Play of the Week – Our Day Out. Simply Media DVD Review.

day out

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).

Play For Today – The Fishing Party. Simply Media DVD Review

fishing party

Three Derbyshire miners – Art (Brian Glover), Ern (Ray Mort) and Abe (Douglas Livingstone) – set out for a weekend’s fishing. It may be out of season but they’re determined to have a good time, although Art (the self-appointed leader) is keen to ensure that they don’t disgrace themselves.  “We ain’t pigs. No brown aleing, no being sick over the wall – we’ll show our wives we can be civilised without them.”

But after being fortified with a greasy chip supper and a bountiful supply of brown ale, their good intentions start to dissipate once they take to the choppy waters ….

Originally broadcast on the 1st of June 1972, Peter Terson’s play is an entertaining comedy that’s rich in character detail. The first in a trilogy by Terson featuring Art, Ern and Abe (slightly surprising that all three haven’t been collected together in one DVD set) The Fishing Party has a wonderful sense of place and time.

There’s just something so very evocative about this small Northern fishing port.  This is best observed when our hapless trio roll up to the boarding house that they’ve taken a shine to. It’s run by the domineering Audrey (Jane Freeman) and her thoroughly hen-pecked husband Brian (Frank Mooney).

Shortly afterwards, Freeman would begin thirty seven years of service in Last of the Summer Wine (as Ivy, a not totally dissimilar character to Audrey). And there’s another Summer Wine connection, as John Comer (who would be cast as Ivy’s long-suffering husband, Sid) also makes an appearance – here playing the owner of a quay-side tea van.

Brian Glover started out as a professional wrestler (billed as Leon Arris, the Man from Paris) before switching to acting in the late sixties and building up an impressive list of roles. Comedy was his speciality (shortly after this PFT he’d make several memorable appearances in sitcoms scripted by Clement and La Frenais – first as Flint in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and then as Heslop in Porridge).


Glover’s Art is a wonderful creation. Overawed by the fairly modest boarding house that they’re all staying in (which he likens to a small hotel) he paints a totally unrealistic picture of the sort of culinary delights they’ll be treated to later. He’s convinced that entrées will feature, along with a selection of wines.

Alas, we never learn exactly what Audrey would have served up for their evening meal as she’s unwilling to change her serving up time from 6:45 (which is when they’ve booked their boat for) meaning that they have to head out for a bite to eat instead.  But there’s no sense of disappointment from Art and the others, indeed they never lose their sense of innocence and optimism throughout the play.

There’s a lovely moment when the three – all safely deposited into single rooms – communicate with each other by shouting through the walls. Art is initially reluctant to join them in one of the other rooms (considering that consorting together is simply not quite the thing). He’s not at all convinced when told that James Bond does it all the time (delightfully, his argument with the solid wall is accompanied by a great deal of gesticulating).

The fishing trip – a nightmare journey of sea-sickness – is another obvious highlight, as is the aftermath when our shivering heroes find themselves back on solid ground. At least they have an impressive haul of cod to take back home – even if the fishy glances from the cod are all rather reproachful.

Like Glover, Ray Mort would become an instantly recognisable television face. Active from the mid fifties, he was equally at home both in drama and comedy.  Douglas Livingstone’s acting career had virtually come to an end by the time The Fishing Party aired, but he’d already established a parallel writing career which would continue well into the 21st century.  He would contribute to both Armchair Theatre and Play For Today in addition to a number of other series and serials. One notable later credit was his well-remembered 1981 adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids.

Running for 57 minutes, The Fishing Party is an earthy comic treat.  Featuring three strong performances from Glover, Mort and Livingstone and a number of sharply-defined supporting turns, the hour just flies by.

The Fishing Party 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).

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

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.


“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.

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?