Written for BBC radio in 1968 and performed on stage a year later, Landscape is a one-act play with decidedly Beckett-like overtones. A couple – Duff (Colin Blakely) and Beth (Dorothy Tutin) – sit at opposite ends of a long table, each indulging in lengthy monologues (they are either unable or unwilling to register the other’s conversation).
Duff does at least acknowledge that Beth is there, whereas she seems totally unaware of his presence. There is no plot as such, Beth recounts a story about a previous romantic interlude (possibly with Duff, possibly with somebody else) whilst Duff concerns himself with more practical matters.
The Lord Chamberlain’s office, back in 1967, found itself unimpressed with Landscape. “The nearer to Beckett, the more portentous Pinter gets. This is a long one-act play without any plot or development … a lot of useless information about the treatment of beer … And of course, there have to be the ornamental indecencies”.
The passage of time is illustrated by the diminishing light. At the start it’s a fairly bright day, but by the end of the play the pair are in virtual darkness. This lack of light generates a feeling of oppression and enclosure (director Kenneth Ives reinforces the mood at this point by focussing on close-ups of either Tutin or Blakely rather than cutting away to wide shots of the pair).
Dorothy Tutin remains wonderfully dialled-down and reflective throughout whilst Colin Blakely is given the chance for some expressive fireworks in the last few minutes. The way that Beth never for a moment acknowledges Duff’s histrionics (she simply continues with her tender tale) is a compelling moment.
Regularly punctuated by John Williams’ guitar interludes (the music was composed by Carl Davis) Landscape exercises a subtle, but strong, grip.
Written in 1958, between The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, The Hothouse was then put aside by Pinter for more than twenty years. It wasn’t until 1979 that he picked it up again – it was staged in 1980 at the Hampstead Theatre and transferred to television two years later.
The most striking thing about the play at first glance is just how funny it is. Pinter’s other works aren’t always devoid of humour, but for long stretches The Hothouse plays like a farce (albeit one with a very dark heart).
The setting – a nameless Government run rest home which (it’s strongly implied) uses any means necessary to “cure” those unfortunates who’ve found themselves within its walls – is a sombre one. The dehumanising nature of the place is reinforced when it’s revealed that the patients are never referred to by their names – only numbers.
The momentary spasm of disquiet this generates is then negated when Roote (Derek Newark) launches into a lengthy argument with his second-in command, Gibbs (James Grant), about whether 6457 is alive or dead. This is an early example of Roote’s inability to grasp the simplest of arguments and as Derek Newark attacks the lines with gusto there’s little you can do but sit back and enjoy the ride.
Featuring seven speaking parts (five major, two minor) it’s the character of Roote who dominates throughout. Newark was always one of those actors who could be guaranteed to add a certain something to any production, but I can’t recall a better performance from him than this one. Raising the roof on more than one occasion, Newark delivers a sparkling comic turn. Roote presents himself as an expert of virtually any topic, but the reality appears to always contradict this (mind you, it’s possible that he’s more perceptive than his outwardly blimpish persona might suggest).
Although the plot is a good deal more straightforward than many of Pinter’s other plays, there are still points which are open to interpretation. Roote is shocked to learn that 6459 has given birth (and also that the majority of the staff had – at one time or another – taken advantage of her) but there’s strong evidence to suggest that he’s actually the father. And we never learn exactly who organised the revolution which – offscreen – slaughtered all but one of the senior staff towards the end of the play.
As a character, Roote will only work if he has equally strong personalities to bounce off. James Grant deadpans throughout as Gibbs, his passive and methodical nature contrasting nicely with Roote’s hysterical outbursts. Robert East (Lush) is a totally different character type from Gibbs (Lush is outspoken and arrogant) but again he’s another who interacts delightfully with Roote. In possibly the play’s funniest scene, an incensed Roote throws several glasses of whisky into Lush’s face before Lush decides it might be more sensible to hide the glass until he’s delivered his latest contentious comment.
Given the era it was written in, it’s possibly not surprising that The Hothouse only features one female character, Miss Cutts (Angela Pleasence) and also that she somewhat skirts the environs of the piece. The lover of both Roote and Gibbs, she may be somewhat indistinctly defined but Pleasence is able to bring her into sharp focus.
Roger Davidson as the hapless Lamb, also has limited screentime but leaves a lingering impression. The least experienced of the senior staff, Lush finds himself wired up with electrodes and tortured by Gibbs and Miss Cutts (Gibbs is looking for someone to take the blame for 6459’s pregnancy and the ingenious Lamb fits the bill nicely).
His name seems apt, since he really is a lamb to the slaughter (before, during and after his ordeal he doesn’t really seem to understand what’s happening). His blithe co-operation, even when being tortured, is played for laughs, but is undercut by the pain he suffers when the electricity is turned on. With the patients remaining off-screen throughout, this scene gives us an inkling about what could be occurring throughout the building.
Deftly juggling light and dark themes, The Hothouse doesn’t feel like a relic of more than sixty years ago. Indeed, maybe it’s even more relevant today than it was back then.
This is an incredibly welcome release, as it brings together a very healthy chunk of Harold Pinter’s BBC output (none of which has been commercially available before). Indeed, Pinter’s television work on DVD has, until now, been rather sparse (a few isolated offerings from Network – the Armchair Theatre production of A Night Out and the Laurence Olivier Presents staging of The Collection – have been the highlights so far).
Tea Party (25th May 1966). 76 minutes
Tea Party was commissioned for a prestigious Eurovision project, entitled The Largest Theatre In The World, which saw the play performed in thirteen separate counties over the course of a single week (some took a subtitled version of the BBC original whilst others staged their own adaptation).
It’s a layered and uncompromising piece, with Leo McKern mesmerising as a self-made businessman who begins to lose his sense of reason (and also his sight). Has he been destabilised by inviting his brother-in-law Willy (Charles Gray) into his business or has his infatuation with his new secretary, Wendy (Vivien Merchant), pushed him over the edge? Do his two young sons from his first marriage really harbour evil intentions towards him or does his new wife, Diana (Jennifer Wright), possesses secrets of her own?
So there are plenty of questions, but as so often with Pinter the answers are less forthcoming. The final scene is extraordinary. Disson (McKern) – his eyes firmly bandaged – sits immobile in the middle of a party held in his honour. Although Disson plainly can’t see, we’re privy to his thoughts (he imagines a three way intimate exchange between his wife, brother-in-law and secretary) as he slowly regresses into a catatonic state.
All of the principals offer polished performances, with Merchant – Pinter’s first wife – especially eye-catching. Given the subject matter and the already rocky relationship she was enjoying with Pinter, it’s fascinating to ponder just what she made of the material. Tea Party is fluidly directed by Charles Jarrott and given that the cameras of this era were bulky and not terribly manoeuvrable, some of his shot choices are quite notable.
It’s a shame that the telerecording isn’t of the highest quality (a new 2K transfer was struck for this release, but given the issues with the original recording the benefit of this was probably minimal). A pity, but at least the worst of the print damage occurs early on.
The Basement (20th February 1967). 54 minutes
Harold Pinter contributed three plays to the Theatre 625 strand in 1967. For some reason the third of these plays appears on the first disc whilst the first two are featured on the second. That’s slightly odd, but since all three aren’t linked in any way it doesn’t matter which order they’re watched in.
We’re in absolutely classic Pinter territory here as Law (Derek Godfrey) discovers his cosy basement flat has been invaded by an old friend, Stott (Pinter) and Stott’s young and mainly silent girlfriend Jane (Kika Markham). Initially pleased to see Stott, Law is less enthused – at first – about Jane ….
The arrival of an outsider into a settled domestic setting is a dramatic device that Pinter would use time and again, but The Basement – the only one of his three Theatre 625 plays to be an original work – is notable since it plays with the artifice and techniques of television.
Even more so than Tea Party, the line between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred as the play continues. Some scenes (such as when Law and Stott, both stripped to the waist, fight each other with broken bottles) seem obviously fantastical, but what of the others? Time certainly seems to move in a disjointed fashion (one moment it’s winter, the next summer) whilst the final scene posits the possibility that everything we’ve seen has been a fantasy.
Pinter is menacing and monosyllabic as Stott but not as monosyllabic as Markham’s Jane, who is passive throughout whilst Godfrey has most of the dialogue and seems to be the most decipherable character of the three. A tight three-hander, The Basement has aged well.
