Seeing the whale before it dives


The credits of the film Venus Peter, directed by Ian Sellar in 1989, say that it was based on Christopher Rush’s book A Twelvemonth and a Day, which was published in 1985. I haven’t read that book, but it must be heavily drawn from Rush’s own experience, because his memoir Hellfire and Herring, published in 2007, bears many similarities to the events and characters of the film of eighteen years earlier. However, whereas the tone of the film is gentle, lyrical, dream-like, much of the memoir has a mood of exorcism, reliving pain and unhappiness in order to assuage it.

Venus Peter depicts episodes in the childhood of a boy named Peter in an unidentified fishing village in Scotland at some time during the 1950s or 1960s. Its credits say that it was “shot entirely on location on the Orkney Islands” and that many of its extras are the adults and children of Stromness. In fact Rush actually grew up in St Monans in Fife. One of the film’s key settings is a church which is situated beside the sea and which has a large sailing ship hanging from its nave and I believe this location is not in Orkney but is the medieval parish church of St Monans.


The exterior and interior of the parish church of St Monans, photographed in 1992.


The narrative surrounds Peter with many colourful characters, and Rush’s memoir allows you to identify their real-life equivalents. Epp, the forbidding grandmother figure, was actually his mother’s great-aunt and their landlady. Leebie seems like an aunt, but, as Rush writes in his book, “nobody had ever worked out who exactly Leebie was (and even) Leebie herself didn’t know, or pretended not to.” His young mother, Christina, was certainly close in age to her sisters Jenny and Georgina but Uncle Billy was actually still at school rather than a young adult sailing on the fishing boat Venus.

Scenes of sadism by teachers and parents are often de rigeur in films of childhood as adults expel their long-ago nightmares. Hellfire and Herring does spend a number of pages on the middle-aged and fiendish teacher Miss Sangster and a few about the beautiful and lovable Miss Balsilbie. Sellar’s film gives more prominence to Miss Balsilbie, and places her as a later consolation in Peter’s schooldays rather than in her real-life earlier place. This presents the two teachers as uncannily similar to Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey in the film of Matilda – even though this is a total coincidence, since Dahl only published his novel in the late 1980s and Danny De Vito’s film was made nearly ten years after that. But Miss Balsilbie’s similarity in looks and manner to Jean Brodie in Ronald Neame’s film is probably a direct borrow.

The St Monans of his childhood was “like growing up in a Bosch boneyard, ” says Rush, because, partly due to decades of inbreeding, it was full of people whose looks and behaviour were strange and frightening. Bowfter Sandy went around on all fours trying to bite people’s legs and Kate the Kist visited the boat-builders’ every day to ask to be measured for a coffin. Three others are included in the film. The Blind Man is a classic child’s fear figure out of Treasure Island or Kidnapped, especially as he reacted aggressively to the boys’ teasing. The sailor Gowans who recited meaningless rhyming phrases is made much younger. The genteel but lost Honeybunch, who made outlines of ships with stones on the beach and who had to be washed by the sexton on his workbench because she never bothered to wash herself, becomes Princess Paloma.

Rush’s real-life father was a young Royal Navy sailor from Middlesborough who was briefly posted to Fife during the war, met and married Christina and then returned two years later in 1945, to meet his infant son Christopher. Rush’s memoir recalls him as drunk, disturbed, violent and cruel, and he feels it necessary to describe several horrible scenes, even as he is brave enough to recount how he came to understand his father later when an adult. In Venus Peter, the father is not horrific but certainly flawed, who left his home town to go to sea because he was fearful of responsibility and whose attempts to make amends later are seen as insincere and materialistic.

The fisherman grandfather, master of the Venus, is the prominent adult in the film. In the book he is a little more mysterious, hidden within the larger cast of characters, but in both he is kind, protective, physically impressive and wise.

Religion is presented as an oppressive and threatening and reactionary force in both film and book. St Monans and the adjacent towns in the East Neuk of Fife were called “The Holy City”, says Rush, because of their diverse groups of Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Brethren, Pilgrims, Baptists and Evangelists. The Presbyterian church stands for all religion in the film, and the one authority figure who is more intimidating in the film than in the book is the Reverend Kinnear, although David Hayman is allowed to show him as also sympathetic and supportive.

Nevertheless, religious faith is part of the grandfather’s allegory of creation which ends both book and film. As is the sea. In Venus Peter, Peter says, “the sea is everything”. In Hellfire and Herring, Rush says the sea “(was) my first language, my first university, my alma mater”. Grandfather’s maritime story goes like this: once there was a whale which gave birth to the ship which was the earth…and the whale swam up to heaven…leaving us all alone on the ship. And sometimes, when you look carefully, you can still see the whale… there, before it dives.


Reference :   Rush, Christopher (2007)   Hellfire and Herring: a Childhood Remembered   London:Profile


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Did the counter-culture end?


“There was just a moment in time …when that counter-cultural thing could have happened,” said Shaun Keaveny on his BBC Radio 6 Music programme, reflecting on the Woodstock music festival, “and then it all sort of disappeared again.”

Alternatively, one might argue that a great deal of the counter-culture ethos of the late 1960s did take root in private and public life in the USA and Europe, and spread further in the decades afterwards.

A few examples?

The US presidency of Jimmy Carter, a great fan of Bob Dylan and other popular music of the day, whose government style appeared to be strongly shaped by the counter-culture ethos.

The US presidency of Bill Clinton, who, as Johnnie Walker on BBC Radio 1 pointed out in 1992, was “younger than any of the Rolling Stones and who (played) a mean saxophone.”

The ubiquity of denim as a material of casual clothes, never out of fashion for one second since Woodstock.

Long hair and facial hair for men became totally acceptable throughout the 1970s for older members of the middle-class professions, not merely idling drug-taking students, to the extent that the young rebels of the later 1970s had to revert back to short hair to demonstrate their subversion! Long hair and beards have enjoyed other periods of trendiness since.

The fact that many men in the highest elected government positions and in the most esteemed positions in public life have been self-confessed users of illegal drugs. (You know their names.)

The fact that couples living together and producing children together without being married has been commonplace and unremarkable for many years.

The continuation of mass political protest, most visibly perhaps the protests against nuclear weapons in the 1980s, the anti-war protests of the 2000s and the “green” protests of the 1990s and the present day – even when they are seen to be not very effective.

Bob Dylan as winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, which perhaps says less about Dylan’s achievements than about the changed knowledge and tastes of the Swedish Academy which made the selection.

Most especially, the constant cultural status of pop and rock music. Shown in the way that most people’s understanding of the word “music” is the pop and rock music produced since 1955 ; that the BBC, one of the most respected broadcasting companies in the world, has four 24-hour radio stations devoted to pop and rock music and only one which regularly covers the other genres; that every summer there are many weekends of large outdoor pop/rock music concerts which are often also broadcast on national radio and TV stations; that the pop/rock music of the past is continually replayed in the soundtracks to films, in TV documentaries and in the performances of “tribute bands” both famous and local.

But one example where the values of the counter-culture have certainly not taken root? That during the last fifty years, in practically every country in the world, material wealth has become more unevenly shared,  and that poverty and deprivation remains visibly widespread.


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Your most important job?


The media of my youth was full of (male) polymaths, I reflected, when I read about the recent death of another. Bryan Magee was a philosophy academic who was also a Labour MP and a television presenter. Two TV series which he presented for the BBC about philosophy now seem astonishingly old-fashioned in their intellectual earnestness; at the time they were screened, I’m afraid, any such discussion programmes I would have been watching would be on the less demanding subjects of cinema, theatre, books and music.

Also on TV in the later 1980s was Pat Kane. He was the lead vocalist and co-songwriter of Hue and Cry, one of several British bands of the period who took their musical cues from US soul and jazz music. From the start, he was a confident interviewee on both musical and political topics, and at one point, I remember, he was writing two Saturday columns for The Herald newspaper, one interacting with theories of arts and culture and the other dealing with day-to-day political issues. As time passed, Kane participated more in the media and less in music. His two current websites The Play Ethic and Thoughtland show a variety of intellectual interests and suggest an impressive capacity for hard work and learning new skills.

Kane’s singing style famously recalled Frank Sinatra as much as Marvin Gaye or John Lennon, and he and his keyboardist brother Greg were an ambitious pair who liked to set themselves apart from contemporaries who sounded similar. For instance, they worked with acclaimed young Scottish jazz and classical saxophonist Tommy Smith, and, on the Big Day concert in June 1990 as part of Glasgow’s City of Culture events, I recall they appeared on the international stage at Glasgow Green with Nanci Griffiths and Les Négresses Vertes rather than the UK pop stage at George Square with Wet Wet Wet.

