Critical and biographical information on Henry Reed, World War II British poet, critic, translator, and radio dramatist — author of "Naming of Parts"
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Ford, Christopher. "The Reeve's Tale." Guardian (London), 20 November 1971, 10 (.pdf).

The Reeve's Tale
by Christopher Ford

Henry Reed

When the stars of Douglas Cleverdon and Henry Reed moved in conjuction [sic], they produced A Very Great Man Indeed, great radio in the great days of radio. Reed's series of plays has just been published and Cleverdon next week stage-manages the Cheltenham Literary Festival

REMEMBER THE CLASS of '53? Elizabeth Regina and the Ashes at the Oval, Everest and Gloriana, and, sharing a little something of all of them, if only in his friends (and who then needs enemies?), A Very Great Man Indeed. Richard Shewin, novelist, was only lately dead; Henry Reed, abetted by the ever-admirable if progressively truncated Third Programme, chose an apt year to set about chronicling the life and times of one who seemed to enshrine characteristics of Greene, Maugham, Lawrence, and Forster. To name but a few.

In the end there were seven plays, four of which have just been published by the BBC. The idea came to Reed when he was researching for a biography of Thomas Hardy. "My mind would often wander from my subject, he writes in his preface. "Minds do this. And none more eagerly and rapidly, I came to notice, than those of the people I interviewed who had personally known my Author...always, a few nights afterwards, once more sorting my data, I would realise that the main content of their disclosures had concerned, exclusively themselves."

Thus Herbert Reeve, scholar, gained more of innuendo than information from his encounters with Stephen Shewin, the late novelist's fork-tongued brother (blessed with a marvellous Carleton Hobbs voice), and from Hilda Tablet, composeress—or lady musicwriter, as Stephen preferred to describe her. She, in fact, was the character who really opened up the future for the series, and Mary O'Farrell was unforgettable as her alter ego; the irony was that Hilda was written into the first play at a late stage, just for the contrast of a fairly female voice.

The plays can be read today as freshly and funnily as ever they sounded in their many repeats. The Great Days of Radio may be no more than a nostalgic cliche, but such things as "Under Milk Wood," the Radio ballads, and the Hilda Tablet pieces do seem to mark a specially creative decade. Moreover the plays were sharp enough, as it used to be rumoured, to make one British composer feel quite litigious. The composer was not Benjamin Britten, in spite of the fact that Dame Hilda, as she was to become, wrote an opera entitled "Emily Butter" with an all-female cast and a villainess called Clara Taggart: "As long as the characters are funny it doesn't matter who you're getting at," Reed thinks. He says that the portraits are "affectionate parodies," and that you can't parody people you don't like. "In fact I'm not 'getting at' anyone, only myself—there's a good deal of aboriginal Hilda Tablet in me."

But to what extent is Herbert Reeve, the narrator, his own self-portrait "Wholly," he says. Can Reed himself, though, be so meek and put-upon as was poor Hugh Burden at every turn? "Desperately. All the time." So shockable and naive? "Well, aren't I?" Nowadays no one could find anything objectionable in the plays, but Reed—who says he's suffered a lot from censorship—had a bit of trouble at the time. "A fair number of passages, accepted by the producer, and already recorded by the cast, were sometimes, at a late moment, ordered out by higher assessors, on the grounds of indelicacy," he writes. "To the reclamation of these passages I have given...a most zealous attention."

It was one of the higher assessors who forbade Stephen Shewin's answer to Herbert Reeve's assertion that Charterborough had had a most healthy reputation: "In the year 1893 it had indeed, Mr Reeve. My brother did not go there until the autumn of 1894. By January, 1895, the cities of the plain were as an herbaceous border in compare. I was the only boy in the school to remain untouched by the disastrous infection."

