‘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.’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.

The Lad and the Loser: Budgie (1971-72)

NIGEL SARRASSA-DYER

Twenty-six episodes. Writers: Keith Waterhouse, Willis Hall, Douglas Livingstone, Jack Trevor Story; Producer: Verity Lambert; Directors: Moira Armstrong, Alan Gibson, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Mike Newell, Herbert Wise

BTVD_Budgie_0
Budgie, the story of small time Soho criminal Ronald ‘Budgie’ Bird, was produced by London Weekend Television and ran over two series, each of thirteen episodes, between 1971 and 1972.1 Both series explored the liminal world of pornography, police corruption, criminal scams, violence and petty crime, and Budgie’s place within it. While Budgie has come to be affectionately remembered as a cockney comedy-drama with a charming, irrepressible lead character set in 1970s Soho, and as a series which launched an ‘entire fashion craze’, and is indeed all of these things, it would do the series a huge disservice to ignore its other dimensions, in particular those concerned with gender and masculinity identity.2

As social, economic and cultural changes of the 1970s impacted upon gender relations, a significant number of programmes were able to explore multiple and competing constructions of masculinity. Issues around gender and masculine anxieties featured across a variety of television genres: routinely in sitcoms such as Rising Damp and Man about the House;3 as small parts of wider discourses in dramas like The Knowledge and Comedians;4 and in both the documentary The Family and the science fiction series Survivors.5 With Budgie, however, it is the detailed examination of a particular masculinity at a particular time which is central to the narrative as it is played out in the trajectory of Budgie’s decline and fall.

Rumpole of the Bailey (1975)

JOHN WHEATCROFT

Play for Today; Writer: John Mortimer; Producer: Irene Shubik; Director: John Gorrie

“There is a golden thread running through British justice…”1

Rumpole_image

Horace Rumpole is one of those great fictional characters who emerged fully formed, with the potential to run and run. Like Sherlock Holmes, William Brown and Bertie Wooster, he burst on the scene with virtually all his key character traits established. The barrister whom we meet in the first Rumpole of the Bailey is fundamentally the same man readers and viewers were to follow through numerous television series and radio plays, many volumes of short stores, and a handful of novels. You can even read Rumpole in posh Folio Society editions.

Within a few minutes of the original Play for Today, first broadcast on 16 December 1975, we were introduced to some trademark Rumpole quirks and foibles. He quotes at length his favourite poet, Wordsworth, from Quiller-Couch’s Book of English Verse, refers to his wife, Hilda (Joyce Heron), as “She Who Must Be Obeyed” and wistfully recalls, as he will do so often in the years to come, his triumph as a young barrister in the Penge Bungalow Murders case.