The Ghastly Impermanence: An Interview with David Pownall

david pownallHis Wikipedia entry is simple.

David Pownall FRSL (born 19 May 1938) is a British playwright and author of novels and short stories.

What it doesn’t tell you is…almost everything. Mr. Pownall is indeed a British playwright and founder of the theater company Paines Plough. He has written (at my last count) forty-two plays, ten novels, two books of poetry, and edited the Fisherman’s Bedside Book. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Letters whom some critics believe to be among the finest of living English novelists. He is also one of the most passionate devotees and creators of radio drama in the past fifty years. Mr. Pownall has written eighty-three plays for radio and currently is at work on his eighty-fourth, a two-hour play about Charles Babbage, the creator of the first known design for a Turing-complete analytic computer that was designed to run on steam power in the 1830s. The genre of so-called “steampunk” relies on conceits based on Babbage’s inventions.

Displaying an immense range of knowledge and interests, his radio plays run the diapason of thematic concerns, from the influence of technology on modern culture to the political machinations behind the creation of music to the corrupting influence of crass commercialism on rural societies. Yet whatever his subject be, Mr. Pownall’s plays are distinctive and brilliant. They reveal the deft hand of a master who truly believes in the power of a medium often in danger of being reduced to radio gaga and triviality.

I spoke with Mr. Pownall in early December about his upcoming work and a score of other things.

Seattle Star: I know artists always want to talk about the newest thing, so would you like to start with talking about your new Babbage piece?

Pownall: It’s something I’ve had in mind for about eighteen months. I wrote another play this year, Tennyson and Edison. So these are two 19th century pieces about technology and art and about the way they worked more closely together. Babbage is another example from an earlier time. He saw himself, I suppose, as a philosopher more than as an engineer or a mathematician. People at that time looked upon themselves as natural philosophers or natural scientists. They weren’t as divided among themselves. Perhaps we’ve drifted away from that. In terms of this play, this play is really about somebody giving up the unequal battle with government. To see that there’s a fantastic idea that is being destroyed because of a lack of support. And about everyone who comes to support it, and fails. It’s a play really about failure. But of course it became the greatest technical success in history.

Seattle Star: You’re covering in this play the building of the Analytical Engine or are you starting with the Difference Engine back even further?

Pownall: It’s set in 1852, which is when the financial support for the Analytical Engine was stopped. Disraeli was the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Seattle Star: You wrote Dizzy Spells about him.

Pownall: Yes. He advised the government, “Look, nobody’s got any idea if this is even going to work or be worth anything, so I suggest we just get out.” And this led to Babbage’s despair. I haven’t quite worked out how the play will end, except that of course he continued. His problem was that every time he put forth one of his projects, one of his engines–even as early as 1847–he was trying to construct the engine with some time and with the rest of his time he was developing another engine that would obsolete it. So they were never getting anywhere. This is when Disraeli eventually said, Look, this is never going to work because we can’t keep up with this man. The designs were developed so quickly and made obsolete very, very fast.

Seattle Star: Which is the legacy we still have to this day with technology in general.

Pownall: Certainly. Babbage’s a very rich character in general. Very few people have ever heard of him. He was of course very important in his own time. He knew all the people who mattered in science and the arts and politics. In a way, it’s a tragic story except that he always just kept moving on, kept developing his ideas one after the other, right up to the end. The fact that he never completed it, I don’t know whether it mattered to him, actually, that he hadn’t even completed one single engine. It’s exciting material, especially what he’s surrounded by at the time.

Seattle Star: A very interesting time. When Babbage put out his design for the Analytical Engine, as I recall, it debuted in France first. The design was translated back into English from French, from notes that someone had taken, and that’s where Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace found out about it.

Pownall: Oh, she is a fascinating character. They were very good friends. Of course at this time, 1852, she is part of the play, but she’s actually dying of uterine cancer. But she comes to fight for him, to get him to carry on. Also, she was a great gambler. She really liked the idea of adapting the Analytical Engine so she could use it at the casino! She was really a poet, but her mother wouldn’t allow it because it had too much to do with her father. She was a poet and a mathematician.

Seattle Star: She’s fascinating lady. We used to call her the first computer programmer back in college comp sci. Thematically, this seems an extension of other works of yours–obviously Tennyson and Edison. I have about thirty of your plays and technology–different kinds of technology–have come up in your work at various times. It’s also an extension of your writing about famous characters of the past. I’ve been reading Sound Theatre again, and at one point in it you discuss writing about historical figures for radio. Yet your work for stage is quite a bit different. Could you elaborate for me?

