The Fishing Party (1972)

JOHN WHEATCROFT

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.

The Good Companions (1980-81)

DAVID ROLINSON

Nine parts. Writer: Alan Plater; Adapted from (novel): J.B. Priestley; Music by: David Fanshawe; Producer: Leonard Lewis; Directors: Bill Hays, Leonard Lewis


A “tuneful tonic of merriment and mirth”, The Good Companions is a nine-part Yorkshire Television serial about a touring concert party adapted from J. B. Priestley’s famous 1929 novel.1 It was adapted by Alan Plater, who described the serial as one of his happiest working experiences, but added that it was “interesting but flawed, and didn’t really catch on”.2 That’s a fair assessment, but the serial is certainly more interesting than flawed. Like the two previous film adaptations, the serial risked being written off as undemanding, suffering in part because of the reputation of the source novel. Writing about the 1933 film version, Charles Barr observed that the novel “never had much currency in academic circles”, with supportive opinions outweighed by the impact of “the vinegary attacks on the book and the novelists by the two Leavises”.3 Priestley himself argued that “[s]ome severe critics dislike” stories in the picaresque tradition of “huge wandering tales” as these are “too rambling and easy for them”.4 However, the serial’s ability to parallel the book’s feel-good, episodic qualities is also one of its main strengths. With composer David Fanshawe setting Plater’s lyrics to a variety of song styles, and a lively ensemble cast relishing on-stage music hall scenes and off-stage full production numbers, this is a witty and unashamedly fun serial. The Network DVD release also comes with the 1980 tie-in documentary On the Road, in which Plater interviews Priestley, compares the serial with previous film versions and provides behind-the-scenes footage.5

Dixon of Dock Green in the 1970s

DAVID ROLINSON

The opinion that Dixon of Dock Green (BBC, 1955-76) was a cosy anachronism throughout its existence, and in particular in the 1970s, remains pervasive. Lez Cooke’s excellent study of British television drama fairly summarises the common view that Dixon “gained a reputation as a ‘cosy’ representation of the police and their relationship with the public in the mid-late 1950s”, a representation which was “superseded” in the 1960s and 1970s “by more hard-hitting and up-to-date representations of both the police and the criminal underworld”.1 Dylan Cave goes further in Ealing Revisited, arguing that Dixon‘s long run “wasn’t due to innovation, but to its dogged refusal to acknowledge the pace of a changing Britain, as depicted in the far tougher police series Z Cars and The Sweeney. It was cherished as a reassuring reminder of apparently simpler, gentler times”.2 There is room to question the pervasive generalisation that 1970s Dixon was a cosy anachronism that was smashed up by the arrival of The Sweeney (ITV, 1974-78). As I’ve argued in my previous writing on police drama,3 this generalisation needs to be put under more scrutiny, either by putting The Sweeney in the context of the detailed study of other police and action series of the period (Cooke wisely uses the plural “representations”), or looking into the apparent anomaly that Dixon survived – indeed, was still hugely successful – well into the 1970s. Dixon makes its own use of the changing language of police drama – with its “shooters”, “birds” and “blags” and the prioritisation of the CID while former beat copper Dixon takes a back seat – and reflects the changing practices of, and attitudes towards, the police. Acorn Media’s welcome DVD release of six colour episodes gives me a chance to look more closely at 1970s Dixon to add this article as a supplement to this much longer and more detailed piece on Dixon’s place in the history of police drama.

From The Blue Lamp to The Black and Blue Lamp: The Police in TV Drama

DAVID ROLINSON

Screenplay Writer: Arthur Ellis, Producer: Brenda Reid, Director: Guy Slater


Transporting a character from one era of policing to another, and asking us to consider how both policing and its television representation had changed: these are some of the reasons why Life on Mars (2006-7) and Ashes to Ashes (2008-2010) were rightly acclaimed, but these tactics had previously been attempted in a more ideological way in 1988 by The Black and Blue Lamp. This Screenplay production transported characters from the world of Ealing film The Blue Lamp (1949) to the corrupt, violent world of 1980s policing, here fictionalised as a drama-within-a-drama, The Filth. Whilst Gene Hunt became a popular cultural figure referenced by politicians and media, this play’s view of the police, and of police drama, was so controversial that it has never been repeated or commercially released. Recapped at the start of the play, The Blue Lamp introduces P. C. George Dixon (Jack Warner), the archetypal British policeman, the kind of “bobby on the beat” idealised by successive Home Secretaries. Dixon outlived the film by 26 years (some feat given that the character is killed in the film), appearing in his own series, Dixon of Dock Green (1955-1976), during which time there were marked changes in television drama’s attitudes to the police. The Black and Blue Lamp juxtaposes the world of Dixon with more cynical modern depictions of the police, producing an Ortonesque darkly comic farce in which there isn’t simply a comedy of culture-clash but a deconstruction of the Dixon icon and a witty, political questioning of the relationship between fictional treatments of the police and their role in society.

Sunset Across the Bay (1975)

DAVID ROLINSON

Play for Today Writer: Alan Bennett; Director: Stephen Frears; Producer: Innes Lloyd

‘Knocking-off time…’

Sunset Across the Bay follows a retired couple who move from Leeds to the seaside resort of Morecambe. Their struggle to adapt to retirement produces humour through the observation of Northern dialogue and idiosyncrasies, but moves towards tragedy.1 One of many impressive collaborations between writer Alan Bennett and director Stephen Frears, the play combines understated emotional power and a sense of the social impact of urban planning with a skilful deployment of technique that builds mood, character and theme.

The play (if not the published script) opens with Mrs Liversidge’s spiritedly inept performance of Ivor Novello’s We’ll Gather Lilacs in the Spring Again.2 Its heightened, ‘florid’ delivery is so different from Mam and Dad’s prosaic understatement that it has been called an ‘ironic prologue’.3 However, the song’s lyrics anticipate key moments (‘never leave me’… ‘when you come home once more’), create a relevant sense of moving on by looking backwards (gathering lilacs ‘again’) and foreshadow Mam’s moment of articulacy in the Lake District later, when she performs a poem featuring daffodils.