A few weeks ago a friend mentioned he had seen an exhibition about T.E. Lawrence in Newark, and he asked me if I knew anything about him. I replied, yes, just a bit, and tried to talk about the TV programme I made in 1978 called “Lawrence of England”. It was a difficult conversation, walking along the beach at Gibraltar point in a howling gale, but it prompted me to bring forward my vague plan to write about the making of the programme at BBC South.
For many people, the image of Thomas Edward Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, is that of the dashing first world war hero depicted in David Lean’s eponymous blockbuster movie. The depiction is seriously flawed; for starters, Lawrence (5′ 5″) was not as tall as Peter O’Toole, and he did not become a masochist obsessed with blood-lust. Quite the reverse. And so on.
The film’s popular success also made things difficult for Lawrence’s younger brother Arnold and for anyone else interested in documenting the real Lawrence, as I found out having quite accidentally discovered that he had spent some time at military establishments and elsewhere in the South of England after the great war, apparently intent on avoiding celebrity, until his retirement and untimely death in 1935.
I first came across Lawrence’s celebrated “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” as a schoolboy haunting Wembley Park public library in the fifties. I was actually looking for DH Lawrence novels (for fairly obvious reasons,) but I borrowed TE’s book on the evidence of a quick peek at the illustrations and some random text. I took it home and tried hard to read it – I really did, but without much success. I was also a bit confused – was this fact or fiction? Like most boys of that time I had been pretty keen on Biggles, Bulldog Drummond, The Saint and other tales of derring-do. Fortunately it wore off quite quickly.
The second connection was theatrical, when I went in 1960 to see Terence Rattigan’s play “Ross” set in 1922 when Lawrence was hiding under the assumed name “Aircraftman Ross” in the Royal Air Force and was being disciplined by his Flight Lieutenant for alleged misconduct. Lawrence was played by Alec Guinness, and Harry Andrews played Field Marshall Allenby.(The play was recently revived at the Chichester Festival, with Joeseph Fiennes in the leading role.)
The next time I came across the Lawrence myth was when I was working as a TV programme director (AKA Assistant Producer, in Auntie-speak) at BBC South in the seventies. I came across the effigy of Lawrence in St. Martins Church, Wareham and I found out that nobody at BBC South had done anything on Lawrence, which seemed odd, given that there is plenty of evidence of his time in Dorset and Hampshire. I did some preliminary research and then proposed a regional documentary, working title “Lawrence of England”, which would depict Lawrence’s life after the war in Arabia, concentrating on his time in the South of England.
That’s when the problems started.
In those days, each of the BBC English regions not only produced weekday news magazines (as they still do) but also weekly feature or documentary programmes, produced by a small team of production staff who worked separately from the news operation. These weekly features were usually known as the “opt outs” because each region would opt out of BBC1 for half an hour to show their own programme. (Commonly regarded by the newsroom journos as indulgent artsy-fartsy exercises, the opt-outs were later replaced by news-led magazines such as “Inside Out”, more’s the pity). In our region, the person who approved or rejected opt out programme ideas and approved budgets at that time (c.1977) was our regional manager, Laurie Mason.
Laurie had been responsible for my appointment. Because he had been in the army in World War 2 and was later a pioneering journalist of note, I thought I was in with a chance. He didn’t seem bowled over though. In retrospect I think he, like most BBC managers, had a strong sense of hierarchical correctness, and I probably came over as too pushy for my own good. After all, I was well down the food chain, not having served much time in the newsroom sweatshop.
I left the idea to stew for a while, but eventually Laurie agreed that I should take the idea further, and initially allocated a handsome budget of £100 (about £460 today). When I stopped laughing I explained that it was impossible to do justice to the idea for this sum, so a budget of £1968 (about £9,500 today) was eventually agreed.
Though this budget might have been comparable to other regional opt out features, it’s interesting to learn that David Lean’s largely inaccurate box office movie cost $70 million, adjusted for inflation. Never have so many buckles been swashed and rarely has the truth been allowed to get in the way of such a good story. Hardly a fair comparison I agree. (The BBC tariff now for commissioned regional programmes varies between £5,000 and £200,000 per hour and ITV budgets for commissioned factual programmes run out anywhere between £150,000 and £300,000 per hour.)
Apart from the relatively low budget and the potential for disrupting internal harmony at South Western House, the other problems, as I can now see with hindsight, were really to do with my own lack of experience. Up to 1976, I had not produced or directed a documentary. Trailers and magazine programmes in New Zealand, more trailers at White City, hundreds of hours directing live transmission, but no actual producing. Neither had I ever worked as a journalist.
In retrospect I made two fundamental errors: I misjudged the duration of the proposed programme, and I didn’t research the target audience. It seemed to me that the story of Lawrence’s time in the South of England could not be shoe-horned into the standard half-hour opt out slot, so we settled for a two 30 minute programmes. Big mistake. I also just assumed that anyone living in the South of England would automatically be interested in the story of a fallen hero who tried to hide from the glare of publicity, partly on their patch.
