As much as I love television and feel it's in good shape with lots to offer in general, I do lament the lack of stand alone plays out there. As a child growing up in the 80s I was lucky enough to watch Play For Today, Screen One, Screen Two etc, an arena where writing greats (the Dennis Potter's of this world etc) could thrive. It was a rich seam of writing, direction and acting; the genres diverse, the only thing each instalment had in common was the umbrella title of the strand it featured in. The play really was the thing.
Watching a 1981 production from Play For Today tonight, Psy-Warriors, written by David Leland and directed by Alan Clarke, I once again mourn the passing of such commissions - as well as wonder just what writing talent goes undiscovered now that the BBC no longer seeks them out.
Psy-Warriors is a very prescient piece whilst still being very much of its time, detailing as it does the political unrest and fears of the Establishment in early 80s Britain. The play opens with three captive prisoners in separate sterile environments being punished, tortured and interrogated by soldiers. We, the audience, are not warned, briefed or told immediately about what has caused these events and slowly we have to piece together the confusing and insufficient information as the uniformed characters snap, shout at and mentally/physically abuse their captives.
Slowly, we piece together a vague notion of events; a bomb has gone off in a pub near the military base at Aldershot. Our three prisoners - two male, one female played by John Duttine, Derrick O'Connor and Rosalind Ayres respectively - are suspected of planting and detonating the device. But we're being sold a dummy; one prisoner (Duttine) after having been thrown from a helicopter at 4 feet off screen and being told he would plummet to his death into the Thames Estuary, decides enough is enough and demands the project to be stopped and his interrogators - played by Anthony Bate, Julian Curry, Warren Clarke and Colin Blakely - concede to his request.
It's all a form of training. A test, a new phase of psychological military research for the British Army based on an American model. The interrogators are all psychologists (yes, even moustachioed menacing, brutalising 'grunt' Clarke is a psychologist, the main proponent of the project in fact!) and high ranking military officials keen to gain funding for their new pet project, using the three - who are of course fully serving soldiers who have been playing out fake terror suspect biographies for some time now, living as their identities decree - as guinea pigs.
But unbeknownst to Duttine, they continue to surreptitiously run the trial, continuing to play mind games to create the ultimate soldier; an emotionless killer of no remorse and ruthless dedication.
The direction by Clarke is brilliant, making the most of alienating and distinctive use of camera and visuals. Entire scenes are played out behind prison cages, the environment is sterile, brilliant white with harsh lighting and bare acoustics. Yet strangely these are slowly more accessible to the viewer than the gaudy naffly decorated 'green rooms' that the militia and psychologists inhabit in their downtime. It's a striking, bold piece for the eye complete with full frontal male nudity. But the ideas are far bolder, and Leland script is dynamite with not do much as a comma wasted, delivered by fine actors. Consider these exchanges;
Blakely's character on the fight between Britain and Ireland - "Like a dog biting it's tail and when it reaches it's arse it'll be in England"
Or when discussing Ulrike Meinhoff's attempt at training her 7 year old twin daughters at a Palestinian Guerrilla warfare camp, Ayres says "Would you send your children to kill?" to which Blakely replies "My father allowed me to join the Army"
Logic that is obvious when one thinks about it.
Psy-Warriors is a truly gripping one hour and ten minutes of television at a time when the BBC seemed unafraid and more keen at pushing the envelope. The philosophies behind it may have appeared truly alien to the average viewer in 1981, bordering on sci-fi or far fetched, but as we now know (and indeed as more savvy socially aware viewers would know even then) such projects and behaviour was rife even here in 'dear old England'. Actions in Vietnam, N Ireland, MKULTRA, Jon Ronson's amazing factual book (and later made into a more nice and comedic film) The Men Who Stare At Goats, SAS training and Guantanamo have since told us just how accurate Lelan'd 'fiction' here actually was.
Perhaps more frustratingly than the BBC no longer producing such plays is the fact that such fare isn't commercially available. Again to find these things, things that should be part of our national cultural heritage, one has to do some detective work amongst DVDR trading sites, but it is out there and it is worth it.