Pinter at the BBC: Theatre 625 – The Basement (20th February 1967)

Law (Derek Godfrey) finds his cosy basement flat invaded by an old friend, Stott (Pinter) and Stott’s young and mainly silent girlfriend Jane (Kika Markham). Whilst initially pleased to see Stott, Law is less enthused when the pair begin to take ruthless charge of his surroundings ….

Although the third and final Pinter play from his Theatre 625 trilogy may initially seems to be on familiar ground (a mysterious individual indulging in oblique power games) The Basement quickly evolves into something much more interesting than might have been expected from the opening ten minutes.

Based on the first few scenes, the television viewer of 1967 would no doubt have expected a linear development of the opening theme. We have three central protagonists – the ebullient Law, the monosyllabic and slightly threatening Stott and the unfathomable Jane – and a well designed basement flat for them to co-exist in. With a running time of just under an hour, there seems ample scope for the three of them to clash.

And so they do, just not in the way that was probably expected. Whilst Tea Party featured some jarring cuts and fantasy sequences, these are much more pronounced in The Basement. Indeed, it’s possible to have some debate as to where reality ends and fantasy takes over (the final scene – delightfully circular in nature – floats the possibility that everything we’ve witnessed has been untrue).

The first jarring reality shift comes ten minutes in, as the action abruptly switches to a beach. Whilst Jane makes an elaborate sandcastle, the ever-voluble Law does his best to stake his claim as Stott’s true friend and soul-mate. Stott meanwhile, is somewhat distanced from this action. And then we quickly cut back to the flat – and in such a way which suggests that the whole beach scene was just Law’s fantasy.

Is it a good rule of thumb that any scene set outside the environs of the flat is fake? That could be so, but then some inside also have the same dreamlike quality. Time certainly seems to pass in a non-linear fashion (one minute there’s snow on the ground, the next moment it’s summer) whilst the décor of the flat also changes from scene to scene.

The final few scenes, although flat based, are clearly fantasy (Law and Stott, each stripped to the waist, attack each other with broken bottles) although whilst the men are scrapping, Jane is shown to be working in the kitchen, which appears to anchor her – if not them – in reality. This switch between the unreal and real is fascinating.

Although The Basement was staged several times (the London production of 1970 with Donald Pleasence as Law, Barry Foster as Stott and Stephanie Beacham as Jane sounds particularly intriguing) the strength of the piece is definitely its ability to rapidly change from one reality to another. Something that was simple to achieve on television (provided you had the time and the budget) but much more difficult to achieve on stage. I’d certainly be intrigued to see a staged production of the play, but I think it probably works best as a television entity.

Critical reception was mixed, but most writers had positive things to say, even if some had to confess that they didn’t understand it all. Kenneth Eastaugh, writing in the Daily Mirror, decided that it was “a unique master course for everybody who ever aspired to write” although this was qualified by some criticism of Pinter’s performance whilst he felt that Markham was merely “adequate” in her role.

J.D.S. Halworth in The Stage and Television Today also found some fault with Pinter’s Stott, although he/she was much more positive about Markham (both critics agreed that Derek Godfrey indulged in some skilful playing).

Max Wilkinson in the Coventry Herald declared that although “I am not certain what the play was about or what it was saying … I will confidently assert it was masterly”.

The Basement might be on familiar Pinter ground (unsettling and oblique) but it’s enlivened by some humorous moments. His final original work for television, it’s yet another which has aged rather well.

 

Softly Softly: Task Force – Conclusion (29th March 1972)

ss2.jpg

Having skirted around the periphery of several stories (although it’s possible that he featured more heavily in some of the episodes not currently available on DVD) Conclusion sees PC Drake (Brian Hall) move centre stage.

SS:TF was often content not to rush, but the opening five minutes of this one – Sergeant Evans considers Drake’s solid gold pencil from all angles – takes some beating. This expensive trinket is enough to set alarm bells ringing with Evans (as is the revelation that Drake lends his colleagues money).

One such recipient is PC Snow. It’s hard to imagine two more different characters – the confident and fly Drake lined up against the methodical and painfully honest Snow. Given this, it’s slightly difficult to see them forming much of a friendship.

Drake’s convivial relationship with his local publican (compared to Snow’s refusal to accept a drink from the same landlord) helps to differentiate their characters even more. It suggests that Drake is taking bribes, although it all seems a bit too obvious. As does the fact he flashes a gold pencil about. Surely a corrupt policeman would be a little more subtle?

The crime of the week – local churches are being robbed of their valuables – takes second place to proving Drake’s guilt or innocence, but it does provide an excellent character moment for Terence Rigby. PC Snow returns to the church where his previous police dog was shot and killed.  Rarely placed in the forefront of the action, Rigby is nevertheless always excellent value – there’s something very reassuring about the implacable Snow.

