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Writing on Wigan Pier by David Pownall

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BBC Radio 4, 31 July 2010
 
Set in 1936, Writing on Wigan Pier focuses on the genesis of Orwell's famous book of social criticism The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell (Adrian Scarborough) convinces his publisher Gollancz (Keith Drinkel) to pay him 500 for a book that comments on the economic hardship of the times. Orwell travels up to Wigan, stays in a seedy boarding-house run by Mrs. Brooker (Thelma Barlow), and subsequently moves in with a good-hearted miner Neil (Karl Davies) and his wife Helen (Helen Longworth). Orwell lives what he perceives as "working-class" life to the full by drinking in pubs, going down the mine, and playing rugby league. Yet despite his experiences, he remains an outsider; at one point he becomes embroiled in a heated discussion with Neil, Helen and Grandad (Bernard Cribbins), who accuse him of being patronizing. They accept him for what he is - a middle-class writer fallen on hard times; but Orwell cannot reciprocate. He is forever trying to rationalize their experiences into some kind of grand socio-political theory of class-struggle or economic determinism. He cannot understand that the only way to understand people is to talk and (more importantly) listen to them.
 
The basic subject of Writing on Wigan Pier is Orwell himself and his shortcomings: his tendency to make snap judgments, conditioned by his left-wing politics; and his relentless self-absorption which renders him insensitive to the experiences of other people. His obsession with class-struggle simply doesn't interest Neil, Helen or Grandad; they are more concerned with the need to live from day to day. E. M. Forster once coined the phrase "only connect," to describe the ways in which the British tried (and mostly failed) to communicate with the Indians during the era of the Raj. The same was also true of Writing on Wigan Pier: Orwell cannot understand the significance of this dictum. Grandad acually has sufficient presence of mind to tell the tyro writer the truth; his prose might be entertaining, but it lacks passion, commitment and understanding. But Orwell doesn't want to hear it; he is far more interested in pursuing another political wild goose chase in Spain, as he becomes involved in the civil war. He claims he is going to fight, but we know by now that this is just an empty phrase.
 
Since his death in 1950, Orwell has been lionized by critics for his clear-eyed appreciation of Britain's socio-political ills during the Great Depression. Writing on Wigan Pier tried to deconstruct that myth.
 
Whether Pownall's interpretation is true or not is beside the point; he is much more interested in showing the importance of talking and listening as a means to promote effective communication between people, irrespective of their social backgrounds. The director was Martin Jenkins.