Outside the Wire

By Marc Karlin, James Leahy and Julian Petley

Stuart Hood gives voice to a tradition, in conversation with Marc Karlin, James Leahy and Julian Petley. Edited by James Leahy in consultation with Stuart Hood.

At the BBC, Stuart Hood was successively Head of the General Overseas Service, Editor of Television News, then Controller of Programmes, BBC Television. Now a freelance programme-maker, he is also the author of the classic study On Television, and a volume of war memoirs Pebbles From My Skull (revised as Carlino). He has also published several novels, of which A Den Of Foxes, a critical memory of the war and the Left, is the most recent.

Marc Karlin: You fought with the Partisans in Italy. Looking at where we are now, how do you feel about the war? 

Stuart Hood: Well, I find it actually quite difficult, for a variety of reasons. One is that if I go back to Tuscany, I ask myself: ‘Well, was it worth it? To establish all these holiday homes?’

But then you have to say to yourself: ‘OK. This is not what we dreamt of. On the other hand, fascism lost.’ You’ve got to remember that fascism was defeated, and that was a great positive step forward, because had Hitler won, had Mussolini won, we wouldn’t be here tailing in these terms today. And I think that’s the main thing to hang on to...

I also think there’s been a very determined effort to obliterate what we thought we were fighting for then. We had a naïve kind of political attitude. There’s that verse in ‘La Bandiera Rossa’, which we sang, which said that ‘We want land and we want factories, but without war’ ... And ‘Long Live Communism and Liberty’. It was very utopian, but a good utopia.

There has been, across the years, a determined effort to chip away at it. In many ways this effort has been highly successful. It comes down eventually – certainly talking about most of Western European society, and now most of Eastern Europe – to a theory that social cohesion, in the sense that we understood it then, has gone by the board, and all that matters is the individual and maybe at most the family as a small unit, and that what you must aim at is a kind of selfish new society.

One American economist has said about modern Russia that what is wrong with these people is they’re not envious enough, that until they become envious they’re not going to get anywhere. So there’s a stress on individual achievement, envy, small units, the death of society.

MK: Can you talk a bit about the way the war was represented and how it affected this erosion of memory?

SH: Yes. In Which We Serve and all those things... The Cruel Sea... There’s a whole raft of these films. The myth was already very solidly constructed, wasn’t it? From very early on. War was aestheticised in some ways, but also made cosy in some ways.

There are moments in The Cruel Sea, to be fair to it, in which there is an acceptance that people do actually get killed. But it is a war which has been cleaned up very much, and the stress is on make bonding. The role of women is quite problematic. It really strengthens certain very conventional views of courage, of relationships between men and men, and men and women, which are not open to a discussion, or to change. And a whole mythology grew up, particularly about the Resistance, so that one of the things I find it is important to talk about to students is the romantic image of the Resistance shown in most feature films, and then to show Melville’s The Army Of The Shadows, which is brutal, most harrowing, nasty... And nearer to what I experienced with the Partisans... But that kind of honesty is very rare. Simply, there’s a basic dishonesty about war films.

MK: Can I ask you why it is that, when you were in the BBC, and thereafter, you didn’t deal with that whole scene as a political instance? Why didn’t you find it a political necessity to actually deal with that period? Because it informs everything that’s gone on since then.

SH: I wrote about it, but I found it quite difficult to deal with because I found it too painful. Much, much too painful. I could deal with the present, and I could deal with certain themes like the trial of Oppenheimer, trying to get certain political moments that were interesting, but I couldn’t deal with my own past. I’ve written about it... But that took a long time. It was quite difficult.

MK: I’m sorry to press. Because it seems to me that that’s where the great lapse is... Why was it so painful for you to deal with – in political terms after all?

SH: No I wasn’t thinking of it political terms. I was thinking in terms of personal things that...

MK: Of killing?