Pownall: Well, the big advantage of radio is that you can cover any ground and go anywhere at any time. There’s nothing you can’t do on radio. If you’re dealing with lives of people who are in different times, different places, with their philosophies, ideas and emotions, it’s a much more flexible medium for telling the story than for instance the stage, which is pretty impossible. The stage is actually pretty crude, and its laws are made of iron. All you can really do is put in entrances and exits. But with radio because you’re only dealing with the imaginations of your listeners you can travel anywhere and you can take lots of risks. The more practice you get, the better you get at doing that. That’s a huge attraction. The other one, for me, is that it’s a very concentrated experience to create the play. My position as a writer is a very strong one when I go into the studio. It tends not to be questioned. The actors are easier, and eager to focus on their work and give a very good performance straightaway. Not like dealing with actors rehearsing for three or four weeks. They really want to do it properly and get it right. The directors tend to be very articulate, very intelligent people and I don’t have a lot of rows. I’m not spending my life defending things. I’m actually managing to create what I wanted to create. That’s why I love it so much. I can get through all the work and deal with all the ideas.

Seattle Star: That’s a very eloquent description. Your fiction work is more often–I don’t want to call it slice of life, it’s much more fantastical than that–but it deals with characters who are much more down to earth in a sense. Is there a bridge for you between the historical approach of your radio work and the surface veneer of naturalism in your fiction? Is that just a product of your experiences in Africa or personal choice?

Pownall: The fictions are reasonably varied. The first two books of fiction are based on my experiences in Africa, and working there. But I don’t know that there’s a unified way of looking at fiction that I have. The novel The White Cutter, about the medieval stonemason, is quite a big book and that goes quite a very long way back with me. I can’t see that there’s any kind of defining theme that I’m after, really. Light on a Honeycomb is about one town, that I tried to look at in a very concentrated, socially interacting way. I think it would take someone else other than me to detect a theme. I’ve just written my first e-book, Weird Music, which is about a certain point of music in the 10th Century, which is a development I suppose of what I did in stage plays and radio plays. It’s an exploration of a point that’s always sort of fascinated me, when we finally started to use music in parts. So there I’ve jumped off in another direction with fiction.

Seattle Star: Let me see if I can find this quote here from Barry Pike about your radio work. “It is impossible to characterise Pownall, his frame of reference is so wide: but his best work is brilliant.” Which I think is a compliment. It’s much more difficult to determine specific “themes” in your work, much more difficult than with Hemingway or Fitzgerald or other authors who seem to find one theme in their lives and continue through their work. There are certain things, though, that come up routinely. Music comes up very often. Your approach to music writing though is different from other people’s, because you tend to concentrate on what I called “the dirty work of music making”

Pownall: Yes. This book is part of that, too. It’s very imaginative, though; it doesn’t set out to be quite as political.

Seattle Star: Your two plays about Gesualdo kind of walk that line. Both are historical in basis, but especially Music to Murder By goes into a much different realm.

Pownall: Yes, yes. I’ve just written a strange book, in which my music publisher asked me to write a biography of one of my plays, Master Class. I’ve finished it and it should come out next year. It’s sort of a biography of a play from the first moment I thought of it to the point where it gets onto the stage and makes its travels. I did try to do it truthfully, and when you go back and try to say truthfully how it all came about it’s very difficult. You have to pursue the truth rather than the fiction, because the fiction is in the play. You have to remember as accurately as possible in your mind why you took this decision or that decision.

Seattle Star: I love Master Class.

Pownall: This one’s called Writing Master Class.

Seattle Star: Do you remember the genesis of the story?

Pownall: Oh yes, very well. It actually started with a man called Julian Lee, who came to Lancashire from Canada. He was by his own description, “a successful ex-composer.” He was a hard-drinking man, very very intelligent, but he absolutely turned his face away from any idea of success. He decided he was going to educate me in music. He was a very good musician. So we’d go and sit with a drink and he’d teach me about music. I was using a lot of music at the time in the theater, but this was new. Julian was always there and always watching, a very constructive person. He gave me a book to do with Gesualdo, called Carlo Gesualdo: Musician and Murderer. A treasure of his that he kept by him from a long time ago, and he gave it to me with the express purpose of responding to it by writing a play. So I did and it worked out. Then he gave me a second book, which was a BBC correspondent’s report of the musician’s conference in the Soviet Union, 1948, in Moscow, with the minutes of the meeting. A very slender book. He calculated that I could respond to it, too, that there was something in the book like the other book, that I could fulfill. That’s how it started. It took me several years, because I was doing other things. I had to go to Russia in 1978 as part of it. Lots of adventures! Eventually it took me lots of different places around the world, because it was part of a big political movement, during the collapse of the Soviet empire. Many groups wanted to do that play, because of the story that it told but its comic element as well. It’s very popular in all the Scandinavian countries, Estonia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia…all the places that were just becoming free, when a couple years earlier under the old regimes it would have been out of the question.

