Friday, 3 April 2015

The Long Distance Piano Player (1970)

''It hadn't the size, the reach that one expects from a 'Play for Today.' Though, strictly speaking, one hardly knows yet what to expect from this re-titled series'' (Nancy Banks-Smith, The Guardian, 16th October 1970)

Alan Sharp's The Long Distance Piano Player holds the distinction of being the very first Play For Today, the BBC's 1970s successor to The Wednesday Play. Sharp's script takes liberally from They Shoot Horses Don't They? the story of a six day dance marathon in the America of the Great Depression and which had, just the year before, been made into an impressive movie by Sydney Pollack.  "I read the book years ago," Sharp recalled when publicising the Play For Today debut "and was fascinated"

The Kinks frontman and song writer Ray Davies makes his acting debut as Pete, a pianist who is exploited to the brink of destruction by his predatory cod-Atlantic manager, Jack (Norman Rossington) when he is persuaded to try and create a world record of four days and four nights non-stop piano playing in the municipal hall of an ossified, non-descript Northern town. 

As Pete attempts this world record he finds himself torn between his new bride, Ruth (Lois Daine), who cannot understand why he has allowed himself to be manipulated and begs him to stop playing, and Jack, who appears like a cross between Svengali and The Wizard of Oz, constantly spurring him on towards his goal, providing ''the people'' with the ''something big'' they need for their little, uneventful lives. There's nothing new here, it's essentially the classic good versus evil struggle for one man’s soul, as well as serving as a metaphor for the way we live - in keeping with Play For Today's desire to address contemporary issues.

However, Sharp's script isn't as rewarding as one would hope for or expect and the dialogue seldom manages to rise above the banal or humdrum. Davies struggles manfully with his character's continually spoken obsession with a fox he saw as a child "just the once" and, whilst it's true to say the Kinks star isn't a natural actor, I doubt that even Olivier could have made much with this half baked symbolism! Actually Davies isn't that bad; he's a little flat, a little too small and subtle, but he never seems out of place and is at least asked to play a music man, so it's a familiar area for him. 

Sharp is on safer and surer ground incorporating a Greek chorus to the proceedings, with characters including a couple of snooker hall caretakers, a gang of bored young leather jacketed hooligans led by Ken Hutchison, and a couple of people who come to watch Pete, commenting on the action. Tellingly, the attempt to set a world record have little substance to them despite  Jack’s big dreams, as very few people seem that interested and there's no reference at all to the Guinness Book of Records, all of which suggest a lack of enterprise on Jack’s part. He's someone who talks the talk, but does not walk the walk and its abundantly clear that he's relying on someone who is the exact opposite to make his ambitious dreams come true. 

If Alan Sharp's script occasionally suggests someone still learning their craft, director Philip Saville shows no such novice qualities and lingers on Davies' faraway eyed features often which, along with tense silences punctuated by the endless tinkling of the piano keys, creates a claustrophobic, arduous atmosphere as befits the piece.

All I know is after watching this for an hour, my own fingers ached in sympathy!

The Long Distance Piano Player is available to view in instalments on YouTube but be warned; the picture quality isn't that great. If you live near a BFI Mediatheque you can watch a much better print, but these are your only options as, like many of these plays, the BBC have not released it to DVD.

To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays please sign the petition I started here

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