Robinson Crusoe: 1719, 1970, 2013

(Note: I’ve updated this post since the Art of Noise’s version of one the incidental themes is no longer available. April 2014).

April 2013 and I’m thinking about Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, first published in April 1719 (it was entered on the Stationer’s Register on April 23rd). Title page image from the first edition here (courtesy the Lilly Library exhibition).

However I was reminded of my first encounter. This was the the black and white Anglo-French TV series first produced in 1964 and shown on BBC TV in the late 60s and early 70s, usually in an afternoon slot during my school holidays. The memory of this is suffused with an aura of contentment – my own, that is – lazily watching TV on an afternoon. And my memory of it is selective since the dominant images that come from the series also construct the time of Crusoe’s shipwreck on the island rather like my own school holidays: exciting and yet boring, carefree and occasionally and perhaps unintentionally comic. And what really sticks in my mind is Crusoe’s building and making (see episode 5 Now, I’m not sure now why this should be, since I’m no DIY-er. But there were still places near the suburbs where I lived as a child in Leeds that were uncultivated and undeveloped: places where I could go on my own or with friends among weeds growing to shoulder height and explore woods (one with a derelict WWII bunker). So there was something in my solitary rambles of the isolation, freedom and making things with sticks that the TV series evoked. Yet seeing these episodes again, I realise I had completely forgotten the flashbacks to Crusoe’s time with his father in (a strangely rural) York. Was it because that – sitting in front of the TV – I had no need to know about fathers and parents and home? Or was it that the promise that what Crusoe himself called his ‘rambling’ impulse was precisely the opposite of the world of home and contentment, where men ‘went silently and smoothly thro’ the World’, as Crusoe’s father puts it.

Memories of my own life as child, images from the Crusoe TV series, and my memory of the effect of these images move and shift around themselves in peculiar ways. Now, as a Defoe scholar and a father of boys, inspecting my memory becomes a far more complicated task. Certainly, my nostalgia of childhood ‘rambling’ owes much to a projection of present-day loss: “would I let my own children now do the kind of solitary adventuring I did then?” But it’s also linked to the power of that TV series to pass on to me a myth of adventure which is actually a fairly sanitised version of Defoe’s 1719 novel: the TV version is slightly emptied of Defoe’s religious and moral rhetoric, and isolation is balanced by a kind of adventure experienced in front of the TV in the sitting room. And I even mentioned that I remembered watching the series with contentment…

Perhaps the strongest memory I have is of the series’ music: it is this that most precisely captures the mixed images of Crusoe’s poignant isolation and my nostalgia for carefree adventure. The opening theme’s grand, rolling strings evokes the crashing of seas and waves and suggesting the epic nature of escape, journey, and adventure; yet the haunting theme also manages to powerfully suggest isolation:

One the of incidental scores has an equally powerful place in my memory since it concentrates solely on giving shape to the underside of adventure, poignantly evoking the tedium and loneliness of shipwreck (this runs from about 0. 45 in, to 5.18).


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