The Kane brothers’ latest musical work in Hue and Cry shows they have both retained much of their original expertise even if the passage of time makes it sound rather repetitive and familiar. Pat Kane has built a decent career on transferable skills, but I wonder if he wishes his musical career had been more like David Byrne’s or even Damon Albarn’s: more records, bigger venues, more chances to develop musically, a higher reputation among his peers as an artistic innovator.

Jonathan Miller was already a qualified doctor when he became a comedy writer and performer with Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore in the stage revue Beyond the Fringe. That success led him to more serious work as a theatre and television director. I discovered him as an engaging conversationalist and raconteur on such TV shows as Michael Parkinson’s in the 1970s , where he regularly protested that he was a serious medical person first and that all these stage and TV performances were distractions which he would soon pull himself away from. These different strands in his professional life did seem to come together with his TV series on medicine The Body in Question, although I personally was more interested in his stint as producer of the BBC’s project (during 1978-1984) to televise all of Shakespeare’s plays.

Michael Parkinson’s first period of BBC shows ended in 1982 but revived successfully in 1998 – by which time the original “chat show” description was being replaced more often by the more grandiose American “talk show”, probably because the format was becoming ever more ubiquitous in the TV schedules. I remember noting that similar groups of celebrities whom Parkinson interviewed in the olden days returned in the new period: established Hollywood actors, TV comedians, and sometimes the same people, like Michael Caine or Billy Connelly. But I never saw again Jonathan Miller. He was now in his mid-60s, and he probably felt that the format of the TV interview and the interests of TV audiences had changed too much.

George Thomson was also a Labour MP,  a few years before Bryan Magee, who later became one of the UK’s representatives on the European Commission when the country first joined what was then called the EEC . However he started his adult life as a journalist with DC Thomson, the Dundee-based publisher famous for children’s comics as well as adult newspapers and magazines. “I sometimes wonder,” I heard him say once on TV, “whether I added more to the sum total of human happiness during the years when I was editor of the Dandy.”


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Family loss and international literature


I heard Seamus Heaney give a public reading at the Third Eye Centre  in Glasgow in 1984. He described how he had treated the subject of the Ulster Troubles during the first years of his writing. He tended to use symbolism and allegory, such as in “Punishment”, where a medieval woman crushed to death for adultery is compared to girls tarred and feathered by the IRA for similar “betrayal”. That changed, he said, when his relation Colum McCartney was killed. Then he chose to deal with the subject directly, in a poem called “The Strand at Lough Beg”.

“The Strand at Lough Beg” begins with a quote from Dante and mentions “a high bare pilgrim’s track” and the medieval Sweeney, but does quickly add modern images of “a faked road block”, “sudden brakes” and “the cold-nosed gun”.
Its initial focus is on the landscape and its history and then moves to a farming family and to this deceased individual. Its closing image appears to link the present-day death back to the Christianity of the past: “I plait green scapulars to wear over your shroud”.

Another Heaney poem about the contemporary violence in Northern Ireland is “Casualty”, from the same collection, Field Work, in 1979. According to US based writer Sean Lynch, the unnamed victim personified in this poem was another relation of Heaney, Louis O’ Neill.

I was first drawn to “Casualty” for its distinctive rhythm and shape, with its short lines and stanzas of 10 lines or so; the same trimeter structure as Yeats’ “Easter 1916” and Auden’s “September 1 1939”   used to evoke a serious reflective tone. And to the way that the soft rhythm and the sympathetic observation of village life and of this one individual man shifts dramatically at the end of the first section to “a curfew…after they shot dead the thirteen men in Derry. PARAS THIRTEEN…BOGSIDE NIL.” I was fascinated by serious artists addressing present-day political issues and this was a striking example.

In its second and third sections, “Casualty” regains its gentle rhythm and sounds, feminine endings and assonance, and presents a series of vivid images: of a funeral, of a small local pub, of a boat out fishing. “Wind-blown surplice and soutane”, “like blossoms on slow water”, “swimming towards the lure of warm lit-up places”, “quiet walkers and sideways talkers shoaling out of the lane”, “the respectable purring of the hearse”, “the screw purling, turning”, “dawn-sniffing revenant”.

The title of “Casualty” gives prominence to the victim of an act of violence, but the narrator’s closing emotion is puzzlement rather than anger. The title of “The Strand at Lough Beg” suggests that the quiet landscape remains untarnished. While both poems describe modern violence intervening suddenly and brutally into the settled community, Heaney’s classic poetic eloquence seems to show that long-established cultural values have held fast.


Some of the Northern Ireland landscapes written about by Seamus Heaney as his fame grew in the 1970s and 1980s. The Bogside area of Derry as seen from the old walled city, and the Derry Guildhall , both photographed in 1995, and a village street in County Armagh, photographed in 2008.


Heaney was already being celebrated as a great poet in a great tradition when I first came across his name in the mid- 1970s. His Nobel Prize for Literature was forecast long before he actually received it in 1995. His readings and media appearances were enjoyed and admired up to his death in 2013. However, some, like his fellow Ulster poet and academic Kevin Kiely and the younger Irish writer Mary O’Regan feel that he has been praised too effusively for work which is artistically conservative.

Northern Ireland has enjoyed relative peace since the Good Friday agreement in 1998 but its future relationship within the UK is being discussed with a new scrutiny due to the latter’s departure from the European Union. Perhaps that will mean too that Seamus Heaney and his writing will not be seen in future in the same old-fashioned way.


References :
Heaney, Seamus (1979)   Field Work    London: Faber
Heaney, Seamus (1980)    Selected Poems 1965-1975    London: Faber


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And after the “one small step”?


I’m old enough to have been watching television at the time of the Apollo space programme. I do remember watching part of the Apollo 11 moon landing on television – although I have a clearer memory of a newspaper headline  : the Daily Express’ straightforwardly factual, and therefore dramatic, “Man on the Moon.”

As has often been repeated, there was a widely shared opinion in that era that this would be the first stage in a continuous journey of space exploration, which would have benefits in commerce and culture as well as in science.

Although never much drawn to science fiction in print or on screen, I did once read a novel called 2001 (which may have been Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 book or a post-film cash-in)) and I have kept a strong memory of the particular tone of this section.  “No matter how many times you left Earth, Dr. Heywood Floyd told himself, the excitement never really palled. He had been to Mars once, to the moon three times and to the various space stations more often than he could remember…”

The world of the early 21st century as imagined forty years earlier. Confident and optimistic certainly, but perhaps even presumptious?


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Odd one out


When you are travelling, it’s often particularly satisfying to see very individual buildings alongside more generic designs. For example, the art nouveau buildings of Palma in Mallorca and the art deco Bacardi building alongside the local baroque in Havana in Cuba.

In Vancouver, Canada, a similar moment is experienced when you see the Marine building, its 1930 art deco features in marked contrast to the steel and glass towers of the present-day harbourfront business district.



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On the iron road


The Union Pacific and the Central Pacific companies jointly built in the 1860s the first railway to cross most of the USA. The Canadian Pacific joined the two coasts of that country in 1887. Amtrak now covers long distances linking many of the towns and cities in both the USA and Canada.

The Rocky Mountaineer was a later rail arrival, but has now run several tourist services on the west coast for 30 years. I joined in a journey from Jasper, Alberta to Kamloops, British Columbia and then down to Vancouver, about 500 miles over two days.

As well as dramatic scenery and the occasional native animal, we passed huge freight trains which carry such cargoes of potash, grain and cars in convoys of dozens of carriages.



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An earlier People’s Poet


Once upon a time, long before Carol Ann Duffy became Poet Laureate or Kate Tempest earned nominations for the Mercury Prize, Liz Lochhead was a young and modern and successful female poet. Her career progressed to the point where, to date, she has published nine volumes of poetry and many other writings, and was appointed as the second Scottish makar or national poet in 2011. She was always more part of a literary tradition than a performer tradition, so that may be why she has sometimes been an overlooked part of her country’s cultural life.

Her first volume Memo for Spring in 1972 introduced many of the characteristics of Lochhead poems which have remained fairly constant. A conversational, free verse style, using word play, alliteration and assonance, but only an occasional use of rhyme. Also a keen eye for the details of behaviour and relationships and fashion and place. As shown in the primary-school-age farmyard terror of “Revelation”, the more grown-up perspective of “For my Grandmother Knitting”; in “Box Room” , dealing with your boyfriend’s family, and “How Have I Been?”, coping with the break-up. If you were looking for influences from earlier poets, you might detect hints of T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, Allan Ginsberg, Philip Larkin and Dylan Thomas.

The Grimm Sisters in 1981 introduced a new creative line, a feminist revision of fairy-tales and legends, nearly 20 years before Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife. For example, in “The Storyteller”, “Three Twists” about Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast and several poems about “hags” and “furies”; the narrative of “Tam Lin’s Lady” and the Scots language of “The Beltane Bride” looked forward to how she might combine both in the play Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped Off.

Lochhead wrote about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein in her first theatre play Blood and Ice. This was explored further in the next poetry collection Dreaming Frankenstein, with the title poem and “What the Creature Said”. “The Legend of the Sword & the Stone” draws on Arthurian imagery to depict sexual relations. “Fetch on the First of January” uses the Scots language again in a ghost story which recalls Burns’ “Tam O’Shanter”.

Dreaming Frankenstein also includes some poems about North America. For example, “Fourth of July Fireworks” hints at “The Waste Land” and The Great Gatsby. “Hafiz on Danforth Avenue” – subtle and engaging observation about life in the Greek area of Toronto – is set during December so vividly reminds me of my own winter work stay in the city around the same time.

Lochhead came to prominence at a time when arts organisations were keen to enlarge the audience for poetry through readings and book festivals. She was always a regular public reader, often alongside other central Scotland writers like Edwin Morgan, Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Agnes Owens and Alan Spence. After I heard her read aloud, her poetry on the page always retained that distinctive tone and pace and rhythm.

She ventured from readings into revue and early versions of what we later called “rap” – anticipating Kate Tempest, who nowadays enjoys a status in both literature and popular music. “Vymura: the Shade Card Poem” and “The Suzanne Valadon Story” draw on Lochhead’s visual arts background, while she produced a number of broader feminist satires like “Men Talk” and “Page Three Dollies”.

One work whose future reputation seems most secure is the play Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped Off, first produced in 1987. It is studied currently in Scottish schools, was one of the few older plays to be revived by the National Theatre of Scotland and is accessible and engaging as well as literary and continually relevant.

Much of the richness of Lochhead’s ideas and writing seems to stem from her awareness of her identity as a middle-class educated metropolitan child of working-class parents, and from a wish to blend always these two parts of her life together. One example is the undogmatic and affectionate homage she pays to her family background and early schooling in what she once described as “a wee bilingual poem”: “Kidspoem/Bairnsang”.

The present-day media gives a lot of attention to individuals whom they perceive as cultural and political role models for women and for people from ethnic minorities or from unprivileged backgrounds – often applying the phrase “you can’t be what you can’t see ”. To Liz Lochhead’s generation of Scots, even if we’re not female: a large part of our life is documented here.


References :      Lochhead, Liz  (1984)   Dreaming Frankenstein and Collected Poems    Edinburgh: Polygon
Lochhead, Liz  (2003 ed)  True Confessions and New Clichés      Edinburgh: Polygon


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Eurovision, and the particular legacy of Brighton 1974


The weekend of the Eurovision Song Contest, the most well-known event of the European Broadcasting Union and popular music’s closest equivalent to an international celebration, is another suitable time to reflect again about the decades of changes in the music.

As I was growing up, it was obvious that the USA and the UK were the dominant forces in pop and rock music. Other countries’ artistes sometimes seemed to copy openly these countries’ originals; for example, Johnny Hallyday in France. If only more pop music heard in the UK was sung in languages other than English, I used to think, more young people would be encouraged to learn such languages. But such artistes never seemed to emerge into the music mainstream.  Artistes from other countries who enjoyed international status tended to be instrumentalists, like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream from Germany. World music artistes from the French- and Spanish-speaking countries remained a niche market. The music world became more European only with the rise of electronic dance music in the 1980s, building through the continental clubs of Ibiza and Ayia Napa and the Sónar festival of Barcelona, and most of this music was instrumental where any vocals in any language were unimportant.


Views of three cities which have hosted the Eurovision Song Contest: Amsterdam, and, below, Paris and Bergen.


In its beginning the Eurovision Song Contest was definitely a forum for western and central Europe. Political changes like the end of the Soviet Union and the enlargement of the European Union led to the event being hosted and contested by countries formerly on the fringes of and even outside the continent. The fifteen or so participants in the 1960s has now more than doubled to this year’s 40. Qualification procedures seem now as tortuous as for the UEFA Champions League or Formula One motor-racing.

In the 1970s, it was sometimes seen as ironic that, at a time when British pop/rock songwriters and performers like Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Elton John and David Bowie were so successful all around the world, none of these people represented the country in the Eurovision Song Contest. That was possibly because it was felt that the UK was doing well enough with acts who might be considered as our “second eleven”, like Cliff Richard, Sandie Shaw, Lulu and the Shadows. Whatever, it allowed our major figures to concentrate on their serious work in the important markets and stages.

