Another BAFTA-winning tour de force from Jack Rosenthal, with a cleverly-turned retelling of tragic sixties pools winners and hapless tabloid fodder Keith and Vivian Nicholson (played by John Duttine and Susan Littler). Opening with the pair drunk and bewildered at the cheque-handing ceremony (“You’ve got brandy on your fly!”) the narrative makes deft dovetailing movements to cover the story of Vivian’s truly wretched Castleford childhood – all poverty, coal-hoarding and a violent, drunken bastard of a dad – and the newly-minted pair’s gradual descent into drunkenness and depression. In the former, a symbolic nail varnish kit, nicked from Woolies and considered by Vivian “the beautifullest thing I’ve ever seen” is burned by her dad when she hides it from him up the chimney. Multiple pregnancies and a loveless marriage to a prat called Matthew is interrupted by an affair with Keith, living over the way with his domineering, posessive granny (Liz Smith).
Both with someone to hide it from, they begin a comically furtive stop-start affair, culminating in “the greatest sexual happening in the history of Castleford” under a bridge, the result of which – a daughter – precipitates Keith’s rapid departure from the scene. Reluctantly returning, and fathering another, sickly, child (plus, it turns out, one with another woman while he was away), they finally marry and settle down.
In the other half of the narrative, initial joy at being able to drive back to their house in chauffeured splendour is cut down by tabloid hacks and begging letters. A confrontation with Viv’s parents begins full of bonhomie (Viv and her mum share a tender, and, it’s implied, extremely rare, moment together) until Keith drops the bombshell that Viv’s dad isn’t getting his hands on a penny, upon which he reverts to type, smashing up the kitchen. Moving into a (slightly) posher neighbourhood, Viv and Keith, with nothing to work for, sit about, host raucous parties, get drunk, drive about in flash cars while drunk, and shout at each other and the neighbours. In a brilliant piece of dramatic irony, the climax to the two threads – Keith in the past hearing his score draws mount up one by one over the radio, and Viv later on hearing from the police of Keith’s involvement in one drunken car crash too many – are intercut with consummate skill.
The coda takes in Viv’s life on her own, and it’s so incredibly bleak – bankruptcy, a job working as a stripper, one thirteen week marriage to another violent case, her dad’s death, another one-week marriage, a fifth marriage to an epileptic drug addict who dies, convulsing in her arms – Rosenthal wisely treats it as a series of sketch-like scenes, linked by the wonderful narration Vivian’s been providing throughout the programme, somehow bitterly cynical and hopelessly naive in equal measure. As a study of how extreme circumstances can never, in the end, be grown out of, and as a masterclass in storytelling to boot, this unpretentious and never less than compassionate play ranks among the very greatest entries in the Play for Today canon.