Seattle Star: Did you conceive Master Class simultaneously for both media, stage and radio?

Pownall: No, only for the stage. I founded a company called Paines Plough in 1975 which was a new play company that toured nationally all around Britain and Ireland, with absolutely minimal sets. Everything had to fit in the back of a van. Usually with a maximum of four or five actors. So that play originally started off with four men, with a piano and no set. You could take it anywhere. We used to take it to the Scottish islands, taking theater out into very far-flung towns. That was its beginning. When it first went on, of course, it was enormous. The set was very elaborate, with parts of the old Czar’s Kremlin–the complete opposite of what we originally imagined, with just a stark room with an old upright and a couple men in a room with Stalin. You’ll have to read the book to found out how we got to that point!

Seattle Star: I’m wondering now about Façade. Did you conceive that originally for radio at about the same time?

Pownall: No, I think that came originally from the director. She wanted to work with me and so I met her and we talked. She suggested that subject.

Seattle Star: It seems to be something in your wheelhouse. I was just wondering if there was a simultaneity of origin with your music pieces.

Pownall: I think it may have come out of that early Paines Plough. We used music a lot, but pieces that were written expressly for the stage, especially in Music to Murder By. I could actually write a very interesting book about the biography of that play. It was considered a very obscure subject at the time.

Seattle Star: Really?

Pownall: Well, remember this was 1975. People didn’t really know anything about Gesualdo, and certainly didn’t know that story. We had a lot of difficulty initially. Disastrous audiences in England. Almost a rebellion among the actors. They said, “Look, Dave. No one is going to come listen to this play about this Italian… Life is getting a bit hard for us on the road.” I did sympathize.  But I pleaded with them. We had a good place at the Edinburgh festival so I said, “Please, just take it to the festival.”

Seattle Star: And it won an award.

Pownall: I couldn’t go! I had to stay behind and look after my kids at the time. I got a phone call on opening night. There were twenty people in the audience. Ten of them were critics and ten of them were drunk. And the critics threw out all the drunks. All these rave reviews came out the next day. It was a big success, and it sold out. It was ridiculous! Because it was in the right place. The other places it had been, I suppose, no one would have expected a play like that to be there, whereas they would expect a play like that to be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. A stroke of good fortune.

Seattle Star: Knowing your audience helps there, I suppose?

Pownall: Well, that’s the great thing about festivals, isn’t it? They’re for people who really are interested in the theater. Or rather, it was the case, in the 70s. Not so much anymore. Now it tends to be comedies and such, but it was the play that mattered then.

Seattle Star: Have you written for the stage lately? I haven’t seen a published play of yours in awhile.

Pownall: Well, I have written a play about Francis Bacon, the painter, which has been published but it hasn’t been produced yet. My publisher is working quite hard to find somebody to do it, but we’ve just drawn a blank with it. Maybe they’d like to do it in Seattle? They’re a bit leery of it here.

Seattle Star: He’s one of my favorite painters.

Pownall: He’s a fabulous painter.

Seattle Star: Another theme that pops up in your work is folklore, which also ties in with music. Barbara Allen obviously, but even the Cu Chulainn story comes up in Beef. How do you you approach your work in those cases, where there is a sort of historical setting but no real biographical detail to go, like Barbara Allen?

Pownall: Well, I suppose you have to have a lot of feeling for the song. I always have had. The words are extraordinary when you read them. The story is really powerful that comes through the lyrics. I didn’t find it at all difficult actually, to write a play just by thinking about the verses. You’re aware of the fact that the singer in that production is me?

Seattle Star: Yes.

Pownall: BBC were so mean that they wouldn’t hire a singer.

Seattle Star: They didn’t want another union to contract?

