Tuesday, 25 August 2015

More radio plays about AA Milne ... and a film


Prompted by the play discussed here, I found two other radio plays available online about A.A. Milne - not on the BBC iplayer but preserved on the blog of their author, Brian Sibley. You can find them here and here.

I listened to both at their time of their original broadcasts on Radio 4, and the impressions I retained have been confirmed by subsequent listenings.There is some overlap - both provide an outline of Milne's career - but I preferred Not That It Matters, which draws upon Milne's autobiography It's Too Late Now.


This half hour piece is announced as "a radio portrait" so it doesn't really aspire to be a drama: we simply hear Milne telling the story of his writing career with some illustrations from his work. Pooh does not make his appearance until two thirds of the way in, and the importance of Punch in the writer's career is given due prominence. There are also some tantalisingly brief clips from some of his plays, played in a bright manner which appeals.


The production also benefits from having an actor, Hugh Dickson, whose voice conveys the sense of incisiveness I imagine in Milne's. Well, I say "imagine" but you can hear a recording on youtube of his reading a passage from Winnie the Pooh (though I don't know whether he would have been all that keen on being bookended by Billy Mayerl). I'm pretty sure Milne wrote somewhere about trusting the words do the work.



Alec McCowen supplies the voice of the elder Milne in Mr Sibley's It's Too Late Now and it sounds - to my ears, at least - more petulant and mannered a performance; Dickson's Milne is comparatively flatter and drier.

This second piece has the framework of a play: Milne has a new physiotherapist after the stroke which debilitated him in later years and over several sessions tells her his story. For me, however, it doesn't quite come off: she is too obviously a feed for much of the time and we're not presented with a compelling reason for Milne to tell his tale.

Admittedly I could be an unreliable critic, burdened as I am with my own failure to fashion an effective play out of Milne's life, as briefly described here. Nevertheless, I think there are hints, in Ann Thwaite's superlative biography of Milne, of darker aspects of his later years which might have been followed up, in particular the isolation and loneliness which would justify a compulsion to talk to a stranger: this was a man who would book unnecessary massages simply to break the monotony.

And Milne's wife remains offstage, except in flashbacks, so the suggestive detail in Mrs Thwaite's biography that she was referred to by an employee as "the bloody Duchess" is not seized upon, nor is their relationship in the play's present explored.


I listened to It's Too Late Now again while revising this piece. While I still have reservations about it as a piece of drama, the folding in of passages from Pooh is well done. And it's not simply a retread of the earlier piece: this play is more full-on about Winnie the Pooh, and parental worries about the effect of publicity on the real Christopher Robin.


The identification of Milne pere with Eeyore (which Christopher Milne made in The Enchanted Places) is hammered home a bit, rather than being implied: "Not very how?" the physiotherapist says - though in fairness she is presented as a fan of the books. And if, as his son said,"such sadnesses as there were put on cap and bells" as Eeyore, then perhaps that simple acknowledgement of a sadder side is as much exploration as is necessary for a play which announces itself as being "in celebration" of A.A. Milne.


And is a darker play about Milne "necessary because possible", as they might ask in a Birthday Party at some distance from the Hundred Acre Wood? The restraint I referred to in Christopher William Hill's play Hush! Hush! Whisper Who Dares! may suggest why a searing, tell-all (or at least tell-more) kind of play could be problematic. Hill's imagined meeting between Shepard and Christopher Milne was convincing because it didn't seem to contradict what is known of the two men. And the play became an increasingly fascinating story about two people who, while far from being intimates in the ordinary way of things, were nevertheless so intimately bound together in one respect that it scarcely needed to be articulated.

But Christopher Milne came to terms with his father and the legacy of the Pooh stories only in the writing of his own autobiography, long after A.A. Milne's death. There is no reported knock-down confrontation with his father to draw on for a play. And how far can you twist the facts to create a play when the son's testimony has been widely circulated?

After writing the above I had a look online for more about Milne's propaganda work for MI7 as there was a piece about it in a newspaper yesterday and found to my surprise that there is in fact a forthcoming film about A.A. Milne's relationship with his son. It is called Goodbye Christopher Robin. Details are provided in a casting call for the role of Christopher Robin in March of this year:
Written by Simon Vaughn, Ronald Harwood & Frank Cotterell Boyce and to be directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn, Woman In Gold) in the UK Summer 2015 ... playing range is from 6 to 9yrs old.
We are told "the story focuses entirely around the young Christopher Robin" but I don't know whether it means it stops at the age of nine. It seems to have been in development for some time as a synopsis on the Enchanted Serenity blog, here,  appears to date from 2010, citing a different director (Nick Hurran). Given the time which has passed the synopsis may not be wholly reliable but it does seems to indicate that the film ends with Christopher's going to boarding school and Milne's decision not to write any more Pooh stories or verses.
As Milne’s career soars, his son discovers that being Christopher Robin comes at a heavy price – other children taunt the boy while the media clamours for his attention. With a father obsessed with writing, and a mother busy luxuriating in the family’s new-found fame and fortune, Christopher Robin gets little support from the adults around him. Looming before him is the new terror of boarding school and the inevitable bullying – just for being himself. Slowly, Christopher Robin starts to withdraw into his own world. Realising the problems that fame has brought, AA Milne tries to prepare the young boy for the rigours of boarding school and the new term ahead – triggering a number of changes which rock the foundations of Christopher’s world.

Christopher’s life-long nanny and best friend, Nou, is dismissed from service, and the childish games he has always played in the woodland around the family home are suddenly discouraged. Even visits to the zoo and his friendships with other local children now seem to be out of bounds. At the same time, AA Milne is making his own sacrifices - after much soul searching, he decides to stop writing stories about the boy and his bear. As the summer draws to close, the Milne family must face up to the fact that life can never be the same again.
Hmm ... I don't know about soul searching. There was an essay Milne wrote, explaining why he wasn't going to write more stories, which seemed eminently sensible and logical. He was always keen to move on to new projects regardless of what his publishers or the general public wanted or expected from him. In his autobiography he talks about wanting to escape, "having said goodbye to all that in 70,000 words" or something of the sort. Anyway, we shall see. And some of the other details seem questionable. Someone has left a comment on the blog:
... neither of the Milnes were apt to lay their hearts very bare before others, at least compared to what many another sort of person might do, and the mere synopsis of this film emotes more sadness than Christopher's books themselves do.


On other Milne matters I am currently in the middle of rereading Ann Thwaite's biography, which I devoured on its first publication, and will write about in more detail at a later date.

Oh, and on the Today programme on Radio 4 I have just heard an engineer being interviewed about how to win at Poohsticks.


Review of Christopher William Hill's Hush! Hush! Whisper Who Dares! here.

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