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 nearly 900 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)


  1. Great post! Roads to Freedom was one of the best TV series ever. And it stands the test of time as the showing a few years ago at the BFI, which I attended, showed.

  2. I've been following the discussions on Amazon and IMDB. The BBC's failure to even respond is mystifying and inexplicable. An excellent post, outlining the whole saga so far. Let's hope your Emerald Lamp can shine some light on their lack of response. La Route Est Dure indeed but worth it if the BBC finally sees sense.

  3. Thank you for the comments. I've just bought a rare photo from a dealer in America of Michael Bryant in his role as Mathieu. I'll put it up here as soon as it arrives in the post. As I said in the article, it is extremely difficult to locate any still photos from The Roads to Freedom anywhere on the internet.

  4. Jeezo-this is my second attempt to comment-thumbs up to your blog on this

  5. Thank you KiSmnemo for your comment.

    By the way, I recently had a reply from Brian Robinson at the BFI (archive and heritage). He said:

    "I have spoken to our television specialists and we would very much welcome a DVD release for this programme..."

    He then went on to list possible problems, but it shows that the will is there at the BFI. It also shows that the BFI is responding to queries and is willing to talk about Roads to Freedom, in contrast to the total silence from the BBC.

    So the problem is entirely with the BBC.

    I'll update here if I have any news or hear anything remotely relevant...

    Channel Light Vessel/EmeraldLamp

    1. Blogger seems to have changed me from EmeraldLamp to Channel Light Vessel in posts, but they are both me (!)

    2. This is my 2nd attempt to reply!-so very brief!!-One of my daughters has started a FB page on the matter since I informed her-It would be great if her age group had the chance to see it (hope it is as good in reality as it is in my memory!)-
      Nomenclature-I don't know why I am Kismnemosyne-that is a company I have's title-EmarldLamp is better than CLV-ta ta

    3. That is positive re BFI - I was referred back to the BBC by them a few years ago but I know that many others have written to them since, so I think it is good if we keep showing interest

    4. The most recent person I wrote to was Melvyn Bragg a couple of months back. I thought he might be interested, given his long history with the BBC and the arts generally. But no reply.

  6. Fascinating story - I've never heard of the series but would now like to see it. Re the BBC resistance - is it a political thing, do you think?

    1. Thanks for your comment. Is it political? I really have no idea, because the BBC has never responded to any questions about it in decades, so there's no way even to guess what the real problem is. It can't be anything to do with the content of the series, as the action takes place in the late 30s early 40s in France.

    2. Charles Nowosielski21 July 2015 at 22:19

      Can't fathom why it has disappeared either. Was one of the major reasons I wanted to act. Subject. Performances. Everything about it. Would love to either see the series again at least. May think about dramatising.

    3. Thanks for commenting - yes, I think it inspired a lot of people, for many different reasons.

  7. I had a little flurry on FB tonight, and asked for help from Henri, le chat noir. His fanbase is large, I have also messaged the author. But if anyone reading this felt like liking and commenting on my post there, it might help:

    1. I'm not on Facebook but I'll try and have a look at your post and get anyone I know who is on Facebook to comment and spread it around. Are you on Twitter? I'd be happy to tweet anything...

  8. You might want to like his page, as well! I like hus ennui-filled videos and succinct comments on life. And he has not even seen the telly series!

  9. Two reasons - One it is marxist. Two - it shows gays as deceitful and possibly dangerous?

    1. Thanks for commenting...

      Interesting theory, but I don't think it is particularly Marxist: the central character, Mathieu, certainly thinks about joining the Communist party and fighting in the Spanish Civil war like his friend Brunet, but he can't commit to anything, he always finds reasons not to - that's the point. The gay character, Daniel, feels guilty about his sexuality and spends a lot of energy fighting it (this was the 1930s after all). He is also quite malicious, but this is just his personality, it doesn't have anything to do with his being gay.

      To be honest, I can't see anything in the content of Roads to Freedom that would make the BBC want to censor it.

