Daniel Farson 

1 October 2006 tbs.pm/2307

The Associated-Rediffusion programme-maker who ushered in a new generation and documented a nation in transition.

Dan Farson in 1957.jpg

Daniel Farson in 1957’s “Out of Step” series, introducing an interview with Dr Gerald Gardner, who was largely responsible for the resurgence of interest in witchcraft during the 1950s and early 1960s.

Why do you think that many Right-wingers (the more traditionalist kind) still feel that Britain has abandoned their values, despite the fact that economic inequality has been on the rise again for many years and despite the Labour Party’s almost total abandonment of any hints of Socialism? It is because the mass of British society now set the tone and effectively dictate the behaviour, dress, speech, and general tastes and trends of the elite in a way unthinkable even in 1986, let alone 1956.

1956. Fifty years ago, at the time of writing. Britain was about to suffer the humiliation of Suez, the moment its imperial facade revealed its all-too-evident cracks to the world. The consumer boom had yet to take off; the instruments of the nascent rock’n’roll boom were still largely unavailable in Britain, hence the final fling of austerity that was skiffle, and the newly-formed ITV companies were losing money hand over fist. And Associated-Rediffusion – the company which, devoid of the populism of ATV or the Left-wing sympathies of Granada, was trying its hardest to convince the old elite that ITV could be respectable – was employing a young man named Daniel Farson as a reporter on its current affairs series This Week. Viewing Britain – its curious customs, its uniquely stodgy cuisine – with an amused, mildly cynical air which, nevertheless, never descended to the level of cruel mockery; with the refreshed eye that could only have come from an outsider, he instantly stood out from his contemporaries.

For, despite his impeccable Received Pronunciation, Farson (born in 1927) was undoubtedly an outsider, every bit as much as Sydney Newman or Joseph Losey, the other two artistic figures who best dissected Britain’s hidden tensions in the final years before the breakout of Beatlemania. Great-grandson of an American Civil War general, great-nephew of Bram Stoker, and himself of Anglo-American parentage – his father being the American foreign correspondent and author Negley Farson – he had lived in England as a child (managing the ultimate old-establishment achievement of making The Times‘ Court and Social listings when he was page at a wedding), but had travelled extensively with his father, suffering the dubious distinction of being patted on the head by Adolf Hitler, who praised him as a “good Aryan boy”.

During his wartime evacuation to Canada, he began to develop his sense of otherness, the sense that would ultimately lead him to drown himself in drink and a kind of self-imposed underachievement and semi-exile. Briefly attending the highly militaristic British public school Wellington College, and intensely disliking it, he knew that his homosexuality was the reason for his sense of outsiderdom. Although the title of his autobiography, Never A Normal Man – published just before his death in 1997 – was in fact taken from a description of his father, he knew it could apply equally to himself, by the criteria of the world in which he was raised (and from which he could never escape, as he acknowledged at the end of his life when he wrote that his father “was a stronger man than I am, free from the taint of homosexuality”).

After National Service with the US Army in Germany, Farson found himself working as a photographer on the seminal Picture Post magazine (which, ironically, considering what made him famous, would fall in 1957 at least partially from the effects of mass television) and started mixing with such prominent figures as Salvador Dali, Noel Coward, Brendan Behan and Robert Graves. Soho in the 50s – a phrase which would, in fact, be the title of a book he was involved in many years later – was a place and time in which he would find one of his few spiritual homes, living a bohemian existence (befriending the likes of Francis Bacon, Caitlin Thomas and John Deakin), in an environment characterised by what then seemed like a remarkable level of acceptance of his sexuality, and starting to suffer from alcoholism, which would last for the rest of his life and go some way to ensure that, as he expressed it himself, his life would be full of “nearly-triumphs”, always shying away from complete success at that crucial moment.