Writers in Conversation – Harold Pinter. A 1984 interview with Pinter, running for 47 minutes.
A Slight Ache (6th February 1967). 58 minutes
Another three-handed play which also pivots on the arrival of an disruptive outsider, A Slight Ache boasts remarkable turns from both Maurice Denham and Hazel Hughes. Husband and wife – Edward and Flora – they seem reasonably content in their country cottage, but when they invite a nameless and mute matchseller (Gordon Richardson) into their home everything changes.
Denham’s fussy, pernickety Edward is slowly destroyed by the matchseller’s ominous silence whilst Flora finds that her long-dormant sexuality has been reignited by his presence. Some contemporary reviewers found this a little hard to swallow, but realism isn’t the chief component of this play. The matchseller simply serves as a catalyst for Edward and Flora to indulge in several powerful monologues.
Despite its radio origins, A Slight Ache has a much more of a theatrical feel than The Basement. Barry Newbery’s sets (especially the lush garden) are a highlight of the production.
A Night Out (13th February 1967). 60 minutes
It’s interesting to be able to compare and contrast this production of A Night Out to the 1960 Armchair Theatre presentation. Honours are pretty much even, with Tony Selby here proving to be equally effective as the repressed mummy’s boy as Tom Bell was back in 1960.
Anna Wing, as the mother in question, makes for an imposing harridan – although wisely she doesn’t overplay her domineering nature. Albert (Selby) is all she has left, but she ensures that her psychological games comprise honeyed words and pitiful entreaties rather than abuse.
Albert’s humiliation at an office party eventually leads him to a prostitute (Avril Elgar). That she, in her own way, is just as controlling as his own mother unleashes his ugly side. All the pent-up emotions he can’t express at home are unloaded on this poor unfortunate.
Well-cast throughout (John Castle and Peter Pratt catch the eye) A Night Out is the most straightforward of the three Pinter Theatre 625 productions, but is no less fascinating.
Monologue (13th April 1973). 20 minutes
We’re now in colour for the fifth play in the Pinter set. At just twenty minutes it’s one of the shortest and only features a single actor – Henry Woolf, but it still packs plenty of content into its brief running time though. An unnamed man (Woolf) addresses an empty chair, which is standing in for his absent friend. Or does he believe that his friend is actually sitting there? Or is his friend simply a figment of his imagination?
As so often, several readings can be made, each one equally valid. The story which unfolds – male friendship disrupted by the arrival of a female – echoes back to the likes of The Basement and is skilfully delivered by Woolf. One of Pinter’s oldest friends (the pair enjoyed a relationship for more than fifty years) Woolf doesn’t really put a foot wrong (he later reprised this piece at the National in 2002).
This might be a Pinter in miniature, but is certainly deserving of attention. Something of a neglected piece (there’s no listing on IMDB for example) hopefully this DVD release will shine a little more light on it.
Old Times (22nd October 1975). 75 minutes
Old Times has a very theatrical feel. This form of television staging would eventually fall out of fashion – for some it was simply electronic theatre (a bad thing apparently). But it’s always been a style that I’ve enjoyed – when there’s no location filming or clever camera angles, the piece has to stand or fall on the quality of the writing and acting.
It’s another triangle story – married couple Deeley (Barry Foster) and Kate (Anna Cropper) find their status quo disturbed by the arrival of Kate’s old schoolfriend Anna (Mary Miller). With Kate remaining passive for most of the play she becomes an object that both Deeley and Anna seek to claim as their own.
Several theories have been propounded to explain the meaning of the play. When Anthony Hopkins tackled the role of Deeley in 1984 he asked Pinter for some pointers. The playwright’s advice? “I don’t know, just do it”.
Anna’s presence at the start of the play (standing at the back of the living room in darkness and immobile) is a early indictor that the production isn’t striving for realism. She shouldn’t be there – the dialogue between Deeley and Kate makes it clear she’s yet to arrive – so her presence ensures that a tone of oddness and disconnection is set. Foster and Cropper duel very effectively (a lengthy scene where Deeley and Anna discuss the best ways to dry a dripping wet Kate is just one highlight).
