Saturday, 30 January 2016
330 Play For Today
First viewed : 24 January 1978
".... Wedgwood Benn, keg bitter, punk rock, glue sniffers, Play for Today, squatters, Clive Jenkins, Roy Jenkins.."
A small snatch of the "Forces of Anarchy " hitlist drawn up by Reggie Perrin's brother-in-law Jimmy, identifying the targets for his secret army of right wing nutters which indicates how much this particular programme got up the nose of Daily Mail readers in the seventies.
I hadn't actually seen any of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin at this point and watched my first Play for Today for a completely bizarre reason. Some pre-publicity for the a particular play , The Spongers had alerted my mother to the fact that the childrens' home for Downs Syndrome sufferers which features in the play was actually on the front at our holiday destination of yore, Lytham St Annes and she tuned in specifically to see that. She expected my sister and I to recognise this place despite the fact we hadn't been to the town for three and a half years. Such is the logic of parents. It was a crazy reason to watch one of the most gut-wrenching and influential dramas ever broadcast on British TV but there you go.
The Spongers was written by the unquestionably left wing Jim Allen and concerns a deserted young mother of four , Pauline , played by former Coronation Street actress Christine Hargreaves, who is driven to the end of her tether by the inhumane application of the social security system and the political decision to remove her Down's Syndrome daughter , played by a real-life sufferer Paula McDonagh in a remarkable performance if performance it was , from an expensive care home.
It's provocatively set amidst the Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations and the title appears above giant cardboard cut-outs of the royal couple to ram the point home, a far more potent gesture than Mr Lydon's little ditty. It's entirely filmed on location ( the depressing council estate of Langley in Manchester ) on grainy film in verite documentary style ( passe now but very fresh in 1978 ) and you really have to give it close attention to catch all the dialogue.
The play is probably best remembered for its jaw-dropping ending where Paula takes the Magda Goebbels solution to family crisis and the human drama is stronger than the accompanying political analysis which is quite crude in places. Even for 1977, the idea of dumping Paula in an old peoples' home seems a bit far-fetched. The then unknown Bernard Hill's character, Sullivan, a community worker, is less a flesh and blood person than a mouthpiece for Allen's rage and Peter Kerrigan's monologue at an appeals tribunal fills the same function . What's perhaps most interesting about the political aspects is the timing. The Spongers was made while Britain had a precarious Labour government and the villain of the piece, smug , complacent Councillor Conway ( Bernard Atcha ) is a Labour politician. Allen had been expelled from Labour in 1962 for belonging to an entryist organisation. I recall my mum and gran discussing it the following day and picking up on details to reinforce their Protestant Tory worldview - "well she wasn't careful with her money.. the boy had a bike" and so on.
The Spongers won a number of prestigious international awards including the Prix Italia. It was a clear influence on Boys from the Black Stuff four years later, the kinship reinforced by the presence of Hill and Kerrigan in both dramas. Both Jimmy McGovern and Christopher Eccleston cite it as a seminal inspiration in their careers.
Now then, rather than commit to a long exhaustive research task at this point to discover which other Play for Todays I recall , I'm going to return to this post and add them as I come across them on Genome.
The Slab Boys ( 6 December 1979 )
This is the second one I recall although I think I was ushered to bed before it finished. It was almost the first work of Scottish playwright John Byrne and had already been performed in Scotland. Based on Byrne's own work experience , the play was set in the late fifties and concentrated on three young guys working at a carpet manufacturers, two streetwise greasers and the gauche butt of their jokes, Hector. Hector was played by Joseph McKenna who I recognised as the then most recent incarnation of Coronation Street's Peter Barlow.
The only part I recall without help from web sources ( including my friend Mark C on Letterbox'd ) is Hector getting a makeover from his pals to help him win a girl and them making a complete hash of it.
In the end though, Hector gets the last laugh with a promotion to the design team while one of the others gets his P45. This is an uncomfortable truth of employment that came home me just recently, that the "hierarchy" your ego puts its faith in might not be in accordance with the bosses' viewpoint.
This became a successful play with a Broadway run featuring the starry trio of Kevin Bacon, Sean Penn and Val Kilmer and in time became part of a trilogy about the lads.
The Muscle Market ( 13 January 1981 )
This was my first introduction to the work of Alan Bleasdale. It was actually meant to be part of the Boys From The Black Stuff series following the original The Black Stuff play ( which I hadn't seen at this point ) but for whatever reason it was shaved off , filmed as a standalone play and broadcast nearly two years before the main series.
The building contractor was re-named Danny and re-cast with Pete Postlethwaite replacing David Calder and there is no reference to the events in The Black Stuff . In the heat of the early eighties recession, Danny's business is crumbling under pressure from all sides , the tax man is onto his case, his accountant is embezzling funds with the aid of Danny's mistress / secretary ( Alison Steadman ) and he owes money to some very shady figures from the Liverpudlian underworld. When he gets home he has to fend off his nymphomaniac wife played by female wrestler Mitzi Mueller. Danny has to come up with desperate ruses to salvage anything from the wreckage.
In the most memorable - and remarkably violent - scene Danny's second meeting with the tax collectors Abbott and "Costello" is interrupted by two masked thugs hired by his secretary in revenge for a headbutt. While Danny gets his head kicked in, it's the slight Abbott who tries to help while his supposed bodyguard "Costello" whimpers in the corner.
The play is superbly written but Bleasdale scored an extra coup by obtaining rarely yielded permission from Apple to use Beatles material for the soundtrack. The final scene which sees Danny clinging to the roof of a bus and the tax men remonstrating with him from the upper floor while Yesterday plays in the background is a masterpiece.
Bavarian Night ( 31 March 1981 )
This is one of those I remember best and I think it would have even more resonance now that I work in schools. The comic drama was written by Andrew Davies best known for his adaptations of classics.
Allan Surtees plays Fred Foleshill, an egotistical young head in a leather jacket who decides to have a Bavarian Night to sell the new uniform to parents. Of course the band led by Wandering Hans ( Brian Protheroe ) are not really German and, as the lager flows ,events get out of hand. The band teach the gathering a drinking song which they will re-perform each time some one gets up and shouts "Eine Prosit" so that regularly punctuates the action. I particularly liked the Chinese guy who'd got the wrong end of the stick and just wants to discuss his daughter's progress in science.
Only Children ( 21 August 1984 )
This one starred Charlotte Cornwell, the least remembered of the Rock Follies trio as Jill, a thirtysomething who is the mother figure in an unconventional family of flat mates including gay Dolly ( Eric Deacon ) and camp poseur Flingo ( Brian Gwaspari ) that love performing old musical numbers at the drop of a hat, to the irritation of her obnoxious lover Ben ( Simon Dutton ) a self-regarding young writer. However when Ben manages to impregnate Jill, reality starts to bite and her "children" have to learn to fend for themselves.
This satire on urban living was written by Judy Forrest, mother of novelist Emma Forrest.