Armchair Theatre – Office Party (17th August 1971)

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Fay Weldon’s Office Party might not be the sharpest ever AT, but it’s still of interest – partly since it’s a good example of the studio-bound ITV play (something which would gradually disappear from the schedules) but also because Weldon’s script offers up plenty of food for thought regarding gender politics (even if the problems she creates are resolved rather neatly by the end).

The setting is a bank, after hours, where the staff have convened to wish their manager (played by George A. Cooper) a fond-ish farewell.  Cooper plays to type as a plain-speaking man who is well aware that he’s not particularly loved (or even well liked) but still condones the party. Perhaps he likes receiving presents.

Also slotting into a familiar role is Peter Barkworth as his number two, Dickie. Barkworth seemed to spend most of his career playing buttoned-down types who had a distinct code of old fashioned honour.  At first, Dickie seems to regard his secretary, Julia (Angharad Rees), with nothing but contempt, but by the end of the play he’s mellowed considerably.

Rees exudes an undeniable sexiness – especially when she arrives at the party wearing a somewhat revealing dress. This inflames the passions of some of her colleagues (Giles Block and Peter Denyer both give good turns in this respect).  Roy (Block) seems somewhat put out when he tells Julia that he’s placed her top of his list of most desirable office females (she fails to respond in the manner he expects).

If Rees is vulnerable at times then Ray Brooks is rather boorish as Dave (Julia’s boyfriend). He exhibits little loyalty towards her, even after learning that she’s pregnant, and seems much more interested in squiring another young lady round the party and telling Roy all about his liaisons with Julia in the stationery cupboard. Dave is an alpha male – friendship with his male buddies comes first, a relationship with his girlfriend is a distant second.

The clash between Julia and Dave midway through is clearly one of the play’s key points. At this stage it looks as if any sort of relationship between them will be impossible (marriage is certainly out of the question). There’s a happy ending though as the pair reconcile in the last minutes which means that everything seems to be settled. Although given that both have rather volatile natures, possibly we’re invited to not expect them to live happily ever after ….

Elsewhere, I did enjoy the confrontation between Barkworth and Cooper late on. Julia is, once again, the topic of conversation, with the outgoing manager insistent that she be sacked whilst Dickie shows a more compassionate side to his nature by standing by her.

That Dickie, when learning of Julia’s pregnancy, offers her a chair feels exactly like the sort of thing you’d expect a character played by Barkworth to do. Julia remains passive as the men debate her fate (at one point turning her bare back on them) but she does eventually speak up.

Office Party has some good comic moments, along with a first rate cast to play them, and overall it still stands up well. As I’ve said, it maybe doesn’t entirely satisfy, but there are far worse ways to spend fifty minutes.

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Robin of Sherwood – The Witch of Elsdon

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Thanks to Gisburne’s faked evidence, Jennet of Elsdon (Angharad Rees) is convicted of witchcraft.  She and her husband, Thomas (Cornellius Garrett), are due to be hanged in three days time.  But then the Sheriff offers both of them a pardon, provided Jennet uses her skills with herbs to incapacitate Robin and the rest of the Merry Men …..

The Witch of Elsdon opens with a double prophecy – two for the price of one, you might say.  Robin later correctly interprets the first part (the location of the Sheriff’s taxes) but sadly isn’t able to work out who might be poisoning their drink (although it’s probably obvious to most of the audience).  Bit of a waste of time Herne bothering to tip him the nod then.

The use of prophecies has to be done carefully – it’s a handy storytelling shortcut but it can also turn into a magic wand to explain away plotholes.  However it does work quite well here, as it gives Robin foreknowledge which isn’t shared by the others.  He knows that a cart will be passing somewhere through the forest, apparently carrying nothing but sacks of grain, whereas it’s actually brimming over with tax money.  Although the theme isn’t really developed there’s a faint air of tension amongst the Merries (especially Tuck) as they can’t understand why Robin seems to be heading off on a totally arbitrary course.  That he decides not to tell them he’s acting on something he learnt about in a dream could be significant.  Does he fear they wouldn’t believe him, or is he simply being aloof – as maybe a good leader should?

Their adventure with the tax man marks the start of tension between Robin and Marion.  Robin wants Marion to stay behind – he tells her she may get hurt  – which Marion doesn’t take at all well.  Later , there’s a nice scene where Judi Trott wordlessly views the drunken, belching Merries who are crowing about how they abused the unfortunate tax-collector, Gregory (David Goodland).  Marion doesn’t say anything – but then she doesn’t have to as her expression speaks volumes.  She loves Robin, but now seems to be wondering exactly what she’s let herself in for.

Nickolas Grace continues to be a source of great amusement and entertainment.  Sheriff Robert de Rainault is well served by this script, with the following moments being particularly memorable.

  1. His comment when he realises that Gisburne has invented charges of witchcraft against Jennett because she refused to sleep with him is priceless.  “I’m really most impressed.  If she tried to bewitch me, I’d be inclined to let her.”  Delivered with Grace’s trademark sneering insincerity of course.
  2. The hapless tax-collector Gregory finds himself kicked and punched around the castle floor before the Sheriff orders him to be taken to the rack.  Best to say that de Rainault’s not pleased with him then ….
  3. The Sheriff delights in taunting Jennett as he drafts her pardon, which is totally dependent on her delivering Robin to him.  And just to make a point, he throws a cupful of wine in her face.  The rotter!
  4. Robin and the Sheriff have their first sword fight.  Although fairly short it’s still energetically staged and this direct physical content does – as Robin concedes – signify that their feud has reached another level.  Now the Sheriff won’t rest until one of them is dead.

Angharad Rees, a familiar television face in the late seventies thanks to Poldark, is nicely vulnerable as Jennet.  That Jennet’s conflicted about what she has to do is obvious, but her husband’s fate is paramount.  It’s just a pity that she catches the eye of Will, who becomes instantly smitten with her.  Will, by far the most emotionally damaged of the Merries, doesn’t take her betrayal at all well – even if the others (especially Marion) find it easier to understand and forgive.  Cue several scenes of Ray Winstone looking especially downcast.

If the basic plot is quite straightforward, then it’s the character building moments (Robin and Marion, Robin and the Sheriff, etc) which make this a rewarding episode to rewatch.  The weather gods obviously smiled on the filming again, as the forest scenes are bathed in sunshine.  There’s plenty of fighting and Robert Addie gets dunked under the water numerous times.  So what’s not to like?