By Barry Collins. The arrival of a poet in a Yorkshire village arouses suspicion in local farmers, and sexual longing in farm girl Jan Francis. Music from The Oldham Tinkers.See post
Play For Today
Highly politicised state-of-Labour entry, the first Play for Today from the sainted Trevor Griffiths. Bill Fraser plays Edward Waite, an aging Lancastrian Labour grandee who served his apprenticeship during the General Strike, who displays many of the rhetorical turns and mannerisms of various real-life party members, most obviously a Wilsonian forever-unlit prop pipe, preparing for his imminent ennoblement into the House of Lords. He is shown being interviewed in the conservatory of his spacious Surrey home by documentary maker Richard Massingham (Ronald Pickup), a high-born, publicly educated and very suave character who runs through a list of prepared questions about his early life in deprived Beswick.
That night, overcome by turbulent disinterred memories (rendered in a then-standard manner as snatches of audio flashback) Waite suffers a minor heart attack. On returning the next morning, Massingham comes face to face with Waite’s daughter Maria (Frances De La Tour), a schoolteacher with little time for the old Winchester boy’s inadvertently patronising attempts to converse with/interview her. Even more hostile is the son William (Jack Shepherd), a fiercely idealistic college lecturer who loudly takes apart both Massingham’s method of programme-making and his father’s political career over a fraught lunch.
The following day – Waite’s birthday – the quartet gather for celebrations, only for the talk to turn inevitably to party politics. William all but accuses his dad, and Labour, of achieving nothing in office (since the promised Socialist revolution was indefinitely postponed). Waite stands up for the party, presenting the case for practical politics and the voice of experience. Then William produces evidence from the University of Manchester files that show Waite repeatedly voted against the epochal strikes of ’26. Waite, however, stands firm this time (“One day you may find yourself doing something really serious, like running a ministry, and then you’ll see where dreams get you”) and leaves.
The next day Maria reveals to Waite she can’t accompany him to Buckingham Palace to accept the peerage on principle, and William decides Massingham is the lesser of two evils,a nd hands him his research on his father. The final, slightly abstract, scene shows Waite, in close-up, being interrogated by Massingham on the strike vote question, when the sound cuts out and the camera pulls back to reveal Waite, alone in the conservatory, in his baronet’s robes – a completely dishevelled figure.
As a first television work, this was something of a baptism of fire for Griffiths – Play for Today script editor Ann Scott asked for something from him to fill the slot left by a rejected work from another writer – Griffiths was given one multi-room set, no film inserts, and six weeks to deliver the finished work. Further restrictions, ironically imposed by the three-day week brought on by present-day strike action, caused about 12 minutes to be forcibly trimmed from the usual 75 minute running time. Given these strictures, it’s easier to forgive the occasional lapses into stereotypical “characters being mere mouthpieces for ideas” territory that is the bane of many lesser Play for Todays. The clash between pragmatic and idealistic Labour is, for the most part, grounded in convincing portrayals of a family torn apart by political and emotional tension.See post
A more subdued, even warm, turn from Dennis Potter. Well, relatively speaking. Freddie Jones is a religious Welsh pet shop owner whose faith is tested when his daughter (Angharad Rees) becomes terminally ill with bone cancer. Driven by a rather fatuous sermon at the local chapel to storm out, he tends his pets ruefully while she awaits the inevitable upstairs. The priest visits, attempting conciliatory words but failing miserably in the face of Joe’s pessimism (“Nice bit o’ Welsh lamb waiting for you at home? Shame to let it spoil, now.”) A timid friend of Lucy’s from Oxford visits, similarly ails to connect with the old man, or his daughter, who has no time for his bumbling declaration of infatuation.
Finally Jones’ wayward son (Dennis Waterman), a failing and resentment-filled touring comedian (“My mouth’s turned into a permanent sneer” he tells his ‘partner’, who peps up his act with ‘exotic dancing’) arrives just too late to see his sister after Lucy’s Oxford friend writes him a letter on her behest. As she dies, Joe and son are left together on the stair, and a sort of reconciliation is hinted at (“Let’s go up and see her. Lovely she looks, now”).
Perhaps expecting another close to the bone familial encounter, critics lambasted the modest piece for its sentiment and lack of ‘bite’. Potter himself has commented ambivalently on this work, claiming that the sentiment he consciously tried to expunge “kept creeping back in”, and commenting that, in synopsis at least, the play does read “like the winning entry in a New Statesman competition parodying gloomy pretension”. Such thoughts possibly led him to over-react the other way by writing the decidedly sentiment-free “dark sitcom” Brimstone and Treacle, in which a very similar situation – beautiful stricken young woman, parents losing faith, unwanted visitors – is played out in a very different way.
