the staying power of The Inheritors, the protagonist of which is a Neanderthal man: "Half a century later and however many times you have read it, it is still alarming, eye-opening, desolating, mind-invading and unique".

In this vein, the filmmakers suggest that Golding's unflinching take on the savage within is still just as relevant today as it was when he penned Lord of the Flies, a novel born from his reaction to the atrocities of the Holocaust. One only needs to recall the images of last summer's angry young rioters and re-imagine Golding's desert island boys, driven into alarmingly violent acts by a senseless rage. His novels are a lasting reminder that the lines between civility and savagery, it seems, are much closer than we like to believe. In the clip below, boys from Golding's old school discuss his seminal novel:

"Arena: The Dreams of William Golding" airs on Saturday 17 March at 9:30pm on BBC 2.

BBC
Show Hide image

Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit