Sunday, 15 February 2015

Plays For Britain (1976)

Plays For Britain was an anthology series of six contemporary plays made for Thames Television in 1976 that are available on DVD via the excellent Network label. 

Each play was written and directed by the cream of young British talent in the 1970s including a specially commissioned title sequence from Mike Leigh to accompany each episode. This sequence stars Tim Stern and Theresa Watson as a typical middle England Daily Mail reading couple bemoaning the state of the nation and thus setting up each play's intention to reflect something about the then modern day society.

This post will review each play in the order I chose to watch them rather than in chronological order. So let's start with episode 5, Fast Hands

Regrettably, Fast Hands comes as something of a disappointment to me given that the two men behind it are the men responsible for the incendiary brilliant Scum; Alan Clarke and Roy Minton.

The storyline is a familiar and rather thin one concerning a talented young boxer Jimmy who gets his big break in the ring thanks to local self made man and boxing promoter Ray Prince. Somewhat inevitably, you have to be careful what you wish for... 

If we take Fast Hands in the  wider context of the Plays For Britain series its clear Thames TV were pushing towards a more gritty and contemporary oeuvre (a'la the BBC's Plays For Today) than perhaps their previous anthology series Armchair Theatre could muster. With that in mind, the grouping together of Clarke and Minton alongside other contributors like Howard Brenton, Michael Apted, Philip Saville, Les Blair, Brian Glover, Stephen Poliakoff and Roger McGough to name just a few (along with Mike Leigh's opening credits) shows they were perhaps hoping to point the way forward rather than immediately hit pay dirt with every story. Nevertheless Clarke's direction is suitably lean and intense and there's a rather realistic and lengthy boxing match scene at the heart of the film whilst Minton manages to write some strong arguments about the moral debate around boxing.

Rating : 2/5

Next up was the first play in the series

This is more like it.

After the somewhat disappointing Fast Hands, I went back to the debut play in the Plays For Britain series, The Paradise Run. It's written by Howard Brenton, a playwright I've long admired, and is directed by Michael Apted. The pair really seem to have taken the 'play' element of the series umbrella title to heart as almost everything about this piece says theatre rather than television. It's there in the dialogue, the way scenes come and go, the inventive more stylised moments of the story, and its there in the performances. But that's OK and its more engaging than Fast Hands.

The Paradise Run is ostensibly a film about The Troubles and the British Army's presence in 1970s Northern Ireland. Our main focus is Johnny (played by Kevin McNally) a young Squaddie who freely and regularly admits with much anxiety and helplessness "I don't know what I'm doing here". It turns out Johnny joined the army simply because he enjoys canoeing. If that suggests a certain naivety of character, you'd be right. Johnny is actually a completely ignorant simple minded youth with no real grasp on the world around him. In one early scene he is shown to genuinely believe that Winston Churchill is still alive and in a position of seniority. It may sound mad, but I can testify to this lack of appreciation or intelligence for society as I once had to interview in my work a young female offender who, when asked who the Prime Minister was, shrugged and said "Dunno, Margaret Thatcher?" and this was in 2009!

Johnny's desire to mess about in the water really throws him into the deep end when he finds himself stationed in Northern Ireland, dodging bullets on the streets. After one near fatality in his regiment, Johnny's tenuous grip on reality proves to startle his CO, Henry, played by the late and much missed Ian Charleson (there’s also a very brief appearance by the equally late and much missed Pete Postlethwaite too) and an attempt to make him become 'one of the lads' more, plus a cryptic newspaper ad promising 'paradise', leaves him open to potential collaboration with the IRA.

Brenton's play is a stark and surreal, satisfying experience with a couple of great performances from Charleson and McNally. The former is utterly convincing as a well bred man struggling to juggle regimental life and the horrors he's seen with his private life and girlfriend, with its round of middle class intellectual dinner parties.   McNally too, though incredibly young here, is really good and suggesting a curious mix of innocence and madness that makes it genuinely impossible to know what it is that makes him tick, his vague references to some 'paradise' that only exists in his mind remaining tantalisingly out of reach. It's really quite unsettling at times and not always easy to work out where the story is taking you or just whose side Johnny is on.

