Not a true Play for Today this one, perhaps, as Trevor Griffiths’s masterpiece had been in theatres since 1975, but it’s easily one of the best televised plays, one of the best plays full-stop, perhaps – and certainly one of the best TV dramas there’s ever been. The action concerns a notional evening class for budding stand-up comics in a Manchester secondary school. The students are Gethin Price (Jonathan Pryce), a young man in his mid-’20s, bright, sarcastic, not really of a piece with his classmates; George McBrain (Louis ‘Hard Labour‘ Raynes), a loud, garrulous Ulsterman, prone to lapsing into Frank Carson or Ian Paisley as the mood takes him; Phil Murray, the embittered, nervy straight man of a double act with his relaxed, likeable brother Ged; Sammy Samuels, a smartly-dressed Jewish businessman; and Irish docker Mick Connor.
Their teacher is Eddie Waters (Bill ‘Army Game‘ Fraser), “The Lancashire Lad” – a nearly man of wartime northern club comedy, known and respected by his eager students but with a sense of unfulfillment hanging round him. He leads them through some weird warm-ups for the main event of the evening – performing at a nearby club in front of a showbusiness agent, with a view to getting on his books.
At the club, after a far from glowing introduction by the MC (“this’ll last half an hour at the most”), the turns go on, and mostly bomb, particularly the Murray brothers, who try and do a mock-ventriloquist act but bicker amongst themselves and freeze up completely, and Price, as a clown-cum-bovver boy, who does a bit of mime with a comedy violin, then assaults two tailor’s dummies in evening dress (“Laugh you buggers, laugh!”).
Back in class, Challenor doles out cursory notes on the acts, generally unfavourable, but offers to sign up Samuels and McBrain, seemingly more for their adherence to the standard club comic patter than any genuine achievement in humour. As the comics start to melt away in mixed joy and disappointment, Price, left with Waters, kicks about the bones of his act for a while, then rounds on Waters for having gone soft since his early days, and unexpectedly gets an astounding, painful revelation from him.
What makes all this so good is that it treads neatly along the tightrope so many Play for Today entries fall from. It’s a “play of ideas” – what play isn’t? – but it’s also a story of real people – the comedians just happen to represent, in various ways, to comic stereotypes. The wily Samuels really would ditch his failing Yiddishe schtick halfway through and make with the Plan B of corny but crowd-pleasing “Irish ship full of yoyos” gags.
Price’s act is pure agit-prop, and could quite easily be imagined at the ICA, but he’s no cartoon performance artist – he’s also a keen student of comedy, able to ape Frank Randle and the like at the drop of a hat (needless to say, it’s a brilliant turn by Pryce). Even though it’s obviously meant as a bit of the ol’ symbolism, the collapsing ventriloquist act is painfully convincing, and again, half-inspired by a similar act Randle used to do with Jimmy Clitheroe. Northern comic traditions are all over the play, and of course there’s Fraser, entirely convincing as a weary, failed comic, but also as someone who passionately believes there’s more to a life in comedy than telling gags for coins. Cough and the world coughs with you. Fart and you stand alone.