Anyway, here’s the storyline:
Lawrence had united the Bedouin tribes in World War 1, helping to drive out the Turkish oppressors, mainly by blowing up their supply trains. Back in blighty he was transformed into a dashing hero by Lowell Thomas, an American propagandist. Lawrence felt he had been unscrupulously manipulated into betraying the arabs after the war. He was appointed by Churchill as an advisor and attended the Cairo Conference in 1921. He may have suffered a “subconscious breakdown”. As an exercise in atonement he wrote “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” in 1922, but this attracted unwanted press attention, so he tried to escape the limelight by enlisting in the RAF as John Hume Ross, with help from people in high places.
He hated the brutality of basic training and managed to get transferred in 1922 to the RAF School of Photography Farnborough. He wanted to be chief photographer but the RAF said no. He always cultivated people in high places: Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy, Augustus John, Lady Astor, Elgar, George Bernard Shaw (his wife Charlotte quasi adopted Lawrence as her son). His cover had been blown and he was discharged; for a while he slept rough in London and hinted at suicide. Strings were pulled and in 1925 he re-enlisted as 338171 Aircraft Hand Thomas Edward Shaw and was posted first to Uxbridge and then to Cranwell, employed to keep the college paperwork in order.
Lawrence sought relief through speed. He came by a number of Brough Superior motorbikes and had occasional crashes. “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” was abridged and published as “Revolt in the Desert”. Once more escaping publicity he was posted to RAF Karachi. Here he wrote “The Mint”, a frank account of RAF basic training brutalities. Suspecting his cover was blown yet again he transferred to Fort Miramsha on the Afghanistan border. Civil war broke out there and the press caught up once again, speculating that he was a spy. He was rushed back in secret to England but the press found out so he was sent to Plymouth to help WC Sydney Smith with flying boats.
In 1929 he was transferred with Sydney Smith to Calshot on Southampton Water, not far from his childhood home, to help with preparations for the Schneider Trophy competition. At last he found a niche as a developer of high-speed launches. In 1931 he was attached to the British Power Boats Company at Hythe, on Southampton Water.
He also became involved in the research and development of ground effect aerofoil boats. Having expressed radical views about military policy, attracting yet more press attention, and once more embarrassing top brass, he applied to be discharged but remained in the RAF, living incognito in Southampton. His last posting was to Bridlington but he cycled back to his Dorset Cottage Clouds Hill, planning retirement. Still dogged by the press, he had a fight with a journalist who threw stones at his tiles, installed a hot water system and planned a printing press. On May 13 1935 Lawrence was thrown off his motorbike and later died in hospital. The inquest was held in a military hospital and the Coroner returned a verdict of accidental death. The press had a field day, spreading rumours of a sinister black car in the vicinity of the crash, spying etc. The funeral, held the same day at Moreton Church was attended by Winston Churchill and Lady Astor.
Despite the odds “Lawrence of England” did eventually get made and was transmitted on BBC1 in the South of England in two parts on the 12th and 19th of January 1979 at 10.15pm. A graveyard slot if ever I saw one, but justified because of the adult content concerning Lawrence’s flogging sessions at Clouds Hill. As far as I know, it has never been repeated or shown elsewhere, and I very much doubt that the BBC has archived it.
If you Google “Lawrence of England”, you’ll be hard pushed to see any evidence that the programme was made at all. Just one reference on The T.E. Lawrence Studies site, until recently run by Lawrence’s official biographer, the late Jeremy Wilson, filed under TV programmes: “Lawrence of England, BBC South TV, 1978. Two-part television documentary written and narrated by David Lomax, with contributions by Jeremy Wilson.” (No credit for me!).
To be honest, the fact that the programme was completed and transmitted was largely down to Jeremy and David, and it’s a real shame that neither of them is around to accept my gratitude.
Jeremy had recently been commissioned as official biographer by Lawrence’s younger brother Arnold, his brother’s principal trustee, in an attempt to put the Lawrence story straight following the publication of various biographies, by writers such as Philip Knightley and Richard Aldington, and of course that pesky David Lean Film. As official biographer Jeremy held the trump card – exclusive access to all of Lawrence’s private correspondence, so I contacted him and we met up at his cottage in the New Forest. I rather expected that he would fob me off, as yet another potential myth maker, but he gave me a fair hearing and agreed to be interviewed for my programme if I ever made it, and act as a consultant if need be. In the event his contribution was to be invaluable, even when it came to the taboo subject of Lawrence’s sexuality, before it became public knowledge. As well as writing the biography, Jeremy spent the rest of his life putting the record straight and helping others to get it right.
I had contacted Arnold Lawrence, but he turned me down. Politely of course. “My policy therefore has been and still is to give no semblance of approval and no assistance to anyone except the official biographer who alone has the requisite documentary knowledge” [Private letter, 31/01/78].
