sat 21/09/2019

Barneys, Books and Bust Ups, BBC Four review - the Booker Prize at 50 | reviews, news & interviews

Barneys, Books and Bust Ups, BBC Four review - the Booker Prize at 50

Barneys, Books and Bust Ups, BBC Four review - the Booker Prize at 50

The award's half-century has brought scandals aplenty, welcome publicity pay-offs, too

Gilded company, Guildhall: the 2017 Booker night

You had to keep your eyes skinned. Was that Iris Murdoch or AS Byatt, Kingsley Amis or John Banville, Margaret Atwood or Val McDermid – maybe, even, Joanna Lumley? Tables as far as the eye can see, dressed with white tablecloths and crowded with wine glasses. A glittering banquet with oceans of booze, it seems, mostly champagne, lots of hugging, kissing, shouting and clouds of gossip, all accompanied by television cameras.

Barneys, Books and Bust Ups was a vastly entertaining documentary of the (Man) Booker Prize’s first 50 years, narrated in the soothing tones of Kirsty Wark. We witnessed vignettes from the annual black-tie knees-up, when those mole-like creatures – writers working away in solitude creating novels – are illuminated for just a moment by the light of celebrity. We heard from the critics, John Carey at the fore, lamenting the lack of luminaries such as Robert Harris from the notorious lists (because popularity may be seen as somewhat shameless), and Robert McCrum, long-time literary editor of the Observer, as well as agents, publishers, and James Daunt, the bookseller. And there was a wonderfully embarrassing moment when Selina Scott interviewed Angela Carter but didn’t recognise her.

We had Julian Barnes, rumoured to be cross about nominations but no win, calling it 'posh bingo' The Booker, its various name and rule changes notwithstanding, is part of British life, perhaps the greatest prize in the English language. Winning is life-changing, with the roll call featuring a handy honours list of English fiction of the past half-century. The prize is manna for literary publicity, scandal, controversy, but with a big pay-off both intellectually and commercially. The Canadian Yvan Martel’s Life of Pi, the winner in 2013, has sold 13 million copies – and been made into a movie, also transforming the fortunes of Canongate, Jamie Byng’s small Scottish publishing company. The young and hitherto unknown Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children sold a million copies after its 1981 victory.

Its long term administrator Martyn Goff artfully leaked some confidential controversies among its annually appointed five judges, who often have to read over 150 novels in the course of the Booker Year (November 30 to the following December 1). It made for a romp through the book prize that everyone loves to hate (but still debates). It may be a war of words, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t painful as well as inspiring. We had Julian Barnes, rumoured to be cross about nominations but no win (until he did in 2011 for The Sense of an Ending), calling it “posh bingo”. There was Julia Neuberger sounding off as one of the judges on how much she hated James Kelman’s expletive-jammed 1994 low-life Glaswegian novel How Late It Was, How Late. It was ever thus: Malcolm Muggeridge, St Mug, ever the noisy moralist, resigned in 1971 because he thought the entries pornographic.Booker 2017The prize has gone from £5,000 in its first year – his daughters told us PH Newby probably used it to pay off the mortgage – to £50,000 now. It has been political, with handsome and privately rich John Berger, who won for his experimental novel G telling off Booker, the company whose fortune came from Caribbean sugar, for colonialism, and donating his prize money to good causes in the West Indies, and possibly the Black Panthers (which the programme did not mention). Booker sponsorship eventually gave way to investment firm Man, and it became Man Booker.

It all came about, we learnt, from the now octogenarian publisher Tom Maschler’s youthful admiration for French literary life. He had spent a lot of time in Paris where there was the Prix Goncourt, and a winner’s publisher would see victory multiply sales by some ten times. Maschler turned to Booker McConnell, which had diversified into buying up author’s copyrights – and what authors! Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie and Robert Bolt, for starters – and convinced them to put something back. They did, in the form of £5,000 for the winning writer of a novel in English; nice that the company was called Booker, too. Initially it included citizens of Ireland, the British Commonwealth and South Africa; now, as long as you write in English and are published in the UK you can be a citizen of anywhere, so the Americans have arrived. (Pictured above, the 2017 finalists: winner George Saunders, second from right)Booker 2018In its first year, Newby’s winner Something to Answer For shot to the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list – the first Booker bounce. In the 1980s it came of age and the Booker Prize became a kind of prize fight, its authors celebrities. Anthony Burgess was filmed famously sulking about the small provincial parochial prize as he lost out to William Golding. There was a furore, too, when Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy was not on any list, long or short. (Pictured above, the 2018 contender novels)

Drink fuelled a lot. John Banville vividly described being totally drunk at the banquet when he was first on a shortlist – his wife coached him into practicing just saying thank-you, but he wasn’t chosen; he won his second time round (The Sea, 2005). He had a feeling his luck was in when he saw a lone duck at the Serpentine fight off a horde of gulls to get the bread (he, of course, was the duck). Hilary Mantel made a vivid, formidable and thrilled appearance, winning for Wolf Hall in 2009 and Bring Up the Bodies in 2012 – only the third author, and the first woman, to win the Booker twice. Peter Carey has also won twice. It is like being run over by a truck, he confided.

But what the Booker has really done, as Jon Morrice’s entertaining and fact-filled programme really showed, is to make books news, contributing perhaps surprisingly to the survival of publishing, bookshops, and – guess what? – readers.

We witnessed vignettes from the annual black-tie knees-up, when those mole-like creatures - writers working away in solitude creating novels - are illuminated for just a moment by the light of celebrity


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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