Pownall: Yeah, so I had to sing it myself. There’s also another strange story attached to it. It was on the date of 9/11/01, at the time of 9/11 that the play went out. We had a news break, and the play was scheduled to go on at 2:15. The first plane had hit, and I thought…my god. They’ll pull this play, they must. And they didn’t. And then right at the end, the second plane hit. It still leaves me uneasy.

Seattle Star: Barbara Allen struck me almost as a John Arden play when I heard it the first time. I think it recalled Pearl, which has a very similar background of politics. You share his concerns with the politics of art and the political background of art. It’s not at all about perpetuating the myth of the noble artist. It’s much more worldly.

Pownall: Yes, that’s true. I don’t know that I can completely account for it, except through the friendship I had with Julian. In terms of my own life, at the very tough old boarding school that I was sent to, they discovered I could sing and put me in the choir where I had to sing every Sunday. But I couldn’t read music. No one bothered to offer me music lessons, so I had to do it just by ear and teach myself. So that part of it–the technical part of it–I’ve never caught up with. There is always something for me to learn in any subject with music. I’m not looking backward, I’m looking forward. It’s not a writer trying to be a musician, but the material comes from a real interest, from never knowing enough. It’s not a lack of confidence. It just gives me a lot of room to maneuver. I go back to it time and time again. A lot of people think it’s because I wish I could have been a composer and that’s just complete rubbish. Never had that thought in my life. I just think it’s one of the best thing in our lives, music, and I think most people feel that, really. I’ve just watched the growing power of music in my life, and I think it just gets more and more important.

Seattle Star: Thank goodness for Mr Edison’s invention, then.

Pownall: Indeed.

Seattle Star: There’s a strong sense of politics in your music writing, but it breaks into three general themes for me: art as a front for politics, art as a part of an ideology, and art that comes from politics itself. The one thing that does not come up in your works about music that does come up in your other works is commercialism. It’s present in your more naturalistic works, like Nyama, Curriculum Vitae, or Selling the Archbishop. Do you keep an idea of music in your head as free from commercialism or have you just not had the right subject to tackle?

Pownall: That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought of it but you’re quite right. I suppose it’s never been of interest really. It’s part of every composer’s life, and very important to them, certainly. Ultimately, I suppose, it just seems mundane. It’s something that we all have to deal with in terms of our professions. It’s not that it isn’t worth talking about. It’s more, “Is it worth me writing about it when there’s something more interesting?”

Seattle Star: You certainly don’t lack for interests. I was listening to Nyama again this morning and the music really struck me. The lyrics, especially, about the “Great Meat,” are just fantastic to me. The way that the music takes on the ambience of the commercialism and capitalism just made me wonder if you planned to approach that subject again.

Pownall: I wouldn’t be surprised. My stumbling across stories—there seems to be no real pattern to it. I waited for well over forty years to write Nyama. I knew that one day I would write about it. It happened when I was in Africa when I was there. I saw a whale full of formaldehyde on a truck that was being exhibited, a blue whale. The story I’ve given it is completely my fiction, but I did actually see a whale. Almost fifty years later, I finally wrote about it. Never throw away a memory and never throw away a notebook as a writer. If you could see my room you’d know what I mean. If you do throw it away, the week after something will happen and make you go, “Oh! Why did I throw that away?”

Seattle Star: I really love that play. It’s one of my favorites of yours. A lot of your work, like Façade, it’s witty but I wouldn’t call it comic. Nyama actually has bits that are laugh-out-loud funny. That’s very appealing to me in your work.

Pownall: Thank you.

Seattle Star: You’ve had plays go both ways, from stage to radio and from radio to stage.

Pownall: Well, I always did a radio version of my stage plays.

Seattle Star: Simultaneously?

Pownall: Well, pretty close or shortly thereafter. That’s the way the old drama department worked. It was much closer to the theater than it is now. The whole BBC changed the way it looked at the drama department in about 1995. They dropped that responsibility of keeping in touch with what was happening in the British theater, and always doing an adaptation. They just looked in a different direction. They became more interested in trying to do radio plays, for instance, that were more in line with the cinema. Any direction other than back in touch with the theater.

Seattle Star: Interesting.

Pownall: The old department was actually full of ex-theater directors, who would go out and they’d find the playwrights. The first time I was approached by the BBC was in a mobile theater, in a car park in Preston. This chap appeared. He had come to see this play that I had in this mobile theater and said, “Would you like to write a radio play?” They went out looking. They would never do that now, never. It’s a tragedy, I think. Because it means everything has gone into fragments, when it had been together. People all felt they were part of the same business, and it was a completely natural thing to move between theater and radio.

