Play for Today Writer: Hugh Whitemore; Adapted from: the book by Helene Hanff; Director: Mark Cullingham; Producer: Mark Shivas
‘…people going to England find exactly what they go looking for. I said I’d go looking for the England of English Literature…’
When Arthur Dent receives an alien tongue-lashing on arrival at yet another inhospitable planet during The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he observes in exasperation: ‘Why doesn’t anyone ever seem to pleased to see us?’1 One answer to that question might well be: ‘Because drama and comedy rely on conflict to make them work.’ There’s rarely a great deal of mileage to be extracted from people liking one another and generally getting on, but when the trick is pulled off, the results can be delightful and surprising.
This was the case with 84, Charing Cross Road, Hugh Whitemore’s adaptation of Helene Hanff’s book in which the New Yorker recorded her 20-year love affair with Marks & Co, a second-hand bookshop in London. It began in 1949 when Britain was still on the ration and ran through until the end of the 1960s. Hanff’s book reads like a cross-cultural epistolary novella, in which the straight- talking Yank (responding to the first letter from London which begins: ‘Dear Madam’, she comments: ‘I hope Madam doesn’t mean over there what it does over here’), eventually extracts the inner warmth from the more reserved and correct Brits.
For people familiar with the book, there must have been considerable pleasure in seeing how faithfully it was represented on screen. Its brevity spared Whitemore too many tough decisions about which scenes might be most expendable to fit the 75-minute Play for Today format. The production’s charm and lack of dramatic tension won over reviewer David Pryce-Jones who commented that 84, Charing Cross Road ‘touched a soft spot’. He added: ‘Its simplicity was immensely appealing…there were no raised voices, no bared breasts.’2
Initially Hanff (Anne Jackson) writes to Frank Doel (Frank Finlay) the shop manager, but eventually other members of the staff and their families are drawn into her warm embrace; middle-aged bachelor and book cataloguer Bill Humphries (George Malpas) writes to thank her for the pleasure the food parcels gave him and the great aunt with whom he lives. Cecily Farr (Ann Penfold) sends details of her young family and a recipe for Yorkshire pudding. ‘The human interest ripples outward as each person takes up the correspondence with Helene Hanff and blossoms,’ wrote Pryce-Jones. ‘Here were a lot of nice, generous ordinary people – the sort who have becomes strangers to TV and stage alike – where the drama of nasty, mean extraordinary people is much preferred.’3
The publicity blurb on the inner sleeve of Hanff’s book describes 84, Charing Cross Road as ‘the record of a love affair between a lady and a shop’.4 It can also be seen as an unrequited love affair between Hanff and Doel, two very different but similarly bookish individuals. There’s great poignancy in the fact that the two chief protagonists never meet. Outrageously large dental bills prevent Hanff from coming to Britain for the Coronation (‘Elizabeth will have to ascend the throne without me…teeth are all I’m going to see crowned’). Sixteen years later she has still not made it across the Atlantic and Doel’s sudden death from peritonitis hits the viewer like a tidal wave in a previously calm sea.
It could all have been a trifle syrupy, but Helen Hanff’s letters and Jackson’s performance ward off any potential schmaltz factor. There’s an occasional testiness on Hanff’s part over Frank’s correctness (it’s three years before he starts addressing his letters to Helene rather than Miss Hanff) and her observations about both writers and the quality of the books themselves are often acerbic: ‘This is not Pepys’ diary, this is some busybody editor’s miserable collection of excerpts from Pepys’ diary’… Richard Burton ‘got knighted for turning Catullus into Victorian hearts-and-flowers’). As Pryce-Jones observed, ‘her letters reveal her personality – witty, caustic, exploring her way though literature with spot-on judgments’.5 Hanff is also a true bibliophile, who likes the look and feel of old books, enjoys the idea that they have brought pleasure to others, and can be appropriately unsentimental, too; a book for which she has no further use, or doesn’t like, can simply be thrown out or passed on to someone who might appreciate it.