Puzzling in places (has everything we’ve witnessed simply been Deeley’s imaginings?) Old Timesis nevertheless so densely scripted as to make it a rewarding one to rewatch.
Landscape (4th February 1983). 45 minutes
Landscape is a two-hander shared between husband and wife Duff (Colin Blakely) and Beth (Dorothy Tutin). Both indulge in separate monologues which never connect to the other person’s conversation. Beth in fact never acknowledges Duff’s presence, although he does appear to know that she’s there (or at least that someone is).
The Lord Chamberlain’s office, back in 1967, found itself unimpressed with Landscape. “The nearer to Beckett, the more portentous Pinter gets. This is a long one-act play without any plot or development … a lot of useless information about the treatment of beer … And of course, there have to be the ornamental indecencies”.
A little harsh maybe. Landscape is plotless but leaves a lingering impression. The music, composed by Carl Davis and played by John Williams, helps with this.
Pinter’s People – four animated short films (each around five minutes) from 1969. A pity that a fifth – Last To Go – couldn’t be included for rights reasons, but the ones we do have are interesting little curios (Richard Briers, Kathleen Harrison, Vivien Merchant and Dandy Nichols provide the voices, so there’s no shortage of talent there).
The Hothouse (27th March 1982). 112 minutes.
Watching these plays in sequence, what’s especially striking about The Hothouse is just how funny it is. There have been moments of levity in some of the previous plays, but the farcical tone seen here is something quite different. Originally written in the late fifties and then shelved for twenty years, The Hothouse is set in a government rest home which, it’s strongly implied, uses any methods necessary to “cure” its unfortunate patients (who we can take to be political dissidents).
Although a dark undertone is always present (indeed, the play concludes with the offscreen deaths of all but one of the senior staff) there’s also a playful use of dialogue and even the odd slapstick moment. Derek Newark as Roote, the hopelessly out of his depth manager, steamrollers his way through scene after scene quite wonderfully. A man constantly losing a running battle to keep his anger in check, Roote seems incapable of understanding even the simplest of thing. Although he might not be quite as dense as he appears (and his culpability in the death of one patient and the pregnancy of another is also open to interpretation).
With a strong supporting cast, The Hothouse was certainly the most surprising of the main features.
Mountain Language (11th December 1988). 21 minutes.
A one-act play which was first performed at the National Theatre in late 1988, it swiftly transferred to television just a few months later with Michael Gambon and Miranda Richardson reprising their stage roles. One of Pinter’s more political pieces, Gambon and Richardson (along with Julian Wadham and Eileen Atkins) all offer nuanced performances.
Gambdon and Wadham are soldiers, facing down a group of prisoners who include Richardson and Atkins. Language, so often key in Pinter’s works, is once again pushed to the forefront.
“Your language is forbidden. It is dead. No one is allowed to speak your language. Your language no longer exists. Any questions?”
Mountain Language is another prime example of the way Pinter could make an impact in a very short space of time.
The Birthday Party (21st June 1987). 107 minutes.
Written in 1957, when Pinter was touring in a production of Doctor In The House, The Birthday Party was Pinter’s first full length play. Revived thirty years later for this Theatre Night production, it’s plain that time hadn’t diminished its impact.
Kenneth Cranham is mesmerising as Stanley, a man haunted by vague ghosts from his past. Treated with stifling maternal love by his landlady Meg (Joan Plowright), the arrival of two mysterious strangers – Goldberg (Pinter) and McCann (Colin Blakely) – marks the beginning of a nightmarish twenty four hours. Also featuring Julie Walters and Robert Lang, The Birthday Party baffled many critics back in the late fifties – the reason why Goldberg and McCann have decided to target Stanley and the others is just one puzzle – but in retrospect it’s fascinating to see how key Pinter themes, such as the reliability of memory, were already firmly in place.
Face To Face: Harold Pinter. Sir Jeremy Isaacs is the out of vision interviewer since – as per the style of all the programmes in this series – the camera remains firmly fixed on Pinter throughout. Some decent ground is covered across the forty minutes of this 1997 interview.
Harold Pinter: Guardian Interview. Audio only, 73 minutes. This is selectable as an additional audio track on The Birthday Party, even though it doesn’t directly refer to that play (or run for its whole length).
