Philip Purser

Philip Purser was formerly the television critic of the Sunday Telegraph. His novel, Friedrich Harris: Shooting the hero, was published by Quartet in May.

The Great Escape

Philip Purser, 18 August 1994

That the literary name of one age can mean nothing to the next is both a truism and a comfort; it would be depressing to have to think that in 40 years, or even five, people might still be reading the effusions of – well, write in your own candidates from today’s bestseller lists. What does seem to be less predictable is the process that will sometimes restore a lost household name.’

Diary: On Jack Trevor Story

Philip Purser, 27 January 1994

There’s no doubt that Jack Trevor Story was a dab hand at titles Man Pinches Bottom, One Last Mad Embrace, Little Dog’s Day and Live Now, Pay Later are good enticements and accurately indicate the plot, predicament and even the moral of each novel. His most famous title is still his first, The Trouble with Harry (1949), thanks to Alfred Hitchcock, who acquired the film rights for $500 but made a classic film out of a shabby deal. The history of my copy of The Trouble with Harry is typical of the fate of most of Story’s books. I picked up the 1970 Penguin for 50p in a local library sale a few months ago. Between November 1979 and March 1993 it was borrowed only three times; the fourth stamp on the loans slip says DISCARDED.

Gruff Embraces

Philip Purser, 21 October 1993

Reading Ian McIntyre’s new Life of Reith I found myself longing for just one deed, one word, one sentiment from the great man which I could admire. In public office, notably as the architect and first Director-General of the BBC, he may have achieved a number of admirable ends, if fewer than pious legend attributes to him. But the arrogance, bitterness and venom towards others he reveals in his private papers would blister paint. Not for the first time I was forced to wonder if the biographer’s traditional reliance on written, rather than oral or anecdotal evidence, always represents the fairest approach to a subject, especially when the subject is a diarist and letter-writer who scribbles away furiously, insensitively, abusively, and then takes good care to ensure every word – well, nearly every word – is preserved.’

Who, me?

Philip Purser, 3 December 1992

Does anyone remember Little Me – a fictional autobiography published by Patrick Dennis 30 years ago in mockery of the self-adulatory memoirs which gushed, as they still gush, from actor-dramatists and other multi-talented luvvies? Little Me would not only conduct the symphony he had composed for the inaugural concert in the splendid new concert hall, he was also the architect who had designed the splendid new concert hall. On free afternoons he was a brain surgeon as well, or have I pinched that from later jokes? By page six of The Sieve of Time Leni Riefenstahl is a competitive swimmer and gymnast, aged 12. On page ten she is designing passenger aircraft for when peace should come (the year is 1918), and drawing up detailed timetables for services to link important German cities. ‘I estimated the cost of plane manufacture, airfield construction and fuel in order to calculate the possible price of tickets. I found this work fascinating and noted there was in me some organisational talent struggling to emerge.’’

Hitler’s Common Market

Philip Purser, 6 August 1992

A useful maxim for reviewers would be one that encouraged them to relate art to life rather than art to art, or fiction to fiction. In two respects, unfortunately, Fatherland by Robert Harris makes artistic comparisons inescapable. It belongs, first, to that select genre of fiction which deals in the Alternative Present, or in this case an alternative recent past. It is set in 1964 in the vast, imperial, intimidating Berlin of an undefeated Third Reich. The dome of Albert Speer’s Volkshalle, nearly a thousand feet high, is lost in the clouds. Below, the earthlings prepare to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s 75th birthday and try to adjust to the news that, after two decades of Cold War, détente with the United States of America is suddenly a possibility. The aged President Kennedy (Joseph P., not John F.) plans to fly to Berlin for a summit meeting. Since all this is conjecture as to how things might have turned out, it can only be assessed against your own, or other people’s, conjectures. The two best-known novels based on the premise of a German or Axis victory are Len Deighton’s SS GB and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. I can remember two no less interesting television variations on the theme: Giles Cooper’s epic play The Other Man, and a serial by Philip Mackie, An Englishman’s Castle.

Radio Fun

Philip Purser, 27 June 1991

Of all the innovations of the 20th century, none has so completely penetrated and combined with everyday life as broadcasting. It would be difficult to find many people born in Britain in the past forty years who did not grow up to Muffin the Mule or Thunderbirds or Dr Who, and for whom the television set has been other than a natural adjunct to existence ever since. It would be equally hard to find natives of fifty-plus whose upbringing was not coloured by Dick Barton, Band Waggon or Monday Night at Seven (later, Eight) on the wireless. When other wells of nostalgia dry up, we bore each other with jokes and catchphrases and signature tunes that have stuck with us. We annotate our lives by reference to fragments seen or heard over the air. If I write ‘the day war broke out’, many will instinctively hear the phrase in the baffled tones of the comedian Robb Wilton who began a famous monologue with it. If I try to recall the actual day war broke out, on 3 September 1939, I can calculate that I was just 14, and remember that about that time, give or take a week, I had a stiff neck from diving into Hoylake Baths with my head on one side: but I can only tell exactly where I was (outside the police station), and what I was doing (listening with a few others to the car radio of a parked car), during the minutes when Chamberlain was speaking on the wireless that Sunday morning.


