The Rotters’ Club

The Rotters’ Club is being screened on BBC 2 on Wednesday at 9.00pm. It has been adapted by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and stars the godawful Sarah Lancashire.

Cast of The Rotters' Club

Here’s the interview with Coe from the BBC site:

What inspired you to write The Rotters’ Club?

I had always wanted to write a novel set in a school, using it – with all its power struggles, cliques and rivalries – as a microcosm for society as a whole. Very much in the way that Lindsay Anderson did in his brilliant film If.

Also, I wanted to write a book which presented a version of the 1970s as I remembered them: away from the comfortably nostalgic, retro, kitsch, glam-rock-and-spacehoppers version that television always seemed to offer us.

There was more to the 1970s, I thought, than just Blue Peter and flared loons – although of course the temptation to have a bit of fun with all that was irresistible as well.

How autobiographical is The Rotters’ Club?

All the background detail is autobiographical: the world the Trotter family inhabits is not far from my own family background, and the school in the novel, King William’s, is clearly based on my own school, King Edward’s in Edgbaston.

I also kept in one or two incidents that I’d recorded in my teenage diaries – like a time I had lost my school bag, and I prayed to have it returned, and found it a few seconds later, which I interpreted as a “miracle” and which turned me into a bit of a religious freak for a few months afterwards. But all the major storylines are fictional.

I had no direct contact with the Birmingham pub bombings, for instance, or the industrial disputes at British Leyland. Still, it seemed important to get these important bits of local history in somehow.

How did Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais end up as the writers of the adaptation?

It was my idea, I seem to remember, to ask Dick and Ian to adapt it – with, I have to say, absolutely no expectation that they would agree. They were my idols in the 1970s. I was fanatical about Porridge and particularly Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

In those days you couldn’t video your favourite shows, and the only alternative was to buy these terrible “novelisations” of the TV series, which the BBC used to publish. So at a time when my fellow novelists-in-waiting were all probably reading Henry James and Proust, I was learning these sitcom scripts more or less off by heart.

I can’t think of any writers, either for stage or screen, who do better comic dialogue than Dick and Ian, and the rhythms of the dialogue in my novel were taken directly from The Likely Lads anyway, so it’s perfect (and rather unbelievable, to me) that they have ended up adapting it. A real closing of the circle, if you like. (On a minor point, the male protagonists of an early novel of mine, The House of Sleep, are called Robert and Terry in homage to The Likely Lads. No critic has ever noticed, this, however – probably because they were all too busy reading Henry James and Proust in the 1970s as well.)

The adaptation has quite an exciting cast, what is it like to see your characters in the flesh?

I’m delighted with the casting, and bowled over by the performances. It’s impossible to single anyone out, although I am hugely impressed by the way the younger members of the cast hold their own in such starry company.

At the same time, it’s a strange experience, because I hardly ever describe my characters visually, or have a strong sense in my head of what they look like – whereas now, of course, whenever I pick up the book again I can only see Geoff Breton as Benjamin, Kevin Doyle as his father and so on. So they have taken over my characters, in a way. Which is fine, as far as I’m concerned.

What was it like being on set watching the filming?

Very relaxing, for me, because I had no role to play – my work was finished a long time ago, and I was just there as a spectator. On the other hand I think it makes actors very tense to have one of the writers around – I can see why they’re often banned from the set!

It can be inhibiting for the performers, I suppose, because they’re suddenly confronted by this guy whose brain gave birth to the character they’re meant to be playing, and they get nervous that they might not be faithful to his vision. I wasn’t there to check up, at all.

I was purely there out of nosiness, because I’ve always been fascinated by the film-making process and all of a sudden I had an excuse to go and observe it at close quarters.

When you write do you visualise how it may convert to screen?

No, not at all. You’d end up writing a very pale and feeble imitation of a novel if you did that. I write for the printed page, for the individual reader sitting in an armchair somewhere – at the back of my mind, I always imagine a kind of private dialogue between this ideal reader and me.

Did the screen adaptation of The Rotters’ Club affect the content of the sequel novel (The Closed Circle) in any way?

