By Brian Jarman
I’ve wanted to meet Mr Tydeman for many years. And for most of those years, to be precise, I wanted to find out if he was real.
It was to John Tydeman of the BBC, you may recall, that 13 ¾-year-old Adrian Mole sent his poems. The creation of Sue Townsend, his diaries were one of the wonders of the publishing world in the 1980s, a little akin to Harry Potter now. But whereas Potter’s life is magic, Mole wrote of the mundane life of a teenager in the Midlands.
In the diaries, Mr Tydeman would give encouraging replies to Mole’s efforts: ‘Our Poetry Department is inundated with autumnal pieces. The smell of bonfires and the crackling of leaves pervade the very corridors. Good try, but try again, eh?’
I’m pleased to report that John Tydeman is alive and well and living in Great Titchfield Street – and very real. He retired as Head of Radio Drama at the BBC fourteen years ago.
It was an acting friend who sent him Sue Townsend’s original script.
‘I thought it was terrific,’ says John. ‘I rang her and asked her to come down. She had no money. She asked for her fare. When she came in she had a hole in her shoe and hoped I wouldn’t notice.’
John found actor Nick Barnes to play the part (‘He WAS mole’) and put it out as a half an hour play on a Saturday afternoon.
‘I was here at home,’ says John. ‘The phone rang five times – all agents. It was very unusual.’
The publisher Methuen commissioned Sue to write a whole year’s worth of Mole’s diary.
‘In the course of this Sue would send me postcards and poems as if from Mole, so I just fell in with the game,’ says John.
John was no stranger to developing new talent. It was when he was a young BBC general trainee after university in 1959 that a playwright called Joe Orton walked into his office. John was spending three months in various departments and just happened to be working in Drama at the time.
‘Joe was wearing bovver boots and khaki. He said he’d just come out of prison,’ says John. ‘He’d been had up for defacing library books. He was revolutionary. I was a bit daunted.’
The play Joe had brought was called The Boy Hairdresser, which was later changed to The Ruffian On The Stairs. But it was his play Entertaining Mr Sloane that put him on the map.
John got him an agent in the form of the famous Peggy Ramsay and cast the actor Kenneth Cranham in the lead role. ‘We put it on at the Cambridge Theatre and the rest is history,’ says John.
John went on to produce a huge range of drama, from Shakespeare to Becket, from Coward to Stoppard, whose career he’d also helped launch. Before going to university at Cambridge he’d wanted to act himself.
‘But then I met people who were far better than me – Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Corin Redgrave.’
So he took up directing and liked to encourage new writing. He tried TV drama but found it boring.
‘The scripts were better in radio,’ he says. ‘And you’re your own master. What takes a couple of months in radio takes you a couple of years in TV. The machinery drives you mad.’
And actors like radio drama too.
‘They certainly don’t do it for the pay,’ he says. ‘But they don’t have to learn lines. And it gives them freedom to play roles they’d never play in the theatre: the thin man can play the fat man etc.’
He never had any trouble with actors, he says. You just don’t have time in radio.
And there’s no doubt about his all time favourite – Paul Scofield.
‘He was the best actor,’ says John. ‘He acted with his voice. Laurence Olivier did not have a good voice. It was rather thin.’
If you ask him who wrote the best plays for radio, his intriguing answer is Shakespeare.
‘The best radio play is Macbeth,’ he says. ‘The witches, the ghosts, the language. Shakespeare is always identifying people and describing the action.’
It’s the language of a play that creates the best scenery for radio. When he was younger, he was keen to use lots of sound effects to create an atmosphere.
‘As you get older you realise it’s not what you put in, it’s what you leave out. I did a play set in Africa. It was an hour long, but I used no sound effects at all. The language was so beautiful. People wrote in saying the sound effects were wonderful.’
Since he started as a BBC trainee at Broadcasting House fifty years ago, John has always lived in Central London, and has been in his present flat for 30 years.
‘I’ve always maintained you should be able to walk to work. I could be from bed to desk in five minutes. You could have drinks in the evening and totter home quite happily.’
The BBC drama watering holes were The George, The Stag, and The Yorkshire Grey, which was known as Studio YG.
He loves the area because it’s amazingly quiet and you can walk anywhere. He regrets the passing of local shops – butchers and fishmongers and so on – but thinks things have got better of the years.
‘It’s still got that Bohemian feel to it, but it’s cleaner and there’s a greater variety of restaurants,’ he says. ‘I keep talking about moving to the country but I don’t think I ever will.’
And he believes the area will get a new lease of life when the BBC moves all its news operations back to Broadcasting House.
‘If the rest of London disappeared, we’d be able to cope,’ he says. ‘We could declare Fitzrovia independent. It’s a well-kept secret.’