By James Duthie. Gerrard Kelly and Sylvestra le Touzel star in an across-the-divides Scottish teenage romance. With Gregor Fisher.See post
Play For Today
Two linked plays, Audience and Private View, by the dissident Czech writer Vaclav Havel (and thus presumably written when he was hiding out in that shed in the woods while scary Czech secret police kept driving up to his gate in unmarked cars, hanging about for ages, and then driving away again), with Michael Crawford as a brewery worker whose incendiary writing puts him in trouble with the government.See post
A light but well-turned satire from journalist (currently political editor for the Independent) Andy McSmith. Set mostly in the open-plan newsroom of he Gazette, a provincial daily in an unspecified North East England town, the play tracks the activities of reporters desperately scraping around for stuff to fill their rag on a painfully slow news day. Under the watchful but far from respect-commanding eye of news editor Frank Benyon, John Hansen (moustachioed, bolshy, fond of a drink), Peter Postgate (middle-aged, cynical, sleepwalking through the day) and Mary Cattell (may have a thing for Hansen, indignant at poor treatment meted out to female staff), haplessly ring round the magistrates’ court, fire brigade etc., trying to root out anything that could merit a couple of paras on page five.
Benyon doles out awful stories for them to follow up – a cherry shortage in Jersey, “are bald men less sexy?” etc. – and they grudgingly accept them with barely disguised contempt (it later emerges Kenyon was a mediocrity in his reporting days, too) and bitter sarcastic humour. Given a London-centric poverty report to follow up, Hansen scours the town for a local angle, and interviews penurious widow Mrs Baker, who graphically demonstrates her money-saving bathtime tip (fill two buckets with water from kettle, stand in front of fire with one foot in each, sponge self down).
Convinced a local poverty story is a sure-fire front pager, he returns to type up his findings, in between helping tyro hack Jimmy Gaunt tart up his desultory obscene phone call story with acres of tortuous journalese and bad punning. Returning from the pub in the evening, he finds his story has been held over (while Gaunt’s puntastic fluff is lauded with much praise), and confronts the night editor, asserting that the paper’s right-wing editorial line is the reason behind the spiking, though his principled stand quickly crumbles under the weight of his own resigned apathy, and the paper goes out as is.
As well as being a neat, straightforward “journalism in miniature” parable, what distinguishes this play is the ear for tart and embittered dialogue, and the sturdiness of the various grubby and downtrodden types that populate the newsroom. Matthew Kelly appears as a junior journo, rather unfortunately covering a scare story on paedophilia.See post
By Dixie Williams. Real-life brothers Peter and Paul Moran play two kids hunting imaginary vampires around Merseyside, until flights of imagination, an obsession with old Hammer films shown on the telly late at night, and a cranky joke shop proprietor take things a step too far. “Don’t expect realism… you will have instead a distillation of the truth of children’s experience.” Not our words, the words of Fay Bloody Weldon. So think on.
By Barrie Keeffe. The author of Gotcha! and self-styled writer of plays aimed at “people who wouldn’t be seen dead in a theatre” comes up trumps again with a sympathetic look at racial and generational misunderstanding. A young man and his elderly relative (Queenie Watts) live on a London housing estate which has recently become predominantly Afro-Caribbean.
The old dear, aging rapidly in a fast-changing and hostile South London, flits between irascible highs (banging out the titular Kinks song with semi-tuneful abandon on an old joanna at the play’s opening) with disillusioned, aimless drifts round the streets, trying to keep her old man’s words of socialist brotherhood (he fought in the Spanish Civil War, alongside all creeds) at the front of her mind as she sees division and alienation all about. Eventually, she blows everything at her neighbours’ party, blacking up with cocoa in order to ‘fit in ‘with them, and she has to leave, being driven away to a home in a taxi. Also starring Robbie Coltrane and Floella Benjamin.
A wartime countryside idyll (closely modelled, of course, on Dennis Potter’s Forest of Dean domain) is populated by seven-year-old children playing in the sun who are, in a slight return of the childhood flashbacks in Potter’s Stand Up, Nigel Barton, played by “mature” actors. Colin Welland, doing Spitfire impressions in outsize shorts, squares up to Michael Elphick, local hard nut (but only “number two” in the village, the star being Wallace Wilson, never seen but often referred to in hushed tones) in a brilliantly observed push-and-shove verbal sparring contest (“Shut thee chops!”).
