An Author Grinds His Teeth

Yes, I know I have an axe to grind – but really!

I doubt I’ve ever heard a play supposedly based on real-life events get everything so wrong. On Radio 4 Extra I heard a repeat of a confused 1995 production of Falling Heads by C H Evans, purportedly based on what was then labelled the ‘Trial of the Century’, a libel case brought by the exotic dancer Maud Allan against the maverick politician Noel Pemberton Billing in 1918. Though the trial transcript is a matter of public record it was ignored by the playwright, who preferred to make up his own less exciting version and to re-imagine the lead performers.

Maud Allan, a Canadian dancer in the Isadora Duncan mould, was presented as an English actress. Billing was shown as the inventor of no more than a rather pathetic airman’s helmet whereas in fact he was an aviation pioneer who founded Supermarine, the company that built First World War airplanes and went on to develop the Second World War Spitfire. Key witness Harold Spencer was presented as an upper class English twat but was in real life American. Trial judge Justice Darling was shown to be exasperated by and against Billing whereas at the time he was roundly criticised for assisting Billing throughout and mismanaging the trial. The trial itself was replayed in brief and out of sequence, dropping several of the more extraordinary witnesses and changing the name of the one who did appear (to ‘Doctor Savage’). Arthur Ransome was dragged in as a behind-the-scenes manipulator, though he played no part in the actual events. Even Lloyd George lost his Welsh accent.

Why does this bother me? Partly, of course, because I wrote a far more credible (and dare I say, entertaining) account in my book The Maud Allan Affair, but also because accurate versions are available elsewhere, not least in Michael Kettle’s Salome’s Last Veil, Philip Hoare’s Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand, and Barbara Stoney’s Twentieth Century Maverick. The BBC’s version was a nonsense. Why, I wonder, was it ever broadcast?


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