The Permissive Society is one of the slighter offerings on the Mike Leigh at the BBC boxset, running at just 30 minutes. But he crams a lot to enjoy within that duration.
I remember watching this on a repeat on BBC2 as a teen, when the channel raided their archives to showcase Play For Today, The Wednesday Play and Second City Firsts - which is where this Mike Leigh play comes from - to a new generation.
I wish BBC4 would do that now. It's certainly a way to include drama on the channel giving their budget in that field has recently been slashed.
This is a very tight studio shot three hander, as a result it feels more like a play than many of Leigh's works, including those he adapted from the stage.
It would be easy to dismiss this piece as not very substantial given its staginess and the aforementioned modest running time. Indeed a lot of it just seems to be boyfriend (Bob Mason) girlfriend (Veronica Roberts) and the sister of the boy (Rachel Davies) chatting in the front room. But to do so would be to ignore much depth; for a start, the chat feels totally real. Leigh - a native of Salford - captures the rhythm of speech and dry wit of the north west beautifully and he's helped in no small part by that great northern actor the much missed Bob Mason. Also, there's a shadow looming over the whole piece and that is sex. It isn't ever explicit, and is only really discussed in the last 10 minutes (and even then in a surprising way) but it is there and again, there realistically, because nothing much is made of it. It's a tension yes, but it is never melodramatic.
As ever with Leigh, The Permissive Society deals with his perennial subjects; an inability to communicate or emote in the standard way, people's perceptions of one another, the feeling of being stifled or at odds with the world and relationships in general. It's especially remarkable that in just 30 minutes Leigh tackles and succeeds in another of his favourite devices, changing the audience's perception of a character. From the off we're given to understand that Bob Mason's character is a bit of a feckless oaf, well meaning but essentially slobbish. By the end of this precise vignette we realise just how wrong we were initially. It's a rare trick, all the rarer to be pulled off here.