This was a film I made in 2000. I was persuaded to make it by Nick Kent at Oxford Film and Television and by Janice Hadlow, who was then at Channel 4 both of them had lost their fathers and still felt that there was unfinished business questions they had always wanted to ask their fathers but that now it was too late.
At first I didn’t want to make the film but I was fed up with the way in which my father had always appeared on television when there was some kind of controversy that it never really seemed to be HIM. There were no jokes or humour, none of the warmth or compassion.
So, in the end I made the film, and although he died shortly after filming and it was horrible to edit, I don’t regret it.
But it was odd addressing a father after his death.
Even in my childhood I knew that he was a public figure - like a doctor or a headmaster - and that as a family we were different in some way. We had a duty to behave well.
At the time of the village fete, my father even intervened when my sister Rebecca won the most beautiful baby competition. He thought it wouldn’t look good if the Vicar’s daughter won.
My mother was furious.
Behaving well, being courteous and polite, never off duty; these were the values that were instilled in us. We had to be seen to be setting an example. Vicarage Children. The Bishop’s son. The Archbishop’s daughter. Don’t let the side down. Keep the show on the road.
Of course, I was hopeless at it. As a typical teenager who thought he was unique in some way, I tried to be as unlike my father as possible. Whereas he was straight-backed, clean, well dressed, and always wore a tie or dog collar, I affected a misplaced Bohemian demeanour of long hair, absurdly wide lapelled jackets, and trousers so flared that they covered my shoes. (My only defence now is that it was the seventies). Whereas my father had diligently attended confirmation classes in order to be close to Betty, his childhood sweetheart, I eventually managed to find a slouchy chain-smoking girl in a red leather jacket who, on occasion, consented to pretend to be my girlfriend. And whereas I had secretly hoped that Lambeth Palace would help improve my romantic chances (moonlight over the battlements, the view of the Palace of Westminster from the roof), the funky North London girls that I was keen on (rather than the more suitable Harriets and Amandas) tended to come over all coy at the sight of walls full of seventeenth century paintings, pikes for the Archbishop’s private army, and gimlet eyed staff to encounter before they even reached the tower where I lived.
Then there was my father’s attitude, which reminds me now of Charles Ryder’s father in Brideshead Revisited. He would meet these girls for about twenty seconds and then tell me later what he thought. “Quite a character...” was one of his favourite understatements, which basically meant that he thought the girl was mad. These might be followed by any one of a number of observations. “Not one of the brightest people I’ve encountered,” (stupid); “Well, she certainly looks very nice (promiscuous); “Not really my favourite (ghastly). When we went for a walk in order to talk about one of my brighter prospects, my father turned to me and said “Yes, James, that’s all very well, but isn’t she the type of woman that will turn you into an alcoholic in five years?”
And so, when I actually wanted to get married I had to present it as a fait accomplit. I knew that there might be trouble because I was living in Scotland at the time and my father had hardly met Marilyn. All he knew was that she was a divorced woman with a child. “It doesn’t look too good on paper, does it?” he pointed out. “I don’t care about that,” I replied. “And are you asking my advice or are you telling me?” he checked, before sighing: “Well, it will certainly be an adventure.” But from that moment on he was nothing less than completely supportive, telling Marilyn, again and again, that only she could save his son from a life of dissolution and depravity, and that he was eternally grateful to her for “saving” me.
They became good friends, and I think Marilyn taught him much about what it means to be part of a family. Because he quite clearly needed help in this department. After his retirement he wasn’t quite sure how to "spend more time" with his family. He looked upon us rather as if we were a treasured possession that had been lost in the back of a cupboard somewhere. He knew we were valuable, but he didn’t quite know what to do with us.
But whereas some people shrink when they leave the job that has defined so much of their life, my father visibly grew into his retirement. He could be his own man once more.
When I look back on the photographs of this time, it’s startling to notice how many of them are filled with laughter. My happiest memory is of watching cricket with him in Antigua. During our visit my father also found time to consecrate a Bishop, meet The Governor, and give a few press interviews. It was during one of these interviews that I particularly noticed his charm in action. Because he was hard of hearing, he would often have to stand quite close to people. Then, because people might say quite private things, he would touch them on the arm, or the shoulder. It was an unbeatable combination of deafness and sanctity.
