By John Challen. Bleak tale of an awkward young boy whose brief success as a chorister is scuppered by puberty. Leonard Rossiter played his domineering father.See post
Play For Today
Harrowing and immensely popular look at NHS hospital life from the patient’s point of view, written by Trevor Griffiths after reading a diary of his wife’s traumatic time in a hospital being operated on for breast cancer, and later finding out the hard way that her breast had been removed. Alison Steadman plays the bewildered and frightened inpatient Christine Potts, who, from the dispassionate opening examination at the hands of various ice-cold medics (plus the stubble-growing, rather more human trainee Dr Pearce, played by Jack ‘All Good Men‘ Shepherd) to the endless purgatory of the hospital ward, situated next to the cantankerous and violently ill Mrs Scully (Anne Dyson). Her husband (Dave Hill) and mother briefly visit, but can’t offer anything more than helpless support.
Finally Christine is driven to lock herself in a toilet cubicle, and it takes the slightly half-cut Pearce, all homely charm and dodgy Bogart impressions, to put her more at her ease. In his rooms, he puts to her the other side of the argument, that hospital staff find they have to function in that distant, patronising manner as they for the most part couldn’t tolerate the job any other way, a survival tactic, but an admission of failure that ignores the patient as a person (“We’re all missing the mark, Mrs Potts, and we need to be told”).In the end, the night before Christine leaves, Mrs Scully and sundry other patients share a stoically celebratory bottle of smuggled gin.
What set this play apart from so many others, apart from the uncompromising and then scarcely aired subject matter, and the keenly observed shocking little details (like the pathologist swiftly and excitedly carting away the tumour for research minutes after the operation) is the production. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg originally wanted to film the entire play on location (and therefore necessarily on expensive film) in a real hospital, but budgetary restraints would not allow.
Detesting the aesthetic mish-mash of the suggested compromise of studio shoot with filmed inserts (the format for most television plays at the time which involved location work), Lindsay-Hogg swung the other way and had every part of the hospital set, from ward to theatre to reception, built for a completely video-bound production. The gamble payed off, as the harsh, too-bright, clinical feel of hospital wards is perfectly conveyed by the penetrating glare of the video camera. In fact, as the play was conceived partly as an answer to the doctors-and-nurses-as-heroes soap opera Angels, which was similarly video-bound (as, interestingly, the likes of Casualty remain to this day – medical drama, at least in Britain, being just about the only drama over thirty minutes in length still routinely shot on untreated video, perhaps for this very aesthetic reason), formulating the answer in kind was arguably the only option.
Within this apparently constraining shoot, however, many telling shots were achieved. Christine is often shown in isolation from the medics, either in the distance for the preliminary examination, or in shots of the ward round, taken from the PoV of the bed-bound Christine, and also sharing her aural semi-comprehension of the hushed jargon exchanged evasively by the doctors at the foot of the bed. Eleven million viewers saw this play, and it sparked a round of debate about hospital practice (with particular regard to the then still largely taboo subject of mastectomy) in national newspapers. Griffiths has long regarded it as his most successful play. Also featuring Anna Wing and Richard Wilson.
The original outing for John Mortimer’s bellicose bailiff, staunchly representing a young black defendant in the face of institutional racism from the police and judiciary in a rather more serious and political story than would become the norm when the first series (turned down by the Beeb, accepted by Thames) aired in 1978.See post
Jack Rosenthal may not be a highly experimental dramatist, or one who tackles The Big Issues head on, but the three plays he wrote for the Play For Today strand over this period are some of the finest examples of the genre, as well as being the most popular with audiences, critics and award committees. Directed ably by Alan Parker, The Evacuees was the first, a special presentation, and a relative epic in scope. In Manchester’s Cheetham Hill district prior to the outbreak of World War II, Jewish brothers Danny and Neville are uprooted from their family, headed by mother Sarah (played by Rosenthal’s wife, Maureen Lipman, who would rehash the character, with pernickety elements of Rita from Bar Mitzvah Boy added, for her infamous British Telecom adverts) to be billeted with the Grahams, a frosty middle-class gentile couple in Blackpool.
