A middle-aged couple (Thora Hird and George A ‘Grange Hill’ Cooper) and their daughter holiday in a North African villa and discover their Arab houseboy lives under the floorboards in the kitchen. Filmed on location on the cheap with the help of a package tour to Hammamet.See post
Play For Today
A joyous comedy by Peter Terson, and so much more. Three Leeds miners – Art (Brian Glover), Ern (Ray Mort) and Abe (Douglas Livingstone) – roll up at the Whitby seaside for a weekend’s fishing. They order three teas from the quayside stallholder (John Comer) – ‘Pints or half pints?’ Art takes charge, ‘Half pints. Don‘t want to ‘ave you runnin’ water all afternoon.’ The Teaman points out the season’s over, which gets at the lads’ pride. ‘ He’s takin’ us for trippers! Are you takin’ us for trippers? He is, he’s takin’ us for trippers!’ ‘Well, you tripped ‘ere, you must be trippers!’ Art acts as avuncular peacemaker – ‘Aye aye aye! No truculence! We’re not funny ‘ats and kiss-me-quicks!’ before laying out his vision of the weekend. ‘I’m not goin’ back to my wife and saying I made a pig o’ myself!’ Art plans for a stay at a polite cliff-top guest house rather than the drinking spree the other two had envisaged. ‘If we’re offered a drink with meals, we have a drink with meals. A German dry hock!’ The others aren’t impressed. ‘Not me, we fought the Germans’ ‘And beat ‘em’ ‘Aye, and I put it down to them drinkin’ that there ‘Ock! You can’t beat a Brown Ale army!’ Art concedes, but is still adamant they don’t go Brown Aleing back to the guest house. ‘We act respectable, with respect to property and standards. We’ll show our wives we can be civilised without them!’ ‘No brown ale, no spewing over the wall?’ ‘A civilised weekend!’
Thus emboldened, they check with the teaman for a guest house. ‘Not too rough and ready. Bed and breakfast, sheets, that sort of thing.’ The teaman, though suspicious, recommends a few small hotels – ‘They should squeeze one or two autumnal in. If you’re wearing ties.’ The guest house they happen upon is run by snobbish, puritanical Audrey (Jane ‘Summer Wine’ Freeman) and feeble, henpecked Brian (Frank Moorey), who look forward to a winter of continual airing of sheets and hard boarding over oak panels. Audrey sees the place as on the up, buoyed by the high standards she insists of her guests, the less desirable of which she has ways of dealing with (‘That family with the kiddie crying all night… I sent meself an anonymous letter of complaint!’ ) ‘I intend to retire owning this place.’ avers Aud. ‘Then I’ll do a bit o’ fishin’!’ muses Brian, wistfully. When the fishing party turn up at the door, Audrey, putting on affected pronunciation, initially turns them away (‘I don’t cater for fishing parties… we’re a small hotel really’) before a great circular argument with Brian, and an eye for some out-of-season profit, produces the notion of charging them an extortionate four guineas each for the night. ‘Each?’ ‘Ah, but that’s inclusive!’ ‘Ah, well, if it’s inclusive…’
And so the lads bunk down to a room each, communicating with each other uneasily through the walls. Ern and Abe want a game of card, but Art disapproves of sharing single rooms. ‘It’s not done!’ Ern dissents. ‘I’ve seen it in the pictures. James Bond does it.’ Finally, at the promise of cards, he caves in. Settling in, they even offer the evidently lonely Brian a place on their fishing boat, but Audrey turns that down flat, not wanting him carousing with their type. ‘Can you visualise what their wives are doing back in Leeds? Because if you can’t, I can.’ The lads, meanwhile, are avidly discussing what classy delights await them at dinner. Art moots the idea of entrees. ‘What’s entrees?’ ‘You’ve seen it on the side of a meat sauce bottle label, ‘aven’t you?’ ‘I don’t read meat sauce bottle labels.’ ‘Well, you should start. Revelation, they are.’ Sadly, Audrey deems it not to be. Evening meal time proving ‘inflexible’, the party repairs to a quayside café for bawdy crosstalk with the waitress and ‘a good line of grease on the stomach’.
Here, in the more convivial setting, Art‘s determination for a civilised jaunt is gradually eroded. ‘We’d better take a little crate of beer on the boat with us, in case the pubs are shut when we get back.’ ‘Make it a big one.’ Finally they get out on their chartered boat, piloted by the strange, taciturn Fisherman (James ’When the Boat Comes In’ Garbutt) at the helm, staring out into the middle distance and warning them in stern tones of the inadvisability of mixing chips, ale and a swelling sea. Sure enough, the boys are already half-cut before they’re out of the harbour. By the time they reach the cod grounds, the boat’s rising with the swell, and the three are proper pissed, singing shanties and – in Pat’s case – quoting John Masefield. ‘Better than the ruddy canal, this is! And the pit pool!’