SH: Yes. I find that very difficult. It raised all kinds of existential problems. It still does. It still gives me nightmares. I and I think that was something I couldn’t get into. The whole thrust of writing and so forth about the war was, I feel, a little bit scary. My feelings about it were not heroic feelings. There was a whole body of writing like The Colditz Story... All those escape stories and so forth. Well, I’d been a prisoner of war, I’d escaped, and I didn’t like them. It was a very strongly established way of dealing with the war which was up front, heroic. I couldn’t work against it. I don’t think people would have wanted it.

MK: I find that absolutely incredible! From my relatively youthful, egocentric point of view, I would say that’s a political failure. Would you see it as a political failure?

SH: Yes. I think that may well be the case, yes. But you must understand the severity of the trauma we’d experienced.

On the other hand, as Ken Worpole has pointed out in his book, Dockers And Detectives, when I did come to write about my experiences in Pebbles From My Skull (1963), I was able to make a link between the harshness of Partisan war as I had experienced it and the ‘terrorist’ struggles being waged at that time against British forces in Cyprus.

James Leahy: I guess, in that whole period, to present an anti-heroic vision of the war brought one up against all the forces of Left and Right conservatism. I know the story my friends Nick Ray told me about his film Bitter Victory (1957). It had pretty limited distribution here. The end, which explicitly undercuts heroic myth-making, was cut in this country. Nick went to the Soviet delegation at Cannes and asked them if they would help get permission of Shostakovich to do the score. He showed them the rough cut, and they said that no Soviet artist would be able to write the music for a film which so undermined the concept of the hero. Nick’s whole examination of the moment of killing, how it related to betrayal and how the creation of heroes was necessary to the military, was obviously more than they could take. I suppose some might try to defend the Soviet attitude by arguing that the project was compromised by the fact that the film was based on a novel by René Hardy, the Resistance leader who was after the war, tried twice for treason on charges of having betrayed colleagues, including Jean Moulin, to Klaus Barbie. The same year there was Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory about the French army in World War I. It was banned in France, and, in fact, I had a friend who was in a Belgian cinema watching it the night the French ex-servicemen’s organisation came across the border and smashed up the cinema for showing it! Otherwise there was virtually nothing else until, I guess, Losey’s King And Country (1964), also about the first War. My uncle refused to see that because, in his regiment, the officers had put themselves on the line to save men like Hamp! Then in 1963, Godard’s Les Carabiniers, which, though drawing on images from World War II, is about war in general.

Julian Petley: And which caused a furore!

JL: Which caused an absolute scandal.

JP: People’s responses really were vitriolic,

JL: All of these films, it seems to me, export the problem to some extent. Nick, an American, made his film in France about the British. However, it was a Brit, Gavin Lambert, who first interested him in the idea. Kubrick, an American, goes back in time four decades, and to France. Losey’s film was one in a series about Britain and the hierarchies of the British class system, but it was also four decades back, and by an American, albeit a political exile.

MK: Do you see it as possible, as a political project to reclaim that particular period, or is it now too late?

SH: Let’s take the Resistance... I would like to see a film, a fiction film, which dealt with the Resistance in proper political terms – in other words, which looked at the contradictions inside the Resistance, both dramatically and in terms of what was positive, what was mythical about it... One which questioned the mythologies of the Resistance. It would say: ‘it was different... very... full of mistakes, full of errors, full of courage, full of killings, not all of them necessary killings. The people you killed were often completely innocent.’

Certainly the Italian Left hasn’t come to terms with the Resistance in this way, and I think the same applies in France. In Italy there was a time when you really could not criticise X, Y or Z because they had been involved prominently in the Resistance. It was a defence. I know of one case, that of a woman now in her late 60s. Her husband was killed beside me, and since that day she has had to live the role of the widow of a hero of the Resistance. There was no other way she could live or be allowed to live. I think one’s got to get at these things.

