The Glittering Prizes by Frederic Raphael

published 1976     Second section: A Sex Life  - set about 1956

 How could three years which passed so slowly be gone so soon? Here they were, the best and the brightest of the Cambridge actors, already finishing the last performance of the very last production in which they would appear… a fin-de-siecle production of Much Ado About Nothing…. 

The scene was set in an Oxford college of the 1890s and the cast was dressed in blazers and boaters and garden party dresses. Shirley Ransome, as Hero, looked particularly delicious in a daring yellow dress, while Anna Cunningham, as Beatrice, wore a lace dress and a wide hat and high boots over dark blue stockings. Dan Bradley was Benedick. He wore a floral suit with a green carnation and carried a silver-topped cane. Alan Parks, as Claudio, sported a rowing Blue’s blazer and white flannels. Denis Porson, wearing the scarlet robes of the Master of the College, camped outrageously as Don Pedro; he toyed suggestively with Benedick’s carnation and several times stopped the show with his buffoonery.

observations: The Glittering Prizes was a key BBC TV series in the UK of 1976, and everyone was reading the semi-autobiographical book - were these characters all meant to be someone real? It was the story of a group of golden young people from around 1952 right up to the mid-70s: the Cambridge graduates who inherited the earth and found careers in the media, in politics, in education.

Raphael - who had a lot of success early in his career, including a screen-writing Oscar for the 1965 Julie Christie vehicle Darling - had a great story to tell, and had claims to be a serious writer, but here he shows a complete contempt for the reader. The book is largely dialogue, and he doesn’t bother to explain where characters are or describe surroundings. That CAN be fair enough (Elmore Leonard) but here it just seems to be insulting laziness, he has merely retyped his script – for example, suddenly characters are going upstairs or downstairs for no apparent reason, presumably to do with the BBC’s sets and locations.

The dialogue is incredibly tiresome – characters doing Goon voices, adding ‘he said irritaingly’ at the end of remarks, and making sub-Wilde repartee. It is probably a very accurate record of how these people talked, but it is hard on the reader. He scarcely bothers to distinguish among the characters, and it is hard to care who does what, whose marriage breaks down, who has an affair. The women in particular are not drawn well at all. It is a pity, because there are moments when you can see what a good and interesting writer he was and could be, moments of real drama and feeling and conviction, a fascinating story about the lives of these people. But it doesn’t come off.

Links on the blog: Shakespearean costumes. Academic Cambridge (in different eras) appears here, here and here. Frederic Raphael wrote the screenplay of the 1967 film of Far From the Madding Crowd.

The picture of a summer garden party is from a French fashion magazine, La Gazette du Bon Ton.


  1. Moira - Sorry to hear this doesn't do it for you. The premise certainly seems interesting enough and it's a shame it didn't come off well. Glad as ever to read your excellent post - maybe not so interested in looking this one up...

  2. It's rare for me to feature a book that I'm going to be so rude about - on the whole I like to do books that I enjoyed - but this one annoyed me, and I wanted my chance to say that. Often there's a book where you feel the author has done his or her honest best, but it wasn't right for you, the reader. But in this rare case I felt, as I said, insulted by his lack of care.

  3. It's interesting that the TV series came first. That can't happen too often. My Saturday nights are taken up with Borgen, and I've been wishing for the book (in English, of course!)


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