Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Rogue Male and Michael Jayston

Radio 4 Extra is now rebroadcasting Michael Jayston’s superb reading of Geoffrey Household’s pre-World War II thriller Rogue Male (playing every weekday in half-hour slots, each episode four times daily and on iPlayer, so it’s easy to catch). The anti-hero spends the book on the run from sinister agents of a great power, each examining the moral questions of the ‘sporting’ event that opens the story… Stripped of all ambiguity, you might call the inciting incident ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’. Michael Jayston’s acting career includes, of course, Doctor Who’s Valeyard – there are spoilers, if you don’t know who he is…

Geoffrey Household’s original book was written in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, and neither the British antihero nor the European dictator he takes a fancy to stalking like big game are named; the only significant character with a name is Major Quive-Smith, and while that’s certainly a name, it’s certainly not his. Michael Jayston’s unabridged reading was made for BBC7 (as was) in 2004, and was instantly so acclaimed that it’s been a feature of the station’s programming every year or two since (I praised it last four years ago).

Rogue Male is a compelling thriller, its first-person narrative ideal for a talking book, but it’s Mr Jayston that makes it. I’ve always thought he was a terrific actor, and his reading is brilliantly sardonic – the perfect note for a central character’s voice that we can’t hate, or the story wouldn’t work, but that it’s impossible to like. He’s been perfectly cast as both heroes and villains; this anti-hero’s pretty much dead-centre in between. One of his most memorable roles for me was A Bit of A Do’s Neville Badger, almost the archetypal Mr Nice Guy; the Rogue Male is about as far from a nice guy as you can get, and yet his pursuers are very much nastier. In reading the character as slightly distanced from the action, he almost seems to be taking you into his confidence, and succeeds in getting you on his side – no mean feat for a “gentleman” both of and very much outside the establishment who’s best-known as a big game hunter, and whose ambition for the ultimate game seems to have precipitated a reversal in which the hunter becomes the hunted. Though, of course, it may not be as straightforward as that…

I still hold with what I said in 2007, that I generally prefer my old-fashioned heroic adventures more tongue-in-cheek than this gritty ‘test of manhood’, and yet the way the story turns from rugged pursuit to philosophical introspection to near-feral survival instinct – and above all the layers of moral question and the layers the central character does or doesn’t reveal about himself – utterly draw me in. Decades ahead of its time, there are points when it anticipates The Day of the Jackal, with just as much tension but in many more shades of grey. So give it a go.

Incidentally, if you happen to know what the keening, mournful music is that sets the scene for each episode, could you let me know?

Michael Jayston and Rogue Male

Due to multitudes of ill health that it’s far too tedious to go into here, last weekend was the first time I managed to get to a Doctor Who convention for a full year. Two of them, in fact, and knackeringly (by the very reasonable Fantom Films people). The reason I swerve into this is that the biggest draw for me was special guest Michael Jayston, the weekend’s main Doctor. I jabbered excitedly about several of his roles as I got him to sign a bundle of DVD inserts, and regretted that there’s no CD of Rogue Male I could bring along to add to the pile. “Well, they’re always repeating it,” he suggested, with just a touch less enthusiasm than I might have expected, before moving on to ask if I’d heard the sequel, Rogue Justice; “I don’t think it’s nearly as good,” he commented. A bit of a relief, as I’m wary of telling people at signings which bits of their work aren’t so great, and though his performance was nearly as good when BBC7 got him in to record Rogue Justice in 2009, the novel really isn’t. A sequel written more than forty years later, abandoning the tension and claustrophobia of the original to leapfrog across different countries and this time blatantly pitting the main character against the Nazis, I told him I agreed: “It doesn’t have anything like the same intensity or ambiguity.” He nodded at that. But why the lack of enthusiasm for the original reading, when everyone I’ve talked to or read about it had loved it too?

Up on stage after he’d finished signing autographs, I had my answer. In a wide-ranging interview that only started at Doctor Who, Mr Jayston caught my eye in the audience and raised Rogue Male. At the time, he’d just spent two or three months doing audiobooks and was, as he said, “match fit”; they booked him for six days to record Rogue Male, and he did it in three, flying through that sort of work after a couple of months’ limbering up. So when it began broadcasting and friends in the business – directors, other actors – starting ringing him up to say how brilliant it was, he thought they were taking the piss. To him, it was just a job he’d galloped through with ease in three days, but because people rate it so highly and it’s frequently repeated, he feels mildly embarrassed at the attention it gets. The same is true of his Only Fools and Horses, again only a few days’ work, and the one drunks always recognise him for – he’ll go through most of his career, than say “I was the one who found the watch” last, and it’s always that.