The Taviani brothers get a little of it in The Night Of San Lorenzo. And Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem to a certain extent also gets at it. In general I think that one way of dealing with that period, which might make it more interesting for the present day, would be to admit to the contradictions and feelings, and not to have a triumphal celebration of the war and the Resistance.

The whole experience of World War II is a great myth that has been built up to prevent proper examination of the past. But I think, in other places in Europe, the past is very much in people’s minds. It’s certainly in people’s minds in Italy.

MK: How would you negotiate this subject matter? Suppose you were addressing, for example, my son, who is 10 years old, who’s learnt about the war from his grandfather and who thinks his grandfather won the war single-handed... How would you talk to him, given all you’ve just said?

SH: You have to get a good storyteller... somebody who can tell stories; and you’ve tot to tell stories in a way that makes people think that must be true, and I think that must be true, and I think you’re going to find a different sense of that each time. How can we find ways of putting the question back to the children, or to the audience?

I’ve just done a book – Fascism For Beginners – in that series which includes Freud For Beginners, Marx For Beginners. Having given an account of fascism, trying to show it as a political and social phenomenon and not a question of personalities – Mussolini is mentioned twice, I think – I then detail some of fascism’s characteristics – hatred of the Left, of liberals, of social, artistic and sexual non-conformity; hatred of the other – the Jew, the gypsy, the Paki, etc. – and I invite people to tick them off in boxes to identify in this way whether a tyrannical regime can be defined as fascist. I throw the question back to the reader. Maybe that’s one very practical way of doing it: tell the story, raise the questions.

MK: Did your experience with the Partisans inform what you did later in television or was there a split?

SH: You have to look at my political development. I broke with the Communist Party in 1945. Never went back to it after the war.

MK: Why in 1945?

SH: Because I found that Russians who had been in the French Resistance were coming back through the new frontiers, into western Germany, because they were being taken to the camps. The reason? Because of the threat of being contaminated by contact with the West... And it seemed to me this was an intolerable way of treating people. But I then entered what you might call a period of political dormancy in which I was trying to discover what I could believe and what I couldn’t believe... What I could do and what I couldn’t do. Being in the BBC, I used my convictions and my beliefs to try and foster certain tendencies in programming. So that, in a sense, I was still, I felt, trying to be on the side that I’d been on in the war.

MK: Did you leave the Party, or did you also leave what the Communist Party stood for? Can you describe this process?

SH: I went through a process of re-education, basically. The situation really was that when I joined the army, it was a period when the Party said: ‘We’ll join the army. Don’t renew your membership, so you can say with your hand on your heart you’re not a member! But you are with us; obviously.’ And then I had this break, the chance to go into television. At the same time, I had no intention of going back to the Party. I then had to rethink the whole situation, and I was fortunate enough to be a close friend of Erich Fried, the Austrian poet and man of the Left. He introduced me to Marcuse, the Frankfurt School. Brecht I knew a bit about already. I went into that whole period of rethinking Marxism from about 1955 onwards.

MK: Would you be able to talk more about that process?

SH: Yes, I think I could now, yes. You see, amongst the other things that one had to deal with in that period was, if you’d been brought up a Communist, then you’d had a great admiration fro the Red Army, what they’d done. Then you come back, and you read the work of people who’d literally been sentenced to the gulags. How do you then cope with that? How do you deal with a reassessment of Soviet communism? That was a very long, painful process. Not easy. Which I felt I had to fight through internally, to make a decision about where I stood vis-á-vis the Soviet Union. There was all the debate about the nature of Soviet society: was it a deformed workers’ state or a case of state capitalism? And that’s quite a rich and complex set of problems to try and sort out. They were questions which you had to think about.

It was a long and difficult process. Because what one was throwing away was a lot of illusions.

MK: What attracted you to the BBC? Was it the notion of public service broadcasting?

SH: Yes. I could work inside that without putting too great a strain on my conscience, on my political conscience. I was going into an organisation which was public service broadcasting and non-commercial, which offered me a job, and I needed a job badly. They found me... and this emerges from various autobiographies by BBC executives, mainly... they found me very enigmatic.

