From Horrorshow to Chatshow – Burgess on TV

‘...He is one of those exceptional people that talkshow hosts give thanks for–an author who talks as entertainingly as he writes.‘ (Dick Cavett introduces Anthony Burgess, 1974)

The controversy that accompanied the release of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange thrust Anthony Burgess into the media spotlight. It would later become a source of resentment to Burgess that he had been obliged to go and do the rounds of press interviews and screenings with Malcolm McDowell while Kubrick stayed enigmatically at home, exuding mystery.

However, it quickly became clear that Burgess, with his background as a teacher and obvious talent as a raconteur, was a natural on the talk show circuit. Physically imposing, with striking features crowned by the most magnificently absurd combover, he could be firm but charming, able to communicate complex ideas without ever talking down to his audience. Despite the plumminess he acquired in the forces and later in the civil service, Burgess’ roots lay in the boozy working classes of Manchester, in pubs and cinemas and he talks to you as though you had pulled up next to him at the bar–with great seriousness, but curious and generous, regarding all with a wry, michevious squint.

We’ve picked out a handful of our favourite Burgess chatshow moments. The first, from 1971, finds him in America on Creative Arts Television, with Malcolm McDowell, who played Alex in the film. Both book and film are discussed at some length (with spoilers). Burgess comments on the cockney origin of the book’s title, the purpose of the Nadsat slang, as well as expounding his ideas about free will and how we can view A Clockwork Orange as the Burgessian portrait of the human condition. Interestingly, Burgess is quite free in his praise for Kubrick’s adaptation of his book.

Next, in 1974, Burgess, again in America, appears on The Dick Cavett Show. Cavett had just published his first memoir, and to celebrate had invited some writers to turn the tables and interview him. Burgess is joined by Jerzy Kosinski and Barbara Howard, who magnanimously welcome a somewhat perturbed Cavett into their ranks as an author.

Burgess shares anecdotes about Orwell, about the risks of authorial self-exposure and the mistaken assumption that his hilarious Enderby novels are autobiography and asks us to ponder some interesting questions about the production of literary work. At the time, Burgess was working on his own autobiography and there is a sense that he is fully, albeit playfully engaged in the topic.

Fast-forward to 1988, and the opening ten minutes of an episode of Channel 4’s seminal After Dark, a show broadcast live at the end of the day’s programmes with no scheduled end time. In this now-legendary TV series guests from different walks of life, generously supplied with alchohol, cigarettes and nibbles, would discuss the issue of the day into the wee hours. Perfect late ’80s insomniac-fodder.

This episode finds Burgess engaged in a discussion of sexuality with the American feminist scholar Andrea Dworkin. One of the interesting things about watching these appearances is the sense of Burgess as a man who is very interested in other people, and unexpectedly, he and Dworkin seem to get on quite well. It’s true that in 1988 these occasions were less theatrically adversarial than they are today, but Burgess, who has apparently been invited onto the show off the back of having recently won the Sexist Pig of the Year Award, comes over as thoughtful and receptive.

The final snippet is Burgess’s appearance on Face To Face with Jeremy Isaacs. Filmed in 1989, Burgess reflects on his working class Mancunian roots and on his family. The interview takes in his religion and the way it shaped him. He recounts the intellectual and emotional shape of his complex relationship with Catholicism, as well as the prejudice it exposed him to.

He’s also frank about his marriages and describes something of his life in Monaco–somewhat presciently, the topic of European union arises and he opines that the British aren’t ready to be Europeans. However, he has some interesting thoughts about this own European-ness and on his contributions to post-colonial literature, most notably in the Malayan Trilogy.

This very personal interview touches on his approaching mortality, a topic he seems quite relaxed about exploring, telling Isaacs that, ‘My heart has been beating for 72 years and it’s due for a rest’.

We’ll be exploring Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange at this week’s BookTalk session. You can book your free tickets for this online event here:

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