‘An ideology red, white and blue in tooth and claw’: David Edgar’s Destiny (1978) – Part 3 of 3

TOM MAY

Play for Today Writer: David Edgar; Producer: Margaret Matheson; Director: Mike Newell

This essay continues from Part 2.

Part 3: Analysis of Destiny and its afterlife
Please note that, in order to explore this programme and its political context, this essay quotes racially offensive language.

Visual motifs, setting, culture and class

In its adaptation to television, the play’s text was sometimes faithfully translated, but Edgar made significant alterations and changes of emphasis. The medium is used to historicise the play with exact dates – “15th August 1947”, “20th April 1968”, “19th June 1970” and “1977” – being presented. The stage version’s text does not as clearly indicate the year of the contemporary scenes.

As on stage, the painting showing the putting down of the Indian Mutiny is a key visual motif.1 This is shown three times throughout the play: in the opening India scene, in the Northern Ireland army HQ, and in the hospitality room of the City of London merchant bank in the final scene. A gramophone is added to the India set, alongside the stuffed tiger referred to in the text. There’s much connotative period detail, but less specificity: the play text states its setting as Jullundur in the Punjab. On television, it is merely “India”.

‘An ideology red, white and blue in tooth and claw’: David Edgar’s Destiny (1978) – Part 2 of 3

TOM MAY

Play for Today Writer: David Edgar; Producer: Margaret Matheson; Director: Mike Newell

This essay continues from Part 1.

Part 2: Production and reception

Production of the Play for Today version

David Edgar has observed that, although the theatre version has been placed in the lineage of the “rather inaccurately dubbed ‘state-of-England’” plays by Brenton, Hare, Barker, Griffiths and himself, the television version reflected the influence of the school of social realist drama that was associated with Ken Loach, Roy Battersby and Tony Garnett, which was more “grittily proletarian” and which echoed the British New Wave cinema of the early 1960s.1 Neither Edgar nor Matheson can recall who first suggested that Destiny be adapted as a television play,2 but Edgar recalls that, in a script meeting with himself and Newell, Matheson asked, “So, what are we telling the nation here?” For Edgar this demonstrates what “we thought we were about in the 70s […] not asking ‘how will the viewer respond to this?’”3 This reflects its era, with producers and creative personnel having control of decision making, in stark contrast with the later Birt-era move towards pleasing the consumer. Such engaged, high-minded ambition was made possible by settled scheduling which, as Matheson argues, allowed Play for Today to build a regular audience who, for half of the year, “knew they would get something distinct and surprising once a week.”4

‘An ideology red, white and blue in tooth and claw’: David Edgar’s Destiny (1978) – Part 1 of 3

TOM MAY

Play for Today Writer: David Edgar; Producer: Margaret Matheson; Director: Mike Newell

Part 1: Background and context
Please note that, in order to explore this programme and its political context, this essay quotes racially offensive language.

For the first time since the war, extreme right-wing, racialist organisations have become significant in British politics. Movements that, ten years ago were regarded as the most lunatic of lunatic fringes, are now gaining influence in the streets and even in elections. (Press information.)1

The forces of right-wing politics are resurgent; immigration is regularly discussed on the airwaves and the phrase “foreign workers, coming over here, taking our jobs” circulates obstinately. Those on the political left seem implacably divided. It could be 2017. It is, however, 1977 as depicted by David Edgar in Destiny. This Play for Today, which he adapted for television from his acclaimed theatre production, analyses how and why the far-right National Front was becoming a genuine political force in 1976-77. Edgar portrays the intersection of politics with human lives; his Brecht-influenced dramaturgy is accompanied by a close attention to British places and voices. Part one of this three-part essay will consider Edgar’s background and Destiny’s history as a stage play and will place the television play in its historical and televisual contexts. Part two will consider the television play’s casting and production and its reception by critics, BBC management and audiences. Part three will analyse this neglected entry in the eighth series of Play for Today in relation to debates over docudrama forms and naturalism. The essays will analyse its status as an adaptation, with close readings of how emphases were changed in making the play for television. The television Destiny will also be analysed as a contribution to debates on national and class identity and for its representations of a range of British political ideologies in the 1970s.