MK: How far did your training as a Partisan help you working inside the BBC?


SH: Well, somebody once described me as a born escaper! [more laughter] I can recognise that it’s very important to be able to recognise who are your friends, who are not your friends. In the same way, inside the BBC, there were people whom one could recognise as being somewhere on the Left.

MK: It has always seemed to me that from the point of view of the worker, the BBC was like a clerisy, You went in there, you entered Holy Orders, you were given time to study in your monk’s cell, and then you could come up with your great tract against the monks! You know, you had that institution to relate to and react against. The independent doesn’t have that.

SH: That’s true, certainly.

JL: Do you think it would be possible for you or anyone to be equally radical inside the BBC today?

SH: No, I think I was just lucky in that sense. You see, one mustn’t underestimate the fact that these organisations are not absolutely monolithic... Things are possible. It may not be possible any more, it seems to me. Certainly, when I became a freelance I was able to make programmes I think had a radical edge to them of some kind, up to a certain point. Then these things were blocked off. I found it more and more difficult to work, and to get work, both in the BBC and in commercial television.

[Interviews with Stuart Hood were conducted in August and September 1992. Further instalments of this conversations (‘Understanding The Present’, ‘Negotiating The 90s’ and ‘Inside The Beeb’) will appear in issues 2 and 3 of Vertigo]. 

Postscript (November) The Green Paper

: The Green Paper is a bit of a soup, really, and seems to me to indicate that the Conservative Party has not made up its mind thoroughly about what it wants to see happening at the BBC. This, I think, reflects contradictions inside the Conservative Party, and their attitude towards the BBC in particular, and public service broadcasting in general. That is to say that, within the Party there are two tendencies, and there have been for a long time where broadcasting is concerned. One element in that is what you might call the old-fashioned Whig Conservative strain, which is for public duties, public service, nobles oblige, and so forth. On the other hand you have the privatisation, commercialisation lobby. These two actually are contradictory and would have to be reconciled within the Conservative Party. If you look at the Labour Party, they say that they are opposed to privatisation. On the other hand, there’s always been a contradiction within the Labour Party. They say our constituencies actually don’t watch the BBC, or listen to the BBC much, and therefore we have got to be respectful and careful of ITV. So you’ve got these interesting cross-currents within both parties. I think the looseness of the Green Paper reflects the problems that the Conservatives face, which are compounded by the fact that politicians tend not to think very clearly or very much about communications and the media, partly because they don’t see much. They’ve all been sitting in the House to these ridiculous hours of the night, so when are they going to see television, except on VCR? So that, I think, explains the nature of the Paper.

There will now be a prolonged debate... I hope with public participation, but certainly within the Conservative Party until they make up their minds what they want. I think that the real danger is that the BBC might be preserved as a public service institution of some kind, but so restricted... there’s all this talk about the BBC spreading itself too widely in terms of programmes and so forth... so restricted that it becomes a kind of high-quality broadcast network which people would not tune into, except for a very special audience. That will be a sort of television equivalent of Radio 3. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you know what I’m getting at. I think that’s a real danger, because it could be pointed to by politicians as being preserved as public service broadcasting, carrying out a worthy task inside society.

The counter argument, which I hope the BBC will make, would be that, if you want to reach a large audience, in the sense of giving people a chance to see other things, you actually have to have a spread of programmes, so that there is an appeal within the general output of a channel so that people may tune in to see a quiz show, but may actually stay on to see Panorama. Something of that kind. I think that’s the kind of dilemma that the BBC would face. This talk that it ought not to do certain kinds of programmes seems to me to be one they’ve got to argue against sharply and well. But that is where the pressures will come... to make it a kind of cultural institution rather than a broadcasting institution appealing to a large section of the population, indeed of society.