The BBC must have suspected that it was on to a winner with 84, Charing Cross Road, giving it a high profile in that week’s Radio Times. In an article by David Benedictus, Hanff and Jackson were brought together. Jackson admitted that she had been worried about playing a real person for only the second time in her career. Her previous experience of such a role had been as Ethel Rosenberg, the American woman who was executed in 1953 after being found guilty of spying for the Soviet Union, a part she’d called ‘grave snatching’.6 Jackson spent a lot of time trying to capture Hanff’s walk, which she described as ‘schlepping’7 and Hanff pronounced herself highly impressed with the performance, commenting: ‘She managed to make my faults endearing.’8
In common with many Play for Today productions, much of the work was studio bound but the production had an attractive period feel, especially in relation to the vanishing world of London’s second-hand bookshops. One Radio Times reader, Harry Blackmore of Bonchurch, was moved to comment: ‘At least one insignificant and impecunious customer will bear witness to the verisimilitude of the shop’s atmosphere.’9
In fact, the best description of Marks & Co comes from Hanff’s actress friend Maxine (Marcella Markham) who writes to her after going into the shop one lunch-time in 1951 while appearing in a London show. ‘It’s dim inside, you smell the shop before you see it. It’s a lovely smell, I can’t articulate it easily, but it combines must and dust and age, and walls of wood and floors of wood.’ Inevitably, perhaps, she thinks that it is ‘straight out of Dickens’, whose name Anglophile Americans have difficulty keeping out of any conversation about London. In Ordinary People (1980), when Mary Tyler Moore suggests to Donald Sutherland that they spend Christmas in London, she adds: ‘Wouldn’t that be like something out of Dickens?’10 Hanff’s food parcels to the grateful team at Marks & Co convey something of the flavour of ration-bound post-war Britain. Doel tells Hanff that George Martin, a senior staff member, has died. His further observation that the death of George VI contributes to their being ‘rather a mournful crowd at the moment’ hints at a world of deference that had yet to be swept away.
But 84, Charing Cross Road also includes sharp insights into American life. The inclusion of a scene showing Hanff in the television studio, where her adaptations of Ellery Queen are being created, provides a colourful picture of the early days of modern, consumer-driven America: ‘Did I tell you that we’re not allowed to use a lipstick-stained cigarette for a clue? We’re sponsored by the Baruka Cigar company and we’re not allowed to use the word cigarette.’11
Director Mark Cullingham conveys the passing of time economically with the insertion of news reels. Major events of the two decades during which Hanff writes are paraded across our screen (accompanied by appropriate choices of popular music) from the Berlin airlift, to Eisenhower’s first election victory, the Coronation, the arrival of The Beatles in the US and the assassination of John F Kennedy.
Many people will be familiar with 84, Charing Cross Road through the glossier 1986 cinema version, directed by David Jones. Whitemore was, once again, the writer and, apart from the production values, it’s much in the same vein stylistically and in tone as the original BBC drama. As in the later film version, Hanff directly addresses the camera when reading extracts from her letters to Doel. The rather quaint comment in Halliwell’s Film Guide (‘pleasant picturization of a now famous book which had already been on seen on TV and stage’)12 reflects the similarity of the two adaptations.
Perhaps the most significant difference lies in the performance of the two actors playing Doel: Anthony Hopkins appears to be higher up the social scale than Frank Finlay. Hopkins is almost neutral, while Finlay’s curious Brummie/Cockney hybrid is probably closer to the lower middle-class autodidact who wrote to Hanff. In both TV and cinema version of 84, Charing Cross Road, Frank’s Irish wife, Nora (Kate Binchy and Judi Dench respectively) emphasises how learned he is, although Finlay occasionally sounds – and looks with his funny little moustache – as if he’s more likely to offer you a low-mileage Morris Minor than a nice copy of Hazlitt’s essays. Or to sell Arthur Dent an old Ford Prefect.
But his fundamental decency is central to the play’s appeal. As Nora Doel writes to Hanff after her husband’s death: ‘Although Frank was never a wealthy or powerful man, he was a happy and contented one.’13
Originally posted: 2009 on the old Play for Today mini-site version of this site.
4 November 2010: first appearance on the main British Television Drama site.
17 February 2016: minor typographical corrections to quotation marks and endnote coding.
4 March 2017: revised ‘Updates’ section in line with current site practice.
John Wheatcroft is the author of Here in the Cull Valley, which is available from Stairwell Books here