Seattle Star: I suppose actors still retain a bit of that but I can’t imagine what it’s like for everyone else. There’s this fear of generality, I think, where there’s this belief that specializing in one particular field is just how it is supposed to be. I think also there’s a certain devaluation of the live theater itself in our age.

Pownall: Yes.

Seattle Star: It’s sort of an odd coincidence that as the BBC was doing this in radio, radio scholarship was really taking off in its second wave. It seems like they could have worked out a different direction, but…alas.

Pownall: I don’t know whether we’ll ever be able to regain that ground. It doesn’t feel like it. I’ve been able to work through it, through all the changes, I suppose. I just have a place, shall we say? inside the BBC to do the kind of work that I do.

Seattle Star: You can even get people back into it who’ve left the BBC, like Martin Jenkins.

Pownall: Exactly. I’ve just tried to carry on, and hope I don’t lose that as they change. They’re always changing their policies. They have become much more interested in soap opera and such.

Seattle Star: That is the curse of the contemporary radio dramatist.

Pownall: I think that the way they do it is, “Well, we need something that isn’t soap opera so we’ll use something like this idea of Pownall’s.” I suppose because I’ve been doing this so long, over forty years.

Seattle Star: Going on fifty!

Pownall: Yes (laughs). At this stage, I think I just sit with my fingers crossed, hoping they’ll just let me work until I drop off the perch.

Seattle Star: The difficulty there is hoping that the door stays open for someone else, that there’s a flow to the ebb.

Pownall: Yes, there are all those young writers who need the space.

Seattle Star: When you mention radio drama as a cousin to music in Sound Theatre, that really strikes great resonance with me. That direction of pursuing the musical, purely sonic nature of dialogue and sounds is something the Germans and Estonians have pursued very well, while the BBC have sort of dragged their heels on it.

Pownall: They don’t really appreciate experiments. They don’t think in those terms. I just detect of lack of seriousness, essentially. As if they don’t care whether this form is going to survive or not. I think it probably is, we’ve got through the worst of it, but I don’t think there’s anybody inside there who’s going to nurture it and look after it. It worries me that there isn’t a powerful figure there who says, “Right, I’m going to see that radio theater is going to be protected and nourished,” and they’ll just let it go like they did with the single play on television.

Seattle Star: That was my introduction to the theater in many ways. The single play on television was extremely important. I would never have become interested in the stage if not for television. Going to the theater was a near impossibility as a child and I relied on television and radio for that. Now I think they’ve abandoned that for cinematic concerns, I guess.

Pownall: With radio there are such huge advantages over the other media. You can go anywhere and do anything, as long as you can write it.

Seattle Star: They don’t have a real understanding of the technology, either, now. I want to follow more radio drama–but the BBC have made it almost impossible to navigate their iPlayer in the states without getting a headache. The phone app has different permissions from the online version, and a host of other nuisances. Things are only available for seven days as Drama of the Week, and they only choose one. It’s as though they don’t care.

Pownall: That’s the whole business, isn’t it? of trying to find that individual who’s inside there and who cares about that, who thinks about radio drama in terms of a long future and of using the technology to spread it. There’s just nobody there making those kind of statements. When they talk about radio drama there, they’re probably only talking about, you know, The Archers.

Seattle Star: Ugh. Reading Sound Theatre, and especially your experiences producing your work, I kept thinking it should be that simple all the time. Especially when you talk about how working in radio you’re not automatically afraid your work will be compromised. Directors will simply ask you, rather than having it go through committee. I really like the idea of working that way.

Pownall: It’s certainly been very important to me.

Seattle Star: Did Oberon commission that book from you or did you just have the idea?

Pownall: They started a series called “Masters Series,” of books by people with a specialty of some sort. The first two books were about philosophy, then they had theology, opera, ballet and such. They asked me to do one about radio drama.

Seattle Star: I’m glad they got you. You’ve done so much and you’ve always spoken very passionately about radio in the past.

Pownall: In an idle moment, I sat down with my adding machine that I use for my income tax, I worked out that you could sit and listen to my radio plays for four and a quarter days. Then I went and got drunk (laughs). People will say, “Oh you’ve written too much,” and I say, “Well, this is true, but only to live!”

Seattle Star: That’s the best reason there is, isn’t it?

Pownall: It’s a very good reason to do it.

Categories Radio

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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