Today is the 72nd birthday of Richard Eyre (or to give him his proper title, Sir Richard Charles Hastings Eyre CBE) the celebrated film, TV, theatre and opera director.
From the late 70s through to the early 80s, Eyre was a producer and director at the BBC, specifically with the excellent Play For Today strand. As it's currently a project of mine to watch as many of these stand alone dramas as I can, I thought I'd mark Eyre's birthday with reviews of three of his best from that period.
The Comedians (1979)
The Comedians, Trevor Griffiths intense play made its debut at the Nottingham Playhouse in 1975 before being adapted for television with the BBC's Play For Today strand four years later with direction from Eyre. Apprehensive about the infrequent but strong (for the time at least) swearing, the beeb chose to broadcast it beyond the watershed at 10:10pm on 25th October 1979 (just a few days after my birth, fact fans!)
Watching the play again recently after several years since I first saw it gave me an extra resonance as I have since become involved in both helping to teach and train people to perform drama in front of audiences and have made my own debut as a stand up comic. But it would be quite naive to view Griffiths' play solely about a Manchester night class of trainee comedians making their debut, the key theme here are complacency and rebelliousness and Bill Fraser's former comedian turned teacher's warm up tongue twister 'The traitor distrusts the truth' as one by one, his charges betray him by discarding all they have learnt to appease the talent scout from London.
It is only Gethin (a superlative performance from Jonathan Pryce that helped skyrocket his career) whose material is perhaps less a betrayal and more a direct challenge to his mentor. Considered "aggressively unfunny" by the talent scout, his nihilistic and uncompromisingly honest mix of skinhead/football culture and mime is utterly spellbinding and almost unbearably tense whilst seemingly pointing the way to the rising scene of alternative comedy occurring in Soho in direct contrast to the more perversely cosy casually racist world of working men's clubs and the ITV series The Comedians.
Eyre's reply to Mrs Whitehouse is a joy to behold. Informing her that what she actually heard was the line "Prick of a brother" he goes on to suggest that perhaps the watchdogs own typewriter has been infected by the moral corruption she saw everywhere! Needless to say, Mrs Whitehouse was not amused.
First impressions of Country, a 1981 Play For Today once again from the pen of Trevor Griffiths and directed by Richard Eyre, suggest we're in store for the traditional upper class period drama. The starry, indeed classy cast which consists of Leo McKern, James Fox, Wendy Hiller and Joan Greenwood etc, the sumptuous location of a stately home and the 1945 setting, all point towards Brideshead territory. But, this being Griffiths, it's a far more political and cutting piece about class.
Griffiths takes his polemical potshots against the Carlion family (which he named after the Corleones in the Godfather films, giving you some indication of what he thinks about English aristocratic families - they're as bad as the Mafia) depicting them as emotionally bankrupt, with their sole collective thought being the preservation and prosper of their way of life and the brewery business they have made their millions from.
Like Michael Corleone, the second son Philip played by James Fox is drawn surely back into the bosom of his family following the death of his elder brother during the war. Initially resistant, Country depicts his change of heart and his realisation of the new enemy to defend themselves against - the no longer silent, happy to serve working classes who have felt the tide turn following the Labour landslide that occurs during the film, with Fox brilliantly and almost imperceptibly turning from carefree to ice cold as it progresses.
Griffiths isn't afraid to make his influences known during Country with much of it taking its cue not only from the aforementioned The Godfather but also from Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (which plays as a swansong for the decline of Russian aristocracy) and in subverting the trends of the usual period costume drama. Subtly satirical it also has as much to say about the political climate of the year in which it was broadcast, 1981, as it does about the period it is set, 1945. It is a deeply sobering and effective critique on Thatcherism and I believe it was initially supposed to be the first of several plays reflecting the Conservative party, its ideals and its effects upon British society from post-war to their 1979 election win that sadly came to nothing.
The Imitation Game (1980)
The Imitation Game - No, not the Benedict Cumberbatch blockbuster about Bletchley Park, this Richard Eyre directed, Ian McEwan Play For Today about Bletchley Park predates that film by thirty-four years and stars Harriet Walter as an intelligent 19 year old woman who escapes her dull, patronising middle class existence to join the ATS and go to war, only to find the glass ceiling is firmly in place even at times of great crisis.
Initially, just like the makers of the more recent film which shares its name, McEwan had wanted to write a play about Alan Turing, but found information regarding the genius who helped us win the war scant and somewhat unforthcoming in 1970s Britain. What he did amass made him realise his Turing would have to be, in the main, invention. Besides which, his research led him into interesting aspects of life at Bletchley and the lack of females intensively involved in Project Ultra, the perceived and insulting notion being that women could not be trusted with secrets. McEwan became fascinated by the inequality between the genders and how, an establishment run by men, excluded them from all aspects of war and the secrets of war, save for roles that effectively positioned them as housekeepers, cooks and tea makers, chauffeurs and secretaries. The irony of course being that it was women, men believed, who were embodiment of what the war was being fought for.
The Imitation Game serves as an interesting companion piece to that other WWII/Intelligence set Play for Today, David Hare's Licking Hitler, covering as it does the rude awakening of a young girl who simply wants to do her bit in the time of crisis. However, Licking Hitler differs in that it deals primarily with the obvious notions of class (the heroine of the piece is a naive upper class woman) whereas McEwan's film goes much deeper in its exploration depicting class going hand in hand with the restrictive nature of a patriarchal society that allows the ascendancy of one sex of another in all aspects. This is shown across the whole play from Cathy's father, a possible fascist sympathiser played by Bernard Gallagher, who rules the roost from his armchair with pipe and slippers and in exchanges where an officer claims Cathy's kneeing in the balls of a publican trying to throw her out of the pub was “more serious than rape, wouldn’t you say?” and a lecture to male NCO's concerning how to handle the ATS girls which suggests they are unable to stand for long periods of time and that its best to ignore their emotions. It is a play which is very much about repression - repression of knowledge, of women, and of homosexuality, as we see with the character of Turner (a thinly veiled Turing) played by Nicholas Le Prevost who disastrously beds Harriet Walter's Cathy and directs a post impotent fit of paranoid male rage at her borne from his own deeply repressed sexuality. Equally, the blind repression of women upon women is horrifically shown when several ATS girls turn on one of their number who they deem 'a slag' in their dorm and force her into the bath. Ultimately it is a deeply ingrained repression and, in her attempts to break out from it, you know that Cathy will pay a heavy and unjust price.
The Imitation Game is a poignant and sobering piece about gender inequality which may not be the brightest and cheeriest of entertainments but is a deeply powerful and thought provoking one nonetheless.
Like many Play For Today's of the time, all these three remain languishing in the BBC vaults unwatched.
To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic Play For Today's please sign the petition I started here