Tag Archives: Television

“You men and the war”

 

Some photographs of Newcastle and Durham – the approximate settings of “When the Boat Comes In” – including a few buildings which would have been recognised by its 1920s characters.

 

I was a great fan of the drama series When the Boat Comes In, written mostly by James Mitchell, when it was first screened on BBC television in 1976 and 1977. While my initial viewing was random and perfunctory – it was scheduled after the essential Top of the Pops and I was already a fan of its lead actor James Bolam through Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – I was soon engrossed in its dramatization of working-class life in the north-east of England in the years directly after World War One.  In particular by the exploits of Jack Ford, played by Bolam, the handsome, clean-featured ex-sergeant who appears to have survived unscathed four years of trench warfare in France and Flanders , plus a period of unspecified “intelligence” work with the British forces supporting the White Russians against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. Ford is simultaneously presented as ambitious, charming, generous, resourceful and ruthless, whose leadership qualities are variously used in becoming the local head of his trade union and in challenging local employers, making money as an independent capitalist and promoting the careers and employment of those he regards as friends.

That historical period was a popular setting for drama then,  as it still is. It was a time of great social upheaval as people moved out of domestic service and farms into factories and as women gained a more independent and public role. The battles of the Great War were fought over small geographical areas by soldiers who knew similar small geographical areas, serving alongside men from the same locality as themselves. The scale of its casualties was horrendous and notorious so those who returned home without serious injury must have been regarded with some awe.

Watching the series again provides a striking reminder of how many ways and on how many occasions it is that recently fought war which specifically influences the present behaviour and ideas of the characters. This begins in the very first episode, pointedly entitled “A Land Fit for Heroes and Idiots”, with Jack Ford’s overt cynicism at inaccurate newsreel footage of the war and his organised political protest of throwing down campaign medals in scorn at the victorious Liberal parliamentary election candidate. 40 episodes later, in the story “High Life and Hunger”, Ford scornfully refers back to that Lloyd George “Land Fit for Heroes” promise as he watches hunger marchers .

In between those two episodes, James Mitchell and the other scriptwriters contrived many other convincing devices to show the dark shadow of war experience stretching into every area of post-war existence. For example, the way in which Ford plans a sheep-stealing expedition like “a trench raid” and how he publicly identifies the former regiments of Fitters Union members to show the union official from London that his members are professionally trained to “deal with” strike-breakers; how the unpleasant Channon knows as much about explosives as Ford or any of the more heroic characters from his own war service with the engineers and so is unpersuaded by their explanation of the destruction of the priceless Vanburgh-designed house Mandrake Place; the plight of the widow Elsie Carter who gets no war pension because her husband though killed in France was not on active duty; the reason why “Ten Bob” Tiverton the artist who had lost an arm took to forging bank notes. The war is also the source of one of the longest narrative threads: Ford’s business association and rivalry with Sir Horatio Manners, the nouveau-riche father of his former company commander. Small wonder that female characters of different social classes, whether Sarah Headley or Lady Caroline Summers, often make at different times comments like “You men and the war” at yet another memory or anecdote.

The programme’s fourth and final series, broadcast originally in 1981, stretched the story into more specific events, beyond the Wall Street Crash and into the rise of Nazism and the Spanish Civil War. These did allow some variation of the Ford character, presenting him as prone to excessive drinking, a little less impressive and a little more jaundiced, still ambivalent about how to balance and blend his competing individualist and collectivist instincts. He angrily lists at one point the only true friends he ever had: army comrades who are now dead.

Living now in London, he criticises a beggar who is exaggerating his war experience to encourage more generous donations. By this time we have heard Ford himself repeat on several occasions one particular war experience about watching the death of the young officer, Captain Manners (“What am I doing here, sergeant? I should be at the Savile Club” ) – always to impress the listener, usually female. From the very start of the series we know that he had had saved the life of Matt Headley, his later union colleague and Labour councillor, but only much later that his own life was once saved by a Sergeant Major Fred Randall. His parting advice to the beggar is “Get your story straight”. Perhaps we wonder by this time how many of Ford’s past exploits are true, how often we the audience might have been taken in by his charming loquaciousness, but nobody is now around to provide an alternative version.

Like all TV drama series from the 1970s and 1980s, When the Boat Comes In is true to its own period, showing its debt in construction and presentation to theatre plays such as by Shaw or Priestley. This means that it includes one or two comic-dramatic set-pieces which tend to slow down the excitement of the narrative, like the party turns at the Seaton family’s New Year party and the storyline of digging for coal under the Seaton front room. However, most of those first three series contained richly written and convincingly acted stories of poverty, unemployment, industrial conflict, political activism, slum living, hand-to-mouth subsistence and the slow struggle to comfort and (sometimes even) prosperity. And even the weaker episodes still show a craftmanship which is missing from 21st century TV standards.

