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.


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