Even before they reach the grounds, Ern’s the first to succumb to sickness. ‘I wanna die, that’s all!’ Then, when the engines stop, Abe feel it. ‘You can’t curl up in the bottom!’ Art takes charge of all the lines. ‘Will you take a line, Fisherman?’ ‘Not me gave it up years ago.’ ‘A fisherman what doesn’t fish? That’s sad, that is!’ ‘I just use the boat to take trippers out.’ Art feels slighted, but still, he’s in his element – ‘We might be rough and ready fellers, but we’re staying at on of them hotels, y’know! I believe in the dignity of the working man, Fisherman!’ Only to be cut short when the Fisherman reels in a cod, and the sight of it sends Art to the bottom of the boat. Back at the guest house, Audrey and Brian worry about the continuing absence of the party. ‘They’ll be doing after-hours drinking in some backroom, smoking and playing cards and getting themselves excited.’ On the quayside, the three huddle together (‘I can’t remember nothing!’) with a brace of cod – all, presumably, caught by the Fisherman. ‘I wanna be in bed, warm and comfortable. And die.’
They finally repair to the guest house. In the process of getting the far-gone Abe to bed (with strategically placed chamber pot), the three end up sharing a bed through a mixture of illness and drunken delusion. ‘Any man needing the pot in the night give a call, and the other two must relinquish his hold on it forthwith!’ Still awake at four, Audrey won’t be beaten by the wayward trio. ‘I’m not letting them get at me through the Guild of Hoteliers! I’m serving three hardboiled eggs! If they’re not down by nine o’clock that cloth comes off!’ ‘We *are* the smiling service!’ observes Brian. On the dot of nine, they come down. ‘Is this fresh cream milk, straight from the cow?’ ‘It’s Co-op delivery.’ The boys’ dreams of smoked kippers are dashed. ‘Off, are they?’ ‘They were never on.’ Disappointed but still awed – ‘It’s an entrée dish, sausages, we’re in with the meat sauce!’ they only cool off when the tea fails to impress. ‘Maiden’s water!’ Homely pleasures finally win out over self-betterment, and they decide to repair to the seaside café for a pot of real tea and a bacon sandwich (’With one of the slices dipped’) and pausing only to leave a polite note on the back of a betting slip (‘Dear landlady, thank you for a pleasant evening and wonderful service, but you should serve *smoked* kippers for breakfast (over charcoal).’ they tiptoe out. Brian finds the note as Audrey suspiciously check the rooms (‘I wouldn’t put it past them if they had an orgy!’) and comes down with a farewell present, ‘the best of the catch’ wrapped in newspaper. ‘Are they being funny?’ ‘No love,’ replies Brian, ’but I think we are.’
Terson’s script, overflowing with brilliant observation and wonderfully circular, repetitive dialogue, is a joy from start to finish. In times when ‘naturalism’ in dialogue has been reduced to a mannered, sub-Pinter catalogue of pauses, ‘erm’s and floor-staring longeurs, it’s a tonic to see fluent, rolling speech rhythms and quickfire crosstalk that never sounds written. The character of Art, in particular, with his unflappable confidence, eternal quest for social betterment and sauce-bottle erudition, is a work of art. It’s tempting to see the genesis of a hundred ‘gentle’ comedies in this slice of amiable class divide humour, but the strength Play for Today should be most noted for – the proper, first-hand experience of the writers and their ability to transfer a whole section of society in miniature onto the screen – is supremely evident here. The performances, especially Glover’s, are similarly pitch-perfect.
Originally a radio play starring Wilfred Pickles, this understandably popular entry spawned with two further productions based on the same characters – Shakespeare or Bust (a working class take on Three Men In a Boat in Stratford-Upon-Avon, with the lads off on a barge to soak up some culture via the canal, and ending up in it) in 1973 and Three for the Fancy (where they plan to exhibit a rabbit, a mouse and a guinea pig at the Bradford Championship Show) in 1974. The stars were writers, too – Douglas Livingstone had already penned I Can’t See My Little Willie and Everybody Say Cheese for the strand, and Glover would later contribute Keep an Eye on Albert and Thicker than Water.
Grim study by Tony Parker of the plight of ‘lifers’ in prison, concentrating on a man serving thirty for the murder of a police officer. Controversial for a depiction of a gay encounter (remarkably tame by the standards of Scum et al.), though convincing enough for the Home Office to use it in prison officer training courses.See post
Robinson Crusoe retold by poet Adrian Mitchell from the native’s point of view, with Colin Blakely and Ram John Holder. An interesting idea from Mitchell, but hamstrung as a play by being inexorably tied to its central conceit. A much more lavish, and far worse, production of this was released in the cinema a few years later, starring Peter O’Toole and Richard Roundtree, with unnecessary additions such as a talking parrot and a comedy flying machine-building sequence.See post
Odd tale by David Halliwell of a hippyish youth breaking into a middle-aged couple’s house and their subsequent relationship with him, niftily told by cutting back and forth from each person’s perspective on the events, so interior thoughts, dialogue and the appearance of characters and house alters with each change of perspective.
