Sleepers arrived on our screens with perfect timing. Or at least that’s how it must have appeared to many viewers. When the first episode aired on BBC2 in April 1991, the Cold War was almost over.1 Two years earlier the Soviet-satellite communist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe had folded, for the most part peacefully. In December 1991, the USSR itself would be dissolved officially. The world was beginning to look like a much safer place, one in which we could laugh at the absurdities, futility and madness of an ideological battle waged by the two great super-powers, the USA and the USSR, since the end of World War Two. What better moment for a light-hearted look at a conflict which had once brought mankind close to its greatest ever catastrophe?
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There is a lot of dark stuff going on in A Day in Summer, the first novel by J.L. (James Lloyd) Carr. Literary critic D.J. Taylor described the novel as one that “defied classification […] a comic tragedy, if you like, by a gifted amateur still learning his trade.”1 It is a testament to Alan Plater’s skill that his adaptation of A Day in Summer (1989) handles so seamlessly the comic and tragic elements. This essay examines this Yorkshire Television production, drawing from an interview that I conducted with Carr in 1993 and new archival research into the production.2
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Play for Today Writer: Peter Terson; Producer: David Rose; Director: Michael Simpson
“Contact with the lavatory on all floors”
Peter Terson’s best known plays, Zigger Zagger and The Apprentices, present a tough and unsentimental view of the world and of the occasional cruelties that people, more often than not working-class men, can heap on one another. His 1972 television comedy The Fishing Party is a gentler affair, although not without its acerbic moments.1
Three miners, Art (Brian Glover), Ern (Ray Mort) and Abe (Douglas Livingstone) head for Whitby where they have arranged a trip out to sea for some cod fishing. First they need accommodation and they find a truly grotty bed and breakfast. A snooty landlady, Audrey (Jane Freeman) and her hen-pecked husband Brian (Frank Moorey) agree after some shenanigans to give them a room for the night, at an exorbitant price. These early scenes run dangerously close to pure silliness in their depiction of unsophisticated working-class behaviour on the one hand and petty-bourgeois pretentiousness on the other. The Fishing Party is not a piece of work that has worn well. However, some gems of comic dialogue do a little to rescue the situation.
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Play for Today / The Largest Theatre in the World Writer: Ingmar Bergman; Translated by Paul Britten Austin; Producer: Graeme McDonald; Director: Alan Bridges
‘The truth will tear us apart’
There has been much talk recently about contemporary television producing drama superior to anything that the cinema currently has to offer. Any vestiges of snobbery about the supposed inferiority of the small screen have been snuffed out with directors such as Martin Scorsese and David Fincher choosing to work in television. Jane Campion, the New Zealander who directed An Angel at my Table and The Piano, said in an interview for The Times that TV is now producing the more pioneering work. Campion, who has directed a six-part crime thriller for television which was launched at Sundance and received its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, said after seeing HBO’s Deadwood: ‘Who is commissioning this stuff? This is a revolution, something is really happening in television.’1 It does not follow of course that revolutionary film directors will have a big impact (Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire had mixed reviews) when they transfer their attentions to TV.
Ingmar Bergman’s first British television play The Lie is a historically interesting but modest piece of work. Historically interesting because of the play’s genesis: it was commissioned by the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation on behalf of European members participating in ‘The Largest Theatre in the World’. This, the Radio Times explained, was ‘a project which enabled a play to be broadcast simultaneously in several languages across Europe.’2 The UK Play For Today version was directed by Alan Bridges; an American version was put out on CBS, directed by Alex Segal.3
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Play for Today; Writer: John Mortimer; Producer: Irene Shubik; Director: John Gorrie
“There is a golden thread running through British justice…”1
Horace Rumpole is one of those great fictional characters who emerged fully formed, with the potential to run and run. Like Sherlock Holmes, William Brown and Bertie Wooster, he burst on the scene with virtually all his key character traits established. The barrister whom we meet in the first Rumpole of the Bailey is fundamentally the same man readers and viewers were to follow through numerous television series and radio plays, many volumes of short stores, and a handful of novels. You can even read Rumpole in posh Folio Society editions.
Within a few minutes of the original Play for Today, first broadcast on 16 December 1975, we were introduced to some trademark Rumpole quirks and foibles. He quotes at length his favourite poet, Wordsworth, from Quiller-Couch’s Book of English Verse, refers to his wife, Hilda (Joyce Heron), as “She Who Must Be Obeyed” and wistfully recalls, as he will do so often in the years to come, his triumph as a young barrister in the Penge Bungalow Murders case.
Rumpole, unlike John Mortimer who was a QC, never took silk. He never prosecutes and often takes on (and wins) apparently lost causes, when everything is against him from overwhelming evidence favouring the prosecution to quixotic judges who take a dim view of the barrister’s irreverent and down-at-heel charm.
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