Eventually they’re joined by John (Robin ‘Poldark’ Ellis) and his stuttering, meek brother Raymond (John Bird), and contrive to trap and kill a squirrel. Meanwhile in a barn, pretty Angela (Helen Mirren) and plain Audrey (Janine Duvitski) play “house” with the ultra-shy and rather backward Donald (Colin Jeavons) who reveals much of his home life by swearing and shouting as the “daddy”, before the game breaks up into a vicious round of teasing by the girls.
It transpires “Donald Duck’s” dad is a PoW in Japan, and his mother beats him often, and possibly sleeps around (one of the children heard his mother say “them sheets could tell some stories”, so it’s assumed she’s a bed-wetter). Leaving Donald alone, rocking and muttering in the barn, the girls join up with the boys – now fully into “who’s the hardest” contests, with John and Peter at loggerheads. The girls take sides with relish, but a showdown is interrupted by a siren from the nearby PoW camp, and the children run into the forest, assuming an “Eyetie” PoW has escaped.
After winding each other up with fear something chronic, they return to the barn, thinking the PoW might be in there, but it’s Donald, who’s been obsessively trying to start a fire with some matches, and has finally succeeded. The kids, out for another tease, trap him in the barn until they see the smoke, and too late open the door to see Donald engulfed. They all disappear into the long grass, bewildered, sobbing, as the sentimental AE Housman poem from which the play takes its name is heard.
Easily Potter’s most popular single play, and it’s not hard to see why – as well as the recognition factor of that finely-observed childhood dialogue, the central conceit is inspirationally simple, unlike many of Potter’s previous deliberate, complex, almost diagrammatic rearrangements of reality and fantasy, past and present. And though bleak in the end, there’s a lot of warmth here that even Potter identified, admitting that somewhere within him there might be a much more wholesome writer than his audience – even he himself – is led to believe. But credit too must go to the acting ensemble, who make the constant switches from whimsical innocence to malignant vindictiveness perfectly believable, under the assured direction of Brian Gibson.See post
A departure from Mike Leigh, centring on the social mores among a firm of stockbrokers. Obsequious junior partner Alan (Richard Kane) is the main focus – a pathetically insecure creep obsessed with status, both class-based (he idolises the royals) and celebrity (he collects oleaginously solicited signed photographs of everyone from Russell Harty to Petula Clark, Dr Christiaan Barnard to fingerless pianist ‘Rhythmic Roberto’). Two of the posher brokers, slobbish Giles (Adam Norton) and uptight Nigel (Simon ‘Imitation Game’ Chandler), live together in an Odd Couple-esque relationship of mutual dislike.
A dinner party they throw for two girlfriends, loud Samantha (Catherine Hall) and timid Caroline (Felicity ‘Shooting the Chandelier’ Dean) plus another office colleague, predatory Anthony (Graham Seed). The dinner descends into a loud orgy of half-baked chat (‘the punk thing’ is oafishly discussed), clumsy seduction and boozy incoherence. Senior partner Francis (Jeffrey Wickham) discusses the financial woes of Lord and Lady Crouchurst (David ‘Country’ Neville and Richenda ‘Nuts in May’ Carey), who offer up insufferably plumy non-sequitirs and hopelessly complicated organisational news respectively, in a round robin of escalating obtuseness and confusion.
Alan, who crawls to everyone in the office save young, sarcastic Kevin (Phil ‘Quadrophenia’ Davis), annoys his eccentric, cat-loving wife April (Joolia Cappleman), when he co-opts visiting cat photographer Desmond Shakespeare (Sam ‘Grown Ups’ Kelly) into touring his collection of autographs from the great and good and even the rejection slips from the secretaries of the ones that got away – nothing is beneath proud display). He also interrupts her efforts to sell a prized puss to moneyed Miss Hunt (Geraldine James), intruding into the private life and bloodline of this genuine member of the aristocracy in his very home, and furtively looking up her mother’s surname in a handy copy of Debrett’s.
This description seems rather convoluted and directionless even by Leigh’s standards, and to be fair it does have the feel of a loose collection of ideas and scenes more than any of his other entries in the strand (even the bitty Hard Labour). Series producer Margaret Matheson had encouraged him to do something beyond what, after the success of Abigail’s Party, had come to be characterised as his trademark milieu of lower middle class suburbia. Matheson’s initiative to push writers away from their familiar areas, which worked so well in 1978’s ‘Social Issues’ season, was less successful here here.
