As, perhaps, an example of the strange, visible,
inter-connected world that is developing...
I was contacted last week by Merton College, Oxford. Next year is the 750th anniversary of the
founding of the college, and as part of that they want to do something about
their (current) greatest son, J. R. R. Tolkien.
And they wanted to speak to me about a project I was involved in in
1968. Yes, I said 1968.
That was a short BBC film called 'Tolkien in
Oxford'. Leslie Megahey - later to be
Head of Music and Arts BBC TV - was the director. I have been told that somewhere I have been
listed as 'writer' on the project.
Nothing so grand. I think I was
'researcher' - in other words, the gofer.
Because I knew Tolkien's work and I knew Oxford I pulled things together
as the director wanted them. Most of the
things you see on the screen I set up, the interviews, the locations, the room
that stood in for 'Tolkien's study'. You
can see me in the extended Merton College sequence, as I choreograph the gaggle
of 'tourists' weaving in and out of shot.
The film was made at a very specific time in the
development of Tolkien's reputation. The
crew, for the most part, knew little about him.
I remember saying to the sound man, 'Look, this is exactly like
interviewing Lewis Carroll. In the
future people will want to know everything he said, however trivial. Save everything...' But television shoots do not work like
Talking to Leslie Megahey and to Merton College over the
weekend... Comparing notes and memories,
looking at surviving paperwork...
There is work to be done.
The film has appeared on the BBC web site - but the information given on
the web site is wrong. The actual film
as displayed on the BBC web site is incomplete - notably at some points it has
Tolkien talking gibberish, because explanatory captions have been lost. For technical reasons the captions were
floated in at the time of broadcast.
We need to restore the captions and restore the end
credits. Clearly - because the film is
on the BBC web site - the film has already been digitised. So, maybe, that should not be too hard...
At the same time the film has become a sort of
ur-document for Tolkien scholars and enthusiasts, but comment is a bit confused
- partly because the research record is incomplete, and because very few people
will have seen the film as intended, and as broadcast.
I have never seen a cineaste study of 'Tolkien in Oxford'. Does it exist? I mean something about how the approach of
the young auteur seen here is further developed in later Leslie Megahey works -
a narrative that is visual and filmic, quite elaborate camera sequences, Leslie
himself taking over the interviewing, and so on. Also, it is an Oxford man's film about
Tolkien in OXFORD - the student body (in its myriad daftness) becomes a
character, Merton College itself becomes a character, and in the final
helicopter sequence the whole city becomes a character. Tolkien in Oxford.
Leslie Megahey is increasingly recognised as a very
significant figure in the development of BBC documentary - see, for example,
the recent British Film Institute re-release of his Schalcken the Painter...
...or his study of Orson Welles...
So, Tolkien in Oxford...
Find ways to restore the film, find ways to rescue the research
record. For a start, does anyone have
the original Radio Times to hand?