The trauma of being away from the comforts of home and peacetime quickly descend upon the luckless pair, and after being attacked by a gang of kids on the beach for their alien accents, attempt a comically doomed escape on rollerskates with similarly homesick classmate Zuckerman, before finally telling all to their mother when she visits, via a message in a game of “silly stories” which Sarah ends up reading out in front of a horrified Mrs Graham. Sarah takes the boys back home, leaving a sad (and, it turns out, forever childless) Mrs. G to mourn their departure. “Safely” back in Manchester, the boys encounter another evacuee, this time displaced to Manchester from London, and react to his funny accent in the only way they know how – with a punch in the stomach. Presented with a minimum of directorial fuss (a few panoramic shots and the passage of the war marked with Chamberlain and Churchill on the wireless, plus the food-hoarding antics of their uber-Yiddishe granny) and perfect attention to period detail in all departments, this straightforward but solid story won both a BAFTA and an Emmy.See post
Alison Steadman and Roger Sloman are wishy-washy veggie peacenik Candice-Marie and self-important town hall bureaucrat Keith, a pair of lisping middle-class types getting back to nature (to an extent – Keith brings a shedload of camping equipment, and rules are layed down ‘for the enjoyment of everyone’) by pitching their tent at a camping site. All goes well in that gently comical Mike Leigh way, with plenty of cups of tea, cold showers and visits to slate quarries, until the arrival of a couple of Brummie ‘rockers’ upsets the balance. As a study of middle class anal retention drifting slowly but surely outside its comfort zone in the Great British outdoors, it’s second to none.
By Eric Coltart. Bewildering, minimalist tale of an institute conducting experiments on volunteers in “reduced living conditions” – ie. locking them in tiny rooms. Peter Eyre, David Hargreaves and Tony Robinson are among the staff watching over their subjects’ delusional fantasies and hallucinations.See post
By John Hopkins. Jon Laurimore and Geoffrey Palmer are police investigating a brutal murder on a high-rise estate, but finding fear of crime and hatred of the police preventing witnesses from coming forward. A TV news crew arrive on the scene, and start getting better results with their investigations. Directed by Herbert Wise, who brings a horrific intensity to the opening depiction of the crime, in which Susan Littler is stalked across the estate at night, murdered, and then raped.See post
A crumbling (and presumably minor, judging from the size of the hall) public school toward the end of term, and a cheerless and painfully clumsy production of The Bacchae shudders to its conclusion in front of an audience of assembled parents and headmaster Robin Bailey. Five ‘hippie’ students, however, plan to liven things up. Lurking behind a curtain at the back of the hall, and lighting up joints, Ozzy Freemantle (David ‘Ford Prefect’ Dixon), Snare Phillips (Denis Lawson) and co. startle the blue rinsers by launching into Steel Ball Wind, a rickety pub-glam confection that turns heads (particularly of previously bored parent and ad exec Tim Curry) and earns their expulsion from school (Dixon sees the stern bailey off with a cool ‘Keep on truckin’, sir!’)
This matters not to Ozzy, as the lads are no longer public schoolboys but Slag Bag, set to take the country by storm. Patrick (Curry) takes them under his wing after a bedtime epiphany about the ‘Dionysian’ properties of rock, and soon they’re playing a church youth club to a completely indifferent audience (including a young Linda Robson) as Patrick and the local vicar look on from above and discuss the class divide (as one girl comments, ‘comprehensive boys are so much more… comprehending’).
After another drug-fuelled epiphany of Ozzy’s while watching Snare and his girl copulate wildly inside a sealed sleeping bag in Patrick’s flat, the band make it to the big time – well, The Ritzy in Chiswick. Clad in Greek togas and gold tinsel wigs, the band urge the screaming teenybopper audience on to ‘new heights of screwball abandon’, during which one unfortunate girl is killed in the David Cassidy-like crush. In court, the female justice finds them guilty of causing affray and gives them six months suspended, but Ozzy is already penning a raunchy song, Lady Judge, based on the experience. Distraught after a meeting with the dead girl’s father, sensitive Snare quits the band for Oxford. The prosecuting counsel, however, approaches the remaining lads with a proposition – a gig at his daughter’s birthday party.
