Adaptation: Television & Cinema

The BBC TV was, as it is today, marked by appalling leadership and administration alongside a gifted personnel. There I had the dubious achievement in collaboration with another writer, Constance Cox, of creating the first six-part Classic Serial. We adapted ‘Jane Eyre’ with Stanley Baker, and then ‘Vanity Fair’ with Joyce Redman. I also persuaded them to mount my adaptation of Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’ as a full-length drama starring Sir Alan Bates. They also presented my own play, ‘Statue of David’, with Jill Bennett and Paul Rogers. At ITV my play ‘Light from a Star’ was directed with his renowned brilliance by Philip Saville, who had managed to bring from Italy Isa Miranda to play the Garbo-esque heroine. My brief relationship with Isa Miranda was to link me with the important political writer Curzio Malaparte, who had been her lover. It was only years later that I discovered the writings of this great, isolated figure among the unyielding ideologies of the twentieth century. It was his ‘The Technique of the Coup d’état’ that was to inspire and inform my own work, ‘The Technique of the Coup de Banque’. It was during the dark years of the mid-twentieth century that I gained another enriching friendship. While Malaparte’s genius came through his alienation from political realities, Federico Fellini embodied alienation from the religious and spiritual realities of the century. To Federico, the spiritual realities were at the same time both certain and unreachable. It was the anguish of this dichotomy, not at all discerned by the critics, enthralled as they were by the director’s erotic sensuality, which was the core of his work. It was there in ‘La Dolce Vita’, with the anguished loneliness and emptiness of the Mastroianni/Fellini hero. The final image of the film is of Mastroianni on a beach beside the carcass of some sea-monster that has been dredged up from the ocean. Recognising again the angelic child, innocent and beautiful, waving to him, he helplessly raises his arms, unable to hear her. It is in his character Toby Dammit, who in his racing car successfully drives across the collapsed bridge, only to be decapitated by a steel thread. I recall vividly that distant look as he explained the scene to me.

‘You have to lose your head – if you want to get to the other side.’

During the filming of his highly personal exploration of the theme of the fundamental nihilism of the work of art (‘He has nothing to say!’ exult the critics in the film), ‘8½’, he asked me to view with him the ending he had just shot. It took place on a train whose passengers were the people in the life of his Mastroianni hero. I passionately argued with him that the film could not end with this banal train journey. In the narrative of the film, a beautiful and meaningless launching pad had been built by the edge of the sea. I argued that this tower was the central image of creativity, itself an abstract film set, and that somehow the resolution of the director’s crisis had to end in the very arena of his imagined world, the mythic and meaningless film-set. To the horror of his producers, he recalled his artists to shoot what became the final sequence – that triumphal dance of life on the edge of the apocalyptic sea.

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