HIS talents helped create one of the most popular detectives ever to appear on television screens worldwide. Monmouthshire-based scriptwriter, playwright and local historian Julian Mitchell, 78, talks to KATH SKELLON about his award-winning play, Inspector Morse and working with Kenneth Branagh.
I WAS born in Epping in 1935, but we left there when I was two months old to live in a house inside an iron-age camp near Bishop's Stortford. I think that gave me my lifelong interest in archaeology.
When the war came, my father joined the navy and my mother moved with her three young children to my grandfather's holiday cottage in Trearddur Bay, near Holyhead, a popular seaside village for people from Manchester and Liverpool. There was a huge sandy beach, and though the hotels were full of soldiers, it was an idyllic place for children and it was there I learned to read at Threeways, the first school I ever attended. I became a voracious reader, being particularly fond of Arthur Ransome’s books about the Swallows and Amazons.
When my father came back from Egypt in 1943, we returned to Essex, but on VE Day, by chance, we moved to Gloucestershire, to a lovely valley near Cirencester. He was a lawyer and spent the weekdays in London. By that time I was already at a ghastly prep school, where the porridge was full of disgusting lumps, but in the holidays we had ponies and rode all over the Cotswolds. When I was thirteen I went to Winchester College where I did a lot of acting, and started writing poems and stories.
Then came National Service in the RNVR. I became a midshipman, and spent 18 months serving in submarines. I had hoped to be sent abroad, to Australia or the Mediterranean, but I spent the entire time based at Portland Bill, not the most exciting place in Britain.
Then I went up to Oxford. My father wanted me to follow him into the Law, but I wasn’t at all keen, and wanted to read English. We came to an agreement that I would do law for a year, then switch, but the law don at my college refused to let me do that, and eventually, after a furious row with my father, I did politics, philosophy and economics, then switched to history.
There were two things you were supposed to avoid at university – rowing and acting – they took up far too much time. I wasn’t tempted by the river, but I did act at first, then switched to writing instead and even edited a magazine. I wish now I had kept up the acting, or been a stage manager or something. There is no better training for a playwright than practical experience of the theatre.
After getting a first-class degree, I thought of an academic career, and started a PhD thesis. I had the great good fortune to get a Harkness Fellowship to study in America for two years which included the 1960 election. I happened to be in Los Angeles in the convention hall when JF Kennedy was chosen to be the Democratic candidate, and in Washington for his inauguration. He was a great hero of mine, his death a terrible shock.
America seemed wonderfully free compared to Britain, and it was a very exciting time to be there. I wrote my first two novels there. The first one, Imaginary Toys, I wrote in a basement in Washington in about three weeks, then rewrote it in Texas. It was published before I got home. But my thesis was never finished – though my research was eventually taken up by others and turned into academic books.
Coming back to Britain was rather a let-down, it seemed so staid and dull, but the 60s did soon cheer up, thanks to the Beatles and Kinks and others. I got an advance from my publisher to write another novel, and thought that what writers did was go abroad to escape the British winter and write somewhere sunny and warm. I chose Morocco, where it rained a great deal, but it was there I wrote The White Father. I settled in London, where I wrote my last, and what I think is my best, novel, The Undiscovered Country. It’s quite experimental, got good reviews and sold very few copies.
I then wrote my first performed play – an adaptation of a novel by I. Compton-Burnett. She was a very small, very formidable old lady, who wrote like no one else ever, but she was always kind to me, and the play was a mild success. I then did another of her books, which had a very distinguished cast, but was a complete disaster thanks to a totally useless director. But when it was revived some years later, with Alec Guinness in the lead, it was a success. Nothing like experience in the theatre!
I did several adaptations for TV, including Persuasion by Jane Austen – adapting someone else’s work is a very good training, you have to study the original like a literary critic, getting to know the work inside out, then finding an equivalent in a different medium. I also wrote some historical dramas, including an episode of Elizabeth R, with Glenda Jackson, and Jennie, a series about Churchill’s mother, with Lee Remick in the lead. She was a delightful woman to work with. My best known TV work was for Inspector Morse, for which I wrote ten episodes. I hadn’t read a detective story since my teens but Colin Dexter’s detective was a real original – since much imitated – and I got so involved with the character I began to think of him as mine, not Colin’s. We soon ran out of his books, and the best episodes I wrote, I think, were my own stories. But then I would think that, wouldn’t I? Two were directed by Danny Boyle. John Thaw was the complete professional, we had a very good working time together, with Kevin Whateley.
My first film script, written with a friend, was Arabesque, with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren – nothing like starting at the top! Other films were Vincent and Theo, about Van Gogh, Wilde, with Stephen Fry and Jude Law, August, with Anthony Hopkins, and Another Country with Rupert Everett and Colin Firth. This was an adaptation of my own stage play, which ran for 19 months in London in the early 1980s. The actual process of filming I find extremely boring; the writer’s work should be completely finished before the camera rolls.
I have been very lucky in my old age. The Theatre Royal Bath has commissioned two new plays – The Good Soldier, adapted from Ford Madox Ford’s wonderful novel about Edwardian life, and The Welsh Boy, about a scandal in Llantilio Crossenny in Monmouthshire in the 1740s. And now Another Country has been revived, first at Bath, then Chichester, and now in London at the Trafalgar Studios, with a brilliant young cast.
Living in Llanvaches and now Llansoy, with my partner Richard, I have gone back to my undergraduate love of history, and get enormous pleasure from exploring Monmouthshire, past and present. I have written several articles for the Monmouthshire Antiquary, and I curated an exhibition at Chepstow Museum on 'the Wye tour and its artists’.
The great thing about being a writer is, no one asks you to be one, you choose your own life – for good or ill. Doris Lessing, who died last year, used to say: ‘What writers do is write. They sit and write every day.’ Not all of it gets published or performed – I have boxes and boxes of failed attempts. It can be a tough occupation, but I’ve been living off my wits for more than 50 years now. I still go to the theatre about once a week. My gods are Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov. I can write anywhere with a computer, though I’ve never learned to type properly.
Sometimes I’m asked to teach creative writing, which can be done up to a point. You can at least teach technique. But for inspiration you need luck. And I’ve been incredibly lucky.