And, alack, it falls to Stephen to reveal that his brother had written a play on a Certain Subject. "My brother's interests and habits were very far-ranging, Mr Reeve: they wore not simply confined to seduction, adultery, fornication, and rape." Parts of this dramatic discovery are, indeed, heard during "A Hedge, Backwards," the fourth of the group; but the decencies of the fifties were positively encouraged to demand that Billy, the younger central character, became transmuted into Jenny, which created problems of its own. She addresses her friend Roger: "But. Roj, the only reason I went with that other bloke...he kept on giving me a new fivepound note, and saying how much he admired my chest-expansion: and any girl would have been a bit took in by that, Roj. Straight, they would, Roj." This was excused.

Other exchanges, no less immortal, were allowed to stay, several of them involving Evelyn, who has recently completed his National Service in the Army, and whose most precisely defined relationship to Hilda is that of secretary. Hilda and others are in Greece when the light of inspiration is switched on and she decides her next operatic subject will be the Lysistrata. She commands Herbert Reeve to make full note of the moment, of who was present and suchlike, when....

Evelyn (suddenly): "Hel-lowe." Hilda: "Hello, where've you been?" Evelyn: "Been for a little walk." Hilda: "Who with?" Evelyn: "My friend Spiro." Hilda: "Who's he?" Evelyn: "The one over there. In the white jersey." Hilda: "Well, my lad, you missed the experience of a lifetime this afternoon." Evelyn: " Oh, no, I didn't, dear."

Reed has the knack of turning quite a common phrase to shrewd effect, as when Hilda is complaining furiously that Stephen Shewin usurped the task of organising the music for his brother's funeral. "The occasion was a calculated insult. It had been an understood thing for years that when poor Dick passed on, they should play my little dirge, written ages before, a little piece called 'Funeral Baked Meats,' for two flutes, harmonium and tam-tam: oh, just a simple little elegiac sort of piece, the second half being of course an inverted cancrizans of the first half, as you naturally expect in a piece written for a funeral.... And poor Dick was very fond of that piece, very fond. He said to me: 'You'll play that piece over my dead body one of these days, Hilda.'"

Dear Hilda. After an excursion into musique concrète renforcee, what sort of things would she be composing today? Parables for church performance? "I don't want the parallel with Benjamin Britten to be pressed," says Reed, giving an indefinable sort of look. "She was going to be resolutely a Schoenbergian. She was going to improve on him, of course.

"I was writing another, it was going to be called 'After a Certain Age'—I was writing it one night and the next morning Douglas Cleverdon, the producer, came round for some other reason and had to break the news that Mary O'Farrell was dead. She was a sine qua non. So it was never completed, but Hilda was going to be the reason why Skalkottas had suppressed his music all his life. We were going to be make out that this was on Hilda's advice."

The fourth main character, General Gland, as played by Deryck Guyler, seems at least as recognisable as any of the others. He dominates the sixth play, "Not a Drum was Heard." "There were lots of war memoirs coming out at the time," Reed explains, "and it seemed nice to add to them." The general is a soldier-scholar who is obsessed by the sound of bells and writes poetry in his spare time. "He talks about 'pregnant brevity'—he writes a poem he wants Hilda to settle to music, as he puts it." He also puts commands from her a "Rangoon March."

Had life turned out differently Reed, now 57, might have been a musician, and he talks with enthusiasm of the contribution of Donald Swann to the Hilda Tablet saga. Yet he has built up a steady reputation as poet and radio dramatist: he once had a poem banned by the "Listener" because it included the word "brothel". "Naming of Parts," all about a rifle, has been anthologised; he dramatised "Moby Dick" for radio; and of his several plays based in Italy, to which he's devoted, the BBC production of "The Streets of Pompeii" won the Italia Prize in 1953 also.

His modern literary preoccupations nevertheless are mainly on the lighter side. He likes Simenon for his creation of atmosphere; "I don't think of the imagination as being other than visual," he remarks when we talk of the contrast of sound radio and television. For the past couple of years Wodehouse has been central to his reading. All of which is as well, for he won't mind being remembered for his own lighter pieces. "I saw the Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations in a shop. I remember thinking 'I've got 150 sleeping tablets at home, and if I'm not in that I'll take some of them with a large Pepsi-Cola'." He gets more than three columns, the entries mostly coming from the Tablet plays.

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