It might only be January, but this looks set to be one of the archive television releases of the year. Highly recommended.
Pinter at the BBC is released by the BFI on the 28th of January 2019.
The final episode of The Reign of Terror is somewhat disconnected from the rest of the serial. There’s a couple of possibilities to consider – either Dennis Spooner ran out of plot and had to bolt this epilogue on or maybe it was felt that after five episodes of capture/escape/capture there should be an ending that looked ahead to France’s future.
Lemaitre reveals that he’s the English spy, James Stirling. Or at least he says he is – it’s rather remarkable that everybody takes this statement at face value without asking for any sort of proof. After the moral complexities of the previous episode it’s a little unimpressive – what better way could there be for an agent of the Revolution to infiltrate the rebels than by claiming he’s one of them? But thankfully Stirling is who he claims to be and quickly ropes Ian and Barbara into assisting him with a dangerous mission.
This is another strange development – out of all the people that he could have been chosen, why pick Ian and Barbara? But these scenes – the pair go undercover at a tavern to spy on a meeting between Paul Barrass and Napoleon Bonaparte – do help to give the story a wider scope (even if they’re historically very dubious). Still, we get to see Barbara as a serving wench, so it’s not all bad.
Robespierre’s final appearance is brief. He’s shot in the jaw (off-screen) and later finds himself incarcerated at the Conciergerie, where the jailer gleefully receives him. The turncoat nature of the jailer – he’s now happy to share in the derision heaped on Robespierre, whereas an hour earlier he had been his most loyal servant – stands in sharp contrast to the unswerving viewpoints held by the likes of Jules and Leon.
Even if this episode closes the story with something of a whimper rather than a bang, the final scene, set in the TARDIS, is interesting as it offers another restatement of the belief that Earth’s history is unalterable.
IAN: Supposing we had written Napoleon a letter, telling him, you know, some of the things that were going to happen to him.
SUSAN: It wouldn’t have made any difference, Ian. He’d have forgotten it, or lost it, or thought it was written by a maniac.
BARBARA: I suppose if we’d tried to kill him with a gun, the bullet would have missed him.
DOCTOR: Well, it’s hardly fair to speculate, is it? No, I’m afraid you belittle things. Our lives are important, at least to us. But as we see, so we learn.
It’s easy to believe that this scene was the handiwork of David Whitaker, as Dennis Spooner would soon gleefully prove that history could very easily be changed. In retrospect it’s clear to see why this was untenable – the concept that history (or at least, Earth history) was fixed whilst the future (or at least, the future as seen from a 1960’s Earth perspective) could be altered at will was a rather bizarre one.
In 1990 I acquired pirate copies of the four existing episodes of The Reign of Terror on VHS and happily watched them for many years. Back then I didn’t have a great deal of interest in the audios of the missing episodes. This was understandable in one way as I was keener to track down copies of all the episodes that did still exist (meaning that the audios were a much lower priority).
It wasn’t until the remastered soundtracks started to appear on CD that I began to plug the gaps (later on these missing episodes would be enhanced by various recons – both official and unofficial). With some stories, like The Invasion, I never felt that I’d missed too much by not having audios of the missing episodes back in the 1990’s, but it wasn’t until I had the chance to listen to the audios of episodes four and five of The Reign of Terror that I finally realised what I’d been missing all those years.
These two episodes contain the dramatic heart of the story. The first three episodes contain a great deal of interest, but in many ways they’re simply designed to get us to this point (episode six is a coda which has very little connection to the rest of the story).
The Doctor’s meeting with Robespierre (Keith Anderson) is a fascinating one. Robespierre isn’t presented as a cackling villain, but rather as a weary administrator who – whilst authorising carnage on a grand scale – is convinced that he’s doing it for the greater good. This is a much more interesting portrait than had he simply been shown as a stock, “evil”, character. Beware the man who knows he’s right.
ROBESPIERRE: I could, and I shall, do great things for France. For too long the Nobility have kept our people to heel. And now finally, my world is at power, what happens? My colleagues, my trusted friends, plot for power.
THE DOCTOR: Do they? Or is it just their wish to keep their heads, hmm?