But Farson’s television reputation rests on his own programmes for Associated-Rediffusion, really starting in 1957 with Out of Step, a series in which he dealt with those who seemed not to belong in the strict societal norms of the time (of course, his own homosexuality made him much more naturally inclined to sympathise with such people, whatever the reason for their outsiderdom). Subjects for the 15-minute programmes included Down With Work, Muscle Men, Anarchy, Down With Marriage and Witchcraft.

It was an apt time to make such a move. 1957 was the year when the consumer boom started to take hold, thus eating away at the old edifice from one front; and it was also the era of the socio-realist playwrights and authors popularly termed the ‘Angry Young Men’, and a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the unwritten rules of British society, thus undermining it from another direction. Farson’s genius was to use the platform which was, above all else, facilitating the former change, and use it as a means for those who supported the latter shift to express themselves. And, of course, as he put it himself: “I had the luck to join ITV at the beginning. We made our frontiers as we went along, astonished to discover how far we could go, encouraged by the public’s insatiable appetite for documentaries, allowed a freedom of speech unthinkable today.”

Even seen half a century later, the Out of Step documentary on Nudism (the term ‘naturism’ was not then in common use), which at the time was said to feature the first naked woman on British television, is an exemplary piece of documentary-making; while Farson’s attitudes may seem a bit sniffy and dismissive by modern standards, compare them to virtually all the rest of television at the time and they are quite remarkably open-minded and non-judgemental. Most importantly of all, he lets the people speak for themselves. Despite the plumminess of Farson’s voice, which inevitably dates badly, you never get the sense that he is talking down to them or seeing himself as their superior. The very fact that people considered so dangerously ‘unusual’ in much of Britain at the time were allowed to speak for themselves, rather than having their opinions filtered through a paternalistically distant voice, was radical in 1957 to an extent which it is hard to fully appreciate at this remove.

In its avowed aim of showing that ‘establishment’ institutions could be just as strange and off-kilter in their way as the people and lives he had covered in Out of Step, the subsequent series, Keeping in Step was arguably substantially more subversive in 1958 than even its predecessor. Covering social pillars such as weddings, children’s parties, the Women’s Institute and public schools – the latter programme featuring a memorable interview with the headmaster of Winchester College, in which Farson expressed the opinions which can now be seen to have been bubbling beneath the surface of the post-war ‘grammar school generation’ who were starting to realise just what genie their educational opportunities, unknown to their parents, had let out of the bottle – Farson proved that, while never unswervingly critical in the way we’re used to now (at least partially because of the influence of such pioneering work as this) he respected no shibboleths.

Then came People in Trouble – subjects including Poverty, Illiteracy, the startling No Future (with all its implications of the Sex Pistols’ lacerating attack on those who still, two decades later, refused to admit that imperial grandeur was well and truly gone), Sex Education and, most evocatively of all, Class Accents. For all Farson’s claims in his autobiography that the series ended because it had become too formulaic and emotionally exploitative, with too much ‘tugging at the heartstrings’ going on, this was clearly as far, in terms of its portrayal of those hidden beneath the bright and shiny surfaces of the “never had it so good” era, as British television had yet gone.

The programme Mixed Marriages is one of the most disarmingly honest programmes – in terms of the sheer range of opinions covered and the passion with which they are all expressed, however unpalatable some of them may be today – which one could expect to see from that era. While Farson’s conclusion may seem disarmingly ‘realistic’ in the context of the time, his passionate opposition to racial prejudice of all kinds stands out dramatically from the widespread opinions of the day, while the opinions expressed by one James Wentworth Day – referring to mixed-race children as “coffee-coloured little imps” and claiming that black people must be on a lower level of civilisation because “a couple of generations ago they were eating each other” – are, crucially, undermined and shown for what they are by the people who speak in the programme who had actually themselves experienced what Wentworth Day pretended to know about. Wentworth Day’s comments were later featured in Victor Lewis-Smith’s programmes Buygones and TV Offal.

