There was more to Johnny Speight than just a sitcom writer and the creator of one of British comedies most recognisable and acclaimed characters, Alf Garnett. Speight was also a serious playwright and, whilst his earlier plays - The Compartment and Playmates, made in 1961 and 1962 with a young, then unknown Michael Caine, and remade in 1969 for The Wednesday Play with comedian Marty Feldman playing impressively straight - owed more than a little to Harold Pinter, but this allegorical, surreal piece entitled If There Weren’t Any Blacks You’d Have to Invent Them with its nowhere, abstract setting and its archetypal role based characters has a debt to the absurdist nature of Samuel Beckett.
Written for the stage in 1965 it was later made twice for television. First in 1968 and once again in 1974. Both versions are available on one single Network DVD release, and it is both versions I will be commenting on here.
Whilst Speight's more serious work may have a lot on common with more well known and critically applauded playwrights, the abiding themes he explores here are unmistakeably his own, and once again he is mining the issue of racial prejudice, class and politics as he had done with his most famous creation, Alf Garnett in the sitcoms Till Death Us Do Part and In Sickness and In Health.
The play takes place in a surrealist version of a cemetery in which a variety of nameless characters (identified only as ‘The Workman’, ‘The Blind Man’, ‘The Young Man’, 'The Officer', 'The Doctor' etc) appear and offer symbolic gestures of and lip service to specific social attitudes. It's a largely episodic piece, with each character getting their moment in the spotlight until the final act where a clear narrative starts to develop. The theme of scapegoating and prejudice is woven throughout and a clear parallel is drawn between Moray Watson's The Officer and Leslie Sands' The Blind Man. In an early scene The Officer is shown to press-gang at gunpoint a young mourner at the graveside, forcing him into becoming a soldier for him to boss around. Later, The Blind Man - and his companion, the wilfully ignorant The Backwards Man (played by Jimmy Hanley, he keeps his eyes closed in solidarity with his friend and walks backwards, holding onto him) meet John Castle's rather prissy, camp Young Man who discusses the importance of equality and is promptly and erroneously identified by The Blind Man as 'coloured'. The Young Man objects, arguing that he is white but The Blind Man's mind is made up, he's too liberal to be anything but black.
The Young Man turns to the Officer for help but The Blind Man interferes demanding that he needs "a black" and pointing out the similarities between how he views The Young Man and how The Officer views his forcibly enlisted subservient soldier; ''That's what young Sambo here needs, a gun at his head. You put a gun at his head, he might start behaving more like a black to me'' The Blind Man serves as an opinion maker, his voice being the loudest of all. Convincing The Officer, he now commands his Private to 'black up' the Young Man and boot polish is applied to his face, at which point the Young Man has no alternative but to be black and considered black from that moment on, thus suffering the cruel behaviour the ensemble characters have towards such an easily identifiable scapegoat and ultimately he is tried and executed by this kangaroo court of his 'peers' who each find a perfect excuse as to why society must have a victim.
An intriguing and surreally satirical exploration into powerlessness and social marginalisation, Speight ensures that all of the characters are desperate to find their 'other', a victim to blame for all of society ills; The Officer has his Private, The Workman - who is an extension of the Arthur Haynes comic persona Speight regularly contributed scripts for - believes The Young Man to be upper class and therefore the root of all his problems, and The Blind Man needs his black man. As he says; ''I'm white, you see, purest white. There's no joy being white if there's no black, is there?'' The liberal characters such as the Doctor or the Priest and Vicar are unable to effectively shape an argument against The Blind Man's clear prejudice - much like Mike, the left wing son in law of Alf Garnett, was unable to effectively quash the older man's ignorant views with those of his own - because they are the minority voice in society; too quietly spoken or too easily ignored and ridiculed by the louder, angrier prejudiced views. In some cases they even become convinced by those ugly views, as The Doctor concludes ''You have to let them kill you tonight, so that we who are decent can revile their crime against you'' Ultimately it is The Backwards Man who is perhaps the most quietly complex character in the piece; he chooses his ignorance as witnessed by his self imposed blindness and his desire to get along with the Blind Man, which thus reaffirms his friend's prejudices, and bringing about the persecution of The Young Man. He is the epitome of the middle ground, who allows because of their inactivity and their head-in-the-sand manner the complete opposite of their intentions to 'get along' and actually maintains in their complicitness an unfair, prejudiced society.
For me, it is the themes around the play that work more successfully than the actual play's execution itself. I consider them important issues raised in an unflinching, unapologetic manner and I can see how some of the language that requires, will offend and upset modern day audiences who, as a result, do not see beyond the racial slurs to the issues being discussed.
In 1974, LWT staged the play once more, this time in colour and with a new cast. There is actually very little difference between the original 1968 version and this 1974 adaptation: the script of both versions is more or less the same, barring some minor changes in the dialogue. The main difference is that this one is, as I say, in colour. There is also some pronounced differences in the set design and the performances of the piece which has both its good points and bad.
What I enjoyed here was the more abstract setting. The stage design here is much more in keeping with the traditions of absurdist theatre, looking more like a surrealistic notion of a cemetery rather than the more or less faithful depiction of the cemetery in the 1968 version. With its Expressionistic painted vista of oddly angled buildings and its foreground populated with pop art style smashed up cars, cherubic statues, billboards, murals and neon signs this is seems to be a 'cemetery' which in fact represents the death of our society and culture, which is of course in keeping with the message of the play itself.
This version firmly embraces the absurdist traditions and the theatricality of the piece, to the extent that it veers towards the farcical in places, enhanced by its jazzy deep trumpet score. On the whole this works well, but it does dilute some of the dramatic currency inherent in some of the characters and in the final reel when the narrative gathers and builds to its crescendo. In terms of the characters, Leonard Rossiter's performance as The Blind Man is markedly different to that of Leslie Sands in the original. Sands was the very vocal definition of the loud voiced bitterly ignorant protest, whereas Rossiter delivers what was essentially his screen persona of a comic near hysteria. It feels very familiar and perhaps that is because it is; this isn't all that different from his Rigsby in Rising Damp, a character which regularly hectored his co-star Richard Beckinsale who also stars here as The Young Man, the target of his prejudiced desire to scapegoat and segregate. This depiction of The Blind Man is essentially from the same sitcom bigot mould of Rigsby, old man Steptoe and - of course - Speight's own Alf Garnett, whereas Sands' Blind Man felt palpably dangerous at times and never more so than in the final act.
I enjoyed Bob Hoskins' Workman, a tubby Teddy Boy who now pulls on a bellrope that seems to be suspended from the sky, and still has the same preoccupations with class as his older, shabbier predecessor in '68, but Donald Gee's Backwards Man has much less impact than Jimmy Hanley's which is a shame because I believe the character should be more integral and more smilingly wilfully ignorant. Likewise I wasn't keen on Michael Bryant's Doctor whose costume and performance style bears all the hallmarks of the nutty medic - again its played a touch too much for farce, a touch too boldly, which ultimately detracts from his reveal in the final stages that he's happy to sit back and allow The Young Man to be killed because as a liberal, he needs a martyr to shed tears for. But at least they try to integrate the Girl's character and storyline into the piece overall here by having her witness the narrative reach its climax, rather than just disappear as she did in '68.
As I say both plays are available on one DVD from network. Sadly there are no extras to them but for anyone interested in TV plays, race issues and vintage comedy with a message, I'd recommend it. To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays please sign the petition I started here