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.

A Foreign Field – Simply Media DVD Review

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Cyril (Leo McKern) and Amos (Alec Guinness) are two British D-Day veterans who have returned to Normandy fifty years on in order to pay tribute to their fallen comrades. Whilst in the area, Cyril is determined to track down the alluring Angelique (Jeanne Moreau) who helped to keep the morale of the troops up during their stay back in 1944. The only problem is that he’s got competition – an abrasive American veteran, Waldo (John Randolph), has arrived on the same mission.

Roy Clarke might be best known for writing several comedy juggernauts (such as Last of the Summer Wine and Open/Still Open All Hours) but there are many less well known nuggets buried within his cv such as this Screen One, originally broadcast in September 1993. The ninety minute screenplay wastes no time in setting up the basics of the story – before we’ve reached the fifth minute we already understand that Amos is a shell of a man (possessing the mind of a child and a very limited vocabulary) with Cyril cast in the role of his exasperated carer. Meanwhile, Waldo is depicted as a short-tempered Limey-hating Yank ….

Amos is a gift of a role and Guinness milks it for all that it’s worth. With more than a touch of Stan Laurel, Amos breezes through the story with an air of benign innocence. As we proceed there are hints of hidden depths though – his skill with the mouth organ, say – whilst various mysteries (such as why he brought an empty jam jar all the way from Britain) are answered.

If Guinness’ screen presence is one reason why A Foreign Field is so compelling, then Leo McKern’s wonderfully judged performance as Cyril is another. Best known, of course, for Rumpole of the Bailey, there’s something of a Horace Rumpole feel about Cyril. They both might be abrasive on the surface but they contain hidden depths when you dig a little deeper. McKern was always a favourite actor of mine and this role – one of his final screen credits – only served to cement my respect for him. Cyril’s late monologue (where he explains to the others exactly why he’s so protective of Amos) is simply spine-tingling.

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John Randolph has a slightly less well defined role. Waldo and Cyril might both be grumpy, but there’s no doubt that we’re meant to side with Cyril and find Waldo to be somewhat insufferable. The introduction of Angelique strikes the only off-key note in the story – it’s barely credible that Cyril and Waldo would be so shocked to discover that fifty years on she’s not exactly the same beautiful young girl she once was (and their desperate attempts to get out of the date they’d both arranged with her leaves a slightly bitter taste). Luckily this only lasts a fleeting moment and soon Angelique joins their ever-growing party.

Along with Guinness, McKern and Jeanne Moreau, Lauren Bacall is another incredibly strong addition to the cast. Forever linked to Humphrey Bogart – both on screen and by marriage – there’s no doubt that her casting was something of a coup. Her character, Lisa, has one of the most intriguing roles to play. Like the others she’s come to pay her respects to a fallen war hero (in her case, her husband) but there’s a late twist which you may or may not have seen coming. This is resolved in a beautifully understated way which fits perfectly with the rest of the story.

If Cyril and Amos exist without family ties (except the bond between them) then Waldo is luckier on this score (or unlucky, depending on how you view things). He’s arrived in France with his strident daughter, Beverley (Geraldine Chaplin), and her put-upon husband Ralph (Edward Herrmann). They enjoy a decent share of the narrative and both end the story in different places from where they started – Beverley is more relaxed (thanks to the influence of Lisa and Angelique) whilst Ralph emerges as a more assertive type. As with the others, Roy Clarke is skilful at drawing out various nuances and character moments.

Whilst A Foreign Field is a sentimental piece, it never feels mawkish or false. Roy Clarke’s screenplay, and the efforts of the cast, combine to produce something quite special. I’ve come back to it on numerous occasions down the years and I’m sure that I’ll continue to do so in the future. If you’ve never seen it, then I would very strongly recommend picking up a copy.

Originally released in the UK on DVD by Acorn, it’s now been brought back into print by Simply. Picture quality (4:3 full frame) looks fine with no significant issues (subtitles are included).