Negatives? Well the scarcity of any genuine Northern Irish voices and the largely studiobound setting (there is at least one filmed location shoot on a deserted country road at night and a nightmare sequence for Charleson is also captured on film, but that's your lot) does rather make the Northern Ireland setting almost as oblique and out of reach as the paradise Johnny yearns for. But these are minor criticisms in what remains a strong start to the Plays for Britain series.

Rating: 3.5/5

Episode Three is a great offering from writer/actor Brian Glover, and Sunshine In Brixton taps into the themes of racial integration in the 1970s via many of Glover's own personal experiences. 

The play concerns Otis, a sixteen year old black youth played with a great naturalistic air by Elvis Payne. Otis is a talented young man - he's shown to be a skilled artist with many impressive pencil drawings and he has a real talent and passion for playing football - but his talents seem set to fall by the wayside because of the way society and the education system treats someone of his ethnicity as a second class citizen.

Otis lives at home with his mother (Jill Gascoigne, near unrecognisable without her trademark The Gentle Touch perm) in a couple of rooms rented from the unseen Sunshine, a local Mr Big whom Otis' mum's boyfriend - a professional wrestler known as The Negative - does some bouncing for. The boyfriend, played by real wrestler turned actor Sonny Caldinez, goes by the name of The Negative because of his distinctive and quite amusing bleached white afro. Otis' father, we learn, was also a wrestler but died of a heart attack on a train full of football hooligans who it is said 'made their water on him'. Without such parental guidance Otis is aimless and without motivation. Veering towards working for Sunshine, in the opening scene we see him removing a neighbour's front door in a bid to get the old woman to move out. It is only when a schoolmate comes round to inform him that they have a new teacher, a former miner called Mr Fewkes (Richard Ireson) who is keen to establish the school's football team, that Otis decides to return to school and put his effort into making the team and being spotted by a professional club.

As I say, Glover's own experiences both as a wrestler and a teacher inform much of his play and the school scenes in particular have a great deal of authenticity. The classroom is also full of young actors in early roles such as Ray Winstone, Peter Hugo-Daly, Pauline Quirke and Sylvestra Le-Touzel. These scenes really come to life with a wit and realism that is complimented by both Les Blair's directing style and the naturalistic acting of the young company. It feels like a slightly more gritty Grange Hill and, for a moment, you really feel that Ireson's teacher has something to offer young Otis.

That he doesn't however, comes as a real shock, especially in the more thankfully PC environment of today. When Otis brutally fouls a player on the pitch to secure a goal, Mr Fewkes racist abuse really brings the viewer up short  not because it is so unexpected, Mr Fewkes being seemingly so open minded and fair until this point, but because it is now so unthinkable. Nowadays, such a rebuke would lead to Fewkes' dismissal but in the mid to late 70s, all it means is another door closing for Otis (ironic huh, given he steals a door in the opening scene) and he trudges off the pitch totally and naturally disenchanted with the dream he once held.

His back up plan was to be a draughtsman - his mother's wish on account of skills at drawing - but in the end Otis' future comes from the most unexpected place and he joins his mother's boyfriend The Negative in the ring, forming a tag team and taking the strain from the older man. His hair bleached white, the pair drive off into the Brixton.

This was a really enjoyable 50 minute play which I actually think would have improved from a longer running time. Glover places so much depth into his character's background, storylines etc that it deserves the chance to be opened out more to allow more to be told of Otis' late father, more about The Negative and more about the mysterious Sunshine. Over the years there have been quite a few examples of TV plays making the transition to the big screen and enjoying a longer running time to explore the story and themes originally captured but sadly for Sunshine In Brixton such a second life was not to be. A shame, as I personally would have liked to have seen it.

Another plus for Sunshine In Brixton is the fact that aside from the scenes at home everything else is shot entirely on film. This is in contrast to the previous two episodes I'd thus far seen; The Paradise Run which was mainly studio bound and as such largely on videotape and Fast Hands which was completely on VT for both interior and exterior scenes.