Wentworth Day would soon be frozen out of Farson’s programmes and personal life after he claimed, during the recording of a People in Trouble programme on transvestism, that all homosexuals should be hung. Sensing from the look in Wentworth Day’s eyes that the former Tory candidate and East Anglian ruralist actually meant it, and was not saying it simply to be as reactionary as possible, Farson insisted that the incomplete programme was scrapped. He claimed that the Independent Television Authority would ban it anyway, but this argument would probably have seemed unconvincing even at the time considering the extent to which he had pushed the envelope previously (and would do so again), and in reality Farson was petrified that Wentworth Day would sense his own homosexuality, and possibly bring about a high-profile trial which would have been comparable in its impact to the trial of Oscar Wilde. It is fascinating to envisage an alternative history where the trial of Daniel Farson was a key factor in the reform of the laws on homosexuality; it is certainly improbable that such a trial would have had no such impact at all.

Farson’s Guide to the British (1959-60) took a critical view of a nation in transition and was the first public expression of Farson’s long-term quest (which was later extended into one of his books) for the true identity of Jack the Ripper, but it was on Wednesday 2nd March 1960 that Farson made probably his biggest impact. If the late 1950s and early 1960s teach us one thing, it is that mere economic contentment will not in itself create a settled society if it is accompanied by an ossified social structure which has not adjusted to the new financial empowerment (indeed, the abiding trait of British society at the time was the inability of its infrastructure to keep pace with what was actually happening in people’s lives, typified by the explosion of cars onto a wholly inadequate road system, and the endless traffic congestion and what now seem like unthinkably vast numbers of deaths and injuries which characterised every Christmas, Easter and Bank Holiday).

Living For Kicks, a portrayal of British teenage life, still burns with the frustration, unease and – frequently – thwarted ambition of its subjects. Disarmingly honest at times, brutally realistic and genuine at every turn, it is undoubtedly one of the key social documents of its era. The use of music of the time – most memorably Santo and Johnny’s Sleep Walk over footage of a grey, wintry Brighton – encapsulates the way an entire generation was looking wistfully across the Atlantic, their choices being largely responsible for the society we live in today (of course, the ambivalence that one feels about many of the aftereffects of this, especially Britain’s involvement in Iraq, adds an extra retrospective edge of uncertainty and questioning to the whole programme). Tellingly, the closing lines of the programme, spoken by Farson, are almost identical to the conclusion reached by Dennis Potter in his first book The Glittering Coffin, published almost simultaneously. Driven by Farson’s inherent curiosity and fascination with the aspects of society swept under the rug by the establishment, Living For Kicks can now be seen as simultaneously a period piece and many years ahead of its time.

The response to the programme from the populist right-wing press was redolent of that to the 2001 Brass Eye special on paedophilia or the 2005 transmission of Jerry Springer: The Opera in our own time, frightened – as they still are today – by the exposure of the complex reality behind the comforting idea of Britain around which they based their appeal. Leading the chorus of outrage was the tabloid Daily Sketch, owned by Associated Newspapers (ironically, the “Associated” in Associated-Rediffusion, although they had sold their stake in the company by then) and, if anything, the true ancestor of today’s ultra-sensationalist Daily Mail (at the time, the Mail was a broadsheet and, although still right-wing, was a more serious paper than it is today; in 1971 the Mail converted to tabloid format, inheriting much of the style of the Sketch which was merged into it at that point).

The Daily Mirror, then as now a left-leaning tabloid, although generally a more serious paper than it is today, and inclined to regard the Associated Newspapers stable as overtly reactionary and conservative (in all senses), responded with a defence of British teenagers. A considerable war of words then developed between the two papers, with the Mirror‘s well-remembered TV commercials (mockery of stuffy old buffers and the slogan “the Daily Mirror backs the young!”) representing its position on the matter. Effectively, this was a battle of ideas between the old, Americosceptic conservatism and a kind of proto-Wilsonian culturally Americophile Leftism (itself quite a rare concept in an era when Richard Hoggart was an immensely influential figure). The fact that the Americanisation the Mirror was calling for has been responsible for the annihilation of British Socialism, while the true victor was a new kind of Right-wing politics which was simply not around in 1960, adds a retrospective edge to the ideological warfare of that bygone age: phrases like “is this the world we created?” and, perhaps above all others, “be careful what you wish for … you might get it” come inevitably and inexorably to mind.

While his earlier series continued to be shown regularly in various regions – often transmitted for the first time by companies such as Westward and Ulster, serving areas which had not had commercial television when they first went out, a sign of the regard in which he was rightly held – Farson would continue to make successful programmes through the early 1960s. He particularly enjoyed making Farson in Australia in 1961 (his programmes having already been shown regularly on Australian television), and he was also responsible for the 1962 series Dan Farson Meets…, usually featuring popular singers of the time. He had already pre-empted another key latterday tendency which is symptomatic of the cultural triumph of the mass over the elite; he had moved to Limehouse in the East End of London, and fallen in love with old-school East End pub entertainment, the subject of his hour-long programme Time Gentlemen Please! (this would inspire the series Stars and Garters, with which Farson had no personal involvement). In love with the idea of reviving old-time music hall (which he later ruefully acknowledged to have been an ill-thought-out mistake), he bought a pub specifically for such purposes, but this plan failed in 1963, and the money Farson lost would have bought an entire row of houses at the time. Suddenly, Farson’s career appeared to be going off the rails.

Beat City – Farson’s last major Associated-Rediffusion work, transmitted at the same Christmas period of 1963 when The Times printed its famous high-flown appreciation of the Beatles’ melodic achievements – shows both his greatness and the factors that would bring him down. The programme is a wonderfully evocative portrayal of Liverpool in 1963 – putting into context the reasons why the Beatles and their contemporaries had happened, and displaying and celebrating the city’s unique socio-cultural dynamics – but now the masses were beginning to fully assert themselves on their own terms, and they didn’t merely no longer need an old-school BBC interviewer, they didn’t even need Farson, whose plummy tones (significantly he is only a narrator, rather than an interviewer, and the programme is much more impressionistic in its style than his earlier work) now seem somewhat out of place, and clash quite jarringly with the excitement of the popular culture which the programme is displaying. Like Joe Meek – another outsider in the old society, who did not live to see a world in which he would have been accepted and, indeed, celebrated – Farson suddenly, and quite undeservedly, appeared outdated.

And indeed 1964 would prove to be a crucial year in Daniel Farson’s life. Farson’s documentary Courtship – itself a concept that the decade now getting into action would fight hard against – was considered to be something of a damp squib. On 1st April 1964 – just as Associated-Rediffusion, as such, was about to fade into history, as the company reinvented itself and fired the starting gun on the “swinging” era – Farson, having resigned from the company (which, by all accounts, thought he had betrayed them) moved to North Devon. Apart from a series of interviews he made as a freelance for what was now Rediffusion London later the same year, he never worked for the company again. The rise of the self-assertion of the masses that makes 1964 such a pivotal year in modern British history – the very thing he had done so much to anticipate and for which he had laid so much of the groundwork – had jumped the gun on his programmes and, effectively, rendered them obsolete.

As time went on, Farson fell further and further into obscurity, losing himself in rural isolation at his parents’ old house in North Devon, losing ever more money and having to sell ever more possessions, his life ever more dominated by drink; he would candidly refer in his autobiography to “the lost decade”. He continued as a writer, returning to one of his earlier fixations in the book Marie Lloyd and Music Hall (1972), and he even made a tentative return to television, making programmes (most of which were admittedly only shown regionally) for HTV West, showing himself, despite all his personal problems, as still a skilled interviewer. He would co-write the 1978 HTV West children’s drama The Clifton House Mystery, and write the accompanying book.

During his time in North Devon Farson would befriend two of the public figures most closely associated with this strange, inscrutable place: the local MP and erstwhile Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, in the process of being brought down by one of the most bizarre of all British political scandals; and Henry Williamson, who was not so much a robustly Right-wing ruralist Tory in the vein of James Wentworth Day, but a fully-fledged exponent of Agrarian Right romanticism and mysticism, with all that implies.

In the summer of 1975, Farson recorded an interview with Williamson to mark the latter’s 80th birthday (soon after which the writer would suffer from senile dementia before dying in August 1977). By this time Williamson, whose greatest enemy was also his greatest strength – his unkillable High European romanticism – was lost in his own fantasies, believing that he had seen Hitler in the 1914 Christmas Truce. (Farson comments in his autobiography that “if you believe in something so passionately it acquires a sort of truth”.) Enjoying his final summer in the countryside he loved so very passionately, Williamson’s views – unpalatable to most people, and the main reason for the critical neglect of even his completely non-political literature – were still strong: “Of course [Hitler] was a great man, but so many great men turn out to be fiends and devils because they go too far. He wanted to avoid war with us, but went the wrong way to get it. He was a very brave soldier and he loved England.”

Farson’s interview with Williamson was shown at 11.30 am on Monday 5th January 1976 in all ITV regions bar three, and those who did not show it on that occasion – Granada, ATV and Yorkshire – seem never to have transmitted it at all. It is probably not a coincidence, in the light of Williamson’s comments and never-retracted beliefs, that the first two of these companies were founded on Jewish dynasties – the Bernsteins and Grades respectively – while the third was based in Leeds, one of the UK’s major Jewish centres (some of Farson’s 1950s work had not been shown on ATV, but that was purely a reflection of the company’s orientation towards light entertainment rather than more serious programmes). In 1982, Farson wrote a book called Henry which he described as an ‘appreciation’, rather than a biography, of Williamson, and on 6th March 1983 he presented a feature on Williamson as part of a BBC 1 Omnibus programme dealing with writers who had adversely affected their reputations by holding politically extreme views.

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Daniel Farson as he appeared in Channel Four’s 1990 programme, “The A-Z of Television”, introducing excerpts from his work.

Farson’s final years would be made up of various activities – journalism with (ironically) Associated Newspapers’ Mail on Sunday, among others, publishing With Gilbert and George in Moscow and his biography The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, appearing on Channel 4’s A-Z of Television on the first day of 1990 to link clips of his A-R programmes, travelling (and occasionally writing travel books) and, inevitably, descending ever further into alcoholism. He defiantly dedicated his autobiography Never A Normal Man, published shortly before his death from cancer in 1997, to “those who don’t belong”, admitting at its start that “I have taken the wrong turning. Otherwise why am I drinking myself to death in a slow form of suicide? Why am I so consumed by guilt? I have never been able to forgive myself, but I do not know why; I am my own victim”. Farson made a final appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek programme to promote the book, his hangover being so profound that his voice sounded like it came from the back of a cupboard. For all his many faults, he was still held in affection by many of his friends, even those who were frequently infuriated by his highly erratic behaviour, and was genuinely mourned and missed on his death.

See Daniel Farson’s segment on the A-Z of Television

But the postscript Farson perhaps deserved came in the 21st Century, when Pop Idol – produced by Thames Television, formed out of the ashes of what had become Rediffusion (although the latter was very much the minority power) – gave us another gay man who had been frustrated by the regime of Wellington College. A man born to the elite defining himself by the criteria of the mass; the completion of the victory of the people Farson had first allowed to speak for themselves and on their own terms. And the week Will Young (for it was he) went to number one with Leave Right Now, the author Antonia Forest – an outsider (from a Jewish background) who had aspired to the ways of the old landed elite, precisely the type of ambition that the mass media age Farson ushered in has made so archaic – died. She “left right then” leaving a great literary legacy, but absolutely no cultural influence on the tone of the world she left behind.

The legacy of Daniel Farson, on the other hand, is all around us; what seemed exceptional and radical when he introduced it is now the abiding dominant ethos in our lives today. There can be no greater legacy than that.

Portions of this article form the basis of the Wikipedia entry on Daniel Farson.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Robin Carmody Contact More by me

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