Friday, 2 October 2015

One Fine Day (1979)

Anyone who expects all Alan Bennett plays to be monologues delivered by Thora Hird, Patricia Routledge and the like, which seem to place great emphasis on inferior biscuits and memories of wet weekends in Harrogate may be rather surprised by One Fine Day, just one of a series of plays he wrote for LWT at the end of the 1970s under the banner Six Plays (by Alan Bennett). 

Indeed it's quite an unusual, unexpected experience all round. It features the wonderful Irish stand up (or should that be 'sit down'?) Dave Allen in a rare straight role as George Phillips, a jaded commercial properties estate agent whose increasingly bizarre behaviour seems to mark him out  rapidly on course as being for a mid life crisis. It's a quiet, contemplative piece, populated by a tremendous sense of melancholia and operatic arias. 

Unlike that other stand out 'mid life crisis man' of the 1970s, Reginald Perrin, Phillips; breakdown is depicted in a staggeringly calm manner, with Dave Allen delivering a very still, focused performance which requires him to handle sparse dialogue and a great number of scenes virtually mute. It's a real shame Allen didn't do more straight roles as he's perfectly capable of them (he was originally slated to play Jeff Randall in the 60s telefantasy detective series from ITC Randall and Hopkirk, Deceased) and shows here be it as an actor, a comedian, writer, documentary maker, TV host or raconteur, he always wanted to tell stories and tell them to the best of his abilities - no surprise then that he started life as a journalist.  

The reason for his mental turmoil and his suffering in silence is a growing dissatisfaction with his work, his colleagues and with the albatross around his neck; Sunley House, an empty office block known as 'White Elephant House' because it was abandoned when the builders went bankrupt in the latest recession leaving the top floor incomplete. It's been on Phillips' books for two years and shows no sign of ever being sold. Feeling an eager young coldfish of a colleague, a sort of prototype yuppie played by Dominic Guard, nipping at his heels under the paternally gimlet gaze of their boss Robert Stephens, Phillips visits the folly one afternoon and finds himself suddenly taken by its possibilities for peace and quiet contemplation.

It becomes his private space, his secret hideaway and there, relaxing in a deckchair with opera on his headphones on the surreal empty top floor or even on the roof sunbathing, he can shut himself off from all his woes at the office or at home like a modern day, city version of Robinson Crusoe. It is there that this doormat of a man finds his sense of purpose and his voice once more, allowing this to be a Bennett play that actually ends on what could be considered an upbeat note and a victory for his central character.

The play also takes on a new dimension when viewed now because despite the 36 year gap we have found ourselves once again in a world where the dreams of others have been put on hold, and recession has stalled or effectively terminated many a business proposition.

Directed with a great sense of the stillness of the piece by Stephen Frears, the play is somewhat enlivened by several suitably Bennett-esque characters on the sidelines who act almost like a Greek chorus. I was especially taken by the ever lugubrious Harold Innocent alongside Benjamin Whitrow and Edward De Souza bemoaning the switching of the times for a game of squash in the lift, and by Sheila Kelley (an actress I love) lovely Liz Crowther and Mary Maddox as Phillips' office girls gossipping away and making plans for their social life. "Topless is really 1960s now" Kelley is heard to mutter, baulking at an invite to a topless steak house somewhere.

Frustratingly One Fine Day has never been repeated, nor is it available on DVD, but it is also 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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