  10. The BBC also buried the David Mercer play Shooting the Chandelier (Shows Liberals as weak and possibly collaborating with Nazis and conversely Communists in a good light) - great performances by Denholm Elliot and Edward Fox). The BBC also point blank refuse to show the Killing of Sister George - a great film with Coral Brown. It again shows a seedy (but funny) side of homosexuality albeit presents the BBC in a bad light. ha ha

  11. Inspirational drama, it had a powerful effect on me as a teenager and I have never forgotten it. It spurred me to read more Sartre and to write stuff, wrote a song for Mathieu, so moved was I at his constant questioning, his dilemma of disbelief . I would say the technique of hearing internal monologue as the actors go about their business works very well. The viewer can inhabit the very soul of the person in question. I especially love Bryant's performance but the whole ensemble were outstanding and Sweet Georgia Browne was just the cherry on top.

    1. Thank you for commenting. I completely agree about the use internal monologue - it always seemed very natural to me, pulling the viewer right into the mind of the character.

  12. The BBC are blocking the road to freedom

  13. I find it odd that a public broadcasting service is unable to provide an answer to the simple question of why the series is not repeated or made available on DVD. It was produced through public subscription - the licence fee and is therefore public property subject to any contractual arrangements. Since the latter has not been an issue with other releases fulfilling its obligations as a public broadcaster then a public statement is not too much to ask. Other public services would find it quite difficult to maintain this level of stonewalling for this length of time - if a letter is sent to the Director General he will probably be obliged to respond under their service guidelines and if not it can be reported to OFCOM. The BBC is also covered by the freedom of information act if some learned reader can draft an appropriate request - Mark's last post is pertinent. I look forward to further information

  14. It was, without doubt, one of the works that inspired me to read more, care more and... become an actor! It is incomprehensible and unconscionable that the series is not accessable to all.

  15. The point made above about public money and accountability is a good one - perhaps worth contacting the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sports - they are currently listing the BBC's most recent Annual Report as one of their investigations.
    The question might reasonably be framed in terms of either safeguarding cultural heritage or of maximising return on public investment.

    My recollection of this series, form my student days, is that it was powerful, excellently executed and certainly led me to read Sartre.

  16. Was just going to buy the trilogy and read it again - just to see what had had such an impact on me when I was 16. Existentialist, I became - existentialist, I remain. I never saw the series & I would love to - I was living in Paris when it came out, then moved to Australia - too late to see it - if it even showed in either place. I'd buy it - For heaven's sake, I bought Fall of the Eagles when it was released (& ordered a copy for the library where I teach) & that is as boring as all get out - but really interesting as a historian. I'll have to settle for the reread - the BBC is weird about other things, as well. However, we can now buy Callan - didn't show the British Secret Service in a good light - but then that was not a BBC product.

  17. Thank you for the work you are doing to bring this masterpiece back for people to relish/relish again.

  18. I agree and was quite keen to watch this series again. The BBC do seem a very strange organisation to deal with. Here is an example of a "Culture of Indifference" which is how I would describe my own recent futile attempts to free some art out into the public domain where "art" in my opinion, belongs.. I recently asked them for permission to put some wonderful radio plays which no longer seem to exist anywhere on the net, for sale or for free, upon You-Tube for free under an anonymous name, for the benefit of all. No adverts,no promotions, no revenue to me, just quality plays. It's called Altruism. I did ask them, if possible to send me a free copy of a single play I am keen to listen to by J.B. Priestley. No reply...So went to visit them ...Terribly interested.. They would get back in touch with me within 2 weeks...Never heard from them again...But was told..Catch 22, if I place them on You-Tube they will be blocked and a copy taken, benefiting not a single member of the general public I am trying to reach. I e-mailed a complaint to them and essentially got a wishy washy reply saying that plays such as mine presented them with too many Copyright problems to bother with...Best of luck with Sartre, I'll keep an eye out for it but won't hold my breath.

    1. I'm sure a lot of people would have liked to hear these radio plays. As I've said before, I support the BBC and have a huge respect for their creative people, but the organisation's attitude to viewers, and viewers' ideas and suggestions, is just bizarre. Thanks for commenting.

