Ingmar Bergman’s The Lie (1970)

JOHN WHEATCROFT

Play for Today / The Largest Theatre in the World Writer: Ingmar Bergman; Translated by Paul Britten Austin; Producer: Graeme McDonald; Director: Alan Bridges

‘The truth will tear us apart’

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There has been much talk recently about contemporary television producing drama superior to anything that the cinema currently has to offer. Any vestiges of snobbery about the supposed inferiority of the small screen have been snuffed out with directors such as Martin Scorsese and David Fincher choosing to work in television. Jane Campion, the New Zealander who directed An Angel at my Table and The Piano, said in an interview for The Times that TV is now producing the more pioneering work. Campion, who has directed a six-part crime thriller for television which was launched at Sundance and received its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, said after seeing HBO’s Deadwood: ‘Who is commissioning this stuff? This is a revolution, something is really happening in television.’1 It does not follow of course that revolutionary film directors will have a big impact (Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire had mixed reviews) when they transfer their attentions to TV.

Angels are So Few (1970)

IAN GREAVES

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.

Angels Are So Few (publicity photo)

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.

The Hallelujah Handshake (1970)

DAVID ROLINSON

Play for Today Writer: Colin Welland; Director: Alan Clarke; Producer: Graeme McDonald

“It’s as if he’s in constant chaos, reaching out for outstretched hands that just crumble in his grasp…”

BTVD_titleNot until the end of The Hallelujah Handshake do we discover the real identity of its central character, David Williams (played by Tony Calvin).1 A petty criminal and small-time thief on a repetitive cycle of police warnings and short prison sentences, Williams is an inveterate liar. A lonely storeman (or, perhaps, storyman), he passes himself off as Henry Tobias Jones (a touring writer who has visited the Bahamas and once had a football trial), John Rhys Davies (Welsh BBC Orchestra) and others. I have given away the ending here not to “explain” David, but to draw attention to the play’s refusal to do so. This is one of the reasons that Colin Welland’s play is so fascinating and so deceptively complex.

The Rank and File (1971)

JOHN WILLIAMS

Play for Today Writer: Jim Allen; Director: Kenneth Loach; Producer: Graeme McDonald

‘I go along with Trotsky, that life is beautiful, that the future generation cleanses all the oppression, violence and evil’

Most of Ken Loach’s work for television has attracted at least some critical writing because of his towering reputation in the cinema. Even so, The Rank and File has generally been overlooked in favour of the first Loach/Allen Wednesday Play collaboration The Big Flame (1969), and both writer and director seem to have mixed feelings about the piece. Allen stated that the play ‘was written in three weeks…if you get too didactic, politically or otherwise, as I probably did in The Rank and File, it can be a lantern lecture’,1 and Loach has commented that ‘the [films] we’ve done that show their age badly are the ones where you’re trying to catch the headlines and be topical…some of the films from the early seventies’.2 However Rank…, while superficially similar to The Big Flame, was written for specific reasons about a recent strike, rather than a (prophetic) vision of a political occupation. And Loach’s own reference to topicality should lead us consider that one of the strengths of the Play for Today strand lay in the ability, as in this case, to move with astonishing speed from a real-life event to a fictional representation in just under 11 months. The urgency of such a representation is not diminished just because the events that inspired Rank… have become obscure footnotes in twentieth century industrial relations, but I’d like to try and illuminate some of the historical background to the play, and also look at what it tells us about the role of politics, specifically Trotskyite politics, in the BBC Plays department at the time.

Traitor (1971)

DAVID ROLINSON

Play for Today Writer: Dennis Potter; Director: Alan Bridges; Producer: Graeme McDonald
John le Mesurier with Dennis Potter (photo © Radio Times)

“I had to turn my back on all that I had been brought up to love…”

Western journalists visit Moscow to interview Adrian Harris (John Le Mesurier), a former controller in British intelligence who was also a Soviet agent passing on vital information, and who has now defected. Harris believes in both Communism and Englishness – he believes that he has betrayed “my class, yes… my country, no” – but the press find these beliefs incompatible, and want to find out why he became a “traitor”. Harris is plagued by anxieties over his actions and his upper-class childhood, and drinks to a state of collapse. Describing Traitor by using a synopsis gives the misleading impression that the play has a straightforward attitude to Harris’s psychology, just as its staging can be too easily seen as conventional – apart from a few filmed scenes and flashbacks, much of the play is based around dialogue-heavy confrontation on one set, which led some reviewers to find it “heavy going”, a “static and verbose” piece “long on self-conscious speeches and dialogue tussles which depended for their effectiveness upon liberal use of literary quotations”.1 It is no surprise that it was later remade for radio.2 However, Traitor is one of the most thematically ambitious of Dennis Potter’s early plays, tackling family psychology, patriotism and, through nuanced use of literary quotation, the way culture and institutions reinforce political values.