Pinter at the BBC – Tea Party (25th March 1966)

 

Disson (Leo McKern) seems to have a perfect life. A self-made millionaire, he has a beautiful new wife, Diana (Jennifer Wright), has welcomed his brother-in-law, Willy (Charles Gray), into the business and has engaged a bright and efficient new secretary, Wendy (Vivien Merchant). And yet ….

Broadcast in March 1965, Tea Party was a prestigious commission for Pinter. Part of a Eurovision project, entitled The Largest Theatre In The World, it saw the play performed in thirteen separate counties over the course of a single week (with each county either tackling their own translated version or broadcasting a subtitled copy of the UK transmission).

Disson is a ruthlessly efficient man, beginning the play by proudly informing Wendy about the various products his company produces. That they’re all bathroom related strikes a humorous tone (reinforcing this point, on the way to his office she passes several prominent displays of toilets and baths). As you might expect, this light tone simply softens us up for the darkness to follow.

Disson might react in shock to the revelation that Wendy was forced to leave her last job because her previous employer wouldn’t stop touching her, but the way that director Charles Jarrett has already begun to focus on Wendy as a sexual object (foregrounding her legs whilst relegating Disson to the background) provides us with a clear pointer about one of the play’s key themes.

Considering the period (this was a time when television cameras were bulky and difficult to handle) Jarrett’s direction has a surprising fluidity. Interesting shot compositions abound – from this first scene (with POV shots from Wendy’s perspective) to later in the play (several sweeping tracking shots catch the eye).

Pinter remarked on the way that Disson was a marked man right from his first appearance. This is very much the case, which means it doesn’t take long before he starts to unravel before our eyes. And as the play progresses there’s a definite blurring of reality – some of what we see is the truth, whilst the remainder is no more than Disson’s fevered imaginings. How to differentiate between the two? As so often with Pinter the individual viewer is left to draw their own conclusions.

 

This means that we’re left with some intriguing mysteries. Diana and Willy have a very close bond – is this simply a natural connection between brother and sister, the hint of something incestuous or are we being invited to consider the possibility that Willy is no relation at all? Also, Disson’s two children, Tom and John (Peter and Robert Barlett) possess an uncomfortable stillness at times. Again, the reason for this is opaque – a sign of malevolence or are they simply ordinary children viewed through a confusing prism by the increasingly befuddled Disson?

Pinter seemed quite confident that the audience wouldn’t have any problems following the play. Talking to the Daily Mirror (who dubbed him one of Britain’s most controversial playwrights) on the day of transmisson, he stated it was simply a story about the relationship between a man and his new secretary, albeit one “with a strong sex theme”. The same article offered up a few more nuggets of interest, chiefly that it took Pinter a month to write and that it was extensively edited by Jarrett (understandable, given the scope of the production).

Performances, as you’d expect, are very strong. McKern – always a favourite actor of mine – doesn’t disappoint as Disson. His final collapse (by the end of the play he’s reduced to a catatonic state) is deeply disturbing, but then so are numerous smaller moments along the way which suggests a crisis is looming.

McKern’s scenes with Vivien Merchant crackle with an uneasy sexual tension. Given Merchant’s familiarity both with Pinter and his work (she was his first wife) it’s possibly not surprising that she seems so connected to the material. Although they didn’t divorce until the late seventies, their marriage (due to Pinter’s extra-marital affairs) had already begun to flounder by the time of Tea Party, which only serves to give her scenes a little extra frisson.

Jennifer Wright has the less rewarding female role, although it’s not totally without merit. Like all the people closest to Disson, it’s possible to take Diana’s actions at face value (she appears to be a totally supportive wife) or conversely to consider the possibility that some of Disson’s suspicions may be grounded in reality.

Charles Gray offers a typically rich performance as Willy. Gray’s penchant for playing sinister types ensures that he invests Willy with a pleasing duality. He’s perfectly charming on the surface, but there’s also the sense of hidden manipulative depths (although this could simply be a reading based on his wider career).

Disson has been complaining of eye trouble for some time. Wendy has attempted to ease his discomfort on several occasions by blindfolding him with a piece of chiffon. However it’s notable that he seems most emboldened to grope her when his eyes are covered. Are we to assume that Disson’s “illness” has been induced by his feelings for Wendy and that his jealousy of the close relationship shared by Diana and Willy is simply his way of covering his own conflicted feelings?

The final scene is an extraordinary one. Disson, now with his eyes firmly bandaged by Disley (a somewhat underused John Le Mesurier), has his clearest hallucinations yet. Ending the play in a vegative state, Disson’s unhappy journey therefore seems complete.

Contemporary critical reaction was generally very positive. Clifford Davis, writing in the Daily Mirror on the 26th of March, said that the story was “skilfully told, in a succession of short, penetrating scenes” and “provided a masterly study of one man’s obsession and final disintegration” concluding that “it was a play which was just right for its players and just right for television too”.

But if Davis found everything was explained to his satisfaction, then W.D.A. from the Liverpool Echo began his review by stating that since Pinter “conventialy declines to explain his plays, it is up to the poor critics to do the interpreting”.

The Stage declared that Tea Party was a work which enables you to “go on thinking and surmising, discovering further depths and weights of thought”. That’s certainly true. More than fifty years after its original broadcast, the play has lost none of its power to intrigue and discomfort.

Dad’s Army – The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage

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No doubt helped by endless re-runs, Dad’s Army remains one of the most familiar British archive sitcoms.  For some, this familiarity has bred contempt, but whilst parts of it have worn thin over the years (Corporal Jones really needs a good slap) the sheer number of episodes means that you can still stumble over a less well-known instalment which will have a few surprises.