With almost perfect timing, I got the call from Company Pictures [the independent production company who produced the series for the BBC] telling me that the project had been green-lit about two days after finishing The Closed Circle. Until then it had only been “in development”, and that can be such a long and frustrating process that you have to try to forget that it’s even going on at all – because of course 90% of projects in development never get made.

In any case most of The Closed Circle was planned at the same time as The Rotters’ Club, in the late 1990s. It was always my intention that the two books should go together – they’re inseparable, in fact, because after you’ve finished The Closed Circle, you realise that several things about the story in The Rotters’ Club were not as you believed them to be. The second book re-writes the first one, if you like.

This was a bit tough on Dick and Ian, because they were slightly in the dark about some of the plot developments in The Closed Circle, which I wanted to keep close to my chest. But in the end, of course, I had to let them in on the secrets.

For me, watching the TV adaptation now, the main point relating to The Closed Circle is that it makes Sebastian Harding’s performance as little Paul Trotter seem so poignant – because he portrays him as this freakish but somehow quite loveable little monster, whereas after you’ve read the second book, you realise what a nasty bastard he grows up to be!

There is also a tie-in version of the book:

Cover of The Rotters' Club

I wrote a brief summary of Coe’s output on Palimpsest, here.


I registered for Yahoo! for the first time today, largely for the Calendar function which is attached to the E-Mail page. It came out very well in a recent PCPlus review of Calendaring software.

The E-Mail addy I got was – not sure if I will ever use it though.

Will post my views once have had a chance to use it.

New Name

On this post I wondered what I should call this blog. I’ve stuck with The Closed Circle – from the recent Jonathan Coe novel – which was the name of my previous Blogger effort.

It is, at least, suitably vague.

Graphic to follow at some point.

From Saturday’s Guardian:

When he died in 2001, WG Sebald left behind a remarkable, unpublished account of his travels in Corsica. In a vivid extract from this final unfinished work, he explores the island’s ancient forests – and recalls a frightening encounter with a boar hunt.

The extract is here.

Ian McEwan

Great profile of Ian McEwan in The Observer today.

His early work conjured up a neo-gothic world of pornography, infanticide and incest. Today he is a much-loved member of the establishment – and his new novel is certain to be a bestseller. But why is Ian McEwan so far ahead of the pack?

In Saturday’s Guardian, Mark Lawson reviewed McEwan’s new novel, Saturday:

It’s odd now to think that Ian McEwan once lacked confidence as a novelist. His first two attempts at the longer form – The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers – felt like the work of a born short-story writer being stretched on a rack by his publisher and literary tradition, needing help from typeface and spacing to qualify even as novellas. But with his last but one novel ( Amsterdam ) having won the Booker Prize and the last ( Atonement ) out-selling John Grisham and Tom Clancy in some weeks’ book charts, McEwan has the swagger – the literary equivalent of a tennis player in the first tournament after winning Wimbledon – of a novelist who could do almost anything.

What he has done is Saturday, which resembles Amsterdam in sardonically examining the interior life of the contemporary middle classes but departs starkly from the century-long focus of Atonement by taking place over 24 hours, on what is supposed to be the day off of Henry Perowne, a noted London neurosurgeon.

A recent edition of Granta carried an extract from Saturday, in which Perowne drives out of Oxford in the morning to visit his brain-hazed mother. I had assumed that this was the beginning of the novel but it turns out to be page 152 of a book of less than 300 pages. It’s a measure of the level of incident in Henry’s day – and the meticulous close-stitching of McEwan’s work as a word-surgeon – that, before his Mercedes S500 reaches the Westway, en route to his mother, he has already witnessed a potential terrorist attack, discussed the Iraq war with his son, made love with his wife, come close to murder on a central London street, lost a game of squash and shopped for a fish stew.

Yet, while the novel is clearly an attempt to set down the textures of everyday life – close reading could improve your cooking, your squash game and even tip you off about what sort of kettle to buy – McEwan has larger concerns than, say, Nicholson Baker in the close auditing of The Mezzanine and Room Temperature . Saturday catalogues the local only in order to focus on the global.