 

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Rebuilding

 

Broken,  recently screened on UK BBC2, may seem to have several differences in tone and style from the channel’s earlier Rev. After all, the latter was scheduled as a comedy rather than a drama, in 30 minute rather than 60 minute episodes. However, at their hearts, their two presentations of society, religion, Christian ministers and their congregations are very similar.

In Broken, Fr Michael Kerrigan, a middle-aged Catholic priest from a northern English parish, attempts to help with a number of serious problems suffered by individuals in his local community. For example, Christina is a single parent who loses her job as manager of gambling arcade and then postpones reporting the death of her mother so she can illegally claim her pension income for one last week. Roz is another single parent from a slightly more prosperous background who confesses to Michael of her embezzlement and huge gambling debts and who sees suicide as the only escape from her predicament. Helen is an African mother whose mentally disturbed son Vernon, returned home prematurely, is killed by police during an episode of his violent behaviour.

Three more individuals are involved in the aftermath of Vernon’s death. Andrew, a policeman, knows that the boy was killed unnecessarily but gives into pressure from peers and superiors to compile a false report. Daniel, Vernon’s uncle, supports Helen in his fierce contact with the police, but his conservative views about homosexuality prompt him to insult and assault the compassionate but vulnerable gay neighbour Carl, who immediately makes a formal complaint of a hate crime to the same police.

Inside this multi-stranded plot, Jimmy McGovern’s script still spends a fair amount of time analysing the character of Fr Michael. Studious and interested in literature as a child, abused by a teacher-priest but then disbelieved by his parents, inheriting some of the conventional working-class morality of his 1970s childhood and passing on to others some of the cruelty he personally suffered. Nevertheless, he has sought to assuage early ills by decades of service as a priest, and is depicted as a kind and brave leader of his community even while still haunted by his past.

So the drama’s title clearly applies to its lead character. Also, unsurprisingly, it describes his community, with its areas of unemployment and poverty and a prevalence of gambling outlets, and also his parish church, an old building, architecturally impressive but perhaps overwhelming and unwelcoming, certainly shown to be frequently empty with Masses attended only by small congregations.

A striking visual comparison between Broken and Rev. is that directors of both used repeatedly a shot of high church doors being opened by the priest to let the daylight in. In Rev. this appeared to represent Anglican priest Adam Smallbone’s attempt to address his church’s diverse local community; the equivalent in Broken seems to presage Fr Michael’s regular recall of scenes of past personal anguish.

Michael’s immediate family places heavy demands on him as much as does his parish, although we do see him able to relax at church socials and with his brothers, and his relationship with his frail housebound mother clearly brings him joy. Throughout the episodes of Rev., Adam faces many of the same problems, doubts and opposition as Michael, although he is younger, has a supportive professional wife and benefits from additional administrative assistance in managing his myriad responsibilities.

In Broken, Michael sometimes discusses his problems with Peter, a fellow priest. We learn so little about Peter (despite him being played by a well-known actor) that gradually it is tempting to see him as the personification of Michael’s conscience. Certainly the way in which the camera moves away from him in the last episode also reminds me strongly of the final exit of the angel Dudley in the film The Bishop’s Wife. That further reminded me that Rev., mostly convincingly realistic in tone, also has one notable scene towards its end which seemed more spiritual or fantastic: where Adam, in the depths of despair, meets a friendly stranger in scruffy sportswear (also played by a well-known actor) who already knows his name and who tells him “I’ll always be here” before disappearing.

Both Rev. and Broken have similar conclusions which are encouraging to those of us who believe in the value of religious faith. In Rev., Adam’s church is due to close and he to resign from the ministry, but friends and colleagues coax him back to carry out an Easter Vigil service and his daughter’s belated baptism. Broken shows Michael persuaded out of his vow to leave the priesthood both by his siblings attending Mass and receiving Communion at his mother’s funeral and by those individual parishioners from the previous crises all quietly praising him as “you wonderful priest” as they receive Communion.

Both Broken and Rev. were excellent pieces of television drama about Christianity in modern Britain, and if I find Broken prone to stereotype a little more than I do Rev. it is probably only because I know the Catholic church and the Catholic religion much better than I do the Church of England.

