JACK ROSENTHAL’s quietly masterful tale of a motley bunch of nascent London cabbies being reduced to quivering wrecks as they struggle to learn the ins and outs of London’s 15,000-plus streets by heart is brought to authentically overcast life by Euston Films, in between the decade-defining cash cows of THE SWEENEY and MINDER. The resulting one-off comes as close to perfection as TV drama gets.
MICK FORD, an actor dear to TV Cream, plays the decidedly unromantic lead Chris Matthews, a harmless, drippy and dopey mouth-breathing drifter nudged into taking the exam by exasperated girlfriend Janet (KIM’ Gillian’s sister’ TAYLFORTH). Constantly chided by his sharper better half for dragging his heels (“Look, I can’t help the word ‘job’ coming up in the conversation, it’s a word!’) and in danger of losing her to the cocky Eddie Hairstyle (GARY ‘AUF WIEDERSEHEN, PET’ HOLTON), Chris drifts about the streets in a permanently baffled haze, Ford getting the sympathy/fecklessness balance just right in a performance that’s a world away from his other star turn of ’79s, the Machiavellian misfit Archer in the cinema version of SCUM.
Cheeky wise-arse Gordon Weller couldn’t be anyone else but MICHAEL ELPHICK, using nocturnal moped route swotting sessions as an excuse to have it away behind wife MAUREEN LIPMAN’s back, but slowly being zapped of his cockney mojo (“I used to be a smart feller! Birds used to give me the eye in Selfridges!”) by the gruelling Knowledge process. Other class of ’79 notables are future YES, MINISTER co-writer JONATHAN LYNN as pressurised scion of Jewish cabbie dynasty Ted Margolies, and DAVID “Do you know your lips move when you read, Reginald?” RYALL as cartoonish klutz ‘Titanic’.
Up at the top of the cast, though, is Mr Burgess, ‘The Vampire’, the examiner’s examiner, played to devastating effect by NIGEL HAWTHORNE. Lurking in his pegboard-partitioned office, Burgess beckons his hapless inductees one by one for a series of progressively more sadistic tests, which are less about memorising through-routes than exercises in psychological warfare. As they sit hunched on a tiny wooden chair and struggle manfully through imaginary streets, he disorients them mercilessly, gazing absent-mindedly out of the window, lobbing pencils about, doing Hughie Greene impressions, laughing demonically and indulging in frantic callisthenics with a Vick’s inhaler up one nostril.
His explanation makes sense: “There are two things a cabbie has to know. One is the Knowledge, and the other is people. ‘Cos it’s people who ride in cabs. And people are a very peculiar form of life. Compared with people, the Knowledge is a piece of mar-zi-PAN!” But still, the suburban sadism is unmistakeable, and realised by Hawthorne in a performance every bit as meticulously assembled as his depiction of a mind at the other end of the civil service pecking order, Sir Humphrey Appleby in Lynn’s Yes, Minister.
An evocatively drizzlebound London takes a subtle but significant supporting role, with director and project originator Bob Brooks (previously of Cadbury’s Smash fame) picking the most down-at-heel, boarded-up, concrete-and-clag-festooned corners of the maze-like capital in which to let Rosenthal’s lab rats fail at so much more than getting from Manor House to Gibson Square. (Watch out for a prime piece of “George Davis is innocent OK” graffiti.)
Rounding it all off, Ford ices the rain-sodden cake remnants by, yep, singing the feem toon, in which Rosenthal’s jaunty words (“From Wimbledon to Lambeth Pier, it’s all part and parcel/Round and round till you disappear up your Elephant and Castle”) are set to chirpy music by none other than Jeff ‘War of the Worlds’ Wayne, in what could easily be a lost number from the Stiff Records back catalogue. Knowledge, to paraphrase an evangelical poster, is powerful.