The denouement probably won’t come as too much of a surprise. Brian Hall was often cast on the wrong side of the law, as he was again here when Drake’s true nature is finally brought into the light by Barlow. Once again, Stratford Johns doesn’t disappoint.

ss8

Softly Softly: Task Force – Woman’s World (16th February 1972)

SS5.jpg

Woman’s World is another bleak episode. It opens with the news that a ten-year old boy called Norman Gordon has been stabbed to death.  We never actually see the body (when his mother is called to identify him, the camera lingers on Sergeant Evans instead) but this doesn’t lessen the impact.

As the episode title suggests, female characters play central roles. Two – both very different – feature. The first is Carol James (Lois Hantz). A cub reporter who gets wind of the murder, she’s desperate for a scoop. Initially treated with indulgence by Evans, his good-natured feeling doesn’t last long ….

Indeed, Carol doesn’t make many friends amongst the rest of the Task Force either. Both Hawkins and Barlow separately wonder if her parents know that she’s out so late (Hawkins also calls her a chit of a girl, whilst Barlow’s comment of “jailbait” is even less complimentary). It’s true that she oversteps the bounds on several occasions, but does this display of male ire have something to do with the fact she’s a young woman?

This was the first of only a handful of credits for Hantz. She’s very impressive, which makes it all the more surprising that her career in television wasn’t longer.

Cherry Morris plays Anthea Gordon, the mother of the murdered boy.  She’s outwardly harsh and domineering (she has to be, she says, as her husband is so weak). As with Hanz, it’s a very well judged performance.  Clifford Rose, as the weak husband in question, is his usual immaculate self.

Stratford Johns once again mesmerises.  Barlow’s confrontation with Carol and the way he can switch between cold fury and geniality with his subordinates are two examples why there’s never a dull moment when Johns is on screen.

The last ten minutes, when the truth is revealed, grips like a vice. A top-tier episode.

SS6.jpg

Softly Softly: Task Force – Anywhere in the Wide World (26th January 1972)

ss1.jpg

All the resources of the Task Force are swiftly pressed into service after fifteen-year old schoolgirl Alison Fordham goes missing …

Given she’s only been missing eight hours, the amount of effort expended – house to house, dogs, helicopters – is impressive. Do they do this everytime someone goes missing or does it have something to do with the fact that Alison’s father, James Fordham (David Bauer), is a man of substantial means?

Like the Task Force, we have to build up a picture of Alison from the testimonies of those who know her. It’s slim stuff – her one schoolfriend Judith Oram (Lynne Frederick) regards her with amused contempt whilst local lad Ken Buckley (Kenneth Cranham) seems to know more than he’s letting on.

With most of the episode revolving around methodical procedure, these brief interviews are welcome character moments. Both Frederick and Cranham impress – Frederick as the precocious teen and Cranham as someone with an eye for the ladies (the younger the better). Cranham’s carrot cruncher accent is memorable too.

As Anywhere In The Wide World progresses, Alison’s sad and isolated life becomes even clearer. Bauer – an actor who rarely disappointed – has a key scene where the distance between Alison and her parents is made painfully obvious. To her credit, Alison’s stepmother Joan (Beth Harris) has made efforts to connect but to no avail.

But when we learn that Fordham packed his young daughter off to stay with her natural mother (an alcoholic) alarm bells really began to ring. His irritation that Alison left early (she was supposed to stay a month) is palpable.

We’ve had several of these stories before, so the regular viewer would have been primed not to expect a happy ending. Barlow has the last word, but all the featured regulars are given a chance to shine in another memorable story.

ss2

Softly Softly: Task Force – The Removal (29th December 1971)

ss1

The Removal opens with Garbutt and Turner (Graham Weston and Johnny Briggs) arriving at a substantial house (it stands in its own grounds). We can instantly tell that they’re wrong ‘uns because it’s night-time and they’re wearing dark glasses. This faint comic air is reinforced when the rest of the gang turn up, all wearing dark glasses too ….

I can’t decide whether this is supposed to be amusing or not though. It’s hard to take Weston and Briggs seriously as a couple of hardmen, but that may be to do with the fact that they’re both familiar actors.

The gang have arrived to strip the house bare (pictures, carpets, furniture, etc) much to the dismay of Sybil Albert (Stephanie Bidmead) and her son Tom (Paul Aston).

The gradual denuding of the house which occurs throughout the episode is fairly low in dramatic tension. Mainly this is because Garbutt and Turner – save for one brief spat – remain supremely confident throughout. Bidmead was a quality actress who died far too young (this was one of her final credits) but she doesn’t have much to work with here – Mrs Albert is little more than a fairly weepy and passive character.

There’s more interest elsewhere, with the stroppy Liz Carr (Lois Dane) proving to be a handful. The common-law wife of one of the gang, she’s very outspoken but is quietened down by the efficient DS Green (Heather Stoney). It’s the first SS:TF credit for Stoney, who instantly impresses.