ROBESPIERRE: Danton planned to restore the monarchy. I had the proof, I knew! I had to dispose of him. And the Girondins. Even now, convention members are at work, plotting my downfall. But I will triumph, even if I have to execute every last one of them! Death, always death. Do you think I want this carnage? Three hundred and forty two executions in nine days in Paris alone. What a memory I shall leave behind if this thing lasts.
Elsewhere, the spark that seems to exist between Barbara and Leon deepens a little (this pays off in spectacular fashion next time) and Ian finds himself reunited with Barbara and Susan, although in the capture/escape/capture nature of this serial it’s not for long as the girls once again find themselves back in the prison (and once again under the unforgiving eye of the jailer). Ian continues his hunt for the English spy called James Webster whilst Lemaitre has definite proof that the Doctor is an impostor. But still he doesn’t act on this information.
There’s at least three different ways to enjoy episodes four and five – the audios, the DVD animations or the Loose Cannon recons. I tend to favour the Loose Cannon recons, as the animations are rather too hyperactive for my tastes. It seems that the animation company, Planet 55, learnt a great deal from this commission as their later efforts (The Tenth Planet and The Moonbase) were much, much better.
The year is 1940. Having previously worked at a wireless listening station dealing with coded Enigma transmissions, Cathy Raine (Harriet Walter) arrives at Bletchley Park – the home of the Enigma machine and the nerve centre of Britain’s code-breaking efforts.
Disappointingly, she finds her duties are very mundane – making coffee and cleaning – but there are compensations. She becomes friendly with a Cambridge mathematics don called John Turner (Nicholas Le Prevost) and the pair go to bed. But their love-making ends badly with Turner blaming Cathy for the debacle. Shortly afterwards, Cathy is discovered in Turner’s room reading top secret documents and this act leads to her imprisonment ….
Originally broadcast on the 24th of April 1980, there’s a very modern feel to this Play for Today. Cathy is determined to break free from her stifling home life and domineering father (Bernard Gallagher). Most girls have “done their bit” by going to work in the local munitions factory, but Cathy has set her sights a little higher and so joins the ATS.
During her initial training she befriends Mary (Brenda Blethyn – making her television debut) and the pair become close. That they and the other ATS girls are encroaching into male territory is demonstrated after the pair dare to pop down to the local pub by themselves for a drink. This invasion of a male dominated province doesn’t go down well and the landlord’s attempt to move them on ends in an ugly scuffle. Following a severe reprimand she’s moved to Bletchley Park – an ignominious reason for her transfer.
If Cathy was – apart from Mary – isolated before, then this feeling only increases when she takes up her duties at Bletchley. So it’s possibly not surprising that she responds so eagerly to the handful of kind words flung her way by Turner. Based loosely on Alan Turning, Turner is unable to perform when the pair go to bed and he quickly decides that she’s the guilty party. “You wanted to humiliate me and you’ve succeeded. You hated your own job and you’re jealous of me for mine”.
Ian McEwan had originally wanted to write a play about Alan Turing and the Enigma machine but found information on both was rather scarce, so instead he turned his attention to life at Bletchley Park. Despite the fact that women formed around 75% of the workforce, he learnt that they were very underrepresented in key positions (although research undertaken during the last few decades has somewhat revised this viewpoint).
Cathy’s downfall begins at the listening station after she becomes frustrated that she doesn’t understand why the coded messages she’s working on are important. “All of the women know nothing, some of the men know everything”. Although it’s easy in one way to understand her point of view, does she “need to know” in order to do her job? She doesn’t, but it’s her desire to see the bigger picture which eventually leads her to Turner’s Enigma notes.
The Imitation Game was only Harriet Walter’s second television credit, but she belied this lack of screen experience with a beautifully judged performance (Cathy’s closing monologue is a particular highlight). A fair few familiar faces make appearances, some more fleeting than others. Patricia Routledge is perfectly cast as a hearty ATS officer whilst Geoffrey Chater, always at home when tackling authority figures, plays to type as the interrogating Colonel.
Bernard Gallagher is terrifically unbending as a martinet father who clearly wouldn’t be averse to a German invasion (at one point Cathy ironically suggests he should put on his black shirt). Simon Chandler is also very good value as the supremely irritating Tony, Cathy’s long-term boyfriend, who’s more than a little put out to learn that she’s decided to join the army (regarding the ATS as something of a den of iniquity).