Philip Purser, 13 June 1991

As a young soldier in Germany at the end of the war I was dropped head first into two manifestations of the Third Reich which half a century later continue to exert a peculiar fascination. After two months in what became the Russian occupied zone, the field company to which I belonged was moved back to the Harz Mountains area. We were told we would henceforth be located in somewhere called Lebenstedt. Lebenstedt turned out to be like nothing any of us had seen before: instead of the familiar shattered towns, and the villages of old crooked houses with Gothic texts carved into their timbers and farmhouses fronted by open manure pits, it stretched away unscarred, uniform and seemingly endless. The roads were laid out in a rectilinear grid and lined on each side by long apartment blocks with steep roofs and rows of double windows. There were trim paths, strips of grass. All was orderly, well-built but featureless, and there was altogether too much of it. When we started holding dances, officially for young females from the displaced persons camps in the area, but very soon frequented by Germans, the abschnitt, or sector of the town in which a local charmer lived, was her most important statistic. Abschnitt 5 meant a long, long walk to see her home, plus the same distance back to billets.

Bernie’s War

Philip Purser, 23 May 1991

Philip Kerr’s detective hero Bernie Gunther is Sam Spade with raw herring on his breath and a smattering of German or Germanic slang (‘Kripo’ for the Criminal Police, ‘bulls’ for policemen, ‘chocoladies’ for those of dubious virtue) stirred into his tough private-eye talk. He drags on a cigarette, keeps a bottle in his desk, has a way with women but not much luck with them. Underneath his sceptical exterior he is brave, persistent and not without honour. The thing that sets him apart from Spade and Marlowe and their legion of imitators is that he is based – or has been so far – not in urban America in the Thirties and Forties, but in the Berlin of that period.’

Serious Dr Sonne

Philip Purser, 6 December 1990

At the beginning of the third volume of his autobiography, Elias Canetti is still in his twenties. He has been cooped up for a year in a bed-sitter on the outskirts of Vienna with only a print of the Isenheim altar as company, working on the grim novel that was eventually to be called Auto da Fé. Early one morning he catches the first workman’s train into town, dashes through empty streets and lets himself into the apartment of his loved one, later his wife, Veza – she has given him a latchkey against such an eventuality. Is it the old Adam stirring? With the manuscript finished at last is it time for a little Beinüber? No such luck, if that is what Veza has been hoping: Elias is bursting to tell her about the book he’s just discovered and been reading all night, Büchner’s Wozzeck. When Veza sleepily says it’s been one of her favourites for ages, and rolls out of bed to find her copy, there’s an almighty row. What does she mean by having known Wozzeck all these years and never even mentioned it? It’s as if she has been unfaithful – no, worse! Because in Canetti’s estimation, or anyway in the estimation which he applies so rigorously to every figure he encounters in The Play of the Eyes, affairs of the mind are far more important than those of either body or personality.’

Huw should be so lucky

Philip Purser, 16 August 1990

Early in Huw Wheldon’s television career, when the programme with which he made his name, Monitor, was about a year old, he had to deal with a minor ethical point. He had flown to Switzerland with a film unit to interview Georges Simenon, still in his prime and turning out five or six novels a year. Wheldon was fascinated by Simenon’s method of work: the preliminaries of choosing names and backgrounds for his characters, undergoing a medical check, setting Mme Simenon to clean dozens of pipes, sharpening eighty pencils and then immuring himself in a turret room for exactly eleven days, at the end of which he emerged wearing the same shirt as when he went in but bearing a finished manuscript. Little was then known of the equally concentrated bout of sexual activity which followed: Simenon’s invariable habit, pausing (presumably) to change his shirt, was to drive into town and take a succession of young women he referred to as ‘dancers’. Would not dwelling on the author’s writing habits be seen as mere gossip and triviality? The question was gravely discussed as the film was edited. Wheldon declared that it was relevant to the consideration of Simenon as a writer. It was part of his creative process. The seclusion and the pencils and the shirt showed how he needed to impose a ritual on himself in order to make his subconscious operate. Whether Huw would have made the same claim for the subsequent part of the ritual, had he known about it, can only be a matter for speculation, but as recounted by Paul Ferris in Sir Huge the episode quaintly anticipates the row which has broken out over the publication of this biography, and brought such champions of Wheldon’s reputation as Sir Denis Forman, Ludovic Kennedy and Melvyn Bragg trumpeting into the field.

Remembering the taeog

D.A.N. Jones, 30 August 1990

Rightly admired as a critic, an interpreter of ‘culture and society’, Raymond Williams was disappointing as a writer of fiction. The Eggs of the Eagle is the second volume of...

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