THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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January 2020 will be the forty-fourth anniversary of my arrival in Great Britain. Whenever a Briton meets me I am always asked, ‘So what brought you here? I used to be a smart-aleck and answer ‘An airplane!’ but these days I simply say, ‘To do a Master’s program in theater and film.’
I do vividly remember my arrival at the airport. I had decided to bring my mother’s violin with me and as soon as the immigration officer saw it he was convinced I had come here to make money as a musician. I had a letter of introduction from the university but nearing tears, I explained I had brought the violin with me as a reminder of home. He just glared at me. Out of nowhere a white-haired American flew to my side. I could not hear everything he said to the immigration officer but next thing I knew my passport was stamped and the official wished me a good stay. The man with the white hair was David Kantor, the impresario who had run the internationally acclaimed Ambler Music Festival outside Philadelphia; I had attended many events and he recognized me. Years later I met his daughter who told me he had been renowned all his life for helping immigrants and refugees!
My first few days in London were traumatic; there I was, a high-spirited, rather pushy and just a little bit spoilt Jewish American gal (in those days I was not quite a Jewish American Princess but these days I consider myself a dowager princess) thrust into a culture so unlike my own. In my first twenty-four hours I was forced to carry my huge suitcases up three flights of stairs by the incredibly hostile matron of my student lodgings. I had a high fever and she barked at me to ‘go register at a surgery tomorrow’ but I was too intimidated to ask her why I needed surgery... I spent the night drinking the duty free Tennessee Whiskey I had brought as a gift for my course tutor. I do think it saved my life. I lay there sweating out the fever and listening to two men arguing under my window on the best way to get to Bermondsey from Tottenham Court Road. This went on for what seemed an eternity until dawn. It reminded me of men in a street in Florence screaming at one another but being told, ‘Oh, they’re arguing about which pasta is fastest to cook.’
After a few days looking for knishes, cheesesteaks, hoagies, hot dogs, soft pretzels with French’s mustard, rare roast beef doorstop sandwiches on rye, lox and bagels and black and white milkshakes I stuck a twopenny piece into a payphone and called my mother collect to ask her to arrange for me to return home. I told her the tea was like petrol and I was starving to death. She gave me short shrift, ordering me to stay the course of my degree program.
How glad I am that she bullied me. The Temple University course was headed by Kenneth Adam, former Director of BBC2. My documentary professor was Edgar Anstey, of the legendary John Grierson, Basil Wright and Alberto Cavalcanti film unit. In my first year I contracted hepatitis and nearly died; reading Rollo May’s The Courage to Create I decided before what I thought was my imminent demise to write three full-length plays and a musical. I recovered and on a theater outing in Greenwich I met my future husband, Barry Philips, star of the Steven Berkoff company. After one performance he came back on the train with me to my flat and we sat on my floor all night talking about religion, politics and theater.
In my first years in London I was given three work permits and at the tender age of twenty-five in 1978 was appointed Administrator of American-born theater director ED Berman ‘s Almost Free Theatre in Rupert Street, Soho. We premiered plays by Tom Stoppard and Wolf Mankowitz. I went on to be Entertainments Fundraiser for Shelter and my play, A Chamber Group, loosely based on the world of Peter Maxwell Davies and the Fires of London, premiered at the 1980 Edinburgh Festival. Richard Jackson of Knightsbridge Productions wanted to bring it in to London’s West End but with my constant presence. I had to decide whether to do that or take up an offer of a position with Anglia Television Drama and I chose Anglia [the commercial ITV television channel for the East of England, famous for drama and documentaries - ed].
Unbeknownst to me they needed an American Commissioning Editor because they were running into hot water with their US partners but the law forbade advertising for a particular nationality. Their legendary Casting Director, Jenia Reissar, had befriended me at the Almost Free and told CEO Sir John Woolf he must hire me.
Over eleven years I commissioned six six-part PD James thrillers; Cause Célèbre by Terence Rattigan starring Helen Mirren and David Suchet and many other productions. It pays to be an American in certain situations: I was sent up to the Hotel de Paris, Cromer, on my first ‘recce’ in 1981 and told to watch but not speak. Anglia had paid £15,000 to use the hotel for a play, Hijack, starring Denis Quilley. Back in London I heard shouting in producer John Rosenberg’s office. A few hours later I went in and told him, ‘John, I noticed the hotel only has those ancient two-pin plugs. How are we going to power our cameras and lighting equipment? He shouted at me ‘Why didn’t you say something?’ I: ‘You told me to keep quiet!’ I was told the hotel gave us back our £15,000 in exchange for our ‘sparks’ (electricians) rewiring the hotel!
Denis Quilley invited me to Majorca where he was filming Evil Under the Sun. I hit it off like a house on fire with his co-star Roddy McDowall. He went back to Hollywood and told Elizabeth Taylor I was commissioner for Tales of the Unexpected. A week later I received a magnificent bouquet asking me if I could find a story for her in which to star. We were never able to find one for her but those years at Anglia were magical times for this Philadelphian.
In 2004 whilst in the USA, my old friend Phyllis Chesler [the feminist writer, psychotherapist, and academic - ed] suggested I write about anti-Americanism for Front Page magazine. The Guardian decided to publish the piece; it caught the attention of Jonathan Dimbleby who in turn invited me to be a panellist on BBC's Any Questions? I have been a BBC, Sky and LBC political commentator ever since.
My happiest moments have been the publication of my books by British publishers, but the saddest being my inability to return to the United States for many years because of a series of health crises. Every time I have been on a radio or television broadcast I have pointed out that had Franklin Roosevelt not died of a sudden stroke in April 1945 and lived out his fourth term he would have seen what Clement Attlee was doing in postwar Britain bringing in the magnificent National Health Service, which to this day treats everyone from cradle to grave. Harry Truman did not see the miracle of the NHS as a necessity for Americans and to this day money has ruled the medical and pharmaceutical sectors with insurance companies often tyrannizing hard-working Americans who happen to fall ill. The fact that the United States does not have universal health care beggars belief. I was a delegate to the 2004 Global Democratic Convention in Edinburgh where presidential hopeful John Kerry’s sister Diana urged me to go to Philadelphia and campaign in my hometown for universal health care. When I arrived there the head of the Kerry campaign rang and told me that if I so much as dared mention ‘socialized medicine’ I would not only be thrown off the campaign but out of the Democratic party.
In conclusion: what has changed in my forty-four years in Britain? Even the smallest towns now serve culinary masterpieces in restaurants; when I first came here I had to keep putting shillings in a box to keep my refrigerator going and had no washing machine or central heating. In 2019 life is full of luxuries and convenience, but what I feel has been lost is a gentility that was the trademark of British society. Social media has brought out a dark side of our culture that has been accentuated by Brexit. When did I ever foresee being called ‘batshit crazy’ or being told by a tweeter he hoped my cancer would take me sooner rather than later? One can no longer linger and make small talk with a supermarket cashier because, for sure, a customer will come up alongside me and demand I stop the chit chat as she is double-parked.
Though I still cannot grasp the attraction of scotch eggs, beans on toast or bread and butter pudding, this remarkable country has given me a glittering career, published my books, and most of all saved my life several times over.
‘God Bless America’ still moves me, but I bless Great Britain for forty-four years of magic.
Carol Gould is a BBC broadcaster and author of Spitfire Girls and Don’t Tread on me – anti-Americanism Abroad. She has been associated with 65 hours of Anglia/ITV television drama productions including several for PBS Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery.