Saturday, 12 July 2014
Stand Up, Nigel Barton (1965)
It's been a long time since I saw Stand Up, Nigel Barton (and its sequel Vote, Vote, Vote For Nigel Barton) so it was quite an interesting experience rewatching it.
Firstly it goes without saying that,this being a 1965 TV play, there's some recalibration to be done for the modern viewer, but I also feel one needs time to adjust to the quirks of Potter's storytelling on display here. Don't get me wrong I'm a huge a fan of Potter and am well versed in his style but I believe Stand Up, Nigel Barton is quite an embryonic endeavour, one which sees him tackling the interests and preoccupations that would shape his writing for the rest of his career in what would become his distinctive trademark manner, that its a production which may initially alienate some. Class may be at the play's core, but Potter's writing is less kitchen sink and more everything but the kitchen sink! There's adult actors playing schoolchildren (Blue Remembered Hills) the semi-autobiographical accounts of school life and a mining community (Pennies... and The Singing Detective) plus references to his love of hymns (Pennies...) and the breaking of the fourth wall (Blackeyes) and quite manic off the wall playing from the cast (most Potter productions!) It could be argued he explores the subject matter via his quirky groundbreaking style much better in these later productions. Certainly they're dealt with in a more sophisticated, assured and refined manner than they are here; with Stand Up... it feels like he's finally hit upon something he feels important and effectively tries out all his techniques, for better or worse, in conveying the message on the screen. What is surprising, given this was the BBC of 1965, is how far Potter can push it in terms of language. The coarse earthiness of working class humour and dialogue is quite realistically and vividly displayed here with lines like ''I spewed me ring up'' really standing out - it's not the sort of comment you hear in TV drama now, never mind back then!
Keith Barron plays the titular Barton, a thinly disguised Potter who has made the break away from his working class mining roots (his native Forest of Dean being replaced by an easier to recognise, more generic and possibly stereotypical North Country setting) to win a scholarship to Oxford. Amid the dreaming spires, Barton finds himself socially embarrassed at finding his scout, a man around the same age as his father, call him 'sir' and fetch and carry for him whilst Eton bred chinless wonders patronise him as their token boy done good - though not good enough for the likes of them. Aware he cannot fit in, Barton takes comfort in showing up the failings and outmoded attitudes of his peers via debates at the Union, though its clear that he may be protesting a little too much - especially when he sees the chance to be 'talent spotted' after one debate by someone from the BBC.
But Barton's problem is he feels that he can no longer fit in back at home either. He may not be good enough for the toffs at Oxford, but it's clear that he's considered too good for what was once home. Worse, it is here that he finds he doesn't have the same output for his class frustration; he can argue the toss in Oxford, but he must endure the barely concealed attacks from the people he grew up with. It's an intriguing dilemma created by the class question and it's ultimately Potter's committed, impassioned writing and a solid performance from Barron (who would go on to play the posh or well to do Northerner for the rest of his career) as well as support from Jack Woolgar - dignified ageing son of toil - as Barton Snr and Janet Henfry as Barton's teacher, the stuff of nightmares, that makes the viewer forgive the tentative steps and appreciate the overall message within.
And it ends with The Animals 'We Gotta Get Out Of This Place', which is just perfect.
It's available on DVD and up on YouTube if anyone wants to see it.