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.

A Very British Coup (1988)

JOHN WHEATCROFT

Writer: Alan Plater; Adapted from Chris Mullin; Director: Mick Jackson


Political drama which carries a left-wing punch can usually expect to find a few dissenters among the majority of journalists – or at least their employers – for whom such views are anathema; it’s easy to review the politics rather than the art. It’s a huge testimony to Alan Plater’s skill as a dramatist that A Very British Coup was received with equal acclaim by commentators from every shade of the political spectrum. Plater believes that the right-wing press can sometimes be more generous than the left, so long as they understand that no attempt is being made to convert them.1


The three-part Channel 4 dramatisation2 of Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel of the same name, A Very British Coup is about the election of a genuinely socialist government, headed by former steel worker Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally). The drama is hardly a call to arms to vote Labour, because, as Plater points out, no government has ever pursued such an agenda.3 However, Perkins proves to be a different kettle of fish, as even his opponents such as Secret Service head Sir Percy Browne (Alan MacNaughton) have to admit, and he will not be deflected. Perkins continues on his socialist path with something as close to total integrity as politics allows. This makes A Very British Coup quite different from many left-leaning dramas, as Mark Lawson remarked: ‘Political drama on television tends to pursue the view that Labour leaders willingly surrender their beliefs in power. A Very British Coup is about something darker, the theft of good intentions.’4