Friday, February 14, 2014

To Serve Them All My Cliches

Three cheers for YouTube, thanks to which I've been able to unearth many of my favorite old British TV series and watch them for nothing. Most recently, I came across one of the best, To Serve Them All My Days, based on the novel by the now-forgotten R. F. Delderfield, a bestseller in his heyday, a kind of poor man's J. B. Priestley (himself now remembered for little more than The Good Companions, if that).

The story line is simple: In 1918 a young Welshman, recently invalided home from the trenches, applies for a job as a teacher at a snooty public school. Against all expectations except the audience's, he stays on, rises through the ranks, wins over the old codgers, and converts his Welsh socialism into benevolent pedagogy. He even manages to have an active sex life, albeit interrupted by the odd two-hankie tragedy. It's entirely satisfying to watch or to read, with surprises restricted to the strictly conventional sort. Delderfield, in his day an enormously popular novelist, summed up his mission by saying, "I set out to tell a straightforward story of a group of undistinguished British people—the only kind of people I really know." (One of the "write what you know" school.) No James Joyce he; no, he was a yeoman of literature, the author of a couple of dozen novels and several plays and histories. I should be half so prolific and capable.

I last saw the TV series when it was first shown over here, in 1981, eons ago now, in the misty past of my New York bachelor days. It stands up well, and indeed could be used in a creative-writing course as a lesson in plot development, characterization, and atmosphere. Having taught creative writing for the good folks at Western Connecticut State University for many years now, I've come to the conclusion that a good TV miniseries, or judicious excerpts therefrom, can be useful in the instruction of the basic narrative elements, the rest--style, syntax, the actual composition of a literate sentence--being the hard part.

Even the best of these series are full of cliches and stereotypes, but I turn that to our advantage by telling my students to embrace cliches, which sometimes can be helpful in pinpointing the essence of a character, or a period. In any case, what seems like a stereotype to me may be entirely foreign to my students. In To Serve Them All My Days, all the main characters are period types to a certain extent: the shell-shocked, passionate-Socialist Welsh miner's son; the languid, cynical, chain-smoking house philosopher; the bumbling but lovable clergyman-headmaster...and yet they're all entirely believable, and would have been familiar figures to the ordinary Briton of the 1920s. Better yet, they're memorable, because they fit perfectly in their roles and in the story as a whole. Consider Dickens: Most of his characters were based on stereotypes of the age that he knew his readers would recognize instantly. It was a kind of shorthand that enabled him to cut to the chase, to use a contemporary cliche....

Anyway, I've also learned through teaching that the cliches of my generation are frequently unknown to my students, who therefore greet them as fresh and exciting. And when they do, at least the subjects and verbs usually agree.

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