Disappearing Dad: is fiction better off without fathers?

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When I had the chance to write and present the documentary Disappearing Dad, about fathers in fiction, I immediately knew which way I wanted to go.

I had just been trying to invent a plot for a novel, and I'd been thinking it would be useful if the villain of the piece had been psychologically damaged by his evil father.

Then I'd thought, 'Hold on, I can't do that again' and looking over the plotlines of my first half dozen books it had struck me how often the father was mad, bad, just generally useless, or entirely absent.

Perhaps this explained why my latest novel has been on my father's bookshelf for the past six months with the bookmark at page 20.

In fact, I have a perfectly good relationship with my dad; it's just that if a father does play his paternal role correctly, there can be no story. He would, by means of his restraining hand, his wise counsel or financial support, step in to prevent any misadventures occurring. Much better to kill him off in chapter three, as Robert Louis Stevenson does with Jim Hawkins's father in Treasure Island.

Dad is usually dead in any decent children's story, whether it be Harry Potter or The Tale of Peter Rabbit, whose father was not only killed but also eaten by Mr McGregor.

In the course of filming, I looked at a whole library-shelf full of children's books, and dad had been killed off in almost every one.

As clips in the film will show, Mr Bennet, of Pride and Prejudice is laid-back to the point of negligence, whilst my favourite author, Dickens, specialised mainly in orphans.

Of the fathers who do take centre stage in his books, Mr Dombey of Dombey and Son causes disaster by playing the role of the unbending paterfamilias, whereas Mr Micawber (David Copperfield) and William Dorrit (Little Dorrit) are more childish than their own children.

In the second half of the 20th century, it wasn't just authors who were against fathers, it was the whole of society. The youthquake of the 1960s, the rise of feminism, and the culture of 'cool' mean that any male hoping to exert familial authority was ripe for a kicking.

In the kitchen-sink novels of the fifties, 'father' has become dad, a risible figure who's wasted his life down a coal mine, and never had sex with anyone except the woman he married.

At least he didn't aspire to be like his children, but today's father has capitulated to youth culture. He wears shorts in summer; he drinks his coffee from a mug marked Cool Daddy; he reads books telling him to become his children's 'best mate'.

The film features clips from Man and Boy, from the novel by Tony Parsons, and About A Boy (Nick Hornby), both featuring middle aged men learning life lessons from young boys, and very excruciating is the process.

My advice to any author is: despatch dad quickly and cleanly early on, before he starts killing all the magic of your story with his male-pattern baldness, his dodgy knees, and his unsympathetic and uncomprehending or - worse still - his sympathetic and comprehending attitude towards the modern world and the beautiful young people in it.

Andrew Martin is the presenter of Disappearing Dad.

Disappearing Dad is broadcast on Tuesday, 29 June at 9pm on BBC Four, part of the Fatherhood Season.

BBC Four controller Richard Klein has also written for the BBC TV blog on the Fatherhood season.

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  • Comment number 26. Posted by Salewhite

    on 5 Jul 2010 10:41

    As a Dad with male pattern baldness; dodgy knees; and a fluctuating level of comprehension and sympathy, the thought that I ought to be dispatched early is worrying. Perhaps I should forget the pension and buy the Porsche now.

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  • Comment number 25. Posted by chris barns

    on 3 Jul 2010 02:17

    This is the first time that I have found it necessary to make comment on the standard of a particular programme released by the BBC. On three occassions I have come home to 'wind down' in front of the TV to be confronted by the last three presentations of 'Disappearing Dads'. We are currently experiencing a revelation of the earnings of the upper management within the corporation which is linked to ascertaining where expenditure could be reduced. May I suggest that immediate savings can be made by not investing any amount of money in the production of such a gratuitous series which was neither informative or entertaining.

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  • Comment number 24. Posted by Vinnie

    on 1 Jul 2010 16:06

    There was evidence of sloppy research on the show when a clip from "Georgy Girl " was shown and the caption read ' 1962. Director John Schlesinger '.

    The film was released in 1966 and was directed by Silvio Narizzano !

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  • Comment number 23. Posted by aviddiva

    on 1 Jul 2010 12:04

    In Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women', the March daughters' father is serving in the army (during the US Civil War)for most of the story, though they get letters from him.

    Thanks also to the poster who mentioned how Pa Ingalls was a central figure in the Little House books! When the TV series first came on, my sister was disappointed that Michael Landon looked nothing like Pa in the books - he was written as having hair that stuck up, and a beard.

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  • Comment number 22. Posted by Jamie Buckingham

    on 1 Jul 2010 10:41

    This attitude is just conforming to a society perception of Fathers, which causes me much difficulty. I am a single Father of two boys (mum died two years ago) and I am constantly battling the perception of fathers being selfish, uncaring & childish. Why is it necessary to portray Fathers in this way, when actually most Fathers I meet are caring dedicated and exciting people who enhance their childrens lives without dominating or overpowering their development.

    Ask my kids if a story is better without the Dad in it and you'll only get one response. It's time to redress this outdated Victorian attitude.

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  • Comment number 21. Posted by not_cricket

    on 1 Jul 2010 09:05

    Try reading John Mortimer's "Voyage round my Father"

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  • Comment number 20. Posted by 1an

    on 1 Jul 2010 01:04

    Someone has probably already mentioned this, but if you're talking about Dickens, what about Bob Cratchit? Or John Jarndyce? (Admittedly not a biological father but still the legal guardian.)
    Or, fiction of the 30's - The Little House series?
    Fiction of the 60's - To Kill a Mockingbird?
    Roald Dahl with Danny the Champion of the World, and also Fantastic Mr Fox.

    I think it is perfectly possible to write strong fathers without making the story dull. You will certainly have another character to flesh out, and keep track of. To make it believable it cuts down on the child's (and hence the writer's) potential freedom, but it is possible, just a little more difficult.

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  • Comment number 19. Posted by fitmenfreak

    on 1 Jul 2010 00:47

    DaveG, I would not just say that Mr Bennet is weak, he's downright negligent, and consistently irresponsible! However hideous Mrs B might seem, she is actively attempting to ensure that the girls have a secure future in a world where they were unable to do so for themselves. A marriage to ghastly Mr Collins might seem horribly unromantic, but as the pragmatic Charlotte accepts, its actually a lot better than long-term spinsterhood and then reliance on other siblings who manage to marry into some money. Allowing Lydia off to Brighton? Hardly the role model for all fathers!

    I would agree that the father figure oft needs removal to add excitement to a book, but perhaps this is because the paternal role is SO important that the loss of that comforting security blanket automatically results in a sense of peril that adds drama to a story...

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  • Comment number 18. Posted by liorsayada

    on 1 Jul 2010 00:34

    The book Saturday by Ian McEwan was entirely about a father figure... and that worked a treat... perhaps telling the story from the perspective of a father is rather effective

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  • Comment number 17. Posted by Jane

    on 30 Jun 2010 23:23

    Surely you need to distinguish between real life and fiction? By wiping out dads/parents in books you can create an artificial state of crisis and independence for children. That only works if the readers think that real dads are important in maintaining their safety and security.
    There's a different aim in books that explore the relationship between fathers and children. Roald Dahl does this brilliantly, but bear in mind that Danny's confidence and adventure only starts when his dad goes missing and needs help. And The Road ends with the father dying and the son moving on.

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