JL: I fund the thrust of the argument which you are arguing against a bit absurd, because the BBC in the past has had a very effective, wide appeal. Sometimes ITV is stronger... sometimes the BBC is stronger... but it seems to me that often its television appeal has been a popular one.

SH: One of the things again that will be argued about a lot is the licence fee, which I tend to think is the least bad solution. It’s a bad solution in that it’s a regressive tax. The old-age pensioners... the old ladies I see in the Post Office buying their television stamps... pay the same as I do. I think that’s wrong. But what are the alternatives? A government grant? This would mean a much more immediate government control of the BBC, and also uncertainty about its financing, because the BBC World Services are funded on that basis, of a yearly grant, and it’s very difficult to see beyond the end of the financial year. That’s no way one could really plan a television service. The alternative then would be some commercialisation, which might not be the end of the world. After all, there are public service broadcasting institutions, like ARD in Germany, which are partly licence and partly commercial advertising. Very restricted advertising. That is a possibility. Or subscription. Subscription would be quite disastrous, because the BBC couldn’t possibly finance its operation from subscription. People simply wouldn’t take up the subscription, I don’t think. Now, curiously enough, support for the licence fee as funding will come from the commercial companies, for the very good reason that they know that the advertising cake is getting smaller, and more people want access to it and the last thing they want to see is the BBC competing in that area for revenue. It’s immensely paradoxical, but I think they will come out in favour of the BBC sticking to the licence fee, and not becoming commercial. They don’t want another competitor in that area. Then you get the suggestion that there might be this curious sort of broadcasting council, a sort of Arts Council of the air, which would fund worthy programmes, good quality, high quality programmes. This seems to me a very odd suggestion! How is it going to function? Is it going to function like the Arts Council? Is it going to deal with producers directly? If it deals with producers directly, and says ‘OK we’ll fund that programme’, how is it going to persuade the networks to accept that programme? And can it say to the networks ‘You will schedule this programme?’ I see all kinds of problems that people haven’t really thought about. It’s certainly a very strange idea altogether.

JL: Can you comment on the possible effects on Channel 4 of changes in the BBC’s status?

SH: The effect on Channel 4 of commercial competition from the BBC would be very serious, because they’d be working in the same area, obviously. I think Channel 4 would not welcome that. On the other side of the coin, of course, there is support from within ITV and Channel 4 for the BBC as being a kind of... not a model, but something which sets certain standards, and in a curious way, by existing, challenges purely commercial judgements being made in terms of scheduling and programming. I know there are certain programme-makers within ITV who are very much in favour of the BBC continuing, because they know they can now fight their accountants. The BBC is a weapon against them.

JL: What about the concept of leanness?

SH: The concept of leanness is of course an accountant’s concept. They hate in particular untidiness. But, unfortunately, in matters like artistic production, it’s out of untidiness that very often the best ideas come. I think that in all funding of the arts, there’s always a certain amount of money which is, in a particular sense, thrown away or squandered. In other words, you put money into ideas of projects which will not be realised, may be unrealisable, but it’s that margin of financing that you’ve got to put in if you’re going to get good material coming out at all. It’s a gamble. You throw bread on the water, and some of that bread’s never going to come back. Accountants do not understand this.

JL: It seems to me that it’s the failure to understand imponderables of this kind that leads more and more to the domination of the verbal text of the screenplay in film production.

SH: Surely. And also the triumph of the formula. Because you then say: ‘OK... this programme was successful. It got a good audience, good ratings, good advertising... The advertisers liked it... Why don’t you do more?’ The answer to that is that maybe there are better programmes. But we can’t guarantee that we’re going to get that audience, these ratings, but why don’t we try? That is the kind of gamble the accountants hate and dislike, so the pressure of the accountants leads to a kind of standaradisation of known product which will be durable and good and get what they want.

JL: And often, as a result, the sequel series isn’t as effective or good or popular as the original. At a certain point repetition becomes counter-productive.

SH: That’s right.