Forsyte and Hindsight
Memoirs of a career in television are mostly written by retired suits, celebrity journalists, or actors with ratings hits. All have their value (some more than others) for those of us interested in the history of the most important medium of the past 50 years. (I’ve been a professional observer for 35 of them.) But few have come from the directors, producers, writers who stayed at the heart of the creative process.
Which is why James Cellan Jones’ book earns its place on the shelf. He did his time as a semi-suit – Head of Plays for BBCtv 1976–79 – and was Chairman of BAFTA, but at no time from his start as a call-boy in the ’50s to the last show in the book (2001) was he away, mostly as director, from the creation of some of the best-remembered drama plays, series and serials of the period, many of them award-winners.
And, unusually, he talks (and this is a richly colloquial and anecdotal read, though some might recall some incidents differently) with rare frankness. The engaging stories of work with actors great (Branagh and Thompson, Dench, Hopkins, Scofield, Rex Harrison) and very very good are there, but the behind-the-screens stories are not always to everyone’s credit, nor does the author shy from tales of his own disasters.
The outcome is a personal memoir with more than usually practical insights into the history and workings of an industrial process that can and has produced memorable works of popular art. And sometimes hasn’t.