Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Why has the BBC buried 'The Roads to Freedom'?

Why has the BBC buried The Roads to Freedom?

The series still exists intact - so why can't we watch it?

Michael Bryant as Mathieu Delarue in The Roads to Freedom. David Turner, who dramatised the series, called the character of Mathieu the Hamlet of our age. This is a rare photo: it is almost as impossible to find photos of the cast in their roles as it is to watch the series. Photo: Channel Light Vessel

“It’s relevant to every generation, but it’s especially applicable to young people.” Michael Bryant, 1970. 

If youre under 50, you may not know that the BBC dramatised Jean-Paul Sartre’s trilogy of novels, The Roads to Freedom, so you won’t realise that you missed the best series the BBC ever made.

You certainly won’t have seen it, because the BBC won’t allow you to.

It is has not been shown on television since 1976, it is not on DVD, not available as a box set, not on YouTube, Netflix, or anywhere else. The mystery is why - and why the BBC won’t tell us why.

I’ll come back to this strange story, but first:

Why is the BBC’s adaptation of The Roads to Freedom important?

Jean-Paul Sartre’s three novels, (published 1945-49 as Les Chemins de La Libert√©) focus on a philosophy teacher, Mathieu Delarue, and his group of bohemian friends in Paris just before the Second World War and into the Nazi occupation. Mathieu’s aim is to defend his personal and intellectual freedom, resisting all forms of commitment to people, politics or action. 

The perspective shifts constantly between characters, especially in the second book, creating a mosaic of simultaneous individual experiences of people preoccupied with the details of their own lives, in denial and powerless in the face of oncoming disaster.

Almost unfilmable, you might think. But it worked perfectly, thanks to inspired direction by James Cellan Jones, and David Turners intelligent dramatisation. Then there was Michael Bryant’s superb portrayal of Mathieu (a part he seemed born to play), and unforgettable contributions from Georgia Brown (Lola), Daniel Massey (Daniel), Rosemary Leach (Marcelle), Alison Fiske (Ivich), Anthony Higgins (Boris), and many more.

The first episode of The Roads to Freedom was broadcast on Sunday, October 4, 1970. The series was repeated on TV once, in 1976, and then vanished for 36 years until a one-off screening at the BFI in 2012.  Since 2012, silence has returned. 

Every actor was convincing, every role came alive; there was no such thing as a ‘minor character’ in the series. This reflected the idea in Sartres novels that everyone experiences themselves as centrally important.

In terms of direction, screenplay, and acting, The Roads to Freedom was highly original. The series seemed to capture the feel of life in Paris at the end of the 1930s, and having watched it, you felt you had lived through it. Everyone will have different memories of the series, but when in Paris I can’t avoid thinking of Mathieu, running round the city trying to borrow money for his girlfriend’s abortion, avoiding joining the Communist Party, analysing the depths of his own inauthenticity while watching strippers in dark nightclubs. 

The haunting voice of Georgia Brown singing the theme La Route est Dure”- melancholy, melodramatic, deep and smoky - was the soul of the whole series for many viewers (link at the end of this post).

The BBC seemed to be proud of the series in early October 1970, putting Michael Bryants Mathieu on the cover. Inside, the actor is quoted saying that The Roads to Freedom is relevant to every generation, but its especially applicable to young people. How sad that the young people of 2015 do not have the chance to see it for themselves. 

Sartres novels are largely concerned with what his characters are thinking, and the BBCs The Roads to Freedom is one of very few TV dramas to treat the stream of consciousness seriously and naturally: instead of having the actors speak their thoughts aloud, we hear monologues spoken by the relevant actor in the background, while the character goes about his or her business. 

This contrasts with the highly artificial convention, still followed in almost all films and television dramas, of actors speaking aloud even when they are alone. On the whole, real people dont do this, and it always looks particularly absurd when the character is supposed to be in danger.

Sartre in 1950, looking remarkably similar to Michael Bryant as Mathieu on the cover of the Radio Times (previous pic). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The ‘lost’ work of dramatic art that wasn’t actually lost

For many years, whenever the question of what happened to The Roads to Freedom cropped up on internet forums, somebody would speculate either that the BBC had wiped the tapes, or that only a few episodes had survived. 

In the absence of any denial, or any information at all, from the BBC (despite enquiries from the public over several decades), this depressing rumour was widely accepted as true - until 2012. Then, in May 2012, the BFI (British Film Institute) screened the whole 13-episode series in London on May 12 and 13.

In one sense this was fantastic news: the tapes had not been wiped at all, far from it - the entire series had survived. The BFI theatre was apparently packed out both days. But while enormous credit is due to the BFI for showing it, it leaves unanswered the question of why it is not available to all of us. Many people did not hear about the screening in time (I was one of them), others would not have been able to go.

Perhaps more importantly, the people who did attend would mainly have been those who remembered the original series from the 1970s. Younger people – the people who have been denied access to this work of art – would not even have known why the screening was an important event. Which seems ironic in view of Michael Bryants opinion (quoted in the Radio Times, October 1970) that Its relevant to every generation, but its especially applicable to young people. David Turner, who adapted the novels for the screen, called the character of Mathieu the Hamlet of our age - Hamlet with a social conscience.