    2. Your post highlights the incipient high handedness and hypocrisy that's endemic to the BBC. Public funding with zero public accountability. " Your BBC"? What a joke.

    3. Your post highlights the incipient high handedness and hypocrisy that's endemic to the BBC. Public funding with zero public accountability. " Your BBC"? What a joke.

  19. I confirm (May 22 2016) that I am still prepared to contribute $10,000 for the transfer to DVD, with no expectation of profit. The cost of DVD reproduction is next to zero; however the cost of transfer, from the (by-now) vintage tape to a modern digital format, certainly is not zero. If anyone at the BBC is empowered to discuss this, let me know. Thanks

    1. Many thanks for renewing this generous offer again Gareth - I will amend the article accordingly. I sent a link to this blog article to the BBC press office some time ago, drawing particular attention to your offer in my email, but needless to say I did not get a reply.
      I'm going to try the culture secretary (John Whittingdale) and the shadow culture secretary (Maria Eagle) and will report back here.

  20. I remember it with great fondness. The BBC is a public-body and therefore is subject to the Freedom of Information Act. They can't just ignore enquiries from the public. Can I suggest that you write to your MP if a suitable reply is not forthcoming. Gareth's offer is amazing and could be matched by other bodies if an application is made (BFI, Arts Council etc) Sartre's masterpiece needs to be brought to a new generation and this particular adaptation was wonderful. Lets keep the pressure on.

  21. While the BBC is so concerned with the like of Strictly, GBBO, and Poldark it is likely to be mystified by anyone expressing interest in such a museum piece. They seem to have a similar attitude to Shoulder to Shoulder, the excellent drama about the Suffragettes. There were so many good things made by the Beeb in the 70s including the Plays for Today, but they seem embarrassed by all that wealth ..... apparently determined to reject the great BBC heritage.

  22. While the BBC is so concerned with the like of Strictly, GBBO, and Poldark it is likely to be mystified by anyone expressing interest in such a museum piece. They seem to have a similar attitude to Shoulder to Shoulder, the excellent drama about the Suffragettes. There were so many good things made by the Beeb in the 70s including the Plays for Today, but they seem embarrassed by all that wealth ..... apparently determined to reject the great BBC heritage.

  23. I saw this series as a fifteen year old in 1976, I thought it was a new series at the time, not from 1970. I Claudius came out soon after, which I have on dvd box set. Why not this? It was wonderful!

  24. I too was enthralled by Roads To Freedom as a teenager. It's a strange disgrace that it isn't available to view in any format.

  25. Today, finding the Georgia Brown theme song running through my head, I went looking for a DVD release, frustration in which led me here. I too recall being greatly impressed in my teens by the 1976 showing.
    I'm surprised I followed it through, as it was a time when I was out most evenings: maybe it had a twice-weekly showing, as the BBC often did with serials at the time, doubling the chance of staying with it? If so, they had some commitment to it then, unlike now.
    Perhaps, seen now, it could look "boxy", with actors speaking at one another on a small range of room sets, but no more so than other productions of the time such as "I Claudius" which mutt mentioned above or "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy", both of which have made it to DVD and repeat runs.

  26. I also saw Roads To Freedom as a teenager (my sister was studying Philosophy in University) and was enthralled. I must say that it is an excellent short series. I'm appalled that it is not available today - even as a boxed set. The BFI viewing was excellent.

  27. I would pay good money to see it on DVD. It really is a jewel in the BBC's crown and they should be so proud of it.

  28. Such a shame this one's not on DVD, and such a disgrace the BBC won't explain why.

  29. I would add that as a working class boy of 15 this changed my life.

  30. The series is actually better than the original books, and also much better than most of the dross on tv these days, i have to rerun it on the betamax in my head, however. If they'd wiped it , like the best episodes of doctor who with patrick troughton , you could just about forgive them, but if they exist then it's a scandal that they won't be shown, given that we can still hear the navy lark and the men from the ministry.