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How Somerset Maugham has influenced my writing


Importance of being taken seriously as a writer
Frederic Raphael Writer
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I don't... I think, unlike television – not nowadays, necessarily, but in the days when I was fortunate enough to do three series at the BBC as well as one or two films and various bits and pieces as well as early plays – there you had a strong sense that you were the author because, actually, they didn't have time to ruin it. That was one of the advantages of any boom situation in the arts. Nobody has the time to form a committee and decide that on the whole the Sistine Chapel might look better if it was in blue not in green or anything of that kind. 'The Sistine Chapel's painted. What do you think?' 'Terrific. Thank you, Michelangelo. What are you going to do for us now?' That is a much better arrangement than, 'We just might be wanting to paint the Sistine Chapel. Have you got any propositions to make about what it should look like? How about if God is on the roof and he's touching Adam with his...' 'No, I don't think so. I don't think that'll work'. That's what they're all like: they're all people that I don't want to talk to. That doesn't mean nobody ever has a good idea. That's the hell, in particular, of the movies. People who shouldn't actually have any right to have a comment can occasionally say something, and you think, oh, good idea. And you're a fool if you don't adopt it.

My sense of proprietorship is limited in the movies to... Two for the Road I do feel is kind of mine because Stanley Donen gave it to me, you might say, and because it contains elements not necessarily of truth but of lived life in various forms – idealised, amused forms, I hope. Darling I feel the same about because it is my script for 93... 8% and also because I spent a lot of time doing it with great devotion at a time when I thought that the cinema could a) change the world – ha! why would you want to do that? – and b) that it could be an art form that I really wanted to spend a lot of time with. By the time I'd finished with Darling, I didn't have that feeling anymore and I've never had it since. I like to do things very quickly. I like to write screenplays which are performable, in which the actors are going to say, 'Oh, boy'. And, on the whole, that's what they have said. I've had a very good run with that. I don't really know, on reflection, what I thought I was going to do with my work. I just thought I was going to do work. Talking about changing the world is, I think, very unwise, to put it mildly. If you can very, very slightly inflect the lives of one or two people who read your books and perhaps give yourself a kind of articulate decency or even indecency, that's pretty good going.

The Jews, yes; the working class... all kinds of stuff, yes; these are important, interesting topics. But again, essentially Oscar Wilde turns out to be right. Books are either well written or badly written, and I like to think that I can do well written books. I don't mean I always do, but I certainly always try. I even try to write well written reviews. I even try to say things clearly and sharply in almost any circumstance I can because you only get one ride on this particular... roundabout? Carousel? Whatever it damn well is. And you may as well do the best you can. I'm not disposed to take myself unduly seriously, but I would quite like you to. I think one of the great mistakes that I have made, career-wise, is that I have too generously admitted my misgivings, doubts, failings and so on. People with a very serious sense of themselves never do that. If you want to be Mr Eliot or Mr Pinter or who all else, you should preserve a grave and serious attitude to your own work. You are the pedestal on which you stand. I'm... well, my daughter Sarah once made a cartoon which I... which I proposed to her. I don't do a lot of that, but I have this vision of a... of a large pedestal and on it were two large feet and ankles. And one of the bystanders is saying to the other, 'The rest of him was clay'. I'm not disposed to ignore the element of clay in myself or others which, to some degree, allows others the opportunity to say, 'Well, you're the one who admitted yourself that that bit of you is clay'.

The luck of it is to get away with it. That's what Peter Sellers used to say to me. I used to meet him occasionally at the tailors. It was a guy called Dougie Hayward who made smart clothes in the 1960s. And I'd known Peter when he was on The Goons and on the radio. And a radio producer said to me quite seriously, 'Isn't it wonderful that the radio exists because otherwise somebody as ugly as Peter Sellers, you know, couldn't make a living as an actor'. And Peter, having met Sophia Loren, decided he was going to become handsome which he kind of did. But when I met him at Dougie Hayward's in Mount Street, he used to say, 'Still getting away with it, Fred'. Which is sort of Jewish and sort of nice. And lots of nasty things written about Sellers – how badly he treated his women, his children, himself and everything else. And maybe he did. But there you do think to yourself: but tell you what, who gives a shit how he treated anybody – look at the work. And somewhere along the line, even though I'm incapable of behaving like a shit for any prolonged amount of time... for instance, my bourgeois nature means that I am not unfaithful to my wife, which is a great inhibition in the building of one's reputation in the United Kingdom. I'd sooner do great work than earn your friendship. And if there's a choice, I'll do the work.

Born in America in 1931, Frederic Raphael is a writer who moved to England as a boy. He was educated at Charterhouse School and was a Major Scholar in Classics at St John's College, Cambridge. His articles and book reviews appear in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times and The Sunday Times. He has published more than twenty novels, the best-known being the semi-autobiographical The Glittering Prizes (1976). In 1965 Raphael won an Oscar for the screenplay for the movie Darling, and two years later received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Two for the Road. In 1999, he published Eyes Wide Open, a memoir of his collaboration with the director Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's final movie. Raphael lives in France and England and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1964.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Oscar Wilde, Peter Sellers

Duration: 6 minutes, 35 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2014

Date story went live: 10 September 2014