Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2005

Ned Sherrin: The Autobiography, by Ned Sherrin

reviewed by Mansel Stimpson

Flying under false colours, this is not a good book but it is nevertheless quite enjoyable. What we are given is not a true autobiography as promised by the title but a memoir – recollections by the author, born in 1931, that range through his careers on radio and television and as a film producer and stage director.

The man himself is singularly missing. If the lacklustre account of Sherrin’s youth (childhood in Somerset, education in Oxford) is weakened by his seeming inability to flesh out detailed portraits of his parents or of his brother Alfred, the same weakness is later found to apply to what he has to say about his long-term writing collaborator Caryl Brahms, thirty years his senior, although with her he does at least try. But even more significant is his failure to reveal himself.

This book springs to life with the chapter on his creation of the three famous satirical television shows of the sixties, That Was The Week That Was and its two successors Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life and BBC3 (which Sherrin rightly declares would have been better named in the words of its opening song lyric “It’s all Been Done Before”). Later we find informative and amusing accounts of the genesis and history of his stage show Side By Side By Sondheim and of his work on other theatrical pieces, not least the musical The Mitford Girls and the play Jeffrey Barnard Is Unwell starring Peter O’Toole.

He is also in his element describing his film work ranging from The Virgin Soldiers to The National Health, although there’s precious little about the film Girl Stroke Boy, which, with its central ambiguity over the sex of a son’s lover, was resurrected in the 1999 London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

But in all these cases he is writing about his work and not about himself. The reticence is all the more irritating for being unacknowledged. Thus, while he makes it clear that his gay instincts were evident by his national service days, we get no thoughts on his attitude to his sexuality and just a brief passing reference to two attempts at relationships, both of which ended with his being rejected. We are left wondering what we are not being told until in the epilogue we find a suggestion that he is content to be a loner – but that counts as too little, too late.

The other great problem with the book is Sherrin’s inability to shape his material. The subject matter is such that chronological order is the natural format and we seem to be getting that until Chapter 9 suddenly goes back in time to cover the earlier years of his collaboration with Caryl Brahms. Later this proves not to be a solitary example. Just when discussion of his stage work has taken us through to 1990 or thereabouts we go back to his involvement in American television in an earlier decade and similarly he soon backtracks to write about his work in radio prior to the success of Loose Ends on Radio 4. No framework is created for this and, although it can be said that the longer the book the greater the need for shaping, the last three chapters turn into anecdotes and quotes about actors and others with no particular sense of placing save that the last chapter is linked to things heard at memorial services.

Anyone who had hoped that the book would reveal the man behind the raconteur will be disappointed, but its defects, serious though they are, are not fatal, because Sherrin is a born storyteller. Settle for that and the book delivers quite a lot, ranging from pithy theatrical comments (“there were shocked walk-outs in Brighton – always a good sign”) to his description of the most exhilarating thing you can do on stage (what that is is revealed on Page 295).

He offers us also sad, sympathetic glimpses of Dame Margaret Rutherford and Sir Michael Redgrave late in life and, most unexpectedly, supplies a strongly felt appreciation of an actor usually held in ridicule today, Sir Donald Wolfit. Less surprising are the misprints in the book – I found at least five once famous names with the spelling incorrect while alternatives are offered in the case of Robert Helpman (Page 387) who reappears as Robert Helpmann (Page 417). We are introduced also to that well-known London suburb Golder’s Green.

Sherrin’s book will remind most of his readers of entertainment that he has given them, thus making it a nostalgic read full of jokey quotes. Typical is his recollection of youthful days at the London Palladium when a dancer reprimanded by the choreographer George Carden came back with the comment “But Mr Carden I’m not queer,” whereupon Carden advanced on him from the stalls with the pronouncement, “Never mind: no-one will know from the front.” That’s the kind of enjoyment this book provides, but, had Caryl Brahms lived to read it, she would not have reversed the view she once expressed of Sherrin as a schizophrenic grappling to himself his secret or secrets.

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Created : Sunday, 2005-12-04 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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