From this week I have decided to change the blog a bit because the posts were frankly getting a bit long and presumably tedious for followers given our modern digital attention span. So the posts will be a bit shorter in future which I hope will meet with the approval of all of you with busy lives including those of you who think I should go and get any sort of life at all instead of doing this. Also for those of you bored now with librarians in film we will turn our jaundiced attention to how librarians have fared on television.
UK Television has been far less liberal in its depiction of librarians than Hollywood but you will still over the next couple of weeks find Inspector Morse, Miss Marple, The Two Ronnies, Fry and Laurie, Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tony Hancock and even the Cookie monster featuring in libraries. There are even fewer appearances of libraries on TV but then there is no British equivalent of that magnificent icon The New York Public Library but libraries do have their moments on British TV even if
sometimes they are incognito. The excellent TV series A Very Peculiar Practice was an enormously enjoyable black comedy from the second half of the 1980’s set in the medical practice of a modern UK university and featured an idealistic but naive young doctor, a self-important doctor with no absooutely no self-awareness and a cynical and wasted old doctor and if all that sounds familiar it could indeed be a template for Father Ted with the important difference that the woman who makes up the cast is not as in the Irish classic a witless housekeeper but a worldly doctor whose brazen bisexual appetite would make Mrs Doyle drop her tea tray and reaching for her rosary beads in horror.
Anyway the only reason for mentioning this at all is because the imposing building with its Italianate steps and impressive clock tower that features prominently in the series is not as you are led to believe the Vice Chancellor’s residence but actually the unattributed library at Keele University. Probably the nearest most Vice Chancellors will ever get to a library.
The London Library is a public subscription library that in its own was is perhaps as well known in certain circles as the NYPL but for all its wonderful collections it lacks the magnificence of the NY building as it is tucked, slightly apologetically into a corner of St James Square but it did feature in a 2011 edition of BBC’s New Tricks. The light drama where three retired cops are invited to re-examine case only they are old enough to remember and solve them mainly by bickering amongst themselves, features in one episode a cold case of a dead academic in a modern university. Someone has apparently jumped off the university library roof and an open verdict was returned but suicide was the most likely suspect. Now new evidence has emerged that suggests he may not have jumped in desperate frustration at the fact that like many libraries the lifts weren’t working again but he may have been pushed. Our heroes uncover a sorry tale of academic skulduggery in which we meet a familiar cast of academic characters; the oleaginous but ruthless Vice Chancellor, a handyman who might as well wear a big sign saying “Dodgy Character” as soon as he reveals his Eastern European accent and a couple of instantly untrustworthy researchers. They are all after a very rare book worth millions and certainly worth enough to throw someone off the library roof and make it look as if he couldn’t wait for the lift engineer. The clue that sets our team bickering towards a solution are found when the cerebral one from the geriatric detective trio follows up a lead in the London Library. Brian has already had a run in with libraries at beginning of the show being escorted from his local branch library after screaming “SILENCE” at the now familiar lively noise of the modern library.
He welcomes the chance to sample a research library naively anticipating a peaceful and reflective world where researchers are all virtuously absorbed in their esoteric study only to discover to his cost when he is mugged and almost killed in the library what everyone in academia already knows that the best researchers are the most cynical and ruthless . Eventually though they get their man…and woman. Satisfyingly for anyone who has ever worked in higher education or indeed libraries it is the slippery and arrogant Vice Chancellor who wants to do away with the library who dunnit with help from the female librarian whom you just knew was up to no good looking that attractive. And Brian well he now understands libraries a lot better. “I’ve had it with libraries he says. They are full of wierdos”
Whilst we are talking about policemen blundering around in libraries we can’t ignore the ITV series Morse featuring the lugubrious eponymous Chief Inspector which ran for 33 episodes so it is unsurprising that libraries should feature in the Oxford set series as the city is virtually one big university. Surprisingly though libraries only featured in a few episodes although shots of the Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library and Oxford’s most iconic building is often used as the stock anchor shot to just to make sure you know where you are.
You may recall that this sort of opening shot was a staple of series like The Saint whose trip to Paris always started with a shot of the Arc de Triomphe and he could never go to Rome without a quick car trip past the Coliseum specially included to sell it to an American audience surprised to discover so many countries beyond Idaho. The Bodleian is used for research and a little light flirting and possibly much more in The Wench is Dead and there is a library scene in Twilight of the Gods where a Library is used as a convenient vantage point for an attempted assassination completely unrelated to the Bodleian’s draconian overdue book fines policy . Finally the Bodleian also featured in the follow up to Morse named after his former Sergeant Lewis, in an episode that actually did feature a body in the Library (well in the basement anyway) but the series was so unmemorable I couldn’t be bothered to watch it.
There is also of course the obligatory body in the library in episodes of the glossy Agatha Christie adaptations for television. The makers of the Miss Marple series featuring a roll call of differently excellent actors in the title role have tried to stay more faithful to the books than Margaret Rutherford’s early big screen versions even if Rutherford does have a librarian for a sidekick that had nothing whatever to do with Christie. But you are still stuck with those creaking plots. So in the denouement to The Body in the Library, Miss Marple points to scratch marks on the floor which she alone has spotted and deduced they must be where the secret door swings open to lead to a secret passage as she reveals the solution to the library murder riddle. The solution is greeted with general astonishment by the cast but for regular Christie readers and watchers this was already so blindingly obvious you might just as well have put up a sign reading SECRET PASSAGE –Only to be used when all other plausible explanations have been exhausted.