One of the journalists had managed to wipe the tape of her interview and had to ask for the whole thing to be redone. My father was frustrated, but the journalist in question just happened to be extraordinarily beautiful. She pleaded with him, and then he finally leaned forward, touched her lightly on the arm, and with his best, “Trust me, I’m a clergyman” tone of voice, whispered, “I forgive you.”
The woman melted.
“What were you doing?” I asked him later.
“I was reassuring her.”
“No you weren’t. You were flirting.”
“I was not. I didn’t want anyone else to hear.”
“Would you have done that if she was a man? Or ugly?”
My father looked somewhat abashed. Then he smiled.
“I admit that I might have behaved differently.”
“You were just being naughty.”
And he looked like a boy of eight who had eaten the last of the chocolates.
Remembering it now, however, I do believe that if a man had lost the interview, my father would have redone it for him too. He had a strong sense of forgiveness, and a genuine love for people that I found almost unsurpassably unique. His faith, and his friendships made him at ease with himself, and, ultimately, at ease with death.
One evening he came to our house and thrust a brown envelope into my hands. On the cover was written “R.I.P.”
“Have a look at this,” he urged. “I’ve just finished it.” The envelope contained the plans for his funeral. There it was, all laid out: Purcell sentences (“I am the Resurrection and the Life...”), The final chorale of The St.Matthew Passion, Walton’s Set me as a Seal upon thine heart, The Russian Contakion for the Dead, The Vaughan Williams Mass in G Minor, a Scots Guards Piper at the grave...
As we talked it over during Sunday lunch, my younger daughter began to weep.
“Dad, it’s a bit difficult.”
“Rather good, don’t you think?”
“It’s all right for you. You won’t be there.”
He looked at me with an almost secretive smile.
“I think that you’ll find I will. I think you’ll find it’s my show.”
“Well, “ I said, “it’s your funeral.” And he laughed, acknowledging in a rather surprised way that, for once, I had the punch line in the conversation.
And when the time came, of course, it was an amazing day, filled with everything he had planned; a tribute to life and an affirmation of faith. I felt as if we were travelling to the heart of English Christianity.
When I told an old college friend, she burst into tears. We were sitting in Nicole’s, a restaurant favoured by ladies who lunch, and I was virtually the only man in the place. Sue’s father had died a year earlier, and naturally the conversation about the funeral, and about my father’s death, revived her own sense of loss. She was inconsolable. Great globules of tears fell into her sea bream. I must confess that part of me found this rather selfish. We were talking about my grief, not hers, but then I realised, more than ever, how the world is divided between those who have lost a parent and those who have not.
Suddenly, we were interrupted.
“You bastard,” a coldly elegant woman hissed as she left. “Haven’t you done enough? Leave the poor girl alone.”
I looked across at Sue.
Still the tears fell.
The woman at the next table had clearly come to the conclusion that I was heartlessly ending an affair.
Now she was heading for the door.
“It’s not what you think,” I called, but it was too late. Retribution had been all too swift.
“How ridiculous,” laughed Sue.
“You were obviously sitting far too close to her,” admonished my wife when I told her. “Such are the penalties of flirting.”
“I was not flirting. It was Sue, you know, my friend Sue.”
“Our friend Sue, I think you’ll find. She’s not just your friend. That’s how trouble starts.” And then she stopped, and added, almost out of the blue, “Your father liked her, didn’t he?”
And of course, the first person I wanted to tell this story to was my father. He would have loved the scene in the restaurant and been cheered by my wife’s stern council. But of course, I couldn’t tell him. This is, perhaps, the hardest part of grief, when we can no longer share our adventures, triumphs and disasters with the people we have loved so much. Our parents are no longer present, and our hope can only be to keep them with us and try to inherit their virtues.
For although my father is no longer physically here, I can still imagine conversations with him and can remember, in all its detail, the unstoppable progression of his laugh, as natural and as free as a perfect cover drive. There’s the expectant twinkle in the eye, the lean forward in order not to miss a word, and then the gathering, almost mischievous, chuckle, before the final throw back of the head and the abandoned release into laughter, an absolute staccato of joy.
I can still hear that laugh. It gives me enormous consolation. Because it is life affirming, filled with love and friendship, loyalty and faith. It recognises the sheer privilege of existence. It is nothing less than delight in being alive, in life itself.