Friday, 22 April 2016

Amongst Barbarians (1990)


Watching Amongst Barbarians as a ten-year-old in the summer of 1990 had a profound effect on me. It sent me to bed with cold sweats and a racing mind and the bristling events of the play have remained with me to this day. Like the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth it put my febrile imagination in the position of someone knowing they were about to meet their death - how does anyone accept this? Catching it on YouTube now marks the first time I've seen it possibly since that original broadcast (I'm not sure if it was ever repeated) and I'm pleased to report it remains a strong, highly emotive piece.

This BBC2 Screenplay film is an adaptation of a stage play that made its debut at the Royal Exchange in Manchester a year earlier in 1989. Based on true incidents, Amongst Barbarians may be set in Penang, Malaysia, far away from Margaret Thatcher's Britain, but the Thatcherite attitudes regarding the decline of the British Empire loom large throughout the piece. Two young Englishmen have been arrested for drug trafficking and are sentenced to death by hanging in 28 hours time. Their relatives have travelled to the former British colony in an attempt to come to their aid and bring about a stay or reprieve, however they soon find out there is nothing they can do. The futility of the situation, along with the oppressive heat, increases their testy and agitated behaviour, and their racism and jingiosm becomes increasingly apparent until we are left to wonder just who the real barbarians are. 

Playwright Michael Wall adapted his own play for the BBC which boasted an impressive cast; Con O'Neill and Lee Ross played the two smugglers facing the death penalty, alongside Rowena Cooper, Anne Carroll, Kathy Burke, Madhav Sharma and, in his first dramatic straight role, sitcom star David Jason. As Only Fools and Horses was a big favourite in our house I'm sure he was the big draw for watching - and whilst he, and the rest of the cast, are all fantastic, it's actually Ross and O'Neill who perhaps deserve all the accolades here; the former angry and pugnacious railing against a fate decided upon him in a land he can't even find on a map (the tragedy being that he had won the holiday to Malaysia in a newspaper competition) whilst the latter is largely cool and quick witted, resigned to his fate until the film's final stages when its revealed he isn't perhaps quite the smuggling bigshot he'd like everyone to have believed. Ross' family (Jason, Cooper and Burke) are the family from hell, with Jason cutting a truly pathetic figure as the redundant (in more ways than one) father, a man who no one - not even his own family - want to listen to who realises that the one role he has in life, to protect his son from harm, is something he has failed at. It's a tragicomic performance that builds on the pathos he had already established with the character of Del Boy, thanks to the nine years he had at that point of playing the role. Whilst O'Neill's mother, an expat from Spain may look more civilised than that brood but is in actual fact a coke snorting hard faced Thatcherite ("I don't like her as a person, but I do admire her politics") who believes anything can be solved by giving people what they want - as witnessed by her belief that selling herself to the governor could result in her son's pardon - and that its a man's world that women help oil the wheels. 



Directed by Jane Howell, the production is entirely studiobound and in keeping with its theatrical roots. It's the kind of production that just wouldn't get made now; they'd fly the cast out to Malaysia (or a similar stand in locale) at considerable expense for what amounts to simply establishing shots. Granted it would look more impressive but I actually doubt it would improve upon what we have here. The sense of claustrophobia, of increasing hysteria is actually complimented by the closed in environment a studio shoot brings about and it has the right unnerving effect upon the viewer right up until that dramatic closing scene.

Wall's play is still produced professionally and in am dram circles to this day, which makes it all the more unusual that the BBC film isn't as well known as it perhaps ought to be, leading me to wonder if the corporation is somehow ashamed of their studio based plays, for fear of them appearing 'dated'. There's actually precious little written online about the production (and no screencaps whatsoever hence the lack of them appearing here. I couldn't be arsed taking any myself, apologies!) but I did stumble upon this article from 1990 and the New Straits Times, whose reaction to the production is melodramatic, erroneous and offended - no, it wasn't shot on location, it didn't feature the Sikh guard smoking and it completely misses the point of the title.

To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays please sign the petition I started here

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