A Foreign Field is released by Simply Media today, RRP £14.99, and can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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Debut of an Old Bailey Hack – Rumpole of the Bailey (Play For Today – BBC 1975)

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After watching A Foreign Field I wanted a little more Leo McKern, so digging out the Play for Today in which Horace Rumpole made his debut seemed a logical choice.

Rumpole of the Bailey would become a popular and long-running series, although it seems that the BBC didn’t consider that the character or concept had legs, so Play for Today producer Irene Shubik took it to Thames where it ran for seven series between 1978 and 1992.

The development of the series was still several years off when this play was made and it does seem that this was produced purely as a one-off. So although there’s plenty that’s familiar to viewers of the later series, there are also various interesting differences.

An obvious difference is that Hilda is played by Joyce Heron, rather than Peggy Thorpe-Bates or later Marion Mathie. At the end of the story she portrayed as a drunk with a strong hint that this is a regular occurrence. This is something we never see again, as the implication that Hilda drinks to drown the sorrow of her hollow life with Horace is presumably too bleak to bear repetition. Instead, whilst the Thames Hilda may sometimes bemoan her lot and life with Horace, it’s done with considerably more humour.

Horace Rumpole himself, apart from one important character beat which we’ll come to shortly, is quite recognisable as the Rumpole from the Thames series. He indulges in lengthy internal monologues as he makes his way to work and he also laments the fact that it’s impossible now to get a decent lunch anywhere. There’s only sandwiches and other convenience foods – which horrifies the traditionalist Rumpole.

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“Hack? Not exactly a hack. Been at it for longer than he can remember, Rumpole has. No flies on Rumpole. Cut his teeth on Rex v Magwitch and the Penge Bungalow Murders. I could win most of my cases if it wasn’t for the clients. Clients have no tact, poor old darlings, no bloody sensitivity. They will waltz into the witness box and blurt out things that are far better left unblurted.”

Rumpole is at the Old Bailey to defend Ossie Gladstone (Herbert Norville), accused of stabbing a man outside Lords Cricket ground in a motiveless attack.  And this is where we see the major difference between the Play for Today Rumpole and the Thames Rumpole.  Here, he is very keen for Gladstone to plead guilty and even after Ossie maintains his innocence he is reluctant to consider a not guilty plea.

The Thames Rumpole never liked to plead guilty and was always ready for a fight, but maybe this Rumpole is simply more of a realist.  If the evidence is strong then what’s the point of delaying the inevitable and possibly only increasing the sentence by pleading not guilty?

Or maybe Ossie is right when he taunts Rumpole that his case isn’t sufficiently interesting and too much like hard work to fight.  This certainly seems to strike a chord with Rumpole in a way that it would be impossible to consider happening in the later series where the character was always much more straightforward.

So the decision is made to fight, although as the police have a signed confession it seems like a forlorn hope.  Rumpole spends the morning toiling away at the police evidence before the lunch-break brings a chance to grab a last chat with his son Nick (David Yelland) who is shortly due to fly to America to take a University post.

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David Yelland

The pub lunch with Rumpole and Nick is the heart of the play, as Nick confronts his father about their strained relationship.  Nick and Rumpole both have very different views about Nick’s childhood – Rumpole remembers the good times in the holidays – teas, pantos, visits to the Old Bailey – whilst Nick remembers the long time spent at various boarding schools from the age of seven.

This is another relationship that is adjusted when the series debuted in 1978.  During the first series the chronology was rewound, so the first story was set in 1969, some five years before this one.  Therefore we get to see Nick during the time he was at school and also enjoying a much more cordial, though sometimes still distant, relationship with his father.  But even when the series reached the point where Nick departed for America it was done in a subtly different way, with much less angst and Nick never displayed the same anger again that he does here.

With lunch concluded, Rumpole is able to engineer a breakthrough when Detective Inspector Arthur (Edwin Brown) states under oath that Ossie read his statement back to him.  A simple ruse in the cells proves that Ossie can neither read or write and this revelation is enough to dent the police’s case and so the jury issue a not guilty verdict.

But here, as with some of the earliest stories in the Thames series, there’s some ambiguity.  Although Ossie has declared his innocence, Rumpole is forced to admit that he may well be guilty – there’s simply no way to be sure.  He could have admitted his guilt to the police and the confession may be geniune, but Inspector Arthur’s decision to overstate his case was enough to sow a seed of doubt in the jury’s mind.

