Books: Therapeutic reliving of a tragic past

Written By: Cary Gee
Published: December 20, 2017 Last modified: December 21, 2017

The Day the Music Died: A Life Lived Behind the Lens
by Tony Garnett
Constable £9.99

On December 11, 1941 Hitler declared war on the USA. The formal engagement of America in the war meant, that for many, the worst was over. “But for (Tony Garnett’s) Mom and Dad life was about to become catastrophically worse. She became pregnant again.” What happened next could very well come straight from the script of one of Garnett’s groundbreaking TV dramas. No coincidence, since Garnett’s life, and the lives of his working class neighbours in Birmingham during and after the war, informed some of the most memorable television films ever screened in Britain.

“In 1941 abortion was a serious criminal offense, attracting long sentences, as well as being against all the conventions of a God-fearing working people,” recounts Garnett. Nonetheless “Dad was told of a reliable woman in Handsworth … who’d done lots without a problem. She had a reputation for being discreet and safe.” A few days later Garnett, just five years old, was woken in the middle of the night by his mother, “wimpering and giving off low roars of pain”.

Hours later young Tony is told his mother is dead. “Silly girl,” his grandmother said, on hearing the news, then “tore her hair out in big painful lumps”. Two weeks later, fearing prosecution for his part in the tragedy, and the shame that attached itself to criminality, Garnett’s father lay down with a bottle of scotch and gassed himself. For Garnett, who was sent to live with his uncle and aunt in a house that smelled of furniture polish, his mother’s death was “the day the music died”. But this tragedy was also the impetus for a career that saw Garnett produce a string of unforgettable dramas including Cathy Come Home, Kes, and Up the Junction, which featured a tragic illegal abortion. “The Abortion Bill was going through [parliament] and I knew how powerful it would be to show it,” he recalls.

You’d think the death of his parents was more than enough for one man to bear, but just as Garnett’s life is on an upward trajectory – as a working TV actor, now living in London with his teenage sweetheart, the brilliant young actress Topsy Jane – tragedy strikes again. “She was innocent and guileless, her love for me was unconditional and pure. She made no demands. She gave me a love I drank from thirstily, hardly believing it could exist, let alone be offered to me … even before I could marshal my defences to resist. I was hers. I never looked at another girl. I had no need to.”

What happened next is almost too painful to recount, but Garnett, with the benefit of a long lens and after many years in therapy, recalls that when he wished Topsy good luck as she departed for the north to make Billy Liar, it “was the last moment I saw her”. Not quite. Two weeks later Topsy walked through the door. She was unrecognisable, fat, dishevelled, her hair lank. “She only vaguely reminded me of my Topsy.” The mystery surrounding Topsy’s frighteningly rapid descent into a madness from which she never recovered remains unexplained, but at least now Garnett is able to recount the details, which included treament with drugs and electro-convulsive therapy, resulting in what Garnett describes as a “functional lobotomy”. They later married and produced a son, but no marriage could survive such enervation.

The Day the Music Died is autobiography as therapy and, perhaps because you gain the distinct impression that Garnett is telling such painful truths for the first time, even to himself, as compelling an account of a life you may have previously known little about, as you will ever read. This is deliberate. Up until now Garnett has chosen to remain”’behind the lens”, shunning the limelight because he “didn’t want to lie”.

From his reflections on working class life in Birmingham – this book contains many moments of high comedy – to his combative relationships with Gerry Healey, leader of the WRP, and nemesis and fellow Brummie Mary Whitehouse, Garnett’s brief tenure on Warners’ lot in LA (who knew Paul Newman’s legs were so thin?) an enduring friendship with the the hard-drinking RD Laing and, of course, his working partnership with Ken Loach, this book is a gripping miscellany of politics, subterfuge, anecdote, musings on creativitity and often hilarious machinations at the BBC. Summoned to explain an expletive in Loach’s Days of Hope (1975) Garnett was dressed down by BBC1 controller ‘Ginger’ Cowgill who told him without irony, “If you think you can fucking well say fuck on my channel, you’ve got another fucking think coming!” and this, 40 years before the excellent BBC mockumentary W1A was thought of.

Faced with the choice of living or working Garnett chose work. “Only in my fifites was I rediscovered, or uncovered, or reconnected.” Told by his last doctor that “analysis would quietly go on as long as I lived” Garnett concludes, “He was right.” And yet, for once, Garnett has written a happy ending. “Writing this book I have experienced distressing agony, sometimes unable to continue writing because tears were preventing me seeing the screen. I’ve had startling insights and made connections that seem obvious once revealed. Remembering funny incidents and family stories have warmed me, humour being as healing as tears … I remain a 51/49 percent optimist.” You will too after reading this account, which is every bit as memorable and moving as his finest TV plays.

About Cary Gee

Cary Gee is a freelance journalist and Tribune columnist