Broadcast in six episodes during May and June 1991, All Good Things by Lesley Bruce is a rather obscure piece of archive television, which given its cast-list – Brenda Blethyn, Warren Clarke, Ceila Imrie, Ron Pember, Jemma Redgrave, Ken Stott and Barbara Young amongst others – is a little surprising.
Lesley Bruce’s television credits aren’t too extensive (although she did contribute to popular drama strands such as Play for Today, Screenplay, Screen Two and Theatre Night). We open with a married couple, Shirley Frame (Blethyn) and Phil (Clarke), who are seen arguing as they drive towards an unknown destination. The reason for this isn’t made clear until Shirley opens the car door and we observe that she’s heavily pregnant.
Phil’s not keen about the baby’s impending arrival (their other children are now in their teens and he was looking forward to a little bit of peace and quiet – and possibly taking up a hobby, like the saxophone). Shirley, en-route to the ante-natal class, admits – presumably for the first time – that she also doesn’t want the child (although they’ve left it far too late to do anything about this).
A sharp gear-change from comedy (Shirley’s rant is observed by all the other attendees of the ante-natal class who stare silently at her) to potential tragedy occurs when she suddenly collapses. Is she going to lose the baby? Well no, everything turns out fine – meaning that the scene feels a little forced and manipulative. In drama there’s a sense that you have to “earn” moments like this, by developing your characters and the way they interact with each other. If you just drop events casually into the narrative with no preparation it just doesn’t feel right.
But after this slightly shaky start, the opening episode – The Blessing – develops well. Both Blethyn (b. 1946) and Clarke (1947 – 2014) were well established actors at the time and this is possibly why they’re able to quickly make Shirley and Phil seem like a real couple. Although possibly the method of recording (All Good Things was an all-videotape production) also helped. This was a style of television drama that (soaps apart) would vanish a few years later (from then on, drama tended to be shot either on film or tape processed to look like film) but it’s not a handicap here – videotape has an immediacy which film lacks, thereby giving the series something of a documentary “real” feel.
With a gorgeous new baby, Shirley should be the happiest woman in the world, but she’s not. “Sometimes I feel so lonely, and bored, and bad-tempered, I could scream and yell and tear my hair out in great huge hulking handfuls!” So Shirley needs a new direction in her life, but what?
After a little consideration she decides to go and help people – there must be plenty who need help she reasons, they just have to be found. Naturally she begins close to home, but things don’t go well after she makes a start with her mother, Hetty Snr (Barbara Young). Hetty, still smarting from a painful divorce, is brought to tears after Shirley loses her temper and shouts at her. Shirley’s attempts to help her sister-in-law Elaine (Jemma Redgrave) ends in much the same way, with Elaine left a sobbing mess.
Some people might possibly decide after this that being a Good Samaritan isn’t the wisest career move but Phil – always one to attempt to put a helpful spin on matters – suggests that maybe they didn’t respond because they were family. He’s clearly only saying this to make her feel better, but she takes it to heart and it sets up the premise for the remaining episodes – Shirley will venture out into the world, meeting total strangers and attempting to fix their lives. But given her lack of success so far (and the fact that her own life is far from perfect) what are her chances of success?
In The Suicide, Shirley prevents a young man, Vincent Gibney (John Lynch), from committing suicide. She wants to prove to Vincent that there’s still good in the world (something he doubts) and to this end she gives him her phone number, telling him that he can call on her anytime. The inevitable happens of course, Vincent arrives and makes himself at home (much to Phil’s growing exasperation). Once again there’s a sharp disconnect between Shirley’s hopes and the reality of the situation. Lynch is entertaining as Vincent, but once again it’s Blethyn who receives all the best lines. Here, she’s finally reached the end of her tether. “My God, I can see now why everyone else gave up on you! You’ve got to be the blindest, most self-regarding, insensitive wimp anyone’s ever dragged back from the edge of the parapet.”
It might be expected that Vincent would vanish after this episode, to be replaced by a new poor soul for Shirley to look after next time. But that’s not the case as he’s present for the remainder of the series, as is Karen (Liza Hayden), who features in the next episode, Reading Lessons. This interconnectivity is a definite strength as it allows the narrative to become denser as the episodes tick by. Karen’s another lost sheep who Shirley scoops up, but once again her good intentions seem to bring nothing but discord and discontent.
If Warren Clarke has been a little overshadowed so far, then that’s redressed somewhat in The Flat. Phil’s irritation that, thanks to Vincent and Karen, he can no longer call his house his own finally bubbles over. Clarke and Blethyn excel towards the end as they both consider the state of their marriage. Earlier, Jemma Redgrave and Ken Stott impress again as Elaine and Lawrence’s marriage continues to buckle under the strain.
In The Trip North, Shirley heads off for a bonding weekend with one of her sons (which, unsurprisingly has some rocky moments) leaving Phil at home holding the baby, literally. I love the scene where Phil’s shaving, crooning Teddy Bear whilst holding baby Hetty at the same time. The baby clearly finds this fascinating! This leads onto a more dramatic scene where baby Hett’s facial expressions ensure that she remains the centre of attention. Never work with children or animals ….
The series concluded with Marriage Guidance. Whilst Shirley has expended all her energies into helping others, her own life has fractured (a bitter, if obvious, irony – something which is also spelled out visually in the opening credits). Phil’s relationship with Doll (Deborah Findlay) offers him peace and security – two things which are now in short supply at home. Doll and Phil are work colleagues and their affair has slowly developed over the course of the series as Shirley’s drive to help others has also increased. Finally he elects to tell Shirley that he’s leaving her, but when it comes to the crunch will he have the guts to come right out and say it?
It’s a disquieting and bleak conclusion, which leaves the viewer free to decide what happened next. There was certainly scope for a second series to pick up where this one left off, but despite the excellent cast and generally strong writing, this was the end of the line for All Good Things.
Headed by Blethyn and Clarke, this is a series that certainly doesn’t lack on the acting front. The layered developing narrative is another plus and although it’s not always an easy watch, it is a rewarding one. With the emphasis more on drama than comedy, All Good Things is an interesting archive curio which I’m glad Simply have brought blinking out into the light.
All Good Things is released by Simply Media on the 28th of November 2016.