Pinter at the BBC: Theatre 625 – A Slight Ache (6th February 1967)

Edward (Maurice Denham) and Flora’s (Hazel Hughes) idyllic countryside life is disrupted by the arrival of an elderly matchseller (Gordon Richardson). Despite never speaking a word, the old man strikes fear into the heart of Edward and awakens in Flora long-buried sexual desires ….

The first of three consecutive Theatre 625 plays by Pinter, which aired during February 1967, A Slight Ache was originally broadcast by BBC Radio in 1959 (Denham reprising his original radio role).

The oppressive nature of silence, very much a Pinter trait, is a key theme of the play. Remaining mute and pretty much insensible throughout (although there are occasional indications that he can understand at least some of what Edward and Flora are telling him) the matchseller becomes a blank canvas – enabling Edward and Flora to project their own fears, hopes and insecurities onto him.

Both direct several lengthy monologues towards him – for Edward they’re corrosive meetings, culminating in his total collapse. Denham excels throughout (and despite having to handle some very intricate dialogue rattled off at a high pace never falters). He’s matched by Hughes though, although Flora’s meetings are very different from Edward’s.

Edward rambles around a stream of disconnected topics, finding difficulty in asking any straight questions, whereas Flora is much more forthright. For example, she begins by wondering if he could previously have been a poacher (she confides in him that she was raped by a poacher as a girl). This remembrance awakens a sexual thrill in her, which is designed to be a disconcerting revelation in someone previously presented as a loyal and dutiful wife.

Prior to the arrival of the matchseller, the pair have several lengthy scenes – beginning at the breakfast table – which help to establish their relationship. A running battle with a wasp (eventually trapped by the forceful Edward in the marmalade jar) takes up a good few minutes and manages to be both amusing and oddly disturbing. At this point Edward is the dominant force, but once the matchseller appears, their roles become increasingly reversed.

Apart from the actors, Barry Newbery’s sets are an obvious star of the production (the lush garden is particularly impressive). Christopher Morahan’s direction has some nice flourishes, but with an enclosed location and only three actors it has to be fairly static at times.

Amanda Wrigley’s notes in the BFI booklet reports that contemporary critical reaction to A Slight Ache was poor. That may be, but there was the odd positive notice. Kenneth Eastaugh in the Daily Mirror commented that the play “like all Pinter’s works is for all times and for all mediums. Because it’s all about what goes on inside people – and we never change”.

W.D.A. in the Liverpool Echo was less forgiving though, finding it doubtful that anybody would have given the old matchseller such free reign (“it seemed highly questionable”).

Whilst it’s easy to sympathise with W.D.A.’s point of view, it doesn’t prevent A Slight Ache from being a tightly performed psychological drama. True it does sag a little in the middle, but it may be that future rewatches will prove to be rewarding.

Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Retired Colourman

retired

Watson briefly meets Holmes’ latest client, Josiah Amberley (Maurice Denham), on the stairs.  When Holmes asks what opinion he formed of the man, Watson confesses he found him to be “a pathetic, futile, broken creature.”

Holmes agrees, but Amberley certainly seems to have cause for distress.  His wife has disappeared, along with Dr Ray Ernest (a friend of both of them).  Also, his strong-box has been forced and a considerable amount of cash and securities taken.  Can Holmes locate the pair as well as Amberley’s missing money?  Naturally, he can.  But the solution to the mystery isn’t quite as straightforward as it initially seems.

The Retired Colourman was one of the final Sherlock Holmes stories, originally published in 1926.  Given that it’s a very decent mystery, it’s surprising that this was the only time it was adapted for the screen.

With Holmes otherwise engaged, it falls to Watson to begin the investigation.  And this means that the story is a lovely vehicle for Nigel Stock’s Watson.  His performance in the series has, it’s fair to say, attracted some criticism over the years.  He’s not quite in the Nigel Bruce buffoon category, but neither is he as competent as the Granada Watsons.

Stock’s Watson is honest, loyal and totally unimaginative.  Yes, the series does delight in showing him to be several steps behind Holmes at all times, but if you closely read the original stories that’s a perfectly valid interpretation.  For example, in this story Holmes is very blunt when he tells Watson that his initial enquiries have missed almost everything of importance (this is taken directly from Conan-Doyle’s original story).

He’s paired up for most of the duration with Maurice Denham’s Amberley.  Denham, as expected, gives a fine performance and there’s something very entertaining about the combination of the relentlessly cheerful Watson and the doom-laden Amberley.

Holmes is rather cruel to Watson – as he sends him and Amberley off on a wild-goose chase so that he can do a spot of burglary at Amberley’s house.  Indeed, Holmes sends them so far afield that Watson and Amberley have to spend the night in a rather uncomfortable country hotel.  In the original story Watson speaks to Holmes on the phone, but here Holmes dictates a telegram to his unfortunate colleague.  The result is the same though and it’s clear from the expressions on the faces of Holmes and Mrs Hudson (making a rare appearance in the Wilmer series) that they have little pity for poor Watson, trapped at a hotel at Frinton with the unpleasant Amberley!

Denham and Stock are the chief reasons why this one is very watchable.  It’s true that there are a few plot-holes (particularly why Amberley decided to consult Holmes in the first place) but these are problems with Conan-Doyle’s story and Jan Read’s dramatisation is content to faithfully adapt the original material.  A generous amount of location filming helps to open the story out (some of the other studio-bound ones do tend to feel a little claustrophobic).

An interesting adaption of one of the “lesser” stories from the canon.

Play of the Month – Julius Caesar (BBC 1969) starring Robert Stephens and Edward Woodward

I’ve uploaded to YouTube this 1969 BBC Play of the Month production of Julius Caesar, which features a first-rate cast including Robert Stephens as Mark Antony, Maurice Denham as Julius Caesar, Frank Finlay as Brutus and Edward Woodward as Cassius.