Wednesday, 28 January 2015
Follow The Yellow Brick Road (1972)
Dennis Potter's 1972 TV play Follow The Yellow Brick Road concerns Jack Black (Denholm Elliott) an actor who specialises in advertisements. He prefers them to TV plays. "The commercials are clean" he reasons "Husbands and wives who love each other...there's laughter and sunshine and kids playing in the meadows" he chooses commercials because he believes they are the direct and much needed opposite of the "Dirty and corrupt" plays which he feels do nothing but damage to our society. "They turn the gold into hay, angels into whores...love into a s-s-sticky slime!" he claims with disgust, adding that they are written by left wing Trotskyites who "pass the clap round like a baton race" and reduce the world to the "hairy lump between a woman's legs. That stinking hole!"
As you can probably guess, Jack Black is not a well man.
We first meet him in a hospital waiting room where - we later learn - he is waiting to be seen by a psychiatrist. Our suspicions regarding his mental illness are neatly conveyed by a twitchy performance from Elliott and Potter's central conceit; Black thinks a TV camera is always observing him, that he lives in a play. "Not much action is there?" he complains as he waits his turn "Hardly any dialogue at all. Just background noises. People will switch over. Or switch off!" A fellow patient, the old woman next to him, he believes to be an extra "You don't get many lines do you?" he asks. But she recognises him from the TV; an advert for Krispy Krunch biscuits in which he sneaks downstairs to the larder for a midnight snack only to find his wife already devouring the product. It's hi real wife playing on his mind as the old woman gleefully recounts the ad however. The wife (Billie Whitelaw) whom he caught in flagrante with his agent (Bernard Hepton) "Had her mouth full didn't she?" the old woman says, still thinking of the biscuit ad "Really enjoying it and all"
It's a brilliant opening scene that reminds me just why I love Dennis Potter's cheeky subversive humour. I also admire his ideas too; as we see in the subsequent scene with Richard Vernon and a young Dennis Waterman as the shrinks, Black once believed in God, and that God was omnipresent, all knowing and all watching. But somewhere along the line God was replaced by a TV camera as his observer and that's when life became a living hell of filth, corruption and slime. It's abundantly clear, though never explicitly stated, that Jack Black has had a traumatic breakdown as a result of his wife's affair. An adultery she committed because Black is impotent or simply uninterested in sex - with her, at least, because later he attempts to politely and prissily express his devotion to his agent's airheaded young wife (Michelle Dotrice). When she cuts through all the flowery language and announces he should unzip her from her dress Potter's play cuts to an advert, specifically one of Black's adverts (this time for Waggytail dog food) it is however clear to us that he could not go through with the seduction after all. "And I didn't even open the tin" Black's hapless commercial character remarks.
It's a neat and knowing trick, the ads within the play, and this is a successful example of the device being used. Less successful and altogether less clear is when we see Black driving directly at his adulterous wife with murderous intentions because "It's in the script", before we see the car hit her the action cuts to an advert, leaving the viewer in the dark as to the wife's fate. It's not the first time Potter has been so purposefully cavalier in his work and it wouldn't be the last either, but it doesn't stop the viewer feeling a little bit cheated in terms of real drama and a sense of conclusion.
With its longing for a more pure and idyllic world that probably never even existed in the first place and its allusions to the similarly pure but ultimately false fantasy of The Wizard Of Oz, Follow The Yellow Brick Road is a typical example of a Potter play but it runs out of steam fairly quickly and lacks the maturity and firmer cohesive conviction to the ideas, the drama and the comedy that he would later bring to serials such as The Singing Detective and Pennies From Heaven and single plays like Blue Remembered Hills.
There's a nice though cruel little dig at the Ken Loach film Family Life though; when Waterman prescribes Black a new drug for depression he claims he had given it to a patient whose malaise was brought on through watching said film! Equally he has a funny little pop at the clean cut Cliff Richard, suggesting that Black and he are up for the same role in a new TV series as a fish out of water cleric in the East End.
Like a lot of single plays from the 60s, 70s and 80s, Follow The Yellow Brick Road currentlys remain languishing in the BBC vaults unwatched (though it is available to watch on YouTube) To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classics please sign the petition I started here