The Fishing Party (1972)

JOHN WHEATCROFT

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.

Ingmar Bergman’s The Lie (1970)

JOHN WHEATCROFT

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’

BTVD_TheLie_promopic1

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.

Rumpole of the Bailey (1975)

JOHN WHEATCROFT

Play for Today; Writer: John Mortimer; Producer: Irene Shubik; Director: John Gorrie

“There is a golden thread running through British justice…”1

Rumpole_image

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.

The Long Distance Piano Player (1970)

JOHN WHEATCROFT

Play for Today Writer: Alan Sharp; Director: Philip Saville; Producer: Irene Shubik

‘Everybody’s in showbiz, everybody’s a star…’1

This lyric, from the Kinks song ‘Celluloid Heroes’ written by Ray Davies, conjures up a world far removed from the gloomy hall inhabited by Pete, the long distance piano player he portrays in Alan Sharp’s Play for Today. However, the play and the song (written two years later) are closer in theme than you might think. While ‘Celluloid Heroes’ celebrates the enduring screen image of Hollywood stars, it’s also about the way the film industry exploits and sometimes destroys these icons.

Pianist Pete is a man ripe for exploitation and destruction by his predatory manager, Jack (Norman Rossington). He plays a young man trying to create a world record for non-stop piano playing, of four days and four nights. Success, Jack constantly reassures Pete in his bogus American accent, will bring fame and fortune on an epic, Hollywood scale. However, one image of the film industry which is likely to spring to the viewer’s mind is They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Sidney Pollack’s recent film about a six-day dance marathon in Depression-era America. Alan Sharp acknowledged his debt: ‘I read the book years ago, and was fascinated,’ he admitted in the week the play was aired on BBC12.

84, Charing Cross Road (1975)

JOHN WHEATCROFT

Play for Today Writer: Hugh Whitemore; Adapted from: the book by Helene Hanff; Director: Mark Cullingham; Producer: Mark Shivas

‘…people going to England find exactly what they go looking for. I said I’d go looking for the England of English Literature…’

When Arthur Dent receives an alien tongue-lashing on arrival at yet another inhospitable planet during The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he observes in exasperation: ‘Why doesn’t anyone ever seem to pleased to see us?’1 One answer to that question might well be: ‘Because drama and comedy rely on conflict to make them work.’ There’s rarely a great deal of mileage to be extracted from people liking one another and generally getting on, but when the trick is pulled off, the results can be delightful and surprising.

This was the case with 84, Charing Cross Road, Hugh Whitemore’s adaptation of Helene Hanff’s book in which the New Yorker recorded her 20-year love affair with Marks & Co, a second-hand bookshop in London. It began in 1949 when Britain was still on the ration and ran through until the end of the 1960s. Hanff’s book reads like a cross-cultural epistolary novella, in which the straight- talking Yank (responding to the first letter from London which begins: ‘Dear Madam’, she comments: ‘I hope Madam doesn’t mean over there what it does over here’), eventually extracts the inner warmth from the more reserved and correct Brits.