EM Forster by Dora Carrington.
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The producer vowing to film E M Forster’s “unfilmable” novel

After spending three weeks in hospital with a suspected heart condition, Adrian Munsey decided to tackle The Longest Journey — the last unfilmed Forster novel.

When Adrian Munsey was an undergraduate student at King’s College, Cambridge in the mid-1960s, there was a strange wooden panel on the wall of his bedroom. “The novelist E M Forster lived here in 1897,” the panel read, which was odd, because E M Forster still lived in the building, in a room on the floor beneath Munsey.

Forster was by then 88 years old, living on support from King’s and doing very little. It was over 40 years since the author of Howards End and A Room with a View had published any fiction.

“Every morning he would walk across the front court,” Munsey told me recently over a hefty winter lunch at a café on the Farringdon Road, London. “I’m pretty sure most people thought he was dead.”

Munsey himself is now 67: a bright, charming and open individual whose career has taken him from teaching in art schools to directing, composing and producing for TV and film.

“Forster had written about India and his father died when he was very young; I’m half Indian and my father died when I was ten. I don’t want to get too psychological about it but there was something that drew me to his work,” he says.

After switching from history to English, Munsey tore through the Forster canon, avoiding A Passage to India, “because of my father”, which eventually led him to The Longest Journey, probably Forster’s least popular novel. It’s a difficult, allusive coming-of-age tale about a lame-footed boy named Frederick Elliot, known as “Ricky” or “Rickety”.

“I wanted to learn about other people’s inner lives,” Munsey says. “It sounds a little corny but I just couldn’t put it down. Here was this person struggling with ideas of how they should be, but feeling, quite literally, crippled. I saw Forster every day on the way to breakfast, so one morning I plucked up the courage to speak to him. I told him The Longest Journey was the best book I’d ever read and asked if I could buy him a drink.”

“I’m so pleased you’ve said this,” Forster replied. “It’s my favourite of my books. It’s so much based on myself.” The pair went for a glass of white wine. “You know, you’re the first person to ask me to go for a drink in 30 years,” Forster said.

The Longest Journey begins in Cambridge, in rooms which, by further coincidence, Munsey would occupy during his third year of study. Its protagonist fails to realise his artistic ambitions. He moves to rural Wiltshire and becomes a harsh schoolmaster, while his wife mourns for a previous love. Ricky fails to have the “truthful relationships” he so desperately wants – until, that is, he saves his alcoholic half-brother’s life shortly before his own death.

Last year, Munsey spent three weeks in hospital with a suspected heart condition. When he was given the all-clear, he became determined to see the only Forster novel that had never been adapted appear on the big screen.

“James Ivory told me it was too depressing to be made into a film, but I disagree . . . It doesn’t matter if you’re 20, 50 or 70 – the question of redemption is always contemporary.

“The book has been a warning to me against diffidence, dishonesty, being ‘rickety’ in my relationships with others,” Munsey says. “I think I’m the only producer who can make the film.”

He is now in pre-production for an adaptation of Forster’s unloved, unfilmable book. “He was so keen to show how personal it was,” Munsey recalls, “he just blurted it out. It felt to me like a moment of . . . well, connection, I suppose.” 

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder