Why interviewing people interests me

… Because I liked doing jigsaws as a kid…

… Because I am interested in how people’s minds work and how life’s ups and downs affect how they think and what they do… Yes, Nature v Nurture.

…. And – naff but true – because interviews record memories and, when the people with those memories die, all those moments could otherwise be lost in time, like tears in rain.

I think very often, when someone writes an interview piece, the intention is only partly to communicate what the interviewee said. The same often seems to happen (particularly in American magazines) when you read a feature piece on a subject. The intention is only partly to explain or illuminate the subject. Very often there is a parallel intention: to show-off the writing skills of the interviewer or feature writer who would really rather be a novelist. So you get long, irrelevant descriptions like:

“When I met Jeremy Bloggs, it was a scorchingly hot summer’s day in Mayfair and his blond hair fell like a desperate waterfall onto his craggy forehead, his chiselled wrinkles no doubt deepened by his recent tragedy.”

What a load of old bollocks.

When I chat with people I try, as much as possible, to write the piece in their own words.

If I add in extraneous facts, it is usually to create an overall unity – to cover over any jumps in the flow of the piece – not to make it look like I have an admirable literary style. If you are aware of the style and not what is being said, it is probably a shit piece of writing.

pen nib I hope I have no one sty;e

As in clothes, so in writing… There is no John Fleming style

I once had a chat with an editor at Random House publishers and he said something to the effect of: “I have read quite a lot of stuff you have written, John, but I haven’t been able to pin down your style, your own particular ‘voice’…”

What I did NOT reply to him was: “I should bloody hope not. I bloody try to write in whatever bloody style suits the bloody subject of the bloody piece!”

In my teenage years, I wanted to be able to communicate well by writing, not to have people say: “Oh, what a great literary stylist.”

I admired George Orwell who, I would argue, was a shit novelist (the love story in Nineteen Eighty-Four is badly drawn) but a great communicator of ideas (Nineteen Eighty-Four is an extraordinarily good book).

When I wrote trailers for various ITV companies’ evening schedules, I had to sell each show AND sell the overall evening ‘menu’ as if it had some sort of unity. I remember one evening I had to write a script which smoothly and enticingly listed a World in Action current affairs report on some worthy subject followed by (I think it was) The Benny Hill Show followed by a one-hour documentary on the Auschwitz concentration camp. I am here to tell you that it ain’t easy to link from Benny Hill to Auschwitz in a smooth, tasteful and enticing way.

It is just as well that I am interested in methods of communication.

There are several Benny Hill Show excerpts on YouTube.

When I was at college, I remember one early exercise was to go into a room and record a chat with someone about anything… then to transcribe from the tape not what you had heard said but what was actually said.

That was when I first fully realised no-one speaks coherently. What we hear is what the person intended to say, not what they actually said.

So someone may intend to say:

“A funny thing happened to me on the way here tonight: a man dressed as a fish was juggling oranges outside this local pub, The Queen’s Head…”

That is what you hear when you listen to them. But very likely what he or she actually said was:

“I was… A funny thing… err… A funny thing happened to me when I… when I… A funny thing happened to me on the way here. I was on the way here to… tonight. And a man dressed as a… a fish – he was dressed as a fish and he was juggling ora.. oranges… juggling oranges outside this local pub, The… The Queen’s… The Queen’s Head.”

When you interview someone and transcribe what was actually said, you almost always have to clean-up what was said. There is always that sort of editing involved. The trick is to edit the words without in any way editing what the person was trying to say. The trick to me is to create an illusion of real speech from the anarchic mess of words and flitting-back-and-forth ideas that actually is real speech.

Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine

Andy Warhol’s seminal Interview magazine

I was influenced in my erstwhile youth by regularly reading Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine in which the interviews were usually completely unedited (except, presumably, for cleaning-up the umms and errs). Because almost no-one speaks coherently.

But, if you edit well, people’s thoughts can be fascinatingly coherent. The trick – if it is a trick – is to get them to talk without thinking. If they think too much about the fact they will be quoted, they may try to speak in well-formed sentences. That ends in a terrible disaster of awkward phrasing and unrevealing formality.

When I was at college, one of our regular guest lecturers was maverick BBC Radio producer Charles Parker.

He had, for my taste, a rather overly Socialist view of ‘ordinary working class people’ and the inherent poetry of their speech as opposed to the Guardian-or-Daily-Mail-reading middle classes. In fact, I think, if you let anyone talk for long enough and edit them carefully, with sympathy and attention to detail, then almost everyone can be fascinating. The exception tends to be star actors and actresses or anyone who has done too many interviews – they easily slip into auto-pilot quote mode.

Charles Parker had made his reputation by producing a series of what he called ‘radio ballads‘ between 1958 and 1963. They were a combination of folk songs and interviews with ordinary people.

Singing The Fishing, for example, intermingled folk songs and interviews with men and women involved in the herring fishing industry of East Anglia and North East Scotland. It was and is fascinating. It was later used as the basis for a documentary film The Shoals of Herring.

(As a mostly irrelevant aside, my father used to service the marine radar on herring boats in North East Scotland, which may be why I am so interested.)

As Wikipedia currently rather awkwardly says (you can never be certain if Wikipedia will continue to say anything) Charles Parker’s radio ballads were “seen as a landmark of study in oral history”.

Another lecturer we had at college was Charles Chilton who, in effect, created Oh, What a Lovely War!

I say “in effect” because it started in 1962 as a BBC Home Service factual radio production called The Long Winding Trail about the First World War. That intermingled the reminiscences of real people with period songs, facts, figures and statistics.

This then became a 1963 stage show Oh, What a Lovely War! by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in Stratford, London. It then transferred to London’s West End and Broadway in New York. And then, in 1969, it became the Richard Attenborough-directed movie Oh, What a Lovely War! minus the interviews.

Although it has nothing to do with interviews or, really, with this blog, here is a link to a YouTube clip – the almost wordless last seven minutes of the film Oh, What a Lovely War! – a sequence I can never watch without crying.

As I understand it, the final shot is real – there are no visual effects involved. I guess some of the holes are still there in the South Downs outside Brighton.

Perhaps this sequence from Oh, What a Lovely War! shows the other side of the coin: that sometimes you need no words at all to communicate ideas or to show humanity.

I keep telling people that, even when this blog is apparently about ideas and events, it is really about people who interest me.

Charles Parker (1919-1980)

Charles Chilton (1917-2013)

Joan Littlewood (1914-2002)

Richard Attenborough (1923-2014)

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

So it goes.

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