"It's about an 18-year-old lad, very masculine, tough. He's quite athletic. And he's got a mam who's blind. But she's got a strong vision of life. And... the woman next door... she's the type who puts her make-up on with a trowel... she's lonely" ~ Alan Bleasdale, writer of Early To Bed"
Second City Firsts was a 1973-'78 series of half hour plays from the BBC recorded at their Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham and on location across the country. Its title derived from the fact that Birmingham has long been considered the UK's 'second city' whilst the series was committed to its commissioning of young first-time writers, hence 'firsts'. It's now most famous for Mike Leigh's The Permissive Society, but BBC Store is gradually making good on its promise to open up its archives and their current Alan Bleasdale collection has allowed this, his first television play, a chance to find a new audience for a £2.99 download.
You'd be forgiven for thinking this was Alan Sillitoe, rather than Alan Bleasdale. The Liverpudlian writer foregoes the obvious setting of his hometown to instead focus on the pit town of Hindley, just up the road from me in Wigan. The story concerns Vinnie (David Warwick) a bright and athletic 18-year-old who is about to sever the apron strings from his blind mother (Patricia Leach) with a move to Loughborough University. Next door to them is Johnny Meadows' lugubrious coalminer Frankie whose horizons consists of the chance he gets to bequiff his hair and adopt a transatlantic drawl to sing down at the club of an evening, before a bellyfull of ale and a fish supper takes him happily home. Clearly wanting more from life is his young wife Helen (Alison Steadman) who is slowly suffocating from an existence waiting on her boorish hubby. When he goes out to work each morning, she slaps on the make-up and opens the door to the willing Vinnie.
Directed by Les Blair, Early to Bed is an intriguing snapshot of life in my part of the world in the mid '70s, a period that still looked and felt like the Victorian age in such impoverished, post-industrialized regions. It's an authentic debut from a writer who is clearly still honing his craft (Bleasdale modestly remarked that Blair's direction enlivened his 'average script') but not without clear examples of northern wit and strong female characterisation.
The great Clifford Kershaw also has a small role as Vinnie's PE teacher who has helped him secure a place at Uni. Can someone write that man's biography please?
To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays, please sign the petition I started here