Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Brassneck (1975)

Brassneck, David Hare and Howard Brenton's polemical satire on the unlimited, unrestrained capitalism of the post war - from Attlee's Labour landslide through to the property boom and the eventual disillusionment with Labour and the self made man - is drawn from the story of one entrepreneurial family over twenty five years.

First staged by Richard Eyre at the Nottingham Playhouse in 1973, the pair adapted it for the BBC's Play For Today strand two years later with mixed but admirable results.

Success starts with dishevelled Blitz widower Alfred Bagley (Paul Dawkins) determined to settle postwar in the town of Stanton in the East Midlands, equipped only with a van load of parachute silk. Seemingly somewhat naive and initially simple in his desires, he is quickly persuaded by secretly amused Tory councillors to join the local Masonic lodge. Respect earned, he starts to acquire a some slum properties allowing him to establish a building firm, enlisting nephew Roderick (Jeremy Kemp) up from London with his family in tow, to head up the firm. From there, they arrange to acquire a list of tenders for any job, getting someone 'on side' to submit a lower one, win the job, and then push costs back up. The Tory councillor who was first so entertained by Bagley are now blackmailed, Roderick's son Sidney (a reptilian turn from the young Roger Lloyd Pack) having evidence of of his son's dishonourable war record.

In one of the film's key and most farcical scenes is set during the wedding reception of Roderick's flighty daughter (Susan Penhaligon) to a shortbread magnate which coincides Elizabeth II’s coronation. Bagley gives a rambling speech which goes from standard platitudes to a gory and disturbing account of his experiences in the Great War, including a cannibalism in the trenches before dropping down dead. 

"My God if that was the wedding, imagine what the funeral will be like" one guest is heard to murmur.

Roderick Becomes head of the building empire taking the firm from a national to an international concern with work overseas in Hong Kong which has a cabinet minister's finger in that particular pie thanks to local man and labour bigwig Browne played by David Daker. But trouble looms on the horizon as its revealed that the company is too unwieldy to run smoothly and Roderick has been declared bankrupt.

In the trial that follows, Roderick names and shames just about everyone he’s ever dealt with, though Browne attempts to keep everyone he can happy, including the fraud squad, to keep the extent of  their corruption under wraps, but its to no avail and we next see a party to celebrate Roderick's release from prison on parole at Sidney’s strip club to celebrate Roderick’s release. The guest of honour is absent however, as Sidney reveals his latest plan to  revive the empire – Chinese heroin, believing the demand to be so high "It’s a winner!”

As you can probably tell from this summary the piece is very theatrical with characters serving as ciphers and symbols rather than multi dimensional realistic figures. They serve the play/the narrative and its message; a denunciation of the West's unswerving faith in capitalism and those on both sides of the political compass who allow it to thrive and prosper.  There's no concession by the director Mike Newell to ground Brenton and Hare's play in the more realistic world of televison - he uses the adult cast for the introduction of Roderick's children dressed in short trousers with no attempt whatsoever to make them look any younger (shades of Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills, albeit too brief to make a point of the decision and ultimately not as satisfying as a result) and keeps the shrill tone one imagines was used on the stage and used there to a much greater effect. 

Shot largely in the studio, it's naturally a dated piece whose brief location inserts allow a bit of fresh air, but they're too infrequent to beat off the sense of creaky claustrophobia. Likewise, archive footage and caption titles denoting the year is used to give the viewer a sense of the passage of time and the scope of the play but it's not as satisfying as it perhaps ought to be. In fairness to Newell and the Play For Today team, Hare and Brenton's story has been condensed down to just 75 minutes which may actually make the narrative feel more histrionic  than it actually is, as scenes of significance fly by at a fair lick. 

An ideas and message play, Brassneck uses a sledgehammer to crack a walnut and lacks the measured, character driven thoughtful pacing that is visible in its more successful Play For Today contemporaries but is still worth a watch for anyone politically minded and amenable to devilish, glee filled satire. 

As with a lot of these gems from the archives, Brassneck has not been given a commercial release on either VHS or DVD, but you can find it available to buy online which is what I did last year and it is available to view for free on YouTube. To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic Play For Today's please sign the petition I started here

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