Inspired by events in South Africa - which was then at the height of its regime of Apartheid - Fable, John Hopkins' powerful, experimental and controversial Wednesday Play attempted to examine race relations in Britain by depicting an alt reality of the country under a Black-dominated authoritarian and brutal regime.
The ambitious intention was to use the notion of a black-white power reversal to challenge the audience's views on relationships between the races, as it depicted a white couple (Ronald Lacey and Eileen Atkins) who lose their jobs, their house, their children and each other when new legislation takes all unemployed white males off to working camps in a barren and undeveloped Scotland. Distraught, the wife attempts to enlist the help of her husband's former employer, a liberal black writer played by Thomas Baptiste, residing under house arrest with his wife (Barbara Assoon)
Thomas Baptiste and Barbara Assoon
listen to what Eileen Atkins has to say
It's a bold and commendable piece of television by anyone's standards but certainly by the standards of 1965 as proved by the play's postponement until a by-election in Leyton, East London (which involved a candidate who had previously lost his seat following a notoriously racist campaign in the Midlands)amidst fears of racial tension. It is also easy to see how Hopkins' play may have completely the wrong effect on some viewers, with many believing this 'Fable' was a word of warning about what would happen if, as Enoch Powell would infamously speculate just three years later in his notorious 'Rivers of Blood' speech, "the black man will have the whip hand over the white man". The play drew many favourable reviews from people who 'got' what it was Hopkins and the play's director Christopher Morahan had intended to say, but it also provoked the wrong reaction with many complimenting what they had erroneously seen to be something of a dire warning.
It remains a fascinating drama though thankfully it is far less discombobulating now to see an impoverished and distraught white character asking a black character for help than it must have been in mid 60s Britain. I was especially pleased to see some genuine depth in the character of the liberal writer and his wife, especially as some of their dialogue can sound a little stilted and mannered to modern day ears. The revelation in the final act that, for all his championing of the white underdog, he cannot bear to be touched by a white person is especially surprising and satisfying as is the reveal that all his tracts which he believes his wife is ferrying to the underground movement are actually being burned in the house by her because she cannot bear his recklessness regarding his own safety. The use of documentary footage of real life combat and conflict, tailored to suit the narrative's alt reality with a knowing narration by Keith Barron is equally powerful but ultimately the real power to Fable is perhaps the opportunity it gave so many black actors at a time when roles on primetime television were notably scarce - many of them, including EastEnders star Rudolph Walker, are still working today and mercifully in a more equal and accepting environment.
Rudolph Walker and Eileen Atkins
The 1995 American film White Man's Burden starring John Travolta and Harry Belafonte would go on to explore similar themes and ideas, albeit much less successfully.
Like many of The Wednesday Play's, Play For Today's and Screen One and Screen Two's etc, Fable remains languishing in the BBC vaults unwatched. It was last seen via the red button during BBC4's TV On Trial season and a recording from that transmission is available to view on YouTube, albeit with much 'on-screen graffiti' indicative of an interactive broadcast (as seen in some of the screencaps used here)
To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays please sign the petition I started here