TV adaptation of Dario Fo’s uncompromising militant left-wing dramatisation of the suspicious circumstances of the death of an anarchist railway worker who plunges from the fourth floor of a Milan police station while being ‘questioned’, during the Italian government’s controversial ‘strategy of tension’ of the late 1960s, which played far right and far left terrorist groups off each other in a cynical…
“Woah, woah, steady on there, TVC! Bit outside the usual remit, this, isn’t it? You’ll be using the words ‘Brechtian’ and ‘discourse’ in a minute!”
Ah, well, not really. For one, this play isn’t some hectoring heap of stony-faced symbolism and political grandstanding, it’s a farce of the highest, daftest order, with plenty of falling over, chatting to the audience, knees-bent running about and hoary old gags of the CRACKERJACK (“Crackerjack!”) variety bunged in. (Fo’s original script even has a line comparing the relative retirement prospects of judges and coalminers that bears an uncanny similarity to Peter Cook’s BEYOND THE FRINGE Mr Grole monologue, high-art-cribbing-from-popular-comedy fans.) Secondly, this version comes courtesy the Belt and Braces Theatre Company, a fringe theatre group who eschewed the usual po-faced pomposity for a laid-back, gag-strewn approach to agit-prop.
The main driving force behind the group was GAVIN RICHARDS, latterly known to the world as Tiffany’s dad off EASTENDERS and, more pertinently, Captain Bertorelli off ‘ALLO! ‘ALLO! The latter loon shares a manic disposition (to say nothing of a false moustache) with Richards’s character here, “The Maniac”, a demented Marx Brothers-esque agitator who impersonates an esteemed judge carrying out an inquiry into the plummeting incident, to the consternation of the jittery station Superintendent (the Cleese-esque CLIVE RUSSELL) and clueless Inspector (the diminutive JIM BYWATER). It all takes place in front of a KENNY EVERETT SHOW-style milieu of tiny, t-shirted audience and chuckling technicians, in the smallest studio Thames Television can provide (the fourth wall is not so much broken as falling down before the opening credits have finished rolling).
Cue an hour and a quarter of insanity, with pratfalls, punch-ups, Quantel tomfoolery, arsing about with prosthetic limbs, the requisite “Channel Swore” quota of half a dozen “fuck”s, mass anarchist singalongs, mass train impersonations, derisory comments about the show’s tiny budget (on spotting a supporting actor doubling up roles – “Your face rings a bell!” – Richards moans, “Couldn’t they get a different actor to play you? Who’s directing this thing, Ian MacGregor?”), appallingly corny gags (“Don’t worry, they get worse!”), an in-studio coffee break complete with charlady and tea urn, TISWAS-esque mucking about with the Thames Television cameras, references to both the General Belgrano and Arthur Negus in the same breath, and a climactic destruction of the avowedly wobbly set by means of a comedy bomb. All topped off with a dollop of good old revolutionary socialism. It’s got the lot, folks.
Unsurprisingly, this is one of those early doors Channel Four programmes tuned into by curious younger viewers on the off-chance of seeing a bit of naked flesh, leading to swift disappointment. Except with this show, they kept watching, if only to try and work out what the heck sort of a programme this thing was. By the first ad break, they were hooked. One of those rare occasions when station controller Jeremy Isaacs’s notion of What Channel Four Should Be Doing meshed perfectly with our own. Or, to quote the Maniac, “This is commercial television in crisis!”