When Moral Writers Tackle Shocking Subjects

Christopher Fowler
gregorycrewdson2-103-beneaththeroses300dpi Novels are divided into classes. There are the intellectual exercises, the grand style experiments, the century-wide statements of the human condition, some readable, some not, many of which win academic prizes. And there are books that can speak truths although they aim for a middle market of readable, nicely written stories that sell. This is the story of Margaret Bingley. Authors like Ms Bingley can be successful in their own right without impinging on the consciousness of an attention-deficient public, whose recall-rate of virals featuring inadequate Russian driving skills is above works by novelists who bring a lifetime of experience to their craft. Equally, critics will ignore writers they consider solid and old-fashioned in favour of current literary darlings. Bingley is a working writer. She doesn't like reality TV, alternative comics or political correctness. She penned a column in her local paper, the Grantham Journal, called 'The Way I See It'. In photographs she's a natural smiler, and appears quite at ease with herself. I suspect that if we met we would hold quite different views. It really doesn't matter; I admire her because she's a steel fist in an oven glove. After the success of 'Fifty Shades of Grey', Bingley's erotic volumes, written under the pseudonyms of Fredrica Alleyn and Marina Anderson, were all reissued with glamorous new covers. Their titles say it all; 'Fiona's Fate', 'Dark Secret', 'Forbidden Desires'. But before this she wrote unclassifiable thrillers, 'Such Good Neighbours', 'Children of the Night', 'After Alice Died', 'Gateway To Hell' and others. She is not someone I would have sought out in a bookshop, but back in the 1980s a TV producer commissioned me to adapt her novel 'The Waiting Darkness' for television. I quickly realised it wasn't my kind of book; the language was plain and straightforward, the setting a suburban world from which I had spent years distancing myself, but as a hungry would-be author I accepted my one-and-only commission and set to work. I didn't meet Bingley, and I don't know if she even knew about me or what I had been commissioned to do with her novel. It's not until you strip down a novel into its component pieces that you realise how well constructed it is. Behind the net curtains in 'The Waiting Darkness', where young Rosalind tries to be the perfect wife to her weak older husband, there's something unpleasant afoot. Her daughter Anna is uncontrollable, and sets out to poison her stepfather's mind against his new wife any way she can — but why would she do such a thing? The outcome took me totally by surprise. I realised that what I had here was something fresh and subversive, a viral ghost story of deviant psychology quite devastating in its implications. It worked because it was about a moral breakdown as much as a supernatural story, and could therefore only have been written by someone who understood what it meant to have a moral compass. The finished script left BBC executives aghast, but the book was so well structured that I couldn't remove anything they found offensive. There was a lot to be offended by, but only when you realised the implications for the family at the centre of the plot. The more you thought about it, the more disturbing it became. I rewrote endlessly to lessen the impact, but the executives backed off. Finally they decided that they weren't looking for anything like this at all, no matter how much they liked the idea of being edgy. If only we could have waited a few years, we'd have had a winner, but these things are always about timing. The trouble is that what once shocked can no longer have any effect when fundamental morality has been largely abandoned. Who knew we'd eventually live in a world where someone as morally repugnant as Simon Cowell would be regarded with respect? What would it take now to rattle the cage of a television executive?
So kudos, Mrs B, you once shocked a national institution. The photograph is by Gregory Crewdson, whose desolate pictures of American homes and streets perfectly evoke the mood we were after.


Helen Martin (not verified) Sun, 23/02/2014 - 23:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I wonder if it would have played out better in the US. Probably no better then than in Britain, I guess. Moral compass. Are people today really without one? It may be responding to a different point and be weaker than in earlier versions but I think there still is one operating. Did the Lord Chancellor's office continue longer than one would have thought possible because performance artists have different compasses and non-performance people don't get what they're doing?

Vivienne (not verified) Mon, 24/02/2014 - 00:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Admin here is talking about a work of fiction, which is what The Lord Chancellor's office was also dealing with. Performance artists may explore the far reaches of behaviour, but do they necessarily encounter it or behave like that themselves? Clearly not or they wouldn't bother to confront us with it, it would be too ordinary. I do think that given some sort of stable upbringing we hold onto our instinctive moral compass. This country is one of the safest for not being murdered in, despite Bryant and May, and all those lesser detectives of fiction being kept busy. That must speak for itself.

Christopher Fowler Mon, 24/02/2014 - 07:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Actually I think individually people are extremely moral, sometimes too much so, in the UK, but collectively the press treats them as if they have none at all. Most sane people are creeped out by Simon Cowell and feel sympathy for those on benefits who are trying to work.

snowy (not verified) Mon, 24/02/2014 - 14:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'm still puzzling over the chronology of this, it would have been after 'Scum' and after 'Brimstone and Treacle'? But before the 'Red Triangle' films and 'The Singing Detective'?

(You should have kept the original post title, IMVHO, much more fun.)

Helen Martin (not verified) Mon, 24/02/2014 - 19:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Yes, I thought I had missed something. The Singing Detective was the first series I tried to tape and I got myself all tangled up in it. It was quite an interesting story line until I found out what had caused that - rats! I really didn't want to remember that scene.