Upper-middle-class businessman Ellis Cripper (Joss Ackland) returns to his father’s country cottage, having been declared bankrupt after his John Bloom-esque package holiday company goes under. His father, a displaced Yorkshireman living in the rural retreat bought for him by Cripper (and now Cripper’s only place to go) is bluff and dismissive of his son, especially when Cripper comes out with post-breakdown, combative riddles in lieu of conversation – declaring his intention to murder his father, commit suicide, then digging up and addressing worms from the garden. His sister and brother-in-law (Peter Cellier), who live nearby, take him under their wing and put up with his awkward flights of obtuseness, and arrange a meeting with a friend of theirs, Angela (Sheila Allen), a biologist. Over a dislocated dinner conversation (with father in tow) Cripper manages to alienate his sister, and Cellier floors him with a punch. Angela, still apparently feeling some degree of sympathy, invites him back to her spacious house-cum-research lab, where a new start seems on the cards…
This is a “difficult” (perhaps self-indulgently so) play from Mercer, who is no stranger to plays about mental illness (see Wednesday Play entries In Two Minds, and the film Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment). What jar perhaps the most are the inserted scenes, largely in studio limbo, of Cripper’s dreams – inside a pentangle inscribed on the floor, Cripper is variously visited by his father (in posh suit and shades, and no longer speaking with his Yorkshire accent) and himself, naked, answering to the name of anyone from Aristotle to Oscar Wilde. The play begins and ends with the same scene – in Angela’s house, Cripper, within the pentangle, summons all four other characters, ostensibly to celebrate his fiftieth birthday, but all remain silent at his protestations, blow out the candles surrounding him and, in the final moments, make a grab for him.
Exactly what significance this has is unclear (Cripper stuck in a perpetual cycle of depression?) and critics took against it – Clive James accused Mercer of “double-crossing his own talent” with the “undergrad tricks” of the pentangle scenes, and it’s a compelling point – Mercer’s gift for dialogue in a realistic setting are well displayed here, with the potentially arid speech patterns of the moneyed middle aged drawn out into self-consciously baroque, elliptical verbal duels (especially the scene where Cripper challenges his GP to find something medically wrong with him) which have a firm grounding in the truth – real depressives really do talk and behave in this contrary, self-pitying, attention-seeking way. Arguably the pentangle scenes do little to add to the portrayal of Cripper’s illness – the magnitude of his willful alienation is more than adequately conveyed by Joss Ackland’s spunky backchat. The dreams, meanwhile, seem like writerly symbolism of the most obvious kind, and Mercer even hints at this artificiality in the text (Cellier: “The man dreams like a sodding film!” and to Cripper “The [bankruptcy] business has its symbolic side, wouldn’t you say?” “Digs like that just bounce off me. They’re just you pathetic way of trying to entertain yourself.”)
Perhaps this is a way of getting the whole business of Mercer, a writer writing a play about a depressive who imagines his life to be scripted and manipulated by others, to fold in on itself. (Mercer admitted that, during the seventies, he felt he’d ‘written himself out’ and the flow of ideas from his sixties heyday had all but dried up.) If so, it’s unsatisfactory. Whatever, the “real world” scenes are relishable, with a fine cast (Ackland and Allen in particular) getting the most out of some ripe exchanges of the sort that seem in danger of giving the middle-class-oriented Play for Today a good name.See post
Peter Terson’s triumvirate of northern working manchildren from The Fishing Party, Art (Brian Glover), Ern (Ray Mort) and Abe (Douglas Livingstone), return for a working class take on Three Men In a Boat in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Led by pugnacious autodidact Art, the lads set off on a barge to soak up some Shakespearean culture via the canal, and ending up in it – in all senses.
A short but sharp musing from Alan Plater on the uncertain future of ’70s provincial communities in general, and his home town of Hull in particular. Hull girl Sally (Gwen Taylor) returns home from her job in London. On the train she bumps into a southern journalist out to cover the town, and on the way try and butter her up with his wry musings, to no avail (“You must be clever,” she replies. “Takes a clever feller to talk rubbish like that.”) Thus is the commonsense combative theme of the play laid out. In town, Sally drops in on her mum, just moved to high-rise estate (“Homes for heroes… that’s what the planners say,” says the cab driver en route. “Alcatraz, me brother calls it. If we can find the front door we’ll be well away.”) Typically for a town so reliant on the sea for employment, her mum’s all alone in the flat, her dad being away in the Persian Gulf (“I sometimes think if folk want petrol that badly they can go and fetch it themselves.”)