During this marquee-set affair, with Ozzy in an elaborate gold lame centaur number, the girl’s mother becomes overwhelmed by the hypnotic power of the band’s latest composition Snake Madness (“Beast gladness!”) and strips off, having to be hosed down by husband and prudish son. Finally, straying too close to the wind, Ozzy lands in court again, and prison this time, over the libellous content of Lady Judge. Snare, in a similar ‘prison’ of cloistered academic study, fantasises one final reunion gig between the two in the old school hall. Fade out on Ozzy’s undimmed wild eyes.
However you look at this time capsule curio, it’s undeniably memorable stuff. Made around the same time as Rock Follies, it uses the same mixture of proto-pop-video fantasy sequence and disillusioned reality, and while writer Robin Chapman’s finger isn’t exactly on the cultural pulse (a cross-dressing mythological Bay City Rollers isn’t exactly the mid-’70s music scene distilled) making the boys upper class is a comedic masterstroke. Dixon’s mixture of fey RADA-speak and transatlantic jive is spot on for the character, and the lingering close-ups of his mad eyes are always good value. Lawson is perhaps weaker as the ‘sensitive’ band member, overdoing the button-down recrimination and nervousness.
Alan Cooke, who did a fine job on The Right Prospectus (qv), really lets his hair down with spiralling psychedelic graphics (an early sequence wherein Ozzy has a wet dream about a dressing room invasion must be a first for television), CSO-ed dance sequences, dramatic freeze-frames and the like, which sometimes look unbearably clunky (at least with hindsight) but do succeed in keeping the production moving, even if, as with the youth club scene, there’s necessarily nothing much happening. Stephen Deutsch’s songs, sometimes drowned out by an iffy sound mix but firmly wise to the genre, tap a similar vein somewhere between knowing kitsch and pure daftness.
Just like Slag Bag themselves, this play is a tricky one to judge, shifting as it does between Ozzy’s unflappable, if sometimes embarrassing, exuberance and Snare’s self-conscious worries that the band have made rock ‘n’ roll ‘rubbishy’. In that way, perhaps Jumping Bean Bag sums up the musical spirit of the time rather better than it may superficially seem to do.See post
Trilogy of one-act plays adapted by Bill Craig from short stories by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, all dealing with the way the Scottish land affects rural relationships – a farmer’s neglect of his terminally ill wife in favour of tending his land; a staunch matriarch coping with her unruly brood; and a woman from the city finding married life in the hills intolerable. All stories feature Fulton MacKay and Bill Fraser.See post
Rare incursion into play for today from the Godfather of the original theatrical kitchen sink explosion, Arnold Wesker. Elizabeth Spriggs tries to revive her marriage to obsessive trade union organizer Patrick Troughton with the titular love letters, posted from the pillar box outside their front door.See post
Another self-reflexive musing on authorship, manipulation and the fiction/reality border from Dennis Potter, parachuted into the gap left by the cancellation of Brimstone and Treacle. Inspiration-starved playwright Alan Dobie (made up in a very Pottereque image) spends an afternoon in a hotel with actress Kika Markham taking the role of a call-girl, as “research” for his new play. After a few drinks, fantasy and reality inevitably overlap, as Markham’s double, in a red wig, appears in the hotel as a real life call-girl who is eventually smothered to death by an impotent, sex-starved businessman, a crime which Dobie hears, horrified, through the wall of his adjoining room, and narrates (invents?) to the “real” Markham. The final scene shows Markham in Dobie’s room, apparently strangled (presumably by Dobie). Fantasy and reality have clearly ruptured their borders with lethal consequences. Kika Markham had, earlier, been summoned to see Potter to help with just such a case of writer’s block. Shot entirely on film in a specially-constructed set in the old Ealing studios.