 

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Some linguistics research – or perhaps just complaining about the way younger people speak…

 

Words come in and out of fashion. “Groovy” came and went fairly swiftly, “cool” has stayed around longer. Of the many words which changed meanings after medieval times, one of the most widely known is “fond” : meaning “stupid” when King Lear applies it to himself in Shakespeare’s play in the early 17th century, shifting to “affectionate” by the 20th century. I am sure the phrase “disc jockey” which I grew up with amused or annoyed older people who were accustomed to use the noun to describe someone who rode horses. I remember distinctly my surprise the first time I read a sentence including the phrase “spin doctor”, around the 1992 UK General Election, and, coincidentally, also around the namesake US band’s brief fame – and this phrase it is still commonly used.

All this is a prelude to listing some phrases which have become common parlance, even among journalists and broadcasters who are not young, but which sound rather ugly and unhelpful to my ears. Probably many of these usages have emigrated from the USA or Australasia and via cinema and TV – routes of travel heavily used for many years. Of course, such a list shows that the list-maker is more prone to nostalgia and conservatism rather than looking forward in optimism…

Anything which is unlikely or unachievable is now “a big ask” rather than “asking a lot” or “expecting a lot”.

A new feeling or attitude or condition will now “kick in” rather than “take effect”.

If something which needs caution or action is about to happen to you, you now need a “heads-up” rather than a “warning”.

An event which will begin immediately starts “from the get-go” rather than “from the word go”.

A permanent happening or condition is taking place “24/7” rather than “24 hours a day”.

An event will “not happen anytime soon” rather than “not happen soon”. Always used in the negative, this one, so possibly seen just as a more forceful emphasis.

If you are making things difficult for someone, you are “playing hardball” even if you know nothing about baseball.

A cause or practice which you feel strongly about or carry out continually is one you are “passionate about” rather than “dedicated to” or “committed to”, although “passion” is also often used as a euphemism for levels of anger.

Finally, since we’re in constant voting mode, it appears that people rarely now refer to others’ political “principles” or “beliefs”, but you talk about their “ideology” if you want to be pejorative and their “values” if you want to be polite and respectful.

About 20 years ago, the writer and broadcaster Clive James commented on how the word “enervate” seemed to be getting used more often as if it meant an increase in energy and strength rather than a decrease, because its sound, like “invigorate”, suggested such a meaning. He concluded that, if the majority of people come to use a word in one particular way, even if it is the incorrect way, that has to be accepted as appropriate and reasonable practice. A prescient idea.

 

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The great over-achiever

 

Richard Curtis must surely be counted one of the great over-achievers, at least in the commercial sense, in UK cinema. He started off on television as just one of the many writers on the Not the Nine O’Clock News comedy show before bagging a high-profile job as the co-writer of the first series of Blackadder with fashionable comic performer Rowan Atkinson. Although the show was at first poorly received, it eventually became a great success with many repeats of its next three series (although this happy result was surely helped significantly by the arrival of co-writer Ben Elton) and with the final series gaining regular credit as an important contribution to the modern appreciation of World War One.

Whereas Blackadder caricatured the customs and peoples of past periods, Curtis’ solo scripts for the films Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill covered the ins and outs of contemporary romance.  Famously their cinematic machineries were oiled by a certain amount of  modern risquéness,  photogenic scenes of the UK, the burgeoning popularity of Hugh Grant and glamorous American co-stars Andie MacDowall and Julia Roberts.

The great success of these films will be at least partly responsible for the fact that Curtis’ next script, Love Actually, was a multi-character narrative, which he had the opportunity to direct himself, and which was able to recruit many big UK acting names, like Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. At the time of its release in 2003, one journalist, David Smith in the Observer, suggested that the starry romantic Christmas story was so perfectly packaged that it might become the best-selling UK film of all time! I don’t think it has reached those heights , but regular TV repeats suggest that longevity is guaranteed.

 From 1985, Comic Relief was the comedy equivalent of the musicians’ Band Aid,  popular professionals co-operating to raise money to help ease the continuing problem of Third World hunger and poverty.  The charity’s website credits Curtis as one of the founders, although in its early years on-screen performers such as Lennie Henry, Griff Rhys Jones, Jonathan Ross, Billy Connolly and French and Saunders were certainly more visible representatives. By the 21st century, perhaps as other people’s profiles had waned, Curtis had become more openly associated, and a TV film The Girl in the Café was a high-profile part of Comic Relief’s association with the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign. Almost as if Curtis was saying, “I know nobody thinks of me as cool and modern, but people should pay attention to my contribution!”

