The Life and Work of W. Somerset Maugham

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The Lives and Work of W. Somerset Maugham. Prod. Mike Greenwood. Perf. Simon Fanshawe. BBC Radio 4 Extra, 28 Feb. 2015. BBCiPlayer to 30 Mar. 2015

This three-hour biographical tribute to Somerset Maugham, marking the fiftieth anniversary of his death, told the story of a man who had a troubled childhood in Whitstable, but grew up to be Britain's best-selling author whose works were adapted for film, television and radio more than anyone else during his lifetime. Even today his plays continue to be regularly revised: Radio 4's production of "For Services Rendered" (2013) was recently repeated (and reviewed

With contributions from a variety of guests including Maugham's biographer Selina Hastings and Sir Ronald Harwood (who adapted his novel "Theatre" into a highly successful film "Being Julia" (2004)), this three-hour long documentary told the story of a complex personality - a generous man who could also be tremendously cruel; a prodigious worker who thought that his work was nothing more than average (shades of Salieri in Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus"); and a socialite who spent much of his life living out of Britain, mostly in the south of France. His circle of friends was wide and influential; many of them came to his château to spend their time eating, drinking and making merry. For the first part of his life at least, everything seemed perfect for a man who made his reputation writing best-sellers.

Yet the documentary suggested that for all his success, Maugham was not a happy person. He married Syrie Wellcome in 1917 after a much-publicized divorce from her first husband Henry (of the pharmaceutical company) and together they had a daughter Liza. The marriage was not a happy one and they divorced twelve years later: Syrie became a noted interior decorator. Thereafter Maugham lived with two male companions, Gerald Saxton (who died in 1944) and Alan Searle. Yet his love-life was never smooth; he once claimed that he lived with people "who cared nothing for me." During many of his soirées at his château he indulged in sexual high jinks, almost as a means of compensating for his emotional inadequacies.

In old age his life turned for the worse, as Searle took advantage of his declining mental state to exploit him. In 1962 Maugham sold a collection of paintings, some of which had been already promised to his daughter. In the same year his book "Looking Back," a memoir of his earlier years, attacked Syrie and claimed that Liza had been born before they were married. On the book's publication many of his former friends shunned him; when he entered London's Garrick Club on one occasion, everyone in the room made a point of leaving. He died an unhappy man, while Searle, a manipulator at the best of times, received £50,000 as well as the contents of the château.

The program contained some fascinating gems from the archives, including Maugham himself reading one of his short stories (recorded in 1951), as well as clips from some of his most famous film adaptations including "Of Human Bondage" (1934) with Leslie Howard and Bette David. There was also a lengthy interview between the aging Maugham and a very young Joan Bakewell; recorded in 1962, it revealed the extent to which the writer's mind had deteriorated by that time, and how he was ripe for exploitation by Searle.

Rather disappointingly, the documentary was short on full-length examples of Maugham's work as performed on radio, even though it did include two programs from a "15-Minute Drama" series "Mr. Maugham's Journey Home" (2008), with a much-shortened version of "The Letter." Anthony Smee gave a highly polished performance as Maugham in some specially-recorded extracts.

This program was certainly comprehensive in its approach, leaving us with the impression that, while Maugham himself might have been dissatisfied with his work as a whole, his novels and plays have enjoyed a shelf-life far beyond his wildest dreams.