Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Doris & Doreen (1978)

This production was the second to be broadcast in LWT's 1978 series of Six Plays by Alan Bennett. Doris and Doreen is the most traditionally 'theatrical' of these films, taking place on a single studio set, shot on VT and featuring essentially just three main roles. As such, it doesn't necessarily work as an engaging piece of television especially when placed between its siblings in the series, but it was to subsequently find its natural home on the stage when Bennett adapted it and retitled it as Green Forms for a tour in 2003 as part of a double bill alongside A Visit From Miss Prothero under the collective title Office Suite.

Directed by Stephen Frears, this original production stars Patricia Routledge and Prunella Scales as the titular Doris and Doreen, two archetypal Bennett matrons who work together in a small office within a sprawling unspecified bureaucratic organisation in the north west of England. In between their lengthy gossiping conversations, they indulge in some myriad paperwork and in their hurried investigations into the possibility of a new arrival's plans for change and restructure.

It's quite a prescient political piece which sees the pair discuss the of several previously key branches that have been, or are being, 'wound down' (or 'wound up' as the less jargon familiar Doreen continues to say) and the inevitable redundancies such decisions bring about. Broadcast ahead of Thatcher's victory at the election in 1979, Bennett skilfully takes the pulse of the nation, knowing full well the forthcoming Tory government would establish their pitch in the bitter economic stand offs between management and unions by raising unemployment levels and placing great emphasis on public and private sector productivity, modernity and efficiency. With that in mind it's all too easy to see that Doris and Doreen, with their grade 3 skilled or grade 4 semi-skilled status, are right to no longer feel as secure in their cosy paperchase workplace. As we now know, somewhere beyond the obvious studio set there was a big black storm cloud, and it was rapidly approaching the all too real Doris and Doreen's and many, many, many others in the UK.

Pete Postlethwaite delivers a memorable turn as a one-armed newly unionised office messenger (though he's clearly way too young for the part, given that Bennett writes him as a veteran of Tobruk!) who parrots the positives of his new union with all the fervour of the freshly converted. "I'm under the umbrella," he proclaims, feeling a sense of security and protection. "Get in under the umbrella, quick" he advises. But his words fall on deaf ears to the willfully excluded and exclusive Doris and Doreen, to the extent that its clear their previous sniffy disinterest in, and opposition of, organisation and collectivity in the workplace - which is widely more emblematic of their small, tight cliquey ways - is likely to be another reason they are unable to maintain the cosy, feathered nest like conditions they have become all too accustomed to. Although again, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and we know that Postlethwaite's 'umbrella' couldn't, alas, hold off the cold Tory downpour that decimated the unions for much longer.

Doris and Doreen rightly belongs to Scales and Routledge, who form a great partnership and both dominate the screen and enliven what could have been a very flat televisual experience with their flair and nuance for delivering Bennett's dialogue. It's not one of Bennett's best TV plays - Frears does little to lift it from its stagey demeanour (nor does he, it seems, want to) and the score is both intrusive and arch - but it remains an enjoyable enough piece, thanks in the main to the performances, and a good historical document of the late '70s. Your enjoyment of it depends on how you feel about stage like TV productions I guess.

Lastly, it amuses me that an unseen character shares my name - the oft referred to Mr Cunliffe (a distinctly Lancastrian surname that Bennett would later employ for a minor character in his screenplay for the Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears) - who works in personnel. 

Repeated once in the 80s on Channel 4 (along with the other plays in the Six Plays series) this remains unreleased to DVD. It is available to view in instalments 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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