Adam Low writes …
I don’t have a clear memory of reading William Golding’s most famous book Lord of the Flies, but I will never forget reading his fifth book, The Spire, for the first time, as a schoolboy in the 1970s. I still have the Faber paperback edition, with its characteristic blue calligraphy on the cover, and encountering Golding’s powerful story about obsession and ambition in the hallucinogenically imagined context of a medieval cathedral is one of the most gripping experiences I have had with any novel. So when Faber and Faber and Golding’s daughter Judy Carver asked me if I would be interested in making a film about Golding as part of the celebrations for his centenary, I didn’t hesitate.
The question was, how to go about making a film about a writer who lived into his eighties, wrote more than a dozen novels, and won every award going, including the Nobel Prize for Literature? One thing was certain, that the film, whilst illuminating Golding the man, had to be about the books. Since the time when I had read The Spire, when Golding was revered as one of the most ambitious and exciting living English writers, his reputation had declined and, with the exception of Lord of the Flies, which continues to sell in very large numbers (it has recently overtaken The Catcher in the Rye as the most-read book amongst young people in America), most of his other novels, including masterpieces like The Inheritors and Pincher Martin, were hardly read, and were even difficult to buy. I thought it was crucial that the work itself should take centre stage, and that the film should inspire the audience to read (or re-read) books that had become neglected since Golding’s death.
Luckily, Golding, though notoriously reclusive and allergic to publicity, appeared in several films during his lifetime, and these I knew would provide a valuable core around which to build the documentary. As early as 1959, when he was still teaching at Bishop Wordsworth’s School in Salisbury, he was the subject of a BBC Monitor film (the director of which had had the foresight to take him to Old Sarum and even to film him and his wife on their sailing boat The Wild Rose.) This was followed by two South Bank Show films, made a decade apart, in which he went back to his birthplace, Marlborough, and spoke eloquently about his work to Melvyn Bragg (who I interviewed about the experience of meeting and getting to know Golding). Add to this a BBC Bookmark made after he had won the Nobel Prize, and there was a substantial archival film record, which, together with sound recordings (including a complete recording of Golding reading Lord of the Flies), allowed me to make Golding himself a very alive and central presence in the film.
Were there many surprises along the way? I was amazed to discover that the American writer Stephen King had written the introduction to a new edition of Lord of the Flies because the book had had a seismic impact on him when he first borrowed it from the mobile library in his hometown of Durham, Maine as a teenager. I knew I had to include him in the film, and, amazingly (he famously never gives interviews), he agreed. He told me that he was intrigued when the librarian said that Lord of the Flies was ‘an adult book about kids’ and that he was astounded by the honesty and depth of Golding’s vision and ‘the sense that someone else understands’.
One of my favourite of all Golding’s books is in fact three books, his great sea trilogy To the Ends of the Earth made up of Rites of Passage, Close Quarters, and Fire Down Below, which I first read when each of the novels came out in the 1980s. Written in a pastiche style which could easily seem clunky, but which in Golding’s hands is fluent, elegant, and often very funny, the books tell the story of a self-absorbed young aristocrat’s journey on a converted warship from England to Australia in the early nineteenth century.
The trilogy was dramatised by the BBC as recently as 2004, so I was able to make use of extracts in the film. More surprisingly, the central character, Edmund Talbot, was played by Benedict Cumberbatch, whom I had recently got to know whilst making a documentary for Channel 4 about Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (an adaptation of which he had recently starred in at the National Theatre in London). Cumberbatch proved to be an enormous admirer of Golding’s writing, and he agreed immediately to be interviewed (I filmed him watching himself as Talbot – an extraordinary performance which captures how Golding manages to make the character change almost beyond recognition in the course of the voyage). He even found time in his increasingly punishing schedule (he was finishing off a new series of Sherlock, playing the lead in a BBC adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End, and then flew to Hollywood to be the villain in a new Star Trek movie) to record all the extracts from Golding’s work in the film. His readings are subtle, powerful, and intelligent – and could only have been done by someone familiar with, and extraordinarily sensitive to, the vivid, supple and original prose that is Golding’s trademark.
The final hurdle was to find a suitable home for the film – but this too proved relatively easy because of a Golding connection. Anthony Wall, the editor of the BBC ‘s most prestigious Arts documentary series Arena, turned out not just to be a huge Golding fan, but to have even kept the essay he had written as a sixth-former analysing Golding’s first five novels. Something must have told him that one day it would come in handy again. With his support Arena: The Dreams of William Golding is now a ninety-minute documentary which will be shown on BBC2 at 9.30pm on Saturday March 17th.