Saturday, 24 October 2015

Where The Buffalo Roam (1966)


Not as good as I recall from when I last saw it around 10 years ago, but even a sub-par Dennis Potter is better than some playwrights firing on all cylinders.

'Before its time' is a good adage or (backhanded) compliment for the 1966 Wednesday Play, Where The Buffalo Roam. It's a wildly inventive and bold piece - a sort of Billy Liar that turns horrifically sour - but you are constantly aware of Potter's vision butting up awkwardly against the constraints of television production of that day. I'm not normally one to advocate remakes, but this is definitely an example of something that would benefit a retelling now that technology, and a surer grasp of telefantasy, has caught up with what Potter originally intended.

The play concerns a problematic young Welsh man called Willy Turner, played by Hywel Bennett.  Considered 'educationally subnormal', he is an illiterate, unemployed labourer on probation for knocking another youth's front teeth in, who lives at home in a drab Swansea terrace with his mother and grandfather - his father having died years earlier. He escapes the daily grind with a series of obsessive fantasies that see him as a lone, enigmatic and black clad gunslinger riding the high plains of the old Wild West. 

These fantasies are depicted with fast intercutting that remove Willy and other characters from the everyday to saloons and vistas of the West, but often come up short - especially when its clear that Glyn Houston's probation officer is hiding his cowboy attire beneath the present day overcoat in scenes with Willy's long suffering mother played by Megs Jenkins, his disabled (an injury from WWI) and grumpy grandfather played by Aubrey Richards and his teacher (Richard Davies, famous for Please Sir!) at the rehabilitation centre who is trying to teach Willy to read and write.


Hywel Bennett was a very interesting actor in the 1970s; a beautiful young man he avoided the traditional leading young man roles and, in the main, opted for much darker material to contrast his doe eyed handsome dreamy appearance. Most famously, he portrayed a murderous psychopath opposite Hayley Mills in Twisted Nerve and would reunited with Mills once again to play a duplicitous lover out for her money in the film adaptation of Agatha Christie's Endless Night. Where The Buffalo Roam also sees him mining these darker depths as it is revealed that Willy's fantasy life has always been an escape for him ever since his late father used to beat him for his inability to read. These fantasies become increasingly frequent and coincide with some violent mood swings which ultimately sees his toy gun change to a real one (inexplicably - a real 'sod you, I can do what I want' moment from Potter that may alienate and frustrate viewers) and proceeds to take the life of his mother and grandfather, as well as the old man's pigeons. Now on the run, Willy is approached by a local bobby outside a TV store (he's entranced by the cowboy film on the sets in the window display) and promptly shots the constable dead. Cornered on the roof of a warehouse, he returns to reality but it is too late - he is swiftly picked off by police marksmen and falls to his death in the reservoir below, his body being fished out on a stretcher in an almost symbolic crucified/hung from the gallows manner over the final credits.

It's easy to see the real Potter behind the script for Where The Buffalo Roam; the writer freely admitted to using fantasy as an escape from reality, firstly as a youth at school (and, like Stand Up Nigel Barton, this is one of the first examples of Potter using his school life for drama - with flashbacks to Willy being humiliated in class by the teacher and his fellow pupils) and latterly as the debilitating illness took hold, as it was now doing at this stage in his life. 

Where The Buffalo Roam is available to view on YouTube and is for sale on several bootleg sites, but remains unreleased officially. To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays, please sign the petition I started here

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