Thirtysomething, Bristolian, married-two-kids municipal architect Bob (Anthony Hopkins) has trouble getting wife Jean interested in a round of saucy bedtime ‘treats’. She responds to his every advance with a yawn, leading him to insensitively accuse her of frigidity. She hits back with accusations of lewdness (‘You talk as though you’re some pathetic lurker in a mac, forced to pick up tarts in doorways!’) The truth is, though, that Bob is a bored, and boring, man, what life there was in him having been ground out by the family life he professes to loathe, but lacks the wit to escape, or even modulate. His way of life is a humdrum pragmatism, to treat any problem the same way as he would a council plumbing issue. Jean suggests she might be expecting a third child, and Bob’s response is stoic to a fault (‘If you are, the damage is done. If you’re not, we must continue to put our faith in the drug manufacturers.’) This static existence is interrupted – and just when Bob is about to get his leg over, too – by a phone call from his mother Marie. His father has collapsed. Over at her house, the doctor establishes death (‘He had a good innings’) and, almost without pause, funeral preparations are set in motion. The undertakers arrive, solicit tea and offer empty consolation (‘I always say, at a time like this, that’s all you can do, really and truly – drink tea.’) For the funeral, Bob’s brother Tony (two ex-wives, no kids), a highly successful TV current affairs presenter in the David Frost mould – arrives, and quickly injects a dose of emotion into the repressed proceedings. He laments the lacklustre funeral service. Bob counters, ‘the vicar only gets a pound.’ He sentimentally ululates on seeing dad’s meagre possessions either purloined by grasping relatives or given to the rag and bone man (Bob: ‘He wasn’t Tolstoy!’) Jean escapes from the front room wake of sausage rolls and small-talk to the back bedroom, where Tony finds her, and waxes lyrical about the time the room was his – ‘The bed where I used to lie as a virgin wondering what it was like. And where I found out. You were as bold as brass.’
Jean, it transpires, was his first conquest, and something still exists between them. They begin to touch, and Jean’s expression is a world away from the ceiling-inspecting face she wears when with her husband. The man in question, however, turns up in the room, and an increasingly heated exchange follows between the two men. Tony pours scorn on the lack of real grief among the mourners. Bob ridicules his nostalgia – ‘I believe in the ordinary, the prosaic.’ Jean is caught silently in the middle, aware these diatribes are as much for her benefit as theirs. Eventually, more out of a sense of duty than anything, she takes sides with Bob, but her yearning for the passion that Tony represents is clear to all. Back in the bedroom, Bob finally gets what he’s been denied, though Jean insists they keep quiet, as Bob’s mother is now staying in the children’s playroom next door. They retreat into their respective books, and we close on that image – not one of domestic bliss, but estrangement, frustration and fear.
Like his Wednesday Play The Gorge, this entry is full of wonderful Peter Nichols observations on the routines and speech-patterns of lower-middle-class suburbanites. The funeral scene is a miniature masterpiece of social awkardness, needless busywork (Bob organises the journey to the cemetery in various cars as f it were a military campaign), and inappropriate humour (Uncle Will reminisces about when funeral processions used to travel at a properly sedate speed, which segues into a reverie about the ‘urine woman’). Relatives bicker about the correct moment to open the car door. Noses are blown during the eulogy. Throughout it all, we hear Bob’s voice-over, reading from the hopelessly prosaic funeral procedure literature he was handed by the undertakers. Nichols got the idea for the play when he was writing Forget-Me-Not Lane, a stage piece full of fourth wall-breaking and other stylistic devices, far removed from what he calls the ‘keyhole naturalism’ of his television work. But Hearts and Flowers grew out of a scene in that play involving a funeral, which sent Nichols back to his diary entries concerning his own father’s ceremony, and became a play in its own right. With the three main characters, Nichols again sets sentimentality aside. A lesser writer would have felt compelled to show Bob’s humble everyman virtue in the face of Tony’s arch histrionics, but Nichols avoids such easy class romanticism.