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.
Audrey has two voices: common and genteel. The second is the one she uses for guests, even if she considers them coarse, working-class types and it sometimes makes her sound not unlike a future Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. She does, though, have some good lines. The most priceless has her telling Art that there is “contact with the lavatory on all floors”. Then, as Art is settling in, we hear Audrey delivering, like echoes, the same words to Ern and Abe as they are shown their quarters.
The Fishing Party is a comedy about social insecurity with both sides trying to be something they are not. The party members debate among themselves how they should behave in a guest house, such as the need to appear reasonably sober and whether it is alright to visit one another in their own rooms. Glover’s character Art is the self-appointed group leader. He reckons he knows a thing or two about correct behaviour but a visitor from the Cameroonian rain forest brushing up on his etiquette via Nancy Mitford would probably be no wider of the mark.
The miners are outside their comfort zone, but at least we know it is only a temporary state of affairs. When they have supper in a chippie (Audrey being entirely inflexible about eating times although there are no other guests) they revert to their unpretentious, rumbustious nature. But the guest house owners are the real losers, a couple trapped forever by their character defects: Audrey by her spite and desire to be something else, and Brian by his weakness and unwillingness to tell her that the something else in question is just not for him. Art, Ern and Abe with good nature offer to take Brian on their boat, at no charge because it’s all been paid for in advance. Audrey says no and that’s the end of the matter.
The extent to which you can stomach Audrey will have a considerable impact on your ability to stay the course with this play. She requires some suspension of disbelief and you have to remind yourself that all this takes place more than 40 years ago. Such characters, if not monsters of Audrey’s stature, might have been thicker on the ground in those days. Thoughts (well, male ones, at least) turn to speculation about the terms upon which Audrey and Brian’s sex life is conducted.
The three-hour fishing trip is, inevitably, a disaster. The miners have loaded up with the wrong fuel: fish, chips and pints. There’s a Dogme-like element to the scene in which the boat bobs up and down ever more ferociously as it heads for the open sea and cod territory, making viewers feel queasy. This is probably the only moment where the TV version of this play gains something over the radio original. The fisherman (James Garbutt) taking them stands unrelenting and disinterested, a character who stays true to his set course and his own nature, as our trio succumb inevitably to sea sickness.
The following morning Art insists with typical but inappropriate generosity, that they leave a tip, as well as the fish that they caught. Landlord Brian, unlike Audrey, understands that the gesture is genuine. They are not, in Audrey’s words, “being funny”. Nevertheless, as the play ends and at Audrey’s behest, the feeble-minded Brian puts up a sign, “no fishing parties”, in the window. Nothing will change for him or Audrey. At least Art, Ern and Abe can return to the pit with a few tales to tell, stories that can be re-written or titivated according to the audience.
Peter Terson is one of many writers who was helped enormously by Alfred Bradley in his days as a radio drama producer in Leeds. It’s a roll call which includes such names as Alan Plater, Stan Barstow, Henry Livings, Barry Hines, Don Haworth and David Edgar. Bradley, who died in 1991, enjoyed hugely the success of those he had mentored, usually although not exclusively in radio drama.2
Alfred Bradley was also an actor’s producer. He nurtured young acting talents as well as providing excellent radio roles for better-known actors who had sometimes become frustrated by the choices they were offered. As Alan Plater said, Bradley’s radio productions often offered “a chance for actors marooned in sitcoms or soap operas to play somebody else”.3 Among them was Wilfred Pickles who played Art in the original Radio 4 production of The Fishing Party. As Plater added in his tribute to Alfred Bradley’s work, this production was “also a chance for a man like Wilfred Pickles to remind us all what a fine character actor there was living alongside the radio and television personality”.4 Plater felt that, in its original radio version, The Fishing Party identified “a tender yearning for the simple life” through the depiction of three working-class innocents abroad in Whitby.5
Time might not have been terribly kind to Terson’s TV play, but the radio version, thanks to the wiles of Alfred Bradley, offers an interesting footnote in the history of broadcasting. Before The Fishing Party was due to go out on Radio 4, Bradley was dismayed to discover that the BBC had reneged on a promise by deciding to pull the plug on the stereo budget for productions in Leeds. He was initially full of righteous indignation which he planned to take out on his bosses in London. But then a different tack occurred to him. Bradley discovered, after talking to his studio manager Geoff Wilkinson, that mono could be converted into stereo with the aid of a couple of mikes, sticky tape and bulldog clips.6 This was how The Fishing Party came to be broadcast as the first stereo recording from the region. The subterfuge did not end there. Alfred Bradley called the Radio Times to check that the stereo asterisk would appear then asked Gillian Reynolds, radio critic on the Guardian (whatever she might think of Terson’s play) to comment on the use of stereo.7 Reynolds played ball, praising the BBC’s decision to put money into the regions, and the “traitors of HQ were neatly cornered into honouring their own commitment”.8
Gillian Reynolds, now with the Daily Telegraph, dug through her old files for me and found the typed original of a piece she wrote about Alfred Bradley in 1972 for the Guardian. She recalled: “Towards the end it says ‘This year his production of Peter Terson’s The Fishing Party won the Writers’ Guild prize.’ It was the first ever stereo production from Leeds which says a lot for Alfred’s ingenious enthusiasm because Leeds isn’t officially equipped for stereo yet. He must have taken a few people by surprise there.”9
Originally posted: 31 August 2013.
John Wheatcroft is the author of Here in the Cull Valley, which is available from Stairwell Books here