There are other examples of this in the early Thames series, where we see that Rumpole isn’t always able to depend on the honesty of his clients.  As the series became more mainstream, this, along with the various other points discussed, were gradually smoothed away so that a more family friendly, mainstream character emerged.  The later Rumpole always pleaded not guilty, almost always won and could always rely on the honesty of his clients.  This is not to say that the later series are not well written or well acted, but they lack a little of the bite and intensity of this Play for Today and the first two Thames series.

It goes without saying that Leo McKern is excellent here, as he was throughout the series.  But as this play has more character beats he is able to instill a little more character to the part.

The closing words of the play, as Rumpole and Hilda face each other over the dinner table – “Who am I exactly?” – echo the comments of Nick at lunchtime, who tried to break the public facade of his father. At the end of the day it seems that even Horace Rumpole has his doubts.  He knows what he does, and what he does well, but has his own identity become submerged under the numerous character quirks of an Old Bailey Hack?

 

Their name liveth for evermore – A Foreign Field (BBC Screen One – 1993)

Roy Clarke's A Foreign Field
Roy Clarke’s A Foreign Field

The recent centenary commemorations of the start of WW1 has inspired me to pull this Screen One production from September 1993 down from the shelf for a rewatch as although it’s concerned with the events of WW2, the themes of sacrifice and comradeship are universal and timeless.

Cyril (Leo McKern) and Amos (Alec Guinness) are two D-Day veterans who have returned to Normandy to visit the graves of their fallen comrades. Both of them have been scarred by those fateful days in 1944 – particularly Amos, who is virtually mute and seems to have the mind of a child.

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Alec Guinness and Leo McKern

Cyril has another reason for the trip, as he is looking to track down his wartime sweetheart Angelique (Jeanne Moreau). The fact he hasn’t seen her for nearly fifty years doesn’t discourage him, nor does the fact that he has a rival for her affection – Waldo (John Randolph), an American veteran visiting the area with his son (Edward Herrmann) and daughter-in-law Beverly (Geraldine Chaplin).

John Randolph
John Randolph

After fighting for Angelique’s affections, Cyril and Waldo decide to join forces as they both treat her to a day out and then together with the mysterious Lisa (Lauren Bacall) the mismatched party eventually find their way to the graves to remember those they have lost.

A Screen One production from 1993, A Foreign Field was written by Roy Clarke. Although he has a varied CV, the record-breaking Last of the Summer Wine is undoubtedly the series he is best remembered for. That series’ longevity and the critical mauling and polite indifference that the later runs generated have tended to mask that Clarke is a very talented writer with a keen ear for dialogue. This is a hallmark of A Foreign Field, particularly as Cyril and Waldo give full vent to their simmering Anglo-American resentment.

Lauren Bacall and Jeanne Moreau
Lauren Bacall and Jeanne Moreau

As good as Clarke’s teleplay is, it clearly doesn’t hurt that the likes of McKern, Guinness, Randolph, Moreau and Bacall are cast members. Frankly, this is a dream lineup, with particularly fine performances from Guinness and McKern. Alec Guinness has probably the showiest part – lacking virtually any dialogue he is able to insert various bits of business in order to steal any scene that takes his fancy. The eye is automatically focused on him because, well, he’s Alec Guinness, but he still manages to instil a sense of dignity into the character of Amos.

Best of all is Leo McKern. Well known for his long run in Rumpole of the Bailey, McKern here is able to produce a moment of subtlety and pathos that is heart stopping. Outwardly bluff, his mask slips when discussing the beachhead landings in a wonderful monologue.

The conclusion, with the mystery of Lisa’s pilgrimage solved, brings the story to a satisfactory conclusion and the point made, whilst subtle, is clearly understood. Available on DVD from Acorn, this is a fine production that could have so easily tipped over into mawkish sentimentally. The fact it doesn’t is a tribute both to the writing and the acting choices of the principal cast. A production that is well worth tracking down and treasuring.