Play for Today Writer: Rhys Adrian; Director: Piers Haggard; Producer: Graeme McDonald
‘How old do you think I am? Go on – guess…’
In contrast to a lot of the heavier entries in Play for Today, Evelyn is a bit of a volte face, especially given its transmission just one week after that of Jeremy Sandford’s cause celebre Edna the Inebriate Woman. Produced in much the same whimsical vein as writer Rhys Adrian’s previous Play for Today script (The Foxtrot), it arguably provided a neat counterpoint to the more po-faced ‘serious’ plays on offer throughout the rest of 1971’s run. Starting life as a radio play, winning author Rhys Adrian the Prix Italia in 19701, it is – at its most basic – almost exclusively a series of dialogues. While this displays all the hallmarks of a potentially stultifying ‘art’ film (setting one’s early warning system twitching like a pair of clackers) it is, in fact, quite a clever little script and can lay claim to (mostly) excellent performances and sympathetic and unobtrusive direction. This is also one of those Play for Todays that, despite being repeated twice, is little remembered. It does not slaughter sacred cows or storm barns and it is neither revolutionary nor a catalyst for a kneekjerk bout of social outrage from publicity-seeking backbench MPs. It is quite simply a gentle ‘situation comedy’, centered around a forty year-old man’s extra-marital affair and, as such, would never be given the chance of even a footnote in any serious research of the single play. By ‘situation comedy’ I, of course, mean that any amusement value is derived purely through the characters and their situation and not that it is part of the ‘Sorry I didn’t hear you Vicar – my knockers must need a good seeing to’ school of comedy…
On watching this play, it’s interesting to note how standards have changed since 1971, with two elements of the play showing themselves up as litmus changes of social acceptability. The first is lighting up onscreen – everyone wanders around with a fag in their hand, whether it’s in the pub, the bedroom or at the breakfast table. Having smoked somewhat in my time I can hardly throw bricks at this particular glasshouse but it’s curious how conditioned one gets to not seeing people smoke on television. It’s a truly bizarre feeling, and one that’s really hard to explain, but it feels a bit…disquieting, perhaps. Social conditioning by television – not a nice thought. At the opposite end of the spectrum you have the nudity angle. These days you seemingly can’t stop actors from showing their dedication to their craft by dropping their pants at the slightest provocation. The nudity in Evelyn, however, is framed very discreetly by director Piers Haggard, who makes a pretty good job of not drawing attention to the camera throughout. Even the languid tracking shots through The Girl’s bedroom draw little attention to camera, which is a pretty good trick if you can manage it. Though Ted Woodward’s bare behind can be seen for only a brief second, it is the delectable Angela Scoular who spends the majority of screen time padding around her bedroom in either a state of undress or total nudity. This is hardly a problem as, being in possession of a strange and elfin-like beauty, she is very easy on the eye. I am sure, however, that she must have been the cause of a few sharp intakes of breath from the less liberal viewer. Given the absolute furore over the first full frontal nudity scene in Dennis Potter’s Casanova (broadcast a little under a month later, and cut on repeat, I believe) I have to admit that I’m pretty sure that Evelyn pipped it by a few weeks in certain respects. It’s hard to be 100% sure of this though, without the aid of a digital transfer and a crystal clear freeze-frame facility…
The only reasonable assessment of this production of Evelyn that has been unearthed thus far was a review written by John Lawrence for The Stage and Television Today2, shortly after the play’s initial transmission. Having just re-read it for the third time, I can’t help but feel that a few points are being missed somewhere along the line. He remarks that ‘for the first fifteen minutes or so Rhys Adrian’s play…seemed stilted and self-conscious. The dialogue was over-repetitive and the opening scene between the man and his wife carried little conviction.’ But the dialogue is designed to be over-repetitive – its rhythm and delivery reinforcing the unfolding situation firmly in the viewer’s consciousness. The Man is not James Bond – he does not live a jet-setting lifestyle where no two minutes are the same and all points lead to a single destination. He is just an ordinary man – his life is repetitive and mundane (even the exciting parts). Whilst labelling Ted Woodward’s performance as ‘slightly unbelievable’, Lawrence heaps praise on Angela Scoular, insisting that ‘she gave a performance which captured the exact nature of the girl’, which is an interesting thing to say, as she never really displayed an exact nature. Examining the character and the way she interacts with both The Man and the other people she talks to throughout the play, one is drawn to the conclusion that she is obviously morphing her behaviour and mannerisms to suit each situation. This emotional chameleonism is neither underhanded nor vicious – indeed, she probably isn’t even consciously aware that she is doing it. It’s a survival tactic and it is only at the end, when The Man asks her if she loves The Young Man (who has just usurped his position), that the defences come down for the first time and she candidly admits that she doesn’t know yet. I suspect she might. I further suspect that this may be the first time in her life that she has felt like this. So, why this difference in two people’s appreciation of the same play thirty years apart? I can only come to the conclusion that after two seasons, the apocryphal bleak, socially-relevant badge must have already astigmatised Play for Today and it is against this yardstick that the play is ultimately found lacking. Seemingly expecting a realistic portrayal of the angst, intense passion and inevitable bitterness that is the hallmark of all doomed extra-marital affairs, Lawrence appears to have been somewhat disappointed to find that this was actually a stylised examination of such a relationship and not the latest award-winning slice of realistic drama. How stylised? Well if one were to imagine Morrissey ghost-writing an Alan Bennett play after overdosing on several hours of Pinter, then one would be somewhere near the right house.
Pre-dating the bizarre 1970s cultural phenomenon that was the British Sex Comedy (No Sex Please, We’re British, the risible Confessions films and so forth) by a good few months it is interesting to observe the quaint way in which Radio Times refers to The Girl as ‘loose-living’. It also compares the entire production to a French Farce, which is about as misleading a comparison as it could conceivably make. There is no slapstick, no sight-gags, no Bunburying, no jokes – there is nothing overtly funny in this play. It’s all in the delivery of performance and direction. When The Man, after going through what one can only assume to be his early morning routine of self-examination for overt signs of withering, sits at the breakfast table (fag in hand) and stares vaguely at The Wife, she stops mid-chew of her toast and says ‘Are you going to be insulting?’ While that means not a lot on the printed page, Phyllida Law’s dry delivery and Woodward’s self-absorbed reaction brought a rare, wry smile to my lips, and I’m usually pretty hard to please when it comes to humour. As she has ably demonstrated time and again, Laws’ mastery of the dry delivery, knowing look and unshakeable putdown are almost without equal, but she reins in these mannerisms quite tightly, giving a subtle and underplayed performance. None moreso than in the coda sequence when the man returns home, having finally given up the ghost on his dalliance with The Girl. Sitting in a lamplit bedroom, he casually (and somewhat coyly) drops into the conversation that he’s going to pack in his visits to the ‘health club’ as ‘it doesn’t seem to be doing me very much good’. Sitting in bed, his wife looks sadly at him and says ‘I didn’t think it would last’, to which he regretfully replies ‘No – nor did I…’ It’s a lovely little ‘personal’ scene and is poignant without being mawkish. Although stylistically a comedy – it has a subtlety about it that contemporary drama writers (who seem more concerned with the operatic – or cinematic – than the subtle) could learn from.
To be honest, the only really unsubtle thing in the whole play is the character of The Friend. Obviously cut from a far more narcissistic cloth than The Man, The Friend is truly St. Bruno Man in the ascendant – resplendent in his jet black, trendy collar-length hair and sideburns, paisley shirt, kipper tie and tailored, sleeveless safari jacket, The Friend will certainly never see the right side of forty again, but would deny this to his dying breath. In a priceless scene of denial and one-upmanship, The Man and The Friend are enjoying a nice drink in the pub when the conversation is none-too-subtly drawn to the subject of age, it being The Man’s fortieth birthday. Of course, neither will admit that they are anywhere near their real age and are anxious to assert how old they are not:
THE FRIEND: Older? Me? Older than you?!
THE MAN: Yeah – I’ve always felt that you were senior in years to me.
THE FRIEND: But I’ve always felt that you were senior in years to me.
THE MAN: You’re not serious? You’re not suggesting that you’re younger than me?
THE FRIEND: Well I’m certainly not older than you.
THE MAN: I’ve always given you five years on top of me.
THE FRIEND: That’s exactly what I’ve given you.
THE MAN: Really?! How old are you?
THE FRIEND: I’m not telling you that. Anyway – how old are you?
THE MAN: Never you mind.
THE FRIEND: I’m a bloody sight younger than you are!
De Souza’s wonderfully dry character, outed by his own fit of pique, once again betrays the play’s radio origins. This is in no uncertain terms a derogatory thing and ably highlights the craft of a writer who – forced to compensate for the absence of a visual medium – can create whole characters by the use of dialogue alone. It may be heretical to state such a thing, but it’s painfully obvious to me that all dramatic writers should serve an apprenticeship in writing plays for voice. After all, there’s no point in being up all night wrestling ‘with the problem of a homosexual nymphomaniac drug-addict involved in the ritual murder of a well known Scottish footballer’3 if your audience doesn’t believe in a bloody word he’s saying.
The same goes for the character of The Girl, which is far and away the most complex one in the play. Taken at face value, which I’m sure she was by a fair percentage of people, she’s just a vacuous proponent of ‘free love’ (whatever that is), and is perpetually on the scrounge. I’m sure that in certain besieged Middle Class outposts at that time she was the poster child for all that was wrong with single, unemployed mothers, ensnared in this obvious counterculture of wild sexual abandon. This is, of course, rubbish. It may be what she does but it certainly isn’t who she is – her character is far more interesting than that. Possessed of a peculiar brand of sexual amorality that lies at the very core of the play but is never overtly commented upon, she lives in a world where a different gentleman friend (each of whom she loves) visits her every night of the week. Of course, all her friends also have a number of other friends who they love (and sleep with) on a regular basis. This makes The Man feel pretty much inadequate by comparison as he’s only sleeping with The Girl (and maybe his wife, though this is never mentioned). Does this rampant polygamy gnaw at her conscience? How on earth (the Mary Whitehouses of you in the audience may say) can she live in such a depraved manner – she must surely be the foulest of the foul. Is she? Of course not. The Girl is someone who is terribly at ease with her sexuality, though The Man obviously finds it hard to come to terms with it all. He tries his best but is ultimately jealous (however quietly) of her other ‘friends’. After all, even thirty years later it is still socially difficult to accept a serially promiscuous woman as anything other than beneath contempt. As a terribly drunk (male) acquaintance of mine once succinctly told a not-so-drunk (female) acquaintance ‘if I shagged every woman in this pub I would be a hero – if you shagged every bloke then you’d be a scrubber’.
Is this true? Is The Man a hero? Well, certainly he’s very, very lucky, but what he is mostly is bored. His life is confined to a cage constructed of tedium and routine and, for however brief a period, this was put into abeyance by his relationship with The Girl. He briefly revelled in this liberation until he ultimately seemed to realise, I think, that he was exchanging one type of cage for another. This was something that he was ultimately prepared to do – he really was in love with The Girl – but by the time he had actually decided what he wanted to do, Fate had thrown him a dirty curve and she had moved on.
It’s interesting to speculate what would have happened if The Girl had ultimately encouraged The Man – however unintentionally – to permanently slip the bars of the cage that was his existence. The doomed romantic in me would like to think that they would just go for it, much the same way as the main characters in arch-deconstructionist Grant Morrison’s4 pop-classic Kill Your Boyfriend5. Though I can’t quite picture The Man and The Girl joining a bus-full of nomadic revolutionary artists or becoming involved in a series of incidents culminating in a Mexican standoff with armed police halfway up Blackpool Tower, I’d like to think they could if they wanted to…
Originally posted: 6 July 2003 on the old Mausoleum Club version of this site.
2006: transferred to the old University of Hull version of this site.
2009: transferred to new Play for Today mini-site initially separate from the British Television Drama site
4 November 2010: first appearance of this essay on the main British Television Drama site, moved from a different URL, as all the pieces from the old mini-site were transferred to the main site.
4 March 2017: standardised presentation of ‘Updates’ legacy information (2003, 2006, 2009) in line with current site practice; removed ‘(first published: 2003)’ from byline as a result.