Frank Windsor plays the titular head with an increasingly tenuous grip on his position in this first play submitted unsolicited by then college teacher John Challen. The play was popular enough to merit a six-part series in 1977, written by Challen with Windsor and other cast members retained, shedding further light on the conflict between old and modern teaching methods, as well as the eternal jockeying for position amongst the staff.See post
Stephen Franklin (Spencer ‘Timeslip‘ Banks) is the son of the Reverend J Franklin (John Atkinson), the parish parson of the small Malvern village of Pinvin. Shielded by location and upbringing from the urbanised modern world, Stephen has developed a worldview which naively encompasses a love for the English countryside, the music of local composer Edward Elgar, and a naive embracing of extreme right-wing ideas. In a school debate, he takes the side of a churchgoing couple who forced a ban of a television documentary called ‘Who Was Jesus?’ and launches into a bigoted harangue that earns the derision of his fellow pupils. He is an outcast at school, ridiculed in class for his precocious questions and humiliated in cadet training – laddish classmate Honeybone claims he does nothing ‘for the house’ and recommends boiling him in oil.
The teacher, pausing only to quietly confiscate a (presumably pornographic) magazine from him, says nothing to refute the suggestion. At a parish meeting, he reviles the views of local television playwright Arne (Ian Hogg), who espouses left-wing views and warns of mysterious government projects taking place in the area, possibly under their very feet. As if to bear Hogg out a young man, out on the fen with friends, is mysteriously burned that night, his hospital bed comes under police guard and a cover-up story is fed to the local papers. Stephen then experiences a series of visions – a wet dream involving Honeybone to the strains of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius ends with Stephen turning on the light to find a demon squatting over him, which quickly vanishes.
Skipping cadet class, he has a similar fleeting glimpse of a stone angel. While cycling along, a sudden glimpse of a demon causes him to crash his bike, and in his concussed state he dreams of attending a strange pagan ceremony in the grounds of a stately home, where young men and women in white, formal attire gladly queue up to have their hands chopped off by a worryingly friendly-looking old gentleman. He is brought back to consciousness by the local milkman, who backs off after a nerve-steadying embrace threatens to turn into something more erotic.
Finally, sheltering from a storm in a barn, he finds the ghost of Elgar, who shares with him tragic anecdotes from his life – the well-meaning but distressing misuse of a song he wrote for his wife at a birthday party, and a gruesome account of a primitive operation on his stomach. Elgar tells him the identity of the secret tune which counterpoints his Enigma Variations, that music scholars have been searching for in vain. Finally he draws Stephen’s eye to the beauty of the world – though he indicates the crumbling wall of the barn. Stephen’s 18th birthday is marred by the news he is adopted, and his real parents are not of the ‘Aryan’ stock Stephen has been championing.
As graduation from school nears, Honeybone and the boys bundle onto Stephen in the gym and tie a pink ribbon in his hair as a final humiliation. During a long and frank discussion with his father, Stephen discovers him to be far less hidebound than he thought (and than he himself is), and talk turns from the true, revolutionary nature of Christ to Penda, the ancient Mercian king who was among the last Britons to resist the spread of Christianity. ‘The devil is the name new religions use to define the Gods of the old ones,’ his father claims. Stealing into the church at night, Stephen plays Gerontius on the organ, and as the floor of the knave cracks beneath him, a voice – maybe Christ, maybe Penda – beckons to Stephen for help. On the Malverns, a strange couple approach Stephen claiming him to be their ‘chosen one’. Stephen backs off, citing his confused sexuality and mixed race as barriers to any Messiah status, whereupon the couple ignite a photograph of him, which causes him to burn as the man on the fens did. Eventually, he summons King Penda to drive the couple away, and walks back down the hill to the village, and life.
A highly popular play from the reliably weird David Rudkin, with a younger audience than Play for Today was used to, mainly due to its fantasy elements, it has since acquired a reputation as a cult piece of ‘telefantasy’ which, deserved though it is, belies its sophistication. While there’s certainly no readily available explanation for everything that happens, it’s certain that nothing occurs merely for the sake of it, for the sake of spectacle or cheap mystery that the fantasy genre so often relies on.