Any time Snow and Evans are put in a car together you can be guaranteed some amusing dialogue (and so it proves here). Watt and Hawkins also have some good scenes, so there’s plenty going on – even if the main plot is quite linear.  The bleak-ish ending is effective too.

ss2

Pinter at the BBC: Theatre 625 – A Night Out (13th February 1967)

Albert Stokes (Tony Selby), a shy young man, lives with his emotionally suffocating widowed mother (Anna Wing). His big night out – a works party – turns sour after he’s falsely accused of groping one of his female colleagues. After this bad start, his night just get worse and worse ….

A Night Out was Harold Pinter’s first substantial success. It debuted on the BBC Third Programme in March 1960 before transferring to television a month later as part of ABC’s Armchair Theatre strand. This version, starring Tom Bell, Madge Ryan and Pinter himself, can be seen on volume three of Network’s Armchair Theatre releases.

The opening scene establishes the strained relationship between Albert and Mrs Stokes. She reacts with surprise to the news that he’s planning on going out, despite the fact that he’s already told her several times. Her cheerful manner doesn’t waver – even when she’s bemoaning the fact that he’ll miss their regular Friday night game of Rummy – but it’s plain that in her non-confrontational way she’s keen to prevent his departure (not revealing the location of his precious tie, for example).

Anna Wing offers a well judged performance, pitched just right. When Mrs Stokes enquires whether her son isn’t “leading an unclean life, are you? … You’re not messing about with girls tonight, are you?” it lays bare her central concern (with her husband dead, Albert is all she has left and clearly can’t bear the thought of losing him). Is it just a coincidence that these themes would be deeply mined just a few years later by Galton and Simpson in Steptoe & Son? Even down to the name Albert?

Meanwhile, Tony Selby – as the softly-spoken, down-trodden Albert – is equally impressive. Although he’s treated with contempt by some of his colleagues – such as the arrogant Gidney (Patrick Cato) – Albert also has his supporters, notably Seeley (John Castle). Seeley and Kedge (Richard Moore) form an entertaining duo, enlivening the early part of the play with their inconsequential chatter. And once both reach the party they prove to be an instant hit with the ladies – indeed, they’re everything that the awkward Albert isn’t.

Albert’s humiliation at the party sends him back home, but as he finds no succour there he heads out again, only to be picked up by a prostitute (Avril Elgar). Her lengthy, rambling monologue is deliberately wearying (it’s Albert’s misfortune to have stumbled into the company of somebody who, in their own way, is as controlling as his mother). Given this, it’s plain that their encounter won’t end well.

Although Albert has found himself unable to express his true feelings to his mother (when he finally returns home again their uneasy status quo is maintained) he can at least vent his frustrations on the unfortunate chattering prostitute. If Selby has been cast in a submissive role for most of the play, then this climatic scene allows Albert’s tightly-wound persona free reign to explode. It’s nicely played by both Selby and Elgar.

A Night Out, given the fact it was the most straightforward of the Pinter Theatre 625 trilogy, attracted the most critical acclaim. But whilst it has the most linear and comprehensible storyline of the three, like the other two it’s replete with disturbing and memorable dialogue.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Man of Peace (8th December 1971)

ss0

Even compared to other series of this era, Softly Softly: Task Force often had a very leisurely approach to storytelling. Man of Peace is a good example of this.  Watt is visited by a petty criminal and informer from his distant past (Tim Patrick, played by Allan McClelland) who has some interesting information to pass on.

But nearly ten minutes elapse before we learn what it is (Patrick claims to know where a large number of revolvers can be bought). As so often, this crime isn’t the focus of the episode.  Instead Allan Prior is much more concerned with developing character – in this case, Patrick’s.

Patrick is endlessly slippery, which helps to generate interest, as does the reactions of those he encounters. John Watt for one, who initially treats him with barely concealed contempt before kicking him out. The fact that Watt is then forced to track him down (when it becomes clear Patrick does know something) is a humiliation – made worse by the fact that Barlow is on hand to twist the knife.

An episode very much powered by a guest performance – the experienced McClennad is excellent value – Man of Peace has a faint comic air (although I don’t know whether PC Snow’s Irish accent was supposed to be that bad).

An appearance by Anthony Booth is another plus of an typically dialogue-heavy story which in the last ten minutes or so begins to generate a faint feeling of suspense.  Booth (playing Smith) was always an imposing actor and he’s well matched by Terence Rigby’s Snow.

It’s true that Snow, posing as an Irish terrorist, does infiltrate Smith’s gang rather easily (which turns out to be a rather feeble one) but as previously stated, SS:TF wasn’t a wham-bam series. Character development was always more important than simply nicking villains.

ss3.jpg