Rating: 3.5/5

Episode Two, placed between The Paradise Run and Sunshine In Brixton in the series, Roger McGough's play The Lifeswappers sticks out like a very surreal if not sore thumb. Indeed at first glance it doesn't seem to fit the aims of the Plays for Britain series to connect with the concerns of British society in the mid to late 70s or the desire to move the television play into more gritty contemporary areas. 

McGough's script is full of his trademark surrealism and wordplay and this, combined with Jim Goddard's equally off the wall direction with its primitive tech paintbrushed exterior scenes and its interior sets that make only the slightest of attempts to look like living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms, makes this - more than any other instalment in the series thus far -  appear like a televised piece of avant garde theatre captured entirely on squeaky clean looking VT.

However, scratch the gaudy OTT veneer and there does seem to be a message about 1970s life. Certainly the title of the play is a nod and a wink to the then News of The World favourite, the suburban wife-swapping scene but there also seems to be a genuine message within The Lifeswappers concerning identity and gender roles. McGough takes a distinctly post structuralist critical stance on these concerns depicting characters who happily depict the notion that identity is not fixed and that gender in particular is only a concept whose tenets and associated behaviours can and perhaps should be challenged and swapped as easily and agreeably as changing clothes. 

It is very surreal though and ultimately, despite the interesting germ of an idea, I found its presentational style and the endless onslaught of eccentricity and witty wordplay somewhat overwhelming. Of the cast special mention must be made of Peter Egan who really has to display great range (you may never watch Ever Decreasing Circles in the same way again!) and the late Sheila Gish who really was the most strikingly beautiful woman back in the day. As Dinah, the platinum blonde haired siren of a wife to the hapless, unloved Trevor, she easily evokes the style of old Hollywood as she slinks around scenes in her silk nightgown and furs (and often completely out of them!) looking the image of Jean Harlow.

Rating 2/5

Episode Four, Hitting Town was one of the Plays for Britain I've been most looking forward to. Written by a young Stephen Poliakoff (he was just twenty-three and a writer in residence at the NT when it made its debut at the Bush Theatre a year prior to this TV version) the play is a fully immersive 70s piece which strives to depict an atmosphere of, in the author's own words, the ''brutal rebuilding of Britain which coincided with a tottering minority Labour government held up with IMF loans, huge industrial unrest and bombs going off in Northern Ireland''. These themes are addressed via play's distinctive personal angle within its two central characters, Ralph (Mick Ford) and Clare (Deborah Norton) a brother and sister whose unorthodox nature and desire to escape from, or rebelliously protest at, the world around them leads them to an incestuous night together.

It's a good play with great intentions but unfortunately I was left a little disappointed by it. Primarily I found the performances from Ford and Norton to all too easily veer towards the irritating; Ford is eminently slappable here as he depicts Ralph's constant desire to shock, whilst Norton - who I recall from Health and Efficiency, a shortlived NHS set sitcom from the 90s in which she played a ghastly and shrill consultant - is prone to just such the same shrillness here. Granted Poliakoff's work is always of a heightened reality but the way the pair hit some of their suddenly explosive lines really set my teeth on edge and made it hard to sympathise with them, especially as both performances (and the writing) actually seems to suggest a deeply middle class pair who are actually slumming in their environs of soul destroying concrete block modernity rather than truly being trapped within it - as the character of Nicola, a bored burger bar waitress they hook up with so clearly is. But then again, perhaps you're not really meant to be empathetic towards the siblings? 

The play doesn’t resolve the issue of incest that it raises all that satisfactorily either, and I feel Poliakoff would later hone this theme and use it to much greater effect in his film Close My Eyes, which is also about an incestuous brother and sister played by Clive Owen and Saskia Reeves. That piece is much easier to engage and emphathise with perhaps because it introduces a third character for whom the sibling's sexual relationship is shown to have devastating repercussions for, namely that of the sister's husband played by Alan Rickman. Hitting Town doesn't offer such an exploration or logical conclusion and as such feels less coherent and much more narrow. Equally, I feel Poliakoff would also go on to explores the themes of twilight urban hinterland to much greater effect in the films Bloody Kids and Runners, both of which benefit from actually being on film and released for cinema as opposed to being shot on the glaring aesthetic of VT as this is.