The next film Curtis wrote and directed was The Boat That Rocked, about a pirate radio station during 1966-1967. I would have thought that Curtis is a bit young (born in 1956) to harbour nostalgia for the pirate stations and their musical period, but the answer to the conundrum may lie in the theory, often repeated in the media, that the next series of Blackadder, planned for after World War One but never made, would have been set during those same Swinging Sixties, full of pop music, fashion, youth culture and sexual licence. Certainly here the character of Thick Kevin seems very similar to Blackadder’s Baldric.

The Boat That Rocked allowed Curtis the unlikely chance to blend some old-fashioned narrative ideas of harmless fun oppressed by reactionary authority such as from the St Trinian’s films with others of masculine heroics during maritime danger like from Titanic. Meanwhile, the overall picture of UK society and culture is again a fond and positive one. Alongside the elongated adventures of the staff of Radio Rock are repeated scenes of school pupils, workmates, housewives and teenagers in bedrooms, all gathered around their sets, thus arguing the illegal radio station’s role in bringing the nation together.  

It is historically true that the pop/rock music stations of the period were heavily influenced by US fashion – with the genuinely American “Emperor Rosko” on Radio 1, the faux-American Tony Prince on Radio Luxembourg and almost all other disc jockeys adopting American accents and colloquialisms – so in this case a big American star, Philip Seymour Hoffmann, in the cast could be said to be perfectly reasonable from a narrative point of view, however much it might also be connected with the film’s length, budget and commercial ambitions.     

Curtis is the British Spielberg, TV producer John Lloyd has been quoted as saying, both because he has a golden commercial touch and because he wants to make the world a happier place with his work. Perhaps a fairer reason to compare him with Steven Spielberg is that in neither case would it have been easy to foresee by looking at their earlier efforts how their careers would develop and how much they would produce. One percent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration, as Thomas Edison is supposed to have said about genius. You feel certain it is an adage that both Spielberg and Curtis live by.   

And another Hollywood quote:  George Clooney once said that he knew he would get to “play” with the film-making “toys” for only a little while, so was aware he must make as good use of them as possible. Richard Curtis must also be amazed by his good luck and how long it has lasted. Those of us of Curtis’ age who are ever tempted to sneer at any of his output might reflect that we might not have done any better with the opportunities than he has done. 

 

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Days of the counter-culture

 

Supplementing a recent BBC4 documentary, the Roundhouse website includes some great historical information about how the 160-year-old former railway shed evolved into one of London’s most active and vibrant arts venues.

The early days of the Roundhouse included performances of the new “psychedelic” pop/rock music, so it was not surprising on the documentary to hear some music by Jefferson Airplane.

Their song “White Rabbit” struck me as eerie and other-worldly when I first heard it several times without knowing its identity on a university union jukebox in 1974-1975,  with its snare drum, climbing guitar line, building crescendo and Lewis Carroll-influenced dreamscape lyrics. It still casts a decently strong eldritch spell today.

 

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San Francisco, from whence came Jefferson Airplane. Photographed in 2000.

 

The programme and web-site impressed on me that Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42 plan for the Roundhouse in 1964 must have been one of the first times anyone envisaged that a former industrial work space might be adapted to arts and cultural use. More recent high-profile examples in the UK have been the Tramway in Glasgow, the Tate Modern in London and the Baltic gallery in Gateshead.  

 

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The Baltic art gallery, constructed from a former flour mill on the banks of the river Tyne at Gateshead. Photographed in 2003.

 

 

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The influence of Grunwick

 

Grunwick Changed Me was the title of a BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast earlier this year. “Me” was Maya Amin-Smith, a young Asian-English woman who found out only recently that her family members had been participants in the strike at the Grunwick photo processing plant in London during 1976-1978.  

The title of the programme could have applied, in a lesser way, to me also. All of us are affected at different times in our life by particular national and international news events. Grunwick was certainly one of mine. At university in the mid-1970s I was acquiring a knowledge and interest in politics and current affairs, but my principles and loyalties were still not fully formed.

Trade unionism, while very visible, was often presented very negatively. Since nobody in my family were either trade union members or overt supporters, my own attitudes were heavily formed by fictional representation. In Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront , the leadership of a dockland union branch are a gang of criminals who terrorise the local community and incur the opposition of the local Catholic priest but who are eventually beaten by Terry Molloy’s single-handed violent resistance. In one episode of the post-World War One TV drama When the Boat Comes In, the sympathetic character Tom Seaton returns to work during a strike because of his family’s poverty and illness and is attacked by a group of fellow miners, and has to be helped by the resourcefulness of hero Jack Ford. In both cases individualism is presented as more noble and admirable, and more correct, than collectivism.

