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Daniel Negley Farson (8 January 1927 – 27 November 1997) was a British writer and broadcaster, strongly identified with the early days of commercial television in the UK, when his sharp, investigative style contrasted with the BBC's more deferential culture.
Sensitive about his homosexuality, Farson was well placed to make programmes about people outside the mainstream, and this lent an extra edge to his social commentaries about a fast-changing Britain.
Farson was a prolific biographer and autobiographer, chronicling the bohemian life of Soho and his own experiences of running a music-hall pub on London's Isle of Dogs. His memoirs were titled Never a Normal Man.
Born in Kensington, London, the son of American journalist Negley Farson, his childhood was mostly divided between Britain and North America. He visited Germany with his father while Negley was reporting on the Nazi regime, and was patted on the head by Adolf Hitler, who described him as a "good Aryan boy". He briefly attended the British public school Wellington College, whose militaristic regime was not to his taste; Farson had become intensely aware of his homosexuality, which would sporadically cause him great emotional strain. As a teenager he worked as a parliamentary correspondent, and was pursued in the House of Commons by the predatory Labour Member of Parliament Tom Driberg.
Farson shot to fame in the 1950s when he joined Associated-Rediffusion, the first commercial television company to operate in Britain. Here he took risks that few television interviewers (certainly not those employed at the still very conservative BBC) would dare to take at the time. In his series Out of Step (1957) and People in Trouble (1958) – never shown at the same time throughout the ITV network, but much repeated in various regions well into the early 1960s – he dealt with issues of social exclusion and alienation that most of the media at the time preferred to sweep under the carpet (in this he was helped, of course, by the fact that as a gay man – a term he would not himself use even when it came to be much preferred to "homosexual" – in 1950s Britain, he could himself have fitted into the criteria of both series). The most famous editions of these series are the Out of Step programme on nudism (the term "naturism" had yet to become commonplace), which claimed to show the first naked woman on British television, and the People in Trouble programme on mixed marriages (a highly sensitive issue at the time as post-war immigrants tentatively began to integrate into British life). Their fame is at least partially down to the fact that they were repeated comparatively recently, in 1982 (on the fledgling Channel 4).
Another 1958 Farson series, entitled Keeping in Step, looked at establishment institutions such as public schools from a distinctly more distanced perspective than that seen on virtually all BBC programmes (and even most other Associated-Rediffusion programmes) of the time. A regular guest on Farson's programmes at this stage was James Wentworth Day, a reactionary British writer of the Agrarian Right school, who infamously ranted in the programme on mixed marriages, in which he referred to mixed-race children as "coffee-coloured little imps" and argued that black people must be less "civilised" than white people because "a couple of generations ago they were eating each other" (Wentworth Day's remarks were featured in Victor Lewis-Smith's series Buygones and TV Offal). Farson would usually respond to these diatribes with a polite statement along the lines of "I couldn't disagree with you more, but at least you do say what you really feel".
However, Wentworth Day's appearances would rapidly come to an end when he claimed that all homosexuals should be hanged. Farson insisted that the episode of People in Trouble in which Wentworth Day had made those remarks – concerning transvestism – was scrapped before it had been completed. He publicly insisted that the Independent Television Authority would ban it; in reality Farson was terrified that Wentworth Day would attempt to bring him to trial – a trial which would inevitably have been a high-profile event comparable to that of Oscar Wilde. After this, Farson immediately froze Wentworth Day out of his life and his programmes.
Farson's broadcasting career, however, continued to flourish. Farson's Guide to the British (1959–1960) took a critical eye at a nation in transition and was the first public expression of his long-term quest for the true identity of Jack the Ripper. Other series included Farson in Australia (1961) and Dan Farson Meets ... (1962), which usually featured popular singers of the time. The one-off programme Beat City (1963) was an atmospheric evocation of the Liverpool scene which had given birth to The Beatles and the sociological factors which had brought it into being. In 1960, he helmed Living For Kicks, a documentary about the frustrations and uncertainties of British teenagers in the post-Elvis, pre-Beatles era.
The Daily Sketch, a tabloid paper then owned by Associated Newspapers (who were the "Associated" in Associated-Rediffusion, although they had sold their stake in the company by this time), led the chorus of revulsion to the documentary. The Daily Mirror responded with a defence of British teenagers; a considerable war of words then developed between the two papers, with the Mirror's well-remembered TV commercials ("The Daily Mirror backs the young!") representing its position on the matter.
In 1962, Farson made a documentary for Associated-Rediffusion about pub entertainment in the East End of London where he lived, called Time Gentlemen Please (this led directly to the company's later series Stars and Garters, with which Farson was not, however, personally involved). Soon after this he bought a pub, The Waterman's Arms, in the East End with the explicit intent of reviving old-time music hall, but this failed and the money he lost would have bought a row of houses at the time (1963). By the end of 1964 he had resigned from Associated-Rediffusion (by then renamed Rediffusion London) and would keep a lower public profile for the rest of his life. He moved from London to live in his parents' house in Devon, but continued to visit the pubs and drinking clubs of London's Soho on a regular basis.
1970s to 1990s
He remained, however, a prolific author and a prominent figure in the art world. He produced several volumes of memoirs. Soho in the Fifties recalled his participation in London's west end Bohemia. Limehouse Days (1991) recalled his disastrous East End pub venture. These and other books were illustrated with his own photographs.
He wrote a number of studies of artists and authors. The Man Who Wrote Dracula (1975) was a life of his grand-uncle, Bram Stoker. While living at his father's old house in North Devon he established a close friendship with the writer Henry Williamson (an Agrarian Right ally of James Wentworth Day); Farson paid tribute to Williamson with a book entitled Henry: An Appreciation of Henry Williamson published in 1982, five years after Williamson's death. Sacred Monsters (1988), was a collection of essays on artists and writers he had known.
Farson also wrote the authorised biography of his friend, the painter Francis Bacon (The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon (1994) – at Bacon's insistence this was not published until after the artist's death). The 1998 film Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon starring Derek Jacobi and Daniel Craig draws heavily on the book, showing Farson (played by Adrian Scarborough) socialising with Bacon, as well as interviewing him on television. The film is dedicated to him.
His last book was a "portrait" of the artists Gilbert and George, published posthumously in 1999 (he had already, in 1991, published an informal account of a trip he took with them to Moscow). He devised the Channel 4 art quiz Gallery and he worked as TV critic and, later, art critic for The Mail on Sunday (oddly, another Associated Newspapers title).
He also wrote travel books, including A Traveller in Turkey, The Independent Traveller's guide to Turkey and A Dry Ship to the Mountains (Down the Volga and Across the Caucasus in My Father's Footsteps), the book version of the children's TV series The Clifton House Mystery (produced by HTV West for ITV in 1978), and an appreciation of "Marie Lloyd and music hall" and a recollection of "Soho in the Fifties" (a time and a place in which he had found one of his few natural homes).
His father had been an alcoholic, and Farson himself had been a heavy drinker since his Bohemian days in Soho in the 1950s. In later years, the effects of alcoholism became more apparent. He knew he was dying of cancer in March 1997, when his self-deprecating autobiography, Never A Normal Man (a phrase actually used to describe his father, not himself) was published. He was hung over when he appeared on the BBC Radio 4 programme Midweek to promote this book.
- BFI | Film & TV Database | FARSON, Daniel
- Daniel Farson 'The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon'1993
- Article on Farson and his television work
- Article on Farson from a British Film Institute site
- Farson's obituary from The Daily Telegraph
- Review of Farson's autobiography from The Spectator
- Review of Farson's autobiography from The Independent on Sunday