The 3rd of September 1939 may be a momentous day in the history of the British nation (with Neville Chamberlain shortly due to announce that the country is now at war with Germany) but not everybody has Hitler on their minds. For example, in a terraced house in Newcastle, young Joyce (Pippa Hinchley) is debating whether to marry Eric (Stephen Tompkinson), who is shortly due to depart with his army colleagues to France. As for the rest of Joyce’s dysfunctional family, they all have concerns of their own ….
And A Nightingale Sang was adapted by Jack Rosenthal from C.P. Taylor’s 1978 play. Rosenthal (1931 – 2004) was one of British television’s greatest dramatists, equally adept at adapting other people’s material as he was at crafting his own. He also slipped easily between genres – penning over a hundred episodes of Coronation Street during the 1960’s whilst also working on sitcoms and original one-off plays.
In many respects, the 1989 production of And A Nightingale Sang was a perfect fit for him – since it deftly mixed humour with drama in a way that was highly characteristic of his own output. It’s very much a home-front drama (we may see soldiers, but only when they return home on leave). But despite this, the war-time feel is very strong, partly due to the soundtrack.
Many of the familiar songs are delivered by John Woodvine’s character, George, on the piano. George and his wife, known only as Mam (Joan Plowright), head an incredibly impressive core cast. Woodvine has long been a favourite actor of mine, and George is a plumb of a part – there’s plenty of scope for humour (when at home George spends all his time in the front room, banging out tunes on the piano whilst the rest of the household ignores him) but he’s also afforded moments of drama and pathos. George, who works at the shipyards, later breaks down in tears after he confesses to a workmate that he’s spent hours cleaning a ship which has recently arrived back from Dunkirk.
When his friend tells him that the bowels of the ship smell like a compost heap, George replies that it’s “human bloody compost. Stuck to the bulkheads like shit to a blanket. I’ve been trying to wash them off, scrape them off. Somebody’s lads, somebody’s flesh and blood”.
For Woodvine, born in South Shields, And A Nightingale Sang provided him with an opportunity to use his natural accent. Some of the others, such as Joan Plowright, might not have been as local, but everybody manages credible accents. Plowright, as the religious matriarch of the family, doesn’t get quite as much to do as Woodvine, but she makes every scene count. The moment when she reacts in horror to the foibles of her family (such as George’s decision to become a communist) is very nicely done.
This was an early screen credit for Stephen Tompkinson, who had previously made several brief sitcom appearances in series such as After Henry, The Return of Shelley and Never The Twain. It’s a substantial role, calling on him to experience a roller-coaster of emotions, but he handles it well. Eric’s main problem is Joyce, who initially can’t decide whether she wants to marry him or not. The cons (“he smells of bacon”) seem somewhat trivial, but the physical side of their potential union also seems to be troubling her.
But eventually she puts her worries behind her and they wed. After all, with him shortly to leave for France it’s not as if they actually have to live together. It’s only when he returns home on leave that the cracks really begin to show. “When are you going back?” is one of her first questions (she’s also unimpressed with the French knickers he’s bought her). Mind you, she quickly shrugs off her sexual anxieties – the only problem is that she seems to be spreading her favours very widely, with just about every American serviceman she can get her hands on ….
Pippa Hinchley and Stephen Tompkinson share some wonderful scenes together, as do Phyllis Logan (Helen) and Tom Watt (Norman). Helen, Joyce’s elder sister, is the sensible one of the family, seemingly destined for a life where her own wishes and desires are secondary to the demands of others. But when she meets Norman, one of Eric’s army buddies, everything changes. In contrast to the bickering between Eric and Joyce, Norman and Helen instantly bond. But, as you’d expect, things don’t turn out to be straightforward. Watt, who’d recently left his signature role (as Lofty in EastEnders) and Logan are possibly at the dramatic heart of the play. Like the rest of the main cast, they offer first-rate performances.
Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and directed by Robert Knights, And a Nightingale Sang is a glossy production with a filmic sweep. The Newcastle locations (cobbled streets, shipyards) help enormously with this, plus it’s an ironic bonus that certain areas of the North West in the late 1980’s were so run-down and desolate that they could easily stand in for the parts of the city devastated by German bombs.
Also included on the disc are three wartime public information films – They Keep The Wheels Turning (8″15′), Britannia is a Woman (9″17′) and The New Britain (10″16′). These are fascinating extras which help to place the main feature into its correct historical context. Britannia is a Woman as you might expect, looks at the role played by women during the conflict (which is obliquely touched upon during the play – both Joyce and Helen work at a munitions factory) whilst The New Britain considers the future of the country and They Keep The Wheels Turning looks at how everybody has their part to play in ensuring that the wartime effort is maintained.
A sharply observed human drama, And a Nightingale Sang is a treat, featuring an excellent cast who never put a foot wrong. It’s available from the 6th of November 2017, RRP £12.99, and can be ordered directly from Simply here.