Overall it's not Hitting Town's controversial central storyline that had the greater impact on me, it's actually the character of Nicola (played brilliantly by Lynne Miller) and her own solitary moment of the grand gesture of protest which takes the form of a talent spot at the local disco. There, she carefully and methodically places glittery sequins around her blank, expressionless eyes and takes to the stage to perform 'This Wheel's on Fire', in the Julie Driscoll style, before concluding the song's final line with a shattering scream (a cry for help) and a polite 'thank you' before the play fades to an ad break - and I'm so glad they kept the break bumper cards in. Without it, that moment would have actually lost some considerable impact.

I watched this post midnight on Friday, so effectively it was Valentine's Day - and what better way to celebrate Valentine's Day than with a play about incest?

Rating: 3/5

The final episode in the anthology was Shuttlecock by Henry Livings. As with all previous Plays for Britain (save for Hitting Town whose storyline I'd been familiar with for some years) I went in to Shuttlecock relatively blind. I knew nothing of what to expect and I didn't even really know what tone or genre the play would take but it wasn't long before the pervading tense and unsettling air gripped me and, by the end, I can safely say I had seen the best instalment in the series.

"I told you not to hit it too hard" 

So says one child at the film's start in relation to a shuttlecock seemingly lost in the shrubbery. On the surface it's a fairly innocuous   line but it actually serves as a metaphor and portent for what's to come.

Harry (David Max Vaughan) is a young boy who returns to live with his birth mother, Bobby, played by Ann Pennington, who gave him up to live with her sister when he was very young. It's clear from the off that Harry is happy living with his aunt (Carole Nimmons) and unseen uncle as their own son but social services feel its better to place him back with his real mother who now lives extremely comfortably in a middle class milieu with her Morgan driving, boating club member husband Sam Malkyn, played with utter brilliance by Dinsdale Landen. Harry struggles to settle in with his mother and stepfather, becomes deeply introverted and even attempts to 'escape' back to his aunt's in the middle of the night. Stymied by this new addition to his home, Sam commences a battle of wills with the boy in which he will use increasingly abusive methods to mould the boy into his own image.

The genius of Landen's performance is that initially the character of Sam appears as a fairly innocent though utterly irritating bluff blazer wearing self made company exec - the type of man who always seems to have a glass of gin in hand, bangs on the roof of your car to bid farewell, slaps you a little too hard on the back and guffaws at his own endless stream of philosophies and jokes - but through his display of 'parenting skills', which treats Harry as little more than a disobedient dog that requires house training, he becomes a truly monstrous and dangerous figure. It's a real gem of a performance and Landen never loses sight of the ability to keep us intrigued by what has made him the man he is. 

It's a grim but fascinating story of child abuse as Harry endures (mercifully unseen) beating after beating from Sam until, having been treated like an animal, he begins to behave like one and defecates into his bedroom chest of drawers. The ensuing punishment leaving him with black eyes, a broken wrist and several other fractures which finally highlight the boy's situation to social services, the NSPCC and a local GP played by Saeed Jaffrey. 

This brilliantly written play by Henry Livings is directed by Philip Saville with the great efficiency one comes to expect from this stalwart of worthy TV drama. I especially liked the style he employed here; a two shot with Landen and pal Tony Steedman in conversation at the boating club bar whilst in the background we see the clearly fearful and depressed Harry arrive with his mother to spend the day there. There's also his use of close ups which allows the characters to converse with an off screen actor but look as if they're directing their speech to us/breaking the fourth wall. This works especially well in terms of psychology and in making the viewer feel like they're being consulted on the action - scenes of Bobby admitting that she has to prove herself a fit mother, of Harry's eyes staring down the lens almost as a cry for help and lastly of Sam's confession that 'even the most secure of us require supervision' all serve to place us in the eye of this emotional storm.

Rating: 4/5

Whilst there may be more misses than hits, overall I really enjoyed this DVD and would recommend the Plays for Britain to any lover of vintage TV, television plays and those with an interest in late 20th century life and its issues. There are no extras, just the plays - three to a disc, each run somewhere between 50 to 60 minutes.

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