Life & Culture

A Writer's Journey: Interview with Frederic Raphael

The writer is smart, funny, and honest about antisemitism.


When Frederic Raphael applied to Cambridge, he wrote at the top of the first page of his essay, "art is one of the four things that unite men" (Turgenev). "I didn't know anything about Turgenev," he confessed years later. "I didn't know what the other three things that united men were. One of them, you can depend on it, is antisemitism."

This is pure Raphael. Smart, funny, and honest about antisemitism. You can almost hear the lines being spoken by Tom Conti as Adam Morris in The Glittering Prizes, the 1976 BBC drama that made Raphael a household name.

He belongs to that small pantheon of writers, who emerged in the 1950s and '60s, who were not afraid to highlight antisemitism in post-war Britain. It was one of the reasons The Glittering Prizes was so important. Adam Morris was one of the first central Jewish characters in a TV drama series. Funny, smart, good-looking, he changed the way Jews were represented on British television.

There is a memorable scene that was based on Raphael's own experience and he tells the story in his new memoir, Going Up. As a schoolboy at Charterhouse, he had witnessed an antisemitic sermon by the Provost of Guildford. The Provost had described Jesus going to sell his handiwork to a shopkeeper in Nazareth. "And the shopkeeper," he declared, "being a Jew, would give him as little for it as possible".

The young Raphael penned "a sardonic letter" to the Provost and was hauled in front of the headmaster, who ignored the Provost's antisemitism, instead punishing the student for speaking out. He was dropped from the shortlist of candidates for a scholarship at Christ Church, Oxford, which is how he ended up at Cambridge.

Was it brave to write that letter? "It's not brave to tell the truth. It's a duty. If something disgraceful happens to a Jew, to a black person, you speak out." In Going Up, he describes how, in the late 1950s, he resigned from his club because it would not accept a black member.

Although Raphael has a reputation for being difficult, he maintains he is "an extremely timid person". But to be a Jew today "means knowing that the opposite of cowardice is not courage. It's doing what you have to do." The exchange raises an interesting question about awkward Jews - Raphael, George Steiner, Jonathan Miller, Arnold Wesker. They all have a reputation for being difficult. So here's the question: Are they difficult because they have spent years speaking out about antisemitism? Or is speaking out what defines them as difficult?

Raphael's memoir is a wonderful evocation of '50s Britain. He describes seeing Olivier, Paul Scofield and Ralph Richardson on stage, going to see Bill Edrich and the Compton twins play cricket for Middlesex - and worrying about getting called up to fight in the Korean War. Best of all are the telling details. His father, head of press relations at Shell, wined and dined at the Berkeley Hotel in Piccadilly for influential City journalists, Le Perroquet in Leicester Square for lesser mortals, like the young William Rees-Mogg (later editor of The Times). Buildings still ruined from the Blitz. The head porter at St John's, Cambridge, "in top hat, black coat and striped trousers". And for a young Jewish student, all that silence about the Holocaust.

Raphael's relationship to Britain, then and now, is far from straightforward. Born in Chicago in 1931, he came here as a schoolboy, just before the war and never went back, except to make films in Hollywood (he received an Academy Award for best screenplay and was nominated for another but that will be in the next volume). He and his parents moved to Putney - they were the kind of Jews who did not want to live in north London. "We did not celebrate the foundation of the State of Israel." His father, Cedric, "made no attempt to teach me or have me taught [Hebrew]".

Maybe that is why he speaks of his "cultural doubleness", recalling his younger self as "a sort of shadow American".

Two of the best chapters in the book are about his time at Cambridge. Lots of big names: Peter Hall, already a rising star in student theatre, the cartoonist Mark Boxer; Bertrand Russell's last public lecture. There are waspish descriptions. He recalls going to the offices of the student paper, Varsity, and introducing himself to the new editor, Michael Winner. "He sported an unreformed accent that owed nothing to Oxbridge phonetics and a slouchy black leather blouson."

He married straight after Cambridge. He and Betty - "Beetle" -have been married 60 years and she is the unsung heroine of his memoir. They spent much of the next 10 years travelling with their young family, living in Spain, France, Italy and Greece. Why all the travelling? "We had no money." If I'd been quicker, I would have pointed out that as soon as he started making money from film and TV screenplays he bought a small place in the Greek islands, and then a house in southern France, where he's sitting now, watching the cricket.

Was all this travelling really about getting away from an England where he didn't fully belong? That "cultural doubleness" again? But he doesn't really consider himself an outsider. It sounds too much like self-pity, he says. "I have lived through a bloody era and by good fortune I have lived an untroubled life."

Surely there are regrets? There is no pause or tell-tale silence. "Why was I not as successful as a number of other writers? Why have I not won literary awards? Because I don't write the thing that gets awards or perhaps I am not good enough. I am not an outcast. I'm a lucky kind of outcast."

In The Glittering Prizes, there is mention of Raphael's Oscar for Darling, a mid-60s drama starring Dirk Bogarde and Julie Christie. It ends with rave reviews for Adam Morris's latest novel. Raphael is not one for false modesty. You could say that when someone's that successful and productive, it's hard to be too modest. This year alone, in his mid-80s, he has four new books out.

In the last scene of the The Glittering Prizes, there is a remarkable passage from Adam Morris's book: "They asked him how he had managed for so long to lead a double life. He replied that nothing could be easier. As long as he could keep just one chamber of his castle locked and its contents safe from scrutiny."

I ask which chamber he kept locked. It is the very idea of being known that he is questioning, he explains. "Part of us is nothing to do with anyone else. That's all. There has to be something that one withholds.

"Reticence has a way of being very eloquent."

A prolific writer, famous screenwriter, honest and outspoken, Raphael has no truck with easy explanations. He hasn't the time. He is too intelligent. It's no coincidence that Wittgenstein is one of the key figures in Going Up.

Frederic Raphael doesn't march with any band but now reads his favourite writers (few of them British, many of them French), and has his beloved Greece and Rome - and cricket. His last concession to England.

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