The possibility of joy: David Compton on the origins of Death Watch

With Bertrand Tavernier's futuristic 1980 drama, Death Watch, coming to Blu-ray and DVD on 5 November, David Compton, author of source novel 'The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe', recalls the writing of the book and his time on the Glasgow set.

Usually, when people ask writers where they get their ideas from, they receive vague, dusty answers. In the case of this book, though, my answer need be neither vague nor dusty. I remember the manner and the moment exactly.

The year was 1973, a tragic time in Northern Ireland, and I was in my London home, watching an evening TV news report from Belfast when the newsman, quite a well-known figure, brazenly asked the woman he was interviewing, 'And can you tell us please, Mrs O’Hara, how you felt when you saw your daughter being blown to pieces by that IRA bomb?' Or words to that effect. He really did.

I don't remember her answer, but I do remember that the clip appeared again in the next news break. Clearly his network wasn’t bothered. It knew that its public's appetite for the suffering of others was insatiable. What next? I thought. The sad private processes of actual dying on camera in prime time TV?

Filming someone dying? Reporters, lights, camera-men, make-up girls? Who were the people who could do such things? And then the pundits arriving to pick at the ethical issues raised? There had to be a book for me in it. And besides, a story concerning someone’s dying fitted in with an item I had recently read in a literary magazine.

When the poet Dylan Thomas had died, his doctor had given 'outrage' as the cause of his death. Outrage... poor drunk angry Dylan. How suitable a diagnosis. And now, I thought, how ironic if the death of the person being filmed in my book could be similarly caused. In my sort of SF that could easily happen. 

I bought myself a new ruled feint note-book, checked my supply of black Quink, filled my fountain pen and started chapter one.

Harvey Keitel as Roddy in 1980's Death Watch

Alright, so I was forty-three, much too old to have been so naively shocked. But I'd led a sheltered life. I didn't even know the long-established media mantra, if it bleeds, it leads... I'm older now, maybe bit wiser, and I see that the processes of death and dying do have a place in the public domain. A proper place, however. Not, I still believe, in the service of bigger circulations, better viewing figures.

Bertrand Tavernier is a treasure. I was just so lucky to have my book attract his attention. I went to our first meeting in some trepidation. His first letter to me - clearly self-typed, in imperfect English on a battered portable with a frayed ribbon - obviously hadn’t been written by some crass, cigar-chewing movie mogul, but I wasn’t prepared for the tall, thoughtful, quiet-spoken Frenchman who greeted me. And his reply to my first, carefully planned question - why did he want to make a film of my book? - blew me away completely.

He answered that he had been decided in particular by one phrase in the French version he had read: I had written that the dying heroine was seen by the TV man as possessing le bonheur en puissance. And almost unbelievably, those four words, which translated back into English as "the possibility of joy", were for me certainly the most important in my whole novel. That above all was the quality that had made Katherine so special. For me, and now for him too. What more could any writer ask of his director?

I love the film he made. I wasn’t closely involved with the screenplay - I’d written stage and radio drama but I knew nothing at all about filmmaking - but I was often consulted, approved the final draft and visited Glasgow during the shooting.

There are things I would have done differently, of course, and the script is perhaps a bit wordy for today’s audiences, but the book’s intentions live in it vividly, and Bertrand’s choice of the Glasgow location, in all its savage beauty, provides a powerful backdrop to the alienations and sad human conflicts of the story.

Already, in 1980, Bertrand was a respected European director, but he had great difficulty raising money for the film. Hollywood would back it only if the central character didn’t die at the end. Heigh ho... Eventually most of the funding came fom a consortium of German professional men, doctors, lawyers, dentists, and I learned later that the leading actors, because of their belief in the project, worked for peanuts.

I don’t know why it failed on its first release. "Ahead of its time," my friends tell me. Well, I’m obviously delighted that, on its second time round, it’s receiving such a sympathetic reception, but even so, as Bertrand says in ReelScotland's video interview [see below], "I'm not happy to have been so prophetic".

Thanks to David Compton

Death Watch comes to DVD and Blu-ray on 5 November 2012. 'The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe' is also now available.

The following video interview with Bertrand Tavernier inspired the above blog post.

Watch the interview on YouTube