Jack Rosenthal may not be a highly experimental dramatist, or one who tackles The Big Issues head on, but the three plays he wrote for the Play For Today strand over this period are some of the finest examples of the genre, as well as being the most popular with audiences, critics and award committees. Directed ably by Alan Parker, The Evacuees was the first, a special presentation, and a relative epic in scope. In Manchester’s Cheetham Hill district prior to the outbreak of World War II, Jewish brothers Danny and Neville are uprooted from their family, headed by mother Sarah (played by Rosenthal’s wife, Maureen Lipman, who would rehash the character, with pernickety elements of Rita from Bar Mitzvah Boy added, for her infamous British Telecom adverts) to be billeted with the Grahams, a frosty middle-class gentile couple in Blackpool.
The trauma of being away from the comforts of home and peacetime quickly descend upon the luckless pair, and after being attacked by a gang of kids on the beach for their alien accents, attempt a comically doomed escape on rollerskates with similarly homesick classmate Zuckerman, before finally telling all to their mother when she visits, via a message in a game of “silly stories” which Sarah ends up reading out in front of a horrified Mrs Graham. Sarah takes the boys back home, leaving a sad (and, it turns out, forever childless) Mrs. G to mourn their departure. “Safely” back in Manchester, the boys encounter another evacuee, this time displaced to Manchester from London, and react to his funny accent in the only way they know how – with a punch in the stomach. Presented with a minimum of directorial fuss (a few panoramic shots and the passage of the war marked with Chamberlain and Churchill on the wireless, plus the food-hoarding antics of their uber-Yiddishe granny) and perfect attention to period detail in all departments, this straightforward but solid story won both a BAFTA and an Emmy.