Play for Today Writer: Dennis Potter; Director: Gareth Davies; Producer: Graeme McDonald
‘If Jesus came today… we would want to shut the door’1
Angels Are So Few represents not only the first Dennis Potter production to appear under the Play For Today banner but the cementing of a new strand in the writer’s career. In fact, the play itself is equally rooted in beginnings and endings, dealing as it does with leaps of faith, death and rebirth.
Producer Graeme McDonald had not expected this potent exploration of sexual and religious game playing when its first draft was submitted to the BBC Drama department on 15 December 1969. A covering note apologised for Potter’s radical departure from the commissioned play, initially scheduled for the then Wednesday Play slot. Condescension, apparently absent from Potter’s surviving papers, was set to be an exploration of middle-aged attitudes to the young and old. Prostitute Reformer (detailing Gladstone’s fascination with ‘fallen women’) and The Last Nazi (a play about Rudolf Hess, commissioned by Mark Shivas for BBC2) were similar proposals which never materialised from this period.
Potter’s attentions had been diverted to a continuation of the ‘visitor’ device first used in A Beast With Two Backs and The Bonegrinder2. In both plays, the writer explored the notion of a new and disruptive spirit entering a community/household and directly causing a seismic shock to their stability, with the visitor’s foreign origin used to underline the prejudices of characters who make contact with him. In Angels Are So Few an alien quality, a germ of this same notion, is retained in Michael Biddle, someone who may be human but insists that he is an angel, sent to Earth so as to carry out God’s work. In a departure from the invasion-of-a-large-community device (cf: Beast…), the action is focussed on the select inhabitants of a suburban street, instead tackling intimate, individual chaos and the ensuing fall-out.
Many of Potter’s Seventies plays are concerned with a ‘visitor’ – often of dubiously human appearance – entering the leafy backwaters of London and targeting defenceless women whilst their husbands are away from home. As the first truly successful example, Angels… uses opposite and harshly sketched characters to articulate his religious frustrations and serve to underline the mixture of devil and angel within us all. In Michael Biddle we have a fallen angel on Earth, dressed like a borderline tramp in an ill-fitting pin striped jacket and the debris of an unbuttoned shirt beneath it. His bare feet and sandals are the chief signifiers of a mind and body unaffected by the freezing conditions of his arrival in a winter time suburbia. In fact, he does eventually confess to being cold, but he remains oblivious to the harsh conditions through his wonder at the world. He is presented as alien and, given the force of Tom Bell’s performance, an intimidating presence, yet his behaviour is ostensibly childlike3.
A lot is apparent in Angels… which may not be real. Biddle casts judgement on each person he meets yet the actual deployment is open to question. There is a playful manner with which Biddle’s ‘powers’ are portrayed – frequently open to coincidence but more often a suggestion that his victims are inventions, their fate written out by a vivid imagination, unfounded in the real world. Potter’s love of creating uncertainty in the viewer is on grand display when the sceptical postman takes off in his collection van, which rapidly overturns in full view of an unaffected reaper. When crowds gather to view the accident and its bloodied casualty, Biddle is an onlooker, yet he is already seen to have moved onto the kitchen of housewife Cynthia Nicholls’ nearby home. Is this a demonstrative flashback, a display of his omnipresence or neither – instead, a fantasy of callous human regard rooted in his view of a ‘spiritless, defunct land’?
To some extent, the fantasies are confirmed by their imprint on film and videotape – the natural movement and acoustics – but little more. Yet there are contradictions to ensure that viewers are keen to decipher the truth. Chief examples are the surprising revelation that the obscure details of Cynthia’s life are known to Biddle, and the neighbouring Mr Cawser’s death is encouraged partly by his wife’s announcement of his heart condition during an escalating row. However, these are borderline issues and can be easily rationalised. More significantly, his promise to return to Cynthia and her ‘salvation’ is followed by a rapturous wander through the streets, angelic music, hands thrown to the heavens and his vanishing into thin air.
A respite from fantasy is the sequence depicting Cynthia’s vocal rebellion against her husband, occurring between Michael Biddle’s two visits to her door. Cynthia and Richard watch a documentary on Danish pornography, with a comically impartial presenter and the articulate defence of sex without love during an interview with one of the actresses. Outraged, the conservative husband switches off the TV. ‘Well, you can’t actually see anything. That chap’s in the way’ is the immediate response to his wife’s protests. Cynthia has been drawn to the Danish girl’s outlook and this signals an outburst against her marital incarceration: ‘It’s the sick people who are scared of sex. The miseries and the tremblers and the bored and the… the sick people!’ She proposes that she would happily sleep with the milkman if he were not so ugly. Richard advises her, in a flippant manner, to visit the local mental hospital and ‘offer yourself to the first male patient you see.’
The common consensus amongst Potter biographers and critical analysts is that the ‘visitor’ plays are in some way using the counter-culture of the Sixties and Seventies as the chief weapon for suburban invasion, frequently separate to the physical alien. And indeed Angels… has evidence of this – the juxtaposition of the Danish film and BBC-1’s Epilogue when the television is switched on moments after Cynthia’s outburst is a clear example of society’s perceived degradation and civilised backbone co-existing. More directly, Cynthia entertains herself in another moment of intimacy the following day when she explores a fashion magazine and mutters to herself ‘Cynthia isn’t wearing panties. Dirty bitch.’
