Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Black and Blue Lamp (1988)

I've wanted to (re)watch this for years. As a nine year old kid in 1988, I had already seen The Blue Lamp and my father, who was brought up on Dixon of Dock Green, was keen to watch this BBC2 single play in the Screenplay strand, The Black and Blue Lamp. Much of what followed I can only imagine went completely over my infant head, but  abstract memories of scenes have remained with me for years, increasing in understanding as I matured. 

In The Black and Blue Lamp, playwright Arthur Ellis (who had previously written Christine, directed and condensed to its main points by Alan Clarke, and would go on to write the 1990 Screen One drama The Police) explores the changing landscape both of British society and of television, challenging the changing views on, and representations of, law and order across four decades. A curious mixture of satire, black comedy, telefantasy and police drama, the play transplants the 1949 coshboy Tom Riley (made famous by Dirk Bogarde in the classic Basil Dearden film The Blue Lamp) and PC 'Taffy' Hughes (Meredith Edwards in the film) into the then present day setting of 1988 with a breed of copper more familiar from the world of GF Newman (Law and Order, the Terry Sneed novels such as Sir, You Bastard - indeed one supporting character is named after this anti-hero) The Sweeney and The Bill. Aware that the last twenty years or so the media had entirely changed the perceptions our society had of the police force, Ellis brings both the current and the past depictions head on in a glorious, entertaining and thought provoking fashion.  What's incredible is that such a groundbreaking, fresh and - as we will come to see -  Screenplay's producer Brenda Reid had an hour's studio filming slot that required filling. By this stage, studio-only recorded plays were on their way out and becoming trickier to cater for, but Ellis leapt upon it and completed his script in around a month. 

The play picks up immediately after the concluding action of the Basil Dearden film. It's opening moments are shot in monochrome black and white and features the stiff, fast talking acting style of the late 40s, with Sean Chapman (previously the lead in Alan Clarke's Contact; the first ever Screen Two play) and Karl Johnson convincingly adopting the mannerisms of Bogarde's Riley and Edwards' Hughes. Awaiting an interview from CID and the promise of a cup of tea and a jam bun ("They used to give you that for giving blood," Hughes sadly observes. "Now they give you it for taking blood") the action suddenly, and inexplicably, switches from black and white to colour and Riley and Hughes end up in a 1980s police station, complete with strange (to them) markers such as graffiti on the walls, a radiator, flickering strip lighting, and the sound of telephones and screams. At one point Hughes, concerned with the knock to his head he suffered upon arresting Riley, reveals to the police surgeon that, since he returned back to the station, he's been hearing "rude words" - how far we have come, indeed.

Indeed, the period banter of both Riley and Hughes is given short shrift when CID eventually turn up in the shape of Kenneth Cranham's Superintendent Cherry;  “You’re gonna put your hands up to this one, son, or I’ll take your bollocks off with a Stanley knife” he snaps and another title sequence kicks in, this time a tongue-in-cheek affair for an imaginary 1980s police series The Filth.

Riley and Hughes have, without explanation from Ellis, replaced 1980s versions of Riley and Hughes, after the murder of an 80s version of Dixon; a character a world away, it is revealed, from the cosy patrician in blue of Jack Warner. This Dixon was being investigated by A10 for his part in a paedophile ring, a grubby secret that would destroy, as John Woodvine's Superintendent informs Cherry, the good PR his slaying could achieve among society and in terms of recruitment intake; “The training schools’ll be having them in and out quicker than a pork sword in a knocking shop", a sly reference to the alleged recruitment spike The Blue Lamp afforded the constabulary after its release in 1949. Equally, the criminality of the 1940s is depicted as far cosier too, with Riley bewildered and helpless at the rough questioning style and beatings Cherry and his faithful sidekick George (Ralph Brown, who had not long left The Bill where he played a hard nosed, sadistic and racist uniformed constable who had gleefully done his duty on the picket lines in the miners strike of '84 - something you could never imagine Dixon having done) dole out to him during his 'interview'.

But The Black and Blue Lamp is more than just a jet black parody of the world of George Dixon, Tom Riley and Taffy Hughes. It's also a canny and intelligent inversion of that source material. Hopelessly adrift in this alien, modern world P.C. Hughes succumbs to a violent breakdown which culminates in him confronting Riley with a gun. The ensuing scene directly lifts the action from The Blue Lamp in which Riley shoots Dixon, but this time it is Riley who is trying to talk down the policeman. Ellis utilises the original dialogue here, and when Riley is shot, Sean Chapman captures Jack Warner’s facial expression with great accuracy. Corrupted by the modern world he finds himself in, with the routine backhanders, planting of evidence and deaths in custody occurring throughout, it is Hughes who commits the very worst offence in the play - shooting an unarmed man. Just as it was in The Blue Lamp.  

The play closes with Cherry wondering just who they had under arrest all along and whether he could really have been, as he claimed, a coshboy of the late 40s. If that were the case, he ponders, and if somehow he had taken the place of the 1980s Riley they had been keen to question, then where has their Riley actually gone? The credits - a sombre Sweeney-like homage - conclude to reveal a brilliant coda, inverting the rest of the play by now showing the modern-day Riley and Hughes in the world of The Blue Lamp. "The detective will want to grill you" a bobby informs Riley. “What’s he think I am," he yells defiantly "a fucking sausage?” 

A brilliantly inventive single drama, it's easy to draw a line from the strangeness of The Black and Blue Lamp to Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes in the 00s which took equal delight in supplanting a heroic cop figure into a different world, to explore the perceived representations of that day.  But Life On Mars and its sequel Ashes To Ashes were primetime, populist TV drama rather than the stuff of 'highbrow' single act TV plays and as such we can, once again - just as The Black and Blue Lamp did in 1988, consider the changing landscape of television in the intervening years. 

Staggeringly, The Black and Blue Lamp has remained unrepeated and unreleased to DVD or VHS. It is however available to view on YouTube. To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays please sign the petition I started here

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