Terry Pratchett: Back In Black

It’s impossible to think of some people as young, such as Plato or Leonardo da Vinci. Terry Pratchett is one such person. In Back In Black, a BBC docudrama about the fantasy author’s life, he was played by Paul Kaye as an old man  – at every stage in his life. So there were weird sections in this film where Kaye would be sitting dressed as a schoolboy with Pratchett’s iconic beard and hat. Rather odd.

After he had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, Pratchett had planned to make a film of his life. Alas, the disease had progressed too fast and he was too ill to narrate his story on camera. Back in Black begins with an excruciating sequence where we see him at the end of his life clearly reaching for words that would not come. Hence Kaye stepped into the breach. He captures Pratchett’s mannerisms and lisping voice  (the result of a childhood accident) brilliantly.

There was a little too much about Pratchett’s final years in the documentary, and it would have been nice to hear more from Pratchett when he was at the top of his game. He was once able to revel in the title of Britain’s most shoplifted author. Despite his commercial success, he was often ridiculed and held up to contempt by the critics. There was a clip in this film of the tedious 1990s show Late Review, where a group of intellectual talking heads brutally attacked one of his books.

As Pratchett said

Stories about imagination tend to upset those without one.

It would also have been nice to hear a little more about his style as a writer. Despite selling millions of books, his Discworld series has tended to resist adaption into film, apart from the odd TV special. The problem is that a huge part of the attraction of his work is his authorial voice. In his novels, he is constantly providing a witty commentary on the goings on, and this is what makes the books so funny. In a screenplay, it’s not possible to include a narrator, which makes his novels so much harder to adapt for the screen than, for example, Pratchett’s own great first literary love The Wind in the Willows.

A highlight of the documentary was a look at his early career. As a baby boomer, Pratchett was a beneficiary of being a member of the luckiest generation in human history. When he wanted a job as a reporter, no first degrees or Masters in Journalism were required. The teenage school leaver just rocked up at his local newspaper and asked for a job. He got it, on being told that they “liked the cut of your jib”.

Like his contemporary Douglas Adams (who was four years younger), Pratchett left huge numbers of people bereft after his relatively young death. He genuinely welcomed fans and encouraged new talent, allowing other writers like Neil Gaiman and artists like Paul Kidby to get a step up in their nascent careers. His impact on these people was clear to see.

The last word has to be left to Pratchett, who when asked what he wanted most from his memorial service, replied

To be there.