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”.