Running for 92 minutes, The Imitation Game was one of a number of interesting Play For Today‘s directed by Richard Eyre during the late seventies and early eighties (hopefully over time they might all make it onto DVD). Thanks to Harriet Walter’s vulnerable but steely performance as Cathy (along with the strong supporting cast) this is an absorbing play.
The Imitation Game is released by Simply Media on the 1st of October 2018, RRP £9.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.
Mrs Kay (Jean Haywood) runs a remedial class for illiterate children. Along with the long-suffering Mr Briggs (Alun Armstrong) and two younger teachers – Susan (Elizabeth Estensen) and Colin (Lennox Greaves) – she escorts her unruly mob on a day trip from Liverpool to Conwy Castle in North Wales. For Mr Briggs, it’s a day of considerable stress ….
Drawing on his own experiences of school trips (both as a teacher and a child) Our Day Out is a typically perceptive slice of drama from Willy Russell. Originally broadcast in December 1977 as part of the Play of the Week strand, it obviously struck an immediate chord with the audience as it was swiftly repeated just a few months later (this time as a Play For Today).
Although he wrote the play in just four days, it was a subject he’d been mulling over for some considerable time. Later turned into a musical, the original BBC play is one which Russell still regards with fondness today. “The performances are exquisite. Shot on 16mm in just three weeks by a first time director working with a largely untrained cast it just seemed to be one of those charmed ventures in which everything just fell into place”.
Mrs Kay and Mr Briggs are two very different types of teacher – she’s the free and easy type whilst he’s stern and controlling. Which method works best? Mr Briggs maintains that you need discipline in order to make any headway in teaching these types of children but Mrs Kay – in a late set-piece monologue – is totally dismissive of this attitude. Society at large, she maintains, doesn’t want them schooled – after all, if they were then where would the next generation of factory fodder come from?
This is the most overtly political point in a play where the thorny topic of inner-city deprivation is never far from the surface. The difference between the streets of Liverpool (shown here in all their grimy 1970’s glory) and the countryside of Wales is marked, especially since it’s made plain than most of the children have never gone further than Birkenhead before. There’s a yearning melancholy on display from some of them which is heartbreaking – they want a better life, but there’s a sense that the system just won’t allow it.
The gulf in acting experience between the adult cast and the children is one of the most intriguing things about Our Day Out. None of the children had acted before (and most wouldn’t again) which gives their performances a very natural and unaffected air. To balance this, you have experienced actors such as Jean Haywood and Alun Armstrong in the central roles as well as decent cameos from the likes of George Malpas, Robert Gillespie and Peter Tilbury.
En route to the castle, they stop off twice – first at a motorway cafe and then at a zoo. It does beggar belief that both times Mr Briggs would let them roam unsupervised – with the result that they pilfer all the sweets from the cafe and later attempt to steal half the zoo! This latter moment is high on comic value but low on credibility. However it allows Armstrong (who is excellent throughout) a moment of high intensity as he roundly berates the children.
As you might expect, he eventually begins to relent and it’s his clifftop encounter with young Carol (Julie Jones) which is key. Jones tackles the substantial role of Carol with such gusto that it’s a real shame she didn’t continue acting. Desperate to stay in Wales rather than return to her miserable existence in Liverpool, there follows a tense scene where Mr Briggs attempts to talk her back from the cliff edge. This he does and the emotional connection he makes with her helps him to finally unbend.
A late visit to the funfair – his idea – ends the day on a happier note, but as the coach returns to Liverpool it’s easy to see Mr Briggs’ relaxed spirit slowly dissipating. Will he modify his approach in future or simply revert to his stern ways once they’re back at school? This is left unresolved, but there’s one key moment which suggests that the latter course is the most likely.
Deftly juggling comedy with more serious themes, Our Day Out is a gem of a play which at 67 minutes doesn’t outstay its welcome. Alun Armstrong is outstanding, but none of the cast disappoint and it’s the sort of play which should have considerable replay value.
Our Day Out is released by Simply Media on the 1st of October 2018, RRP £9.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).