The nearest thing to a central performance is Alan’s wonderful Rigsbyesque creation, and scenes without him suffer, with the exception of the spiralling Crouchurst interview. Like Abigail’s Party before it, this was a quick commission by series producer Louis Marks, after an ambitious Anglo-Israeli co-production authored by David Mercer fell through. Leigh himself admits that illness and the birth of his first child interrupted the shoot, and an extra few weeks could have helped iron out the rougher element – in particular the dinner party scene, which sails as close as Leigh’s work has come to the alleged vices of improvised caricature and loud, repetitious cliché his harshest critics have levelled at him, but even here there are the pockets of great character work and observation characteristic of even Leigh’s weakest work.See post
By Ron Hutchinson. Detective Constable Ken Campbell is transferred to Belfast, taking digs in a run-down boarding house called The Crumlin View, populated by an assortment of bizarre and troubled (as well as Troubled) eccentrics, including Patrick Magee, Norman Beaton, John Bird and Pat ‘Play School‘ Abernathy.See post
By James Andrew Hall. Anton Rodgers plays a happily closeted homosexual writer called Lewis Duncan, not at all bothered by his double life, until an article he wrote in a gay magazine under the pseudonym Zippy Grimes threatens to blow the lid on his private life. Richard Pearson appears as a querulous old queen (as he always seems to) along with Hywel Bennett and Nigel Havers.See post
Not a true Play for Today this one, perhaps, as Trevor Griffiths’s masterpiece had been in theatres since 1975, but it’s easily one of the best televised plays, one of the best plays full-stop, perhaps – and certainly one of the best TV dramas there’s ever been. The action concerns a notional evening class for budding stand-up comics in a Manchester secondary school. The students are Gethin Price (Jonathan Pryce), a young man in his mid-’20s, bright, sarcastic, not really of a piece with his classmates; George McBrain (Louis ‘Hard Labour‘ Raynes), a loud, garrulous Ulsterman, prone to lapsing into Frank Carson or Ian Paisley as the mood takes him; Phil Murray, the embittered, nervy straight man of a double act with his relaxed, likeable brother Ged; Sammy Samuels, a smartly-dressed Jewish businessman; and Irish docker Mick Connor.
Their teacher is Eddie Waters (Bill ‘Army Game‘ Fraser), “The Lancashire Lad” – a nearly man of wartime northern club comedy, known and respected by his eager students but with a sense of unfulfillment hanging round him. He leads them through some weird warm-ups for the main event of the evening – performing at a nearby club in front of a showbusiness agent, with a view to getting on his books.
At the club, after a far from glowing introduction by the MC (“this’ll last half an hour at the most”), the turns go on, and mostly bomb, particularly the Murray brothers, who try and do a mock-ventriloquist act but bicker amongst themselves and freeze up completely, and Price, as a clown-cum-bovver boy, who does a bit of mime with a comedy violin, then assaults two tailor’s dummies in evening dress (“Laugh you buggers, laugh!”).
Back in class, Challenor doles out cursory notes on the acts, generally unfavourable, but offers to sign up Samuels and McBrain, seemingly more for their adherence to the standard club comic patter than any genuine achievement in humour. As the comics start to melt away in mixed joy and disappointment, Price, left with Waters, kicks about the bones of his act for a while, then rounds on Waters for having gone soft since his early days, and unexpectedly gets an astounding, painful revelation from him.
What makes all this so good is that it treads neatly along the tightrope so many Play for Today entries fall from. It’s a “play of ideas” – what play isn’t? – but it’s also a story of real people – the comedians just happen to represent, in various ways, to comic stereotypes. The wily Samuels really would ditch his failing Yiddishe schtick halfway through and make with the Plan B of corny but crowd-pleasing “Irish ship full of yoyos” gags.
Price’s act is pure agit-prop, and could quite easily be imagined at the ICA, but he’s no cartoon performance artist – he’s also a keen student of comedy, able to ape Frank Randle and the like at the drop of a hat (needless to say, it’s a brilliant turn by Pryce). Even though it’s obviously meant as a bit of the ol’ symbolism, the collapsing ventriloquist act is painfully convincing, and again, half-inspired by a similar act Randle used to do with Jimmy Clitheroe. Northern comic traditions are all over the play, and of course there’s Fraser, entirely convincing as a weary, failed comic, but also as someone who passionately believes there’s more to a life in comedy than telling gags for coins. Cough and the world coughs with you. Fart and you stand alone.