For the day on which we take account of Henry is Saturday 15 February 2003. As the neuro-surgeon tries to mind his own business, hundreds of thousands of marchers are gathering in London to protest against Tony Blair’s support for the American attack on Iraq. As the background tramping and shouting begins to intrude on the quiet order of Henry’s life, it becomes clear that, if Saturday were to have another eight-letter S-word as its title, it would be Security .

By recording with such loving care the elements of one rich Englishman’s life, Saturday explores the question of to what extent it is possible to insulate yourself against the world’s concerns. Centrally heated, pension-planned, air-bag protected, permanently loved and frequently fucked by his wife, healthy and even able to give health to others, Henry lives within a protective sac of satisfaction and achievement. But, as Henry knows from his profession, such sacs are not always enough to protect against disastrous impact and, on this day of rest, he takes his hit.

The most recurrent theme in McEwan’s 10 novels is the sudden ambush of the safe and smug. Go shopping and you’ll never see your kid again ( The Child in Time ). Take a hike and the hounds of hell are just around the corner ( Black Dogs ). Fall in love and the next thing you know you’re carving up a cadaver ( The Innocent ). Go for a picnic and one man dies while a nutter claims you as his soul-mate ( Enduring Love ).

A similar external menace is pushing at Henry’s bubble. Between his uxorious love-making and his squash game, he bumps into Baxter, an aggressive driver who believes that Henry shouldn’t have been where he was. We’d think, colloquially, that Baxter needs his head seeing to and has a funny look. Neurosurgeon Perowne immediately understands the eruptions happening in the man’s skull. As Saturday (like Enduring Love ) is in part a story of suspense, a summary needs to be protective, but Baxter comes to challenge both the surgeon’s domestic instincts and his professional skills.

Most of the fictions provoked by post-9/11 politics have taken up positions as clearly as a party spokesman. But Saturday , in common with Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America , is subtle enough to be taken as a warning against either intervention or against isolationism. Is the foreign policy of Henry’s government exposing him to danger, or is his moneyed, bouillabaisse-eating existence a self-delusion in a threatening world? As in the best political novels, the evidence and arguments are distributed with careful ambiguity.

The novel is inevitably and properly clearer about its position on another internal debate. Perowne, although an exemplar of the civilised upper middle classes, doesn’t believe in literature. He has no time to read and even becomes confused when his daughter Daisy, about to have her first poems published by Faber & Faber, uses the tricky jargon word “stanza”. The surgeon especially can’t see the point of novels which tell you about someone’s life in great detail. Surely it’s quite easy to note these things down and then type them out. McEwan gives Henry an even chance of victory on the squash court but, in this bit of sport about whether novels have a point, the novelist thrashes his hero in every line. In giving his central character not only a poet daughter and a father-in-law who writes verse but a wife who works at a newspaper, the writer could be accused of locating the story on home turf. But a considerable technical achievement of Saturday is that it succeeds in going inside the mind of a brain surgeon. In the early stages, there is a certain nervousness about whether the author is simply transcribing research notes – “Then he let Rodney take the lead in another burr hole for a chronic subdural” – but, by the end, there is no doubt that Perowne has the hands, eyes and thoughts of a neurosurgeon rather than a novelist.

Medical language, though, is only one of the registers in the prose. McEwan is one of the least flashy stylists of his generation, less quotable than Martin Amis or Julian Barnes, but, especially in Atonement and now this book, his voice has settled into scrupulous, sensual rhythms in which even something as simple as a 24-hour news bulletin is subject to careful choices of adjective and noun: “The synthesised bleeps, the sleepless anchor and his dependable jaw.”

In a novel of great sureness at the level of both action and language, McEwan makes one curious choice: the quotations from Daisy Perowne’s debut volume of poetry are actually published lines by Craig Raine, giving the book an additional subplot in which, beyond the plot’s call on various sections of the Metropolitan police, you expect the literary cops to arrive and arrest Daisy for plagiarism. It’s a matter of debate whether it’s the reader or the writer who is being too clever here.