This is particularly true of the surviving episodes from the first two series, as their black and white nature has meant that they don’t get repeated as often as their colour counterparts.  And two episodes from the second series (Operation Kilt and The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage) were only rediscovered in 2001 (in film cans which had spent twenty five years rusting in a garden shed) which gave even hardened Dad’s Army watchers at the time the chance to experience something “new”.

As a child, it was the large-scale visual episodes which appealed, such as The Day the Balloon Went Up, which saw the platoon set off in hot pursuit after Captain Mainwaring, who’d been carried away by a barrage balloon!  As I’ve got older, I find the character-based episodes to be more to my taste.  Ones such as Branded (which saw Godfrey’s courage called into question) and A. Wilson, Manager? (Wilson’s promotion infuriates Mainwaring) now entertain me more.

Although the comedy in Dad’s Army is often broad, it’s also based on historical fact.  The Home Guard was poorly equipped to begin with, which was a worry for many – especially as a German invasion was believed to be imminent.  With guns and ammunition in short supply, other methods of defence and attack had to be found – this webpage has some interesting information, such as the fact that one Home Guard unit carried pepper with them, which they intended to throw into the enemy’s faces!

In The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage, Mainwaring calls his men to the Novelty Rock Emporium, which will be their command post in the event of a German invasion.  The viewer, armed with the knowledge that no invasion was ever attempted, is immediately placed at an advantage over the platoon.  Therefore when the church bells ring and everybody jumps to the wrong conclusion (the Germans have arrived) we can be secure in the knowledge that everything will be all right.

This might been the cue for some slapstick comedy, but instead Perry & Croft go a little darker to begin with.  Mainwaring, Jones and Frazer believe that they’re the only members of the platoon left in the town who can deal with the Germans, so they head off to Godfrey’s cottage (an ideal place to mount a defence, due to its strategic location) in order to make a last ditch attempt to repel the attackers.  All three accept that they’re going to their deaths, but deal with this stoically.  It’s only a brief moment, but it’s a lovely character touch that says so much.

There’s a certain amount of contrivance which has to employed in order to get the plot to work.  Mainwaring, Jones and Frazer have now reached Godfrey’s cottage and Jones puts on an old German helmet (from Godfrey’s adventures in WW1) to defend himself with.  The other members of the platoon, approaching the cottage, see a figure with a German helmet and naturally jump to the wrong conclusion.

Godfrey’s genteel home life – he lives with his two sisters, Dolly (Amy Dalby) and Cissy (Nan Braunton) – is rudely shattered by the arrival of Mainwaring and his machine gun.  If Godfrey seems to be a little disconnected from the realties of life, then that’s even more the case with his sisters.  Dolly’s reaction when she hears that the Germans are coming is just to fret that she’ll have to go and make a great deal more tea for all of their new visitors.

Possibly the most interesting part of the story is how the various members of the platoon deal with the pressure of apparently being under attack from the Germans.  Pike is naturally terrified, Mainwaring is resolute and determined to fight on to the bitter end, whilst Wilson is somewhat hesitant and indecisive (no real change from his normal character then).  But when Wilson believes that the “Germans” in the cottage have surrendered, he initially wants to send Walker out to negotiate with them, whilst he remains behind in safety.  It’s small character moments like this which make The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage a very rewarding episode to rewatch.

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A Christmas Carol (BBC 1977)

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Broadcast on the 24th of December 1977, it’s fair to say that they don’t make them like this anymore.  It’s completely studio-bound and at times places characters, via the wonder of CSO, in front of illustrated backdrops.  For some, this artificiality might be an issue but I feel that the non-naturalistic moments are strengths not weakness.

One of the main pluses of this production is the quality of Elaine Morgan’s adaptation.  Dickens’ novella wasn’t particularly long and she was able to compress it down quite comfortably to just under an hour.  Everything of note from the original story (including much of the dialogue) has been retained and it’s interesting that the likes of Ignorance and Want (often removed from adaptations) are present and correct.

Michael Horden, an actor who always seemed to play bemused and vague characters, is excellent as Scrooge – although since he lacks bite and arrogance he’s better as the story proceeds (especially when Scrooge is finally presented as a humble and chastised man).

John Le Mesurier only has a few minutes to make an impression as Jacob Marley, but he certainly does.  His scenes with Horden were complicated by the fact that both weren’t on set at the same time (Marley, as befits a ghost, was only ever seen as an insubstantial presence).  This isn’t really a problem though, since both actors had such good timing they were able to make it work.

The arrival of Patricia Quinn as the Ghost of Christmas Past sees Scrooge revisit his own past.  The establishing shots of Scrooge’s schoolhouse are presented via a series of illustrated images, with Horden and Quinn overlaid.  You can either view this as a necessity, due to the production’s low-budget, or an inspired choice.  One nice moment occurs when we move into the schoolhouse and there’s another illustration – which then morphs into a real-life scene.

Almost unrecognisable, thanks to a heavy beard, is Bernard Lee as the Ghost of Christmas Present (although his voice is unmistakable).  Paul Copley is slightly too jolly and irritating as Fred, but this a rare production mistep.  Clive Merrison, with an impressive wig, is a fine Bob Cratchit whilst Zoe Wanamaker is equally good as Belle.  There’s plenty of other familiar faces, including John Salthouse, John Ringham, June Brown and Christopher Biggins whilst the brief opening narration is provided by (an uncredited) Brian Blessed.

Although there’s many adaptations of A Christmas Carol available, this one is certainly worth your time – partly because of the quality of the cast, but also due to its fidelity to Charles Dickens’ original story.  Many adaptations can’t help but make various “improvements” but Elaine Morgan was content to let the strength of the tale speak for itself.