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It was the most unlikely of relationships. Britain's most distinguished guidebook writer was in his late seventies and a young, inexperienced documentary film maker who was less than half his age. Yet Richard Else persuaded Wainwright out of the shadows and onto the nations television screens.
In doing so, the highly reclusive Wainwright became the most unlikely of celebrities and his films with Eric Robson were amongst the most popular programmes on the small screen.Wainwright Revealed is not simply the inside story of those films - films that, Richard argues, did more than anything else to spawn today's Wainwright industry. It also explores how, for the first and only time in his life, Wainwright agreed to work collaboratively with another person. Richard meticulously documents the 10 years they spent together and provides a new insight into AW's achievement, his place in the tradition of guidebook writing and into a life that was essentially solitary. Richly illustrated with over 70 photographs (many seen here for the first time), Richard explores the forces that motivated Wainwright - forces which AW almost certainly did not fully understand.This book discovers a more complex individual than previously thought and is indispensable for both fans of Wainwright's work and all those who enjoy exploring our fells, dales, moors, mountains and glens.
Alfred Wainwright was a reluctant TV star. He first wrote telling TV producer Richard Else that an interview or an appearance on TV was “not his cup of tea at all”. He suggested that Richard could find all the information he wanted in his books and that he was free to use them any way he wanted.
And then he agreed, somewhat grudgingly: “It’s just this once, you understand.”
And, then later, after the first biographical programme filmed with David Bean, he became moderately enthusiastic, but there were still problems. He was an old man, well into his seventies, and, always obsessive and meticulous, he was well-set in his ways. He wanted to know, “Who would feed the cats if he and Betty were away overnight? Would he be back in time for Coronation Street? . . .Where were the nearest fish and chip shops? Did I have a map showing all the Little Chefs?”
And he was difficult. He had his own idea how things should be done. On the first venture, out on Pen-y-ghent, Richard decided he’d prepare two films, one humouring the “old curmudgeon” following the plan laid out by Wainwright and one filming the programme he really wanted to make.
And then, after the success of the first programme, there was the question of a new interviewer. He didn’t want one of those TV-types and he only accepted Eric Robson when he was told he’d be OK because he was “a Cumbrian farmer who just does a bit of television”.
But it was his wife Betty, the woman Wainwright married after he retired as Kendal Borough Treasurer and then divorced his wife of more than forty years, who had the skill to persuade and cajole him: Betty was on his side: “‘Red’, she said, ‘it might allow you to go back to some lovely places. And you do quite like Richard. I think we can trust him.’”
And so a remarkable series of films was made, films which reinforced Wainwright’s reputation.
Richard admires the guidebooks, sees them as a work of art. They have vision, structural unity, quality, detail, intensive research, “idiosyncratic humour together with his sense of mischief” and “a strong authorial voice”.
He spent weeks with Wainwright and came to know him well. He walked with him, heard his life story, visited the places he loved – the hills near his home in Blackburn, the Scottish Highlands, the Coast to Coast route which he pioneered and especially his favourite Lakeland fells. It was like a farewell tour – the old man whose life’s passion had been these hills, the man who had revealed them to so many people, was looking his last on the hills that he loved.
And yet, Richard, in reflecting on this highly individualistic man, in considering the pertinacity and the obsessiveness, that enabled him to dedicate himself to the production of those seven meticulously hand-written guidebooks and all the other books, sees his hero as “being on the spectrum”, as suffering from a form of autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. He was a man who “faced challenges with social skills, flexible behaviour, empathy and communication.”
It is an interesting reflection – Richard would not go so far as to claim it was a diagnosis – from some-one who came to know him well.
However, in those television films and, above everything, in the unsurpassed and unsurpassable guidebooks, Alfred Wainwright, a man passionate about the Lakeland fells, proved himself a great communicator.
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