The most musically significant of the artistes who have won the competition during its history is probably Abba, who won in Brighton in 1974. Although Scandinavian, they sang in English, following the dominant US-UK paradigm. Their Eurovision victory led to an international career and further decades of influence and homage.


The Grand Hotel in Brighton.


In the 1970s any self-respecting pop/rock producer or artist could compose a strong melody. Because it was a minimum requirement of which everyone seemed to be capable, it led to arguments among fans about which practitioners were the more culturally acceptable. Abba became an acceptable pop act for the musically snobbish – which most of us were at least some of the time. Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (occasionally assisted by Stig Andersson) wrote some great melodies and arrangements for songs like “SOS”, “Money Money Money”, “The Name of the Game”, “Take a Chance on Me”, “One of Us”and “Head Over Heels”. They also wrote lyrics in their second language which were at worst perfectly serviceable, and at best witty and sensitive.

Nowadays I am more interested in the European Broadcasting Union for their annual radio days of music for Holy Week, and Advent broadcast in the UK by BBC Radio 3, but a lifetime of listening to pop music has included at least a little attention to the Eurovision Song Contest. While it may not have helped to raise musical standards, it will still, in the middle of a period of European division,  remind viewers and listeners of ideas and a culture which they share in common.


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The difference between Jane Austen and Tracy Austin


The Open University is marking its 50th anniversary, so no surprise that the BBC screened a programme in celebration. Rather disappointing, though, that the programme made no mention of that popular play and film which was such a great advertisement for the OU, ie Educating Rita.

I first saw Willy Russell’s play during its first run in 1980 and on my first ever visit to London. Russell’s name meant little to me: what attracted me to Educating Rita was that it starred Julie Walters who I had liked in her first couple of TV plays by Victoria Wood . It was staged in the Warehouse, which was then the smaller of two London theatres run by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Since 1992, it has been the ever-more starry and successful Donmar Warehouse.

I remember that in general I enjoyed Educating Rita, and its story of working-class Open University student Rita and middle-class middle-aged alcohol-soaked academic Frank. Clearly, many others shared my opinion because the play transferred to the West End and later toured the UK. In its original cast, Julie Walters was, at least to me, better known than the actor who played Frank, one Mark Kingston. In fact Kingston, although not a star, was an established theatre and TV name, and it’s perfectly possible that he was chosen to reduce the pressure on the new play and the younger actress. On other occasions, though, the person who played Frank was usually better-known than the one who played Rita. When I saw the play in Glasgow during its tour in 1982, Frank was played by Tom Baker, well-known from Doctor Who on television, while Kate Fitzgerald was Rita. And of course, in the film directed by Lewis Gilbert in 1983, although Julie Walter’s stock was rising fast enough that she was chosen to reprise her stage role, she had a far lower status than did Michael Caine. That practice has continued when the play has been revived in recent years.

The film was rated highly enough at the time of its release to earn three Oscar nominations. It certainly seemed to reinvigorate Michael Caine’s career into some more varied roles and eventually into two Oscars. The original play with its two characters and one set was “opened out”, to use the popular term, with additional characters and additional scenes.

One of Willy Russell’s jokes which I didn’t grasp the first time was where Frank asks Rita, “Do you know Yeats?” and she responds in puzzlement, “You mean the wine lodge?” At that time that chain of pubs was not known in Scotland. So my artistic appreciation was definitely enhanced a day or two later when, exploring further the centre of London, I saw a sign for – Yates Wine Lodge. Nevertheless I was surprised that the joke remained in the film script:  would other audiences outside England not have been equally mystified? Especially when the film chose not to use what I feel is a better word-play joke with a wider reach – “an educated woman is the sort of woman who can tell the difference between Jane Austen and Tracy Austin”. Austin’s tennis playing career continued for ten more years after the film’s release, and she still appears on TV as a commentator and pundit.

There is one place where the film is immeasurably better than the play. Rita is a hairdresser, and the play ends with a scene of comic innuendo where she takes off her jacket as she says suggestively to Frank, “I’m going to take years off you!” – before revealing she plans only to cut his hair. In the film, this scene is the second last and the final one shows the neatly coiffured Frank revealing Rita’s successful examination results. A much more suitable conclusion to a drama about personal progress and empowerment through education.


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