One crucial absence in previous assessments of Angels… is the proliferation of echoes from fairy tales, which is more interesting when one considers that Potter composed an adaptation for adults (Almost Cinderella) which was abruptly rejected by the BBC in the mid-Sixties. In Angels…, the images are rife and the implications shocking. An early scene shows Cynthia and her young son following a tall tale on Playschool (‘and a hand groped to and fro’), whilst Biddle’s later visit to the Cawsers involves an extended recollection of an angel saving a young boy from falling over a precipice whilst reaching for a flower. The flesh and blood ‘angel’, with a mouthful of biscuits, spits with joy like a younger version of the Nicholls’ child. By his second visit, Cynthia has transformed and whispers as he approaches the door ‘won’t you come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly.’ A progression towards innocence lost, Michael’s forced admittance of his surname – negated thus far by his denial of sex in heaven – is a coy reference to Rumpel-stilts-kin.
Coyer still are Cynthia’s little rebellions. Treating Biddle as a madman from the off, all she seems to have drawn from the events of the past day is a need for personal experience, or at the very least a sample of what she sees as the illicit, hedonistic side of sexual liberation. What follows is a final act which initially offers a tug for control. The beginnings are potent in this respect. As Biddle approaches the door and Cynthia wills him away and then back to her in hushed whispers, an ambulance zooms past on its way to the grieving Mrs Cawser: an explicit restatement that this is his fantasy. He enters the Nicholls house with a sly grin, in the certain knowledge that he commands her fate, as promised in their first encounter. Threateningly, he quizzes her in the kitchen as to her beliefs:
We’re far too sceptical these days… you want to believe in angels. You want to believe in something beautiful and terrible, swooping down on you out of the blue without warning. Invading you.
She agrees and immediately the tables turn. Now this is her game, but unlike Biddle that’s all it amounts to – an adventure, an afternoon off, in full possession of her mature faculties. Biddle is defeathered as she leads him to her bedroom, feeding him the sense of seduction in the weighty pauses between sentences and her impatient mother-like treatment of his angelic claims. As with the leggy display of her tights during the previous evening’s row, she now wears pink slippers, which clash coarsely with Biddle’s sandals: a grotesque opposite, and his Beelzebub. Her timid laughs and winks to herself in the wardrobe mirror are frequent reminders of her game playing, yet Biddle’s efforts to retrieve control are minimal. His first sexual experience is obfuscated for the viewer by a montage of angelic statues. This is his last withdrawal and a final gasp of innocence.
John Cook, author of the finest critical analysis of Potter’s work to date, is wrong to conclude that this experiment with counter-culture liberation brings to both characters ‘a kind of blankness and despair’4. Initially this is true, with Biddle’s disgust and frantic escape punctuated only by cursing and his pathetic attempt to prove that he is an angel, by flying from the bedroom window. At this point Cynthia wakens from her own fantasy and is genuinely fearful of Biddle’s death, just as he is of a mortality tinged with sexual knowledge. He runs from the house, leaving Cynthia to consider her pointless game, resigned to the humdrum life she wished to transcend. On the street, Biddle is now pinched by the cold air, but his pathetic posture changes to a smiling, excited one as the strains of an Al Bowlly tune rise over the end credits. He seems to instantly be at one, as if it were an interpretation of Cook’s suggestion that ‘in order to see the truth of one’s own life and solve it properly, the world has to be perceived anew with the eyes of a child’5. For Biddle, this process is complete.
Gareth Davies directed Angels… with his usual aplomb, although he has since gone on record to state that with this play he chose to take an amicable exit from his associations with the author, citing Potter’s new found treatment of women as problematic. ‘He talked a lot about the masturbatory aspect of his writing – he’d say "In my plays, I can create women who do what I want"’6. Undeniably, Potter’s subsequent work featured a great number of manipulative writers (or authors of a different bent) who chose to play God, and it is hard to argue that his oeuvre features a generous share of sympathetically drawn female characters. The seeds of this were sown in Cynthia Nicholls, whose actions are vividly described in April 1970’s camera script as tangibly serpentine.
Of the previous thirteen Potter plays for British television, eight had been directed by Davies whereas other Potter collaborations up until now had been singular efforts with the likes of Lionel Harris, Christopher Morahan and James MacTaggart. A strong, distinctive style permeates the surviving Davies/Potter plays, with subtle but well-informed devices on the director’s part which emphasise the various characters’ estrangement from reality. One thinks of the fantasy drifts in Alice and the escape into Westerns for Hywel Bennett’s character in Where The Buffalo Roam7. Both of these display an understanding of the disorientating fantasy/reality clash which is evidenced in so many of Potter’s plays, not least Angels Are So Few when the viewer is challenged to decide whether Biddle’s killings are vivid examples of God’s judgement or pure wish-fulfilling fantasy. The fluidity of the Radiophonic effect which links the postman’s death to the heartless observer’s admonishment and then on to Cynthia’s kettle whistle is a neat attempt to blur the joins between the fantastic and the mundane. It also serves to signal a later development in the plot without ever feeling heavy-handed.
Angels Are So Few is a solid, confident production detailing with good economy Potter’s preoccupations with sex, female archetypes and religious doubt. The writer’s legacy over the previous five years had been a series of decidedly non-realistic plays which used the immediacy of the kitchen sink, but subverted it in a manner frequently deviating from the norm. Robbed of fantasy by the final act, the set-up of Angels… is chipped away to a purely symbolist treatment of contemporary life – such distilled, adult fairy tales would come to typify Potter’s output in the Seventies.
Originally posted: 1 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.