What makes a potentially obscure and melodramatic play work so well is Alan Clarke’s intelligent treatment of both the fantastic and realistic elements. His camera lets us in not only to the cloistered, stifling world of the village and school community (although there’s no judgment against the village per se – ‘The village works,’ says Arne) but the fractured worldview of Stephen. Treatments of fantastic incidents are shorn of dramatic music (save Elgar) and sound effects – Stephen turning on the light to find a demon squatting over him in bed is presented matter-of-factly for a couple of seconds, then vanishes with as little fanfare as it appeared. Stephen’s post-crash reverie of a pagan hand-dismembering ceremony takes place in total silence save for the rhythmic chop of the cleaver.
There is, in Clarke’s eye, nothing to distinguish this dream from the ceremonial humiliation meted out to Stephen by Honeybone and the boys later on, as Stephen defiantly stares out his tormentors in the same eerie silence. The photography by Michael ‘Nuts in May‘ Williams works miracles on a BBC budget, capturing the Malvern landscape as well as Eastmancolor can, and augmenting it with deftly-employed artificial lighting where necessary.
The special effects, while far from spectacular, are efficient, and Clarke’s matter-of-fact introduction of them does much to increase their effectiveness. Not everything works here – the ending is an increasingly desperate mish-mash of too many bits of symbolic business, which has enabled self-styled ‘scholars’ of fantasy to rattle on at endless speculative length with impunity (a fact Rudkin may have been aware of, hence the Enigma Variations teaser), but in dramatic terms is a definite weakness. Not that a nice, loose-end-tying finale would have been appropriate, but the clumsy attempt to back out of a self-indulgent cul-de-sac lays bare the workings of the writer in a way Rudkin presumably did not intend – Stephen tells us, rather than shows us, how he has changed – and all but deflates the fine stuff that has taken place in the previous eighty minutes.
There are also moments where the play’s historical learning is rather clumsily inserted into the more poetic scenes, as if Rudkin was determined no-one could possibly take the play as merely the story of the sexual and spiritual awakening of a young man. Arne and the vicar, as the mouthpieces of the political and religious sides of Rudkin’s argument, don’t always retain their shape as characters, though Hogg turns in a fine performance as the taciturn, paranoid writer. Banks acquits himself well too, in a complicated and tough role that could easily have worked out as the least sympathetic juvenile lead in television history.
What female roles there are fare less well – Stephen’s mum does precious little and Arne’s wife’s confession to Stephen of their inability to have children is plain embarrassing in its gauche attempt at sketching a ‘headstrong’ female character. For all the subordination of character, lost plot strands and weight of ideological baggage, though, Rudkin and Clarke come through with a sensual feast of a play which offers a blueprint for an honest, non-sentimentalised view of England – an experience unique both to Play for Today and (despite lesser subsequent imitations more firmly mired in the fantasy genre) television in general, with a rural sense of place not usually seen in television plays to that point – Rudkin had insisted on a far more visually detailed script than was the norm at the time.
Another ‘visitation’ play from Dennis Potter. A charismatic young man (Tim Curry) enters the lives of a depressed woman and her dull, model train-obsessed husband, claiming to be their long-lost son, and practically seducing his ‘mother’. Cabaret songs and train impressions abound as each of the characters lapses in and out of a desperate childishness. With a typical Potter twist in the ending, a version of this play was later filmed as Track 29.
Colin Welland delves into a favourite subject of Play for Today writers, industrial relations, with a look at a strike in a Leeds clothing factory which took place just a few years previously. With a cast of hundreds and a budget well into six figures, it was at the time the most lavishly produced single British drama (Kenith Trodd at the helm, Roy Battersby directing). Reviled on transmission by local press and unions for misrepresentation of both the area and the workforce, its sympathies clearly lie with the workers as people, torn between the exploitation of the bosses and the self-interest of the union leaders.See post
Immensely popular play by Philip Martin exploring the Birmingham underworld, in particular the ‘Blackbird Run’ of illegal immigrants. Maurice Colborne is an ex-SAS officer being tailed by the brother of the man he just emerged from the nick for killing (played by writer Martin). A claustrophobic atmosphere and excellent climactic lorry-top chase and showdown underneath Spaghetti Junction make this an unusual Play for Today, to say the least, more in line with contemporary popular film styles than the ‘austere’ aesthetics of the stereotypical ‘serious’ television drama. (Though see 1973′s The Operation and 1979′s Vampires for similar pop-styled PfT fun.) Saeed Jaffrey and Paul Barber are among the strong cast. Martin found so much material while researching the play in Birmingham that couldn’t fit into one play, but got the chance to use it when the BBC commissioned two series based on the play’s milieu.See post