Doctor Who and The Valeyard

Michael Jayston was the first actor to play James Bond on the radio in Britain, and (along with Patrick Mower and Anthony Hopkins) nearly got the big job in the ’70s; he’s the only actor to be both a partly apocryphal James Bond and a partly apocryphal Doctor. In 1986’s Doctor Who – The Trial of a Time Lord, he was the Valeyard, prosecuting counsel in the Doctor’s trial, and a title that’s said to mean ‘Doctor of Law’. In fact, it’s a wholly made-up word with a bogus definition as a hint: he’s really the Doctor’s future self, and has it in for himself in a big way, at least according to the orthodox interpretation – Millennium’s made a convincing case that he’s really the goodie. And asked if he’d like to return as the Valeyard – or simply Doctor – Mr Jayston was quite certain: yes.
“There’s no doubt about it – I am one of the Doctors.”

“I keep sending messages to Steven Moffat… He was a very young writer when I worked for him and I thought, he’s good, he’s going places.”
That was when he played a figure not entirely unlike the Doctor or John Steed in UneXpected, one of the stranger episodes of Steven Moffat’s first TV series, Press Gang – and viewers of The Trial of a Time Lord might find the Doctor’s evil other self or a story inspired by A Christmas Carol not entirely un-Moffated in Amy’s Choice or, indeed, A Christmas Carol. But let’s hope he comes round to re-using Michael Jayston, too. I have to admit, seeing the Valeyard himself act out the final scene of Terror of the Vervoids live on stage on Sunday was a particular highlight…

And did you know that he’s been a friend of Tom Baker’s since 1969, often exchanging unprintable emails with him and describing Tom as “as mad as ever”? Though it wasn’t Mr Jayston (Tsar Nicholas) who got Tom his major role in 1971’s film of Nicholas and Alexandra: Peter O’Toole (ironically also the lead in the film version of Rogue Male that no-one’s ever seen) was cast as Rasputin, but it took a while for them to put the film together – so his contract ran out and he put up two fingers to the producer. Laurence Olivier suggested out of work actor Tom Baker, because he was very talented. And they could get him for a pittance, which they did.
“‘He’s working on a building site,’ said Sir Larry. ‘I admire his dedication – it’s marvellous for building up the muscle tone for parts.’ ‘Bugger muscle tone,’ said Tom. ‘I need the fucking money.’”
Sorry, I’ve Got No Head

Meanwhile, as I type, I’m half-watching and laughing at another episode of mostly fabulous sketch show Sorry, I’ve Got No Head on BBC1. Now in its third season, if you’ve ignored it because it debuted on CBBC or because it goes out on weekday afternoons, don’t; like every sketch show, some bits are better than others, but the better bits are great. If you’ve seen it this before, there are twists in how the complete git parents have developed, or Marcus Brigstocke’s overgrown French exchange student who’s been there twenty years; David Armand’s Witchfinder General still has anyone who winds him up even slightly, usually in a queue, carried off as a witch (a curious mixture of evil witch-hunt and, er, consumer champion); and while I don’t think much of the new ‘mousetrap’ sketches, Mel Giedroyc looking for her big dog makes me laugh (and beat Wilfred to it), you can’t fail to be moved by a deadly serious study of the misery of addiction (involving a clown’s reaction to custard pies), and they’ve dropped the tedious computer game characters. The snowman’s still a frighteningly Daily Mail sort of sketch, though. If you’ve got something against kids’ shows, bear in mind that the cast’s pretty much the same as for, say, The Armstrong and Miller Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, and some of James Bachman’s characters tend to bleed into Harry Biscuit, which is a bonus (cakes. Why did it have to be cakes?).

As far as I’m concerned, though, nothing can beat the increasingly postmodern and multi-layered (and that’s just their blouses) Jasmine and Prudith. Look, if you can’t work your home recording device of choice (maybe my bees can help?), it’s on iPlayer, too, and that costs nothing more than your internet connection.

Oh, here we go. Money. Filthy lucre. Nothing’s free these days! Internet connections – with the telephone wires on top, and fibre-optics paid by the strand. The sound doesn’t come cheap, either. Extra for each pixel, too, I shouldn’t wonder. And a special supplement on the TV licence for using your is when you play them. When all’s said and done, I shouldn’t think you’d get much change out of a thousand pounds!


Oh, I should say about a thousand pounds. It’s what these things cost these days.

No, no, it doesn’t cost –

A thousand pounds! It’s too much, a thousand pounds!

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Hello! Wonderfully interesting article on Michael Jayston! I was wondering if I could quote you on some things that Michael said about his work on my website for him? (here:
Thank you, and yes, of course - my pleasure.
Hi Alex

After becoming somewhat obsessive about the intro music to Rogue Male, I finally, after some considerable trawling, discovered the music and believe me when I say had to trawl hard, very hard!

It is Glassworks by Philip Glass. Movement V: Façades.

A truly haunting but exquisite piece!

Enjoy. :)
Ah, thank you very much, m'lud!

I knew it was familiar; it was also used in a programme about Henry VIII I saw earlier this year, and someone else had helped identify it then, but I'd not been able to place it out of context. I've ordered it now...
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