Wednesday 13 December 2023

According to Beryl

 On this day – St Lucy's Day, 'the year's midnight' – in 1784 Samuel Johnson, after many travails physical and mental, died. After his death, his body was opened and examined, and an autopsy report written. It was with this report, read by Beryl Bainbridge, that the 2001 Arena documentary According to Beryl, which I watched on BBC iPlayer last night, began. In the film Bainbridge talks about Johnson's last years, in particular his relationship with the Thrales, and about her Johnson-and-Thrale-themed novel, According to Queeney (which I wrote about here). Readings from Johnson's letters and personal writings, and from Bainbridge's novel, enlarge the narrative. It's a typically well made and illuminating Arena documentary, and the slightly dotty but endearing Bainbridge comes over well on television. Towards the end of her film she encounters Johnson's extraordinary death mask, which lives in the National Portrait Gallery. Shortly after Johnson's autopsy, his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds sent the cast maker from the Royal Academy schools to take a cast of the dead Johnson's face. The result [below] is, as Bainbridge points out, strikingly lifelike (though looking quiet unlike the standard image of Johnson) and extremely present: Johnson is very much there. And he looks happy and at peace. I hope he was playing with his childhood friends by the pools of Lichfield, or eating apples in his nurse's garden on George Lane...


  1. I'm surprised when the BBC let's an old programme onto iPlayer. The old ones show up the dross of today. They are enjoyable while one watches them but afterwards I find them upsetting, as they fuel my growing conviction, (bordering on obsession), that we are living in a very nearly dead civilisation.
    All the same, I will seek the Bainbridge/Johnson Arena episode out. I hope it's still there.

    1. Well, let us enjoy them while they're still there – and enjoy everything else that remains. 'Tho' much is taken much abides...'

    2. In the context of enjoying things while they are there, I liked this article from Douglas Murray this morning:

    3. Oh yes, he's so right – l'Angleterre Profonde, or as I like to call it, Platonic England...