Saturday, 21 November 2015

Angels Are So Few (1970)

"Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, For thereby some have entertained angels unawares" ~ HEBREWS, 13.2 

The first of my purchases from the new BBC Store, which is essentially a newly launched online archive of material both past and present, Angels Are So Few was the first play Dennis Potter wrote for the Play for Today series and is an example of one of his 'visitation' plays. These plays typically feature an ethereal and peculiar stranger who enters a suburban home, bringing buried secrets and sexual and/or emotional traumas to the surface during his stay. Like Son of Man, his previous BBC screenplay for PfT's forerunner The Wednesday Play, which told the story of a particularly human (with all the strengths and weaknesses that that implies) Christ's arrival into Judea, this piece concerns an earthy and flawed young man called Michael who is convinced he is an angel; though it is made clear, from Potter's pen to the audience, that he is not. 

Played superbly by Tom Bell, Michael descends upon a suburban street telling its residents to appreciate things of everyday beauty such as the dried up leaf he possesses. It's a positive message but it is met with much disbelief, scorn and cynicism which reveals Michael's threatening character. "I feel sorry for you," he is heard to mutter to those who refuse to see his way of thinking. "I feel extremely sorry for you" he reiterates before a cruel fate befalls those 'non-believers', much like the shenanigans Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's celestial pair would later get up to in Kevin Smith's Dogma. Despite not really being an angel, can Michael actually influence events? Potter certainly enjoys playing with the ambiguity.

When Michael meets repressed and stultified middle class housewife Cynthia (an exemplary Christine Hargreaves) it becomes clear that his desires for purity within the kingdom of heaven stem from a sexual neurosis he is suffering from. He views sex with complete and utter distaste, believing it to be dirty and unwholesome. Indeed, he physically recoils from one old woman's description of a female angel that was painted on the banner in her local chapel when she was a child; "Angels with tits?! There's none of that in heaven. Flesh rubbing against flesh. It hurts!" he roars, clearly pained. Cynthia however, trapped in a loveless marriage with her dull husband, believes sex can be something free and open, beautiful and necessary and sees in Michael her chance to indulge and rid herself of her sexual repression. Coaxing him back to her house for a second time, she seduces him and effectively robs him of his wings, throwing his deluded self belief into disarray.

It's a bold piece from Potter and pointed the way forward for much of his later work which would again explore the visitation set-up, most notably with its pinnacle, Brimstone and Treacle, and would become - to quote the play's director Gareth Davies - 'sleazy' and 'self indulgent'. This would be the last time Potter and Davies worked together precisely because of this very clear and obvious artistic and creative difference. It's a shame, as this is a deliciously blackly comic tale with some real laugh out loud moments from Potter and two extremely strong central performances from Bell and Hargreaves. As Michael, Bell almost pre-empts the northern itinerance that David Threlfall would later bring to the part of Frank Gallagher in Channel 4's Shameless, whilst Hargreaves manages to engage our empathy even when she somewhat selfishly turns the tables for her own sexual desires in the final reel, destroying an already deeply vulnerable young man who, it is implied, has escaped from some sort of psychiatric care and whose fear of sex may point towards an abusive past.

Not released to DVD and not repeated for some years, the addition of Angels Are So Few to the BBC Store (alongside some other previously unavailable Potter plays) is a very welcome one indeed. 

To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic Play For Today's please sign the petition I started here

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