Because Arnold would not cooperate personally and Jeremy had only recently started on the biography, my research had to be restricted mainly to published sources. I have to admit that I did not fully realise what I was taking on, but this was probably a good thing. Just to be clear about resources, unlike my card-carrying producer colleagues, I had to work most of the time without a production assistant, dodging around my day-job duties in the studio and newsroom. For a while I did get some valuable help with the research from Frank Ash (later a bigwig in the BBC Academy), who worked then as a station assistant at BBC South.
I cannot recall how long it took to follow up all the leads, but it must have been at least a year before I ended up with a tangled mass of notes, contact details, photographs, archive films and the like, and not a clue as to how to put it all together. (I still have most of this stuff!)
And that is how it remained, stalled, until someone, Laurie Mason I think, found a rescuer. My project had been mentioned to David Lomax, a well-known and accomplished TV journalist and presenter, (beekeeper and avid sailor,) who just happened to live in our region and had some time on his hands. He wasn’t too interested in making money, but as a former RAF pilot he was genuinely keen to help. This was my second stroke of luck, and I remember well how together we bashed the programme into shape over two days at his home in deepest Berkshire. It was the best short course in factual TV scriptwriting I could ever have wished for.
Because the budget was by now nearly exhausted, there was no question of filming David as presenter on location, so I had little choice but go for a studio reportage treatment, using the ludicrous first floor studio at South Western House. No mean feat when it came to getting TE’s last motorbike up the grand staircase.
Technically, the idea was to pre-record all the links and other studio stuff on videotape, then stitch the whole thing together using an ingenious process of down-the-line videotape mixing between Southampton and Bristol. The reasons for this unorthodox approach were twofold; we only had one videotape machine in Southampton and all the necessary technical facilities qualified as “below-the-line” costs, using the good old accounting method in use at the BBC before they got into “total costing”. This required a degree of technical ingenuity and some persuasiveness. Good job I had learned that kind of thing in the NZBC; nobody does ingenuity like the Kiwis.
Not sure where the persuasiveness came from. Probably desperation.
The same principles applied to other elements, such as voice-overs, which I cajoled from colleagues, Alan Knight (film editor and amateur actor), John Turnbull (Journalist) Gaynor Kimpton Smith, (Journalist with a posh accent) and Don Osmond (South Today producer with a genuine Hampshire accent). Rank amateurism all of it, but it worked. (Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the graphics or the set design which were rubbish. Two of the many reasons why I hesitate to show the whole programme again.)
In retrospect, Lawrence of England was a curate’s egg – good in parts. A fast-moving, engaging and accurate script written and presented by an expert journalist, lots of archive film and stills and two alternative reconstructions of Lawrence’s last motorbike ride using the very same Brough Superior from which Lawrence fell to his death, filmed close to where the accident occurred. Even a flashback filmed at one of Lawrence’s early childhood homes, starring my eldest daughter and one of her classmates. Small triumphs, teased out of two years of slog.
With hindsight, the main downside stemmed mostly from my mistake in going for 2 half hours. The programme ended up padded out and unbalanced – too much about Lowell Thomas, the American journalist who made Lawrence into an early twentieth century celebrity, an unduly long “story-so-far” sequence at the beginning of Part Two, too much made of the Brough Superior motorbike just because I had found the real one, and arguably the unwisdom of including testimony by Claire Sydney Smith, who rather missed the point about “Tes” and who was later discredited.
This was a tough learning experience for me, and I just hope that “Lawrence of England” might have proved moderately interesting for the few who had the one-and-only opportunity to catch it. I suspect it might also have been helpful to Julia Cave when she covered much the same ground in one section of her definitive and comprehensive TV Omnibus documentary “Lawrence and Arabia” shown nationally in 1986. (You can bet she didn’t make this programme on a shoestring. Sour grapes, I know.) I had left the BBC by the time her documentary was aired, but I would not be too surprised if she or her researcher had seen it somehow.
Ah well, it’s only telly.
Lawrence of England excerpts
Lowell Thomas creates Lawrence of Arabia:
Lawrence joins the Army:
Lawrence re-enlists in the RAF. (Features the Brough Superior motorbike he was riding when he died):
Why did Lawrence join the RAF?
Scheider Trophy and a childhood flashback
The Death of T E Lawrence:
RIP Lowell Thomas, Jeremy Wilson, David Lomax, Laurie Mason and Don Osmond.
Postscript: One small satisfaction – during my research I managed to get in touch with Lowell Thomas, the man behind the myth. I have two hitherto unpublished letters from him, written when he was 86, in which he claims that his “priceless” film “long ago turned to powder” (he was wrong about that), that Lawrence was “one of the outstanding personalities of our era”, that he ” …..attended my show at least twice, on the QT” and that they were always on the best of terms.
He also adds as a handwritten afterthought that Lawrence was “..not a queer”.
Lowell Thomas died three years after the transmission of “Lawrence of England”; in the second letter he offered to “meet up sometime” but alas this never happened. You can download both letters below, unedited:
These two consecutive clips from the Omnibus documentary cover the period from 1920 to 1935: