Sunday, 21 June 2015

Where Adam Stood (1976)

Dear Mr Potter,

I would like to tell you how wonderful I thought your play Where Adam Stood. Everything about it - the characterisation, timing, photography, production - was superb. I shall long remember and treasure the memory. 

The above is an excerpt from a letter of praise received by the playwright Dennis Potter in April, 1976 from no less than Mary Whitehouse - a woman who was renowned for finding all other examples of his work to be deeply offensive and pornographic. One can only imagine the look on Potter's face when he opened that envelope one spring morning!

I'm not normally the kind of person who finds myself agreeing with the late and self appointed moral guardian of the morals of British television and radio, but I have to admit when it comes to Where Adam Stood we are both standing on the same ground ourselves. One thing that I found especially striking, which Mrs Whitehouse does not praise, is the sound of the production. Television today is often beset with criticism from many modern Whitehouses regarding poor audio quality; actors mumbling or music and sound effects drowning out dialogue. Where Adam Stood has none of these issues. No actor (beyond Jean Boht as the local madwoman) rarely speaks above a moderate tone or whisper throughout and yet every single word is so perfectly enunciated and clearly delivered by actors who knew how to properly project their voices, most notably the great Alan Badel. Each voice is so silky that I couldn't help feel like my ears were being swaddled and swathed by the finest plushest fabrics and it means you become firmly absorbed with what is being depicted. 

This Play For Today is on the surface, as you can imagine from Mary Whitehouse's gushing, something of a departure for Potter (though don't worry, he does place a fart gag from Boht's madwoman into the proceedings around the 35 minute mark and there's a definitive destruction of innocence towards the end involving her) in that it is a dramatisation of the 1907 memoir Father and Son which detailed the life of the naturalist and fundamentalist Philip Gosse from the eyes of his son Edmund. It is set crucially around the time Darwin's theory of evolution was introduced to academic society and the ensuing doubt, anger and claims of blasphemy can be viewed in the father played by the aforementioned Badel from the eyes of the infant Edmund, his son, played by Max Harris.

Look beyond the seemingly reverent and genteel proceedings however and you'll see Potter is still exploring the themes that he always did, notably the unsuitability of a strict, religious and pious upbringing when faced with the harsh, unfair realities of the mature, real world. Badel's Gosse attempts to justify not just the faith he has lived his entire life by but also the opinions his esteemed contemporaries are now advocating as the truth. His ultimate belief is that the Bible is still the truth and that the evidence of evolution was actually planted by God almost deceptively in the Garden of Eden, that ''Where Adam Stood'' was the opportunity to observe the world as it is now and as it always has been. Equally the play's title can be said to have another meaning; that the self-knowledge Adam and Eve discovered is comparable to Edmund's own self-knowledge - that he can claim to hear the Almighty just as much as his father to justify his own desires, in this case the desire to own the toy sailing ship from the village shop. "The good Lord says I am to have the ship, father" he claims, a checkmate to his devout parent and proof that, despite his physical frailty (he's announced by a villager to be ''nesh'' which I actually haven't heard outside of St Helens!) he has now learned something of the survival of the fittest that Darwin espouses. 

Potter satisfactorily plays with Darwin's theory with some scenes that are totally of his own imagination, most notably those which feature Jean Boht's madwoman, Mary Teague, who is the physical manifestation of weak animality. As she stalks the village, observing the day to to day activities of the civilised villagers around her or attempts to (and fails to) keep up with the horse drawn carriage of one of Darwin's emissaries  on a visit to the Gosse household, it is clear she is the poorly advanced outsider and the polar opposite of Philip Gosse. Potter depicts Teague as being the proponent of a crucial development in Edmund's character towards the end of the play,  when she takes the young boy into the woods and clumsily attempts to sexually abuse him before he overpowers her and runs away. This is a continuation of the writer's interest in depicting molestation and abuse as well as taps into his own personal experience of being abused as a child. In a 1993 interview with Graham Fuller, Potter discusses the scene and his own experience by saying "It was just one of those things that would happen in the village at the time. One of those realisations that the world is different and more complicated than the simple vision God is giving you" before adding "I am feeling uncomfortable. Please move on" Clearly, Potter's chosen way to deal with his psychological trauma was always to dramatise it, rather than to confront it in traditional therapeutic conditions.

Where Adam Stood is a truly absorbing and affecting film that works on a great many levels. Beautifully written and performed by Badel and Harris, I would totally recommend it though you may have to overcome in the initial stages between the pair the feeling that a good deal of their exchanges unintentionally border on this...

 All in all though, this was an interesting and suitable watch this Father's Day.

To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic Play For Today's please sign the petition I started here

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