For the rest of its length, though, Saturday gives no sense of McEwan’s talent taking a day off. One of the most oblique but also most serious contributions to the post-9/11, post-Iraq war literature, it succeeds in ridiculing on every page the view of its hero that fiction is useless to the modern world. The only consolation for McEwan’s contemporaries, I suppose, is that they could taunt him that he can’t seem to write short stories any more.

Brighton 0 – 0 Forest

From the BBC Football site:

Brighton 0-0 Nottm Forest

Paul Gerrard’s first-half penalty save earned Nottingham Forest a point in their relegation tussle with Brighton.

Gerrard brought down Leon Knight after 10 minutes but pulled off a stunning one-handed stop to deny him a goal.

Brighton created the early chances as Richard Carpenter shot wide and Gerrard saved from Knight and Kerry Mayo.

But Forest improved and Andy Reid twice tested Michel Kuipers, Kris Commons diverted Marlon King’s cross wide and Kuipers saved from King’s snap-shot.

# Brighton boss Mark McGhee:
“It was important not to lose to Forest, regardless of how it looked. I’m happy with the draw.

“If we take a point a game from now on we should stay up. What was really important was that we denied Forest three points which they badly needed.

“This was not our best passing game of our unbeaten sequence of matches, but the pitch was a bit bumpy.”

# Forest boss Gary Megson:
“It gives us something to build on, and this was a slight improvement to get a point.

“It’s a huge task and it doesn’t get any easier. But there are 16 games to go and a lot of points to play for.

“We need to get better technically in both boxes. We made a hesitant start but created chance after chance.”

Brighton: Kuipers (May 85), Mayo, El-Abd, Hinshelwood, Butters, Harding, Reid, Carpenter, Oatway, Knight, Hart (Jones 88).
Subs Not Used: Nicolas, Molango, Hammond.

Booked: Oatway, El-Abd.

Nottm Forest: Gerrard, Louis-Jean, Rogers, Morgan, Doig, Evans, Reid, Commons, Derry, Taylor, King (Johnson 90).
Subs Not Used: Doyle, Thompson, Impey, Folly.

Booked: Gerrard, Reid.

Att: 6,704.

Ref: P Taylor (Hertfordshire).

Brighton v Forest

A tough one today. I understand that Megson is likely to play 3-5-2 again, with Wes Morgan and Andy Reid back from injury: Gerrard; Doig, Morgan, Dawson; Louis-Jean, Derry, Reid, Commons, Rogers; King, Taylor.

Hopefully he won’t be playing David Johnson.

My prediction? 0-1 to Forest. I gotta be optimistic!

Internet Restrictions

Melissa at Boris Johnson’s blog pointed out this article on the BBC News site:

“A large part of the attraction of the internet is that it goes below the radar,” he said. “Generally it’s more difficult for the government to be able to control it.

“Its real value is as an open window onto what’s happening elsewhere in the world,” he said.

This set me thinking about how the internet is (ab)used in other repressed countries. After a couple of Google searches, I finally came across this page, from Reporters Without Borders. Plenty to be going on there, I feel.

Bush Reads Dostoevsky!

Burning Bush brandishes Dostoevsky

Given the Biblical language in which George Bush and his speechwriters are steeped, it is not surprising that the US president should invoke the imagery of fire, writes James Meek

One of the models of American leadership is that of Moses, leading God’s chosen people – then the Jews, now the Americans – towards a promised land, following a pillar of fire. At one point, according to the Bible, Moses was shown a sign: “Behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.”
But the key fire passage in the Burning Bush speech – “We have lit a fire as well; a fire in the minds of men” – actually has its origins in a novel by the 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Devils, about a group of terrorists’ ineffectual struggle to bring down the tyrannical Tsarist regime.

One of the characters declares that it is pointless to try to put out a fire started by terrorists: “The fire is in the minds of men and not in the roofs of houses,” he says.

The novel belongs to a period in Dostoevsky’s life which the White House might find attractive, after he had been sent by the Tsar to a kind of Russian Guantánamo and emerged a deeply religious conservative.

Nonetheless, it is not clear whether Bush is identifying here with the terrorists – or the tyrants.