84, Charing Cross Road (1975)

JOHN WHEATCROFT

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.