Sally breaks the news that a new job offer is on the cards – she’ll be going abroad in 18 months – which news her mum takes as stoically as she no doubt did the move to the high rise. Sally’s real reason for the return, however, is to see old flame Mike, but she’ll have to wait as, like her dad, he’s out at sea – working on the trawlers. She goes to see Mike’s mum – a pleasantly daffy, ebullient old lady, who lives in one of the few remaining old terrace streets (“Be knocking us all down before long.”) Finally Mike (John Flanagan) rolls up – all affected drawl, chewing gum, jacket-over-shoulder northern swagger – in a new car “Good value for two-pound-ten.”
Their reunion is casually played out, to say the least. He doesn’t bother stopping the car – he’ll see her after the rugby. Sally goes to look for her old house, but finds instead a pile of rubble. Amongst the half-torn facades, an old man staggers past, drunk and tearful. it’s an old friend of the family – “Uncle Jack”. Finally, her “date” with Mike kicks off with a romantic spot of football spectating (“Get rid of it, yer big onion!”) before a more promising traipse through the park. Sally suggests the Maritime museum, which sits uneasily with Mike (“You know what you can do with boats, don’t yer?”) After an evening on the town, Mike takes her to another building site – the Humber Bridge (due 1976). The supposed prosperity it’ll bring is sarcastically eulogised. “Be like the Klondike round ‘ere. We’ll all make our fortunes, ten grand a year [...] I’ll be Lord Mayor… and I’ll pack in fishing.” Mike’s after a skipper’s job (“If you’re working in a lousy job you might as well be good at it.”) – as it turns out the very job “Uncle Jack” had been turfed from, after the ultimate humiliation – coming home with no fish (“Never seen a feller cry? Never been on a trawler, ‘ave yer?”) Mike proposes to her in an off-hand way (“Knocking on thirty, time I settled down.”) While she chews it over, he muses on his future (“I’ll end up hanging round the fishouses with half me fingers gone doing odd jobs for a few quid a week.”) Sally asks why he can’t take a shore job, and the answer comes swift and clear – “Scared of the sea but I’m even more scared of the land.” Eventually Sally decides life is – or at least should be – better elsewhere, and she’s on the next train back to London with the journalist, both of them seemingly none the wiser about the town’s future, or the location of its mythical “Land of Green Ginger” (“We didn’t look hard enough”).
In plot terms, it’s a slight tale, but the focus is firmly on character – of Sally and Mike, and Hull itself. Punctuating the story are long montages of Hull life – the fish markets, high streets, pubs and clubs – backed by seafaring songs sung by The Watersons. It’s all heavily atmospheric, and adds immeasurably to the sense of a place and a time with not long to go. Brian Parker’s direction is perfectly paced, and was helped by copious visual Hull-savant notes from Plater, who appreciates the visual richness of film production as opposed to a studio play as well as writers like David Rudkin or John Bowen, and together they ensure the silent sequences say as much about the play’s theme of (sarcastic quotes) “progress” as the dialogue.
The dialogue is, of course, top drawer, both Sally and Mike guardedly sarcastic in their exchanges, yet somehow, at base, as honest as they can be in the face of a landscape that’s changing increasingly rapidly, and way beyond their control – for Mike a probable dead end, for Sally an uncertain, possibly rootless, future. As Mike says, “they get away with it because we let ‘em [...] because we don’t know any better.” While never assuming he does know better, Plater captures with acute empathy and little sentiment the plight of characters who, while far from weak in themselves, find themselves floundering on an outgoing tide of metropolitan-decreed “progress”.
TV CREAM SAYS: HULL... AND BACK
Willis Hall’s Golden Gordon-ish tale of defiant football manager Colin Blakely (who ‘once played for England’) in terminal decline. Also with Peter Sallis. Hall had previously contributed soccer-based wit to the stocking filler book The A-Z of Football, alongside Bob Monkhouse and Michael Parkinson.See post
Bit of a self-reflexive one, this, even by Dennis Potter’s own self-mythologising standards. Keith Barron is a playwright who purposefully ruins his writing hand on an electric stove, and hires Georgina Hale to take notes. As he dictates, scenes from the play are acted out in between increasingly terse exchanges between the unashamedly misogynist Barron and Hale. The play in question turns out to be Potter’s own Angels Are So Few from three years ago. Geoffrey Palmer is among the ‘new’ play’s cast.
As with Double Dare, this was allegedly based on a real-life situation involving Potter himself. As the reliance on old material and writing about writing suggests, it’s not one his his best efforts, though Barron delivers the excellent line “Play for Today lasts just a bit longer than a packet of crisps and has the same sort of taste.”