The series is not simply a period piece; it addresses universal themes and had a profound, lifelong effect on the young people who saw it in the 1970s. What a shame that the young people of 2015 are not even aware the series exists, when the moral questions and personal dilemmas it illustrates are just as relevant today - possibly more so. 

(Photo:Wikimedia Commons) 
I would like to be able to show you photos of the rest of the cast in their Roads to Freedom roles, but none are available (why, I wonder?). So heres a picture of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in front of the Balzac statue in Montparnasse, Paris, date unknown, but it looks like the late 1930s.

The wall of silence

Since the BFI screening in 2012 . . . nothing. Silence from the BBC. Not a whisper of a plan to release the series on DVD, or to repeat it on TV. This is not for want of enthusiastic pressure from viewers: there’s a discussion thread on Amazon, for example, that has been running since 2008 and is still the top thread in Amazon’s TV discussions, which must be some sort of record.

The comments on the Amazon thread are passionate and eloquent - enough, you would think, to touch the most stony-hearted bureaucrat. One after another, people describe the huge impression the series made on them when they were teenagers, and person after person describes their frustration when letters and emails to the BBC are unanswered, or when they are repeatedly sent around in hopeless circles. 

“I would be prepared to purchase this at any price,” a poster declares in 2010.

“I watched Roads to Freedom in my teens and have never forgotten it,” says another.

And here is a writer disagreeing that the series appealed only to the √©lite: 
My family is working class, but still me, mam and dad were glued to it. I was 13 and up to that point had never heard of Mr Sartre. Having watched this I read all his books and loved them.

In 2010, Gareth H Richards offered to put up $10,000 to transfer the series to DVD. On 22 May, 2016, he confirmed that this amazing offer still stands. 

In 2012, James Cellan Jones, the director of Roads to Freedom, joined the Amazon discussion urging people to keep up the pressure on the BBC, which they did. 

Similar comments to the ones I have quoted above can be found on the IMDb (Internet Movie Database) reviews and comments for The Roads to Freedom

In November 2012, Peter Cox started a petition, which now has over 1,000 signatures. It is here:

In October 2012, I wrote to seven people who, at that time, seemed influential at the BBC:

(Lord) Chris Patten, Chair of the BBC Trust
George Entwistle, Director General of the BBC
Roly Keating, Director of Archive Content, BBC
Nicolas Brown, Director Drama Productions, BBC
Alan Yentob, Creative Director, BBC
Jeremy Paxman and Kirsty Wark, Newsnight, BBC.

I had one reply, from Chris Patten’s secretary, who (politely) told me that it was nothing to do with the Trust. The others? Not even an acknowledgement.

The incredible Georgia Brown, who played the nightclub singer Lola Montero, though this photo does not show her in the role. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Other people describe almost identical experiences, either of silence, or of being directed by the BFI to the BBC, who then fail to reply. One person was even told to have a look on Amazon. It’s insulting really.

So, BBC, what on earth is going on?

We are left with two questions. First, why has the series not been made available to viewers, and second, why does the BBC refuse to engage in any discussion about it, or reply to viewers’ enquiries?

We know now that the series exists in its entirety. People have wondered if there might be contractual problems related to the original actors. But many drama series from the 1960s and 1970s are now available as box sets and so on, so why would this only affect The Roads to Freedom?

Until the BBC breaks its deep omerta on the programme, we won’t have any idea. If we don’t know what the problem is, no solutions can be found. 

Which brings me back to the second question. The BBC, which I normally defend, seems to be hiding a significant work of art from the British people. It’s as if the National Gallery decided that we weren’t allowed to look at the Turners, and refused to say why. 

It’s the strange secrecy surrounding the fate of the series that is most baffling. Why was it impossible for people to get a straight answer from the BBC about whether the series still existed? Why was the rumour that the tapes had been wiped allowed to circulate unchallenged for decades?

As somebody wrote on the forums, “You’d think the BBC would be proud of it, wouldn’t you?”

La Route est Dure, to be sure.

© Josephine Gardiner 2015 

Daniel Massey played Daniel Sereno, a man tormented by guilt about his sexuality. 
Photo: Channel Light Vessel

Here is a great YouTube video of Georgia Brown (below) singing the theme 

(Many thanks to 'morganafan' for putting the video on YouTube)

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The Heart of the Wood (poem)

Photo: © Channel Light Vessel

First post

Im going to start this blog with an Irish poem I found a while ago somewhere in the recesses of the internet. Its anonymous, and if I remember rightly, its a translation from the Gaelic. The poems artless purity certainly feels very old, a voice from a wild forested Ireland of centuries ago, though there is no date.  The defiant, passionate hope in it, especially the last line, is timeless. 

The Heart of the Wood

My hope and my love,
we will go for a while into the wood, 
scattering the dew,
where we will see the trout,
we will see the blackbird on its nest;
the deer and the buck calling,
the little bird that is sweetest singing on the branches;
the cuckoo on the top of the fresh green;
and death will never come near us for ever in the sweet wood.