In the UK in the 1970s, trade unions had a large membership and were highly active in both workplace and civic space. This was due to, as expressed by Selina Todd in her brilliant political history The People, “the chasm between their high expectations of life in an affluent society, and the reality they experienced on the factory floor”. The employees of the Grunwick factory, mostly female immigrants from Asia, Africa and the West Indies, went on strike in protest about low wages, poor conditions and the right to join a trade union.

The Grunwick dispute was my first clear awareness of secondary picketing. What I remember were the TV pictures and reports of large crowds of aggressive trade unionists, not directly involved in the dispute, being held back by squads of policemen.  One useful nugget from Grunwick Changed Me was that it was the Grunwick strikers who contacted other unions and who were very gratified by the support they received.

In fact, that support from the leadership of the TUC and other unions in the summer of 1977 lasted a short time only. The Grunwick strike finally ended the following year. Contrary to the recommendation of the government-appointed Scarman Inquiry, the management did not agree to union representation and did not reinstate most sacked workers. 

The radio programme definitely came across as, primarily, a family history story, secondly, a story of female and ethnic empowerment, and only, as a distant third, the recollection of a significant event of trade union protest. In that second category, it certainly accorded appropriate prominence to the strike leader Jayaben Desai, who died in 2010 and who I don’t remember reading about at the time.

However, the programme completely omitted one aspect that was widely covered at the time: when three politically moderate Ministers from the Labour government, who were sponsored by the union APEX, were ridiculed for their public support of a violent dispute. The incident was often used against Shirley Williams when she was leaving the Labour party to co-found the Social Democratic Party. The Labour government led by Jim Callaghan was always nervous of supporting trade unions in any disputes with employers: the social changes which would lead to the 18 years of the Conservative government were already in process.

In Grunwick Changed Me, writer/activist Amrit Wilson said that young people now tend to be unaware of radical political history. In fact, said Maya Amin-Smith, people today are perhaps more likely to celebrate the achievements of individual entrepreneurs than of a group of low-paid workers, especially if the battle they fought had been lost. Around the time of the Grunwick strike I was certainly someone who had not yet learned the truth that every right possessed by men and women was one which had been fought for, often literally, from a previous powerful group. Or, if I understood this fact rationally, I certainly did not appreciate exactly what such struggles involved. By the time the miners’ strike came round about six years later, I was more informed and more attuned.

Selina Todd gives due status to the influence of the Grunwick episode in The People. “The Grunwick strikers challenged the assumption that married women, immigrants and young workers were naïve or apathetic… (It) was the first major dispute to involve Asian and white workers and men and women, working alongside each other on equal terms…It marked a radical and hopeful departure in the history of labour protest.”   

 

 Reference:  Todd, Selina (2015)    The People : The Rise and Fall of the Working Class    London: John Murray

 

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No fixed points

 

During the 20th century and into the 21st,  culture in the UK became wider and more democratic, but not necessarily deeper. When Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, their audiences consisted of people who had far less formal education than any of us   yet those plays are today still considered mostly too inaccessible to read or to watch. Few people today feel shy at making fun of contemporary art and architecture. My own generation certainly played our part in this decline through our dismissal of classical music and exaltation of pop and rock music from the 1970s onwards. 

Such a gloomy perspective probably springs automatically from ageing. Whatever, Radio 3’s programmes to mark the 70th anniversary of the BBC Third Programme provided several opportunities to reflect back on some of the country’s (and my) steps in the cultural journey. 

One of many intriguing facts which emerged both from the documentary The Envy of the World, first produced for the 50th anniversary in 1996, and the discussion Who Cares if You Listen?, was that William Haley, BBC Director General of the time, imagined that each of the new post-war radio stations would overlap in their content and that people could be coached into listening to the most intellectually demanding material on the Third Programme. Of course, that would have seemed a reasonable ambition then since the mainstream listening of the Home Service and the Light Programme would be regarded today as specialised and not always easy!

Haley’s vision of the Third Programme may now seem grandiose and pompous, but, as pointed out by Jenny Doctor and A.C. Grayling on Who Cares if You Listen?, it was formed from a widely-shared post-war ideal of renewal, building on generations of individual auto-didacticism.  “The war had made a lot of people more serious,” said Etienne Amyot, the Third Programme’s first head of planning. Similarly, Ellen Wilkinson, the Minister of the Arts in the new Labour government, believed, as Philip Dodd observed on People Power, that Britain could become “a Third Programme nation”.  

The Envy of the World was able to bring forward several distinguished cultural figures  – playwright Harold Pinter, composer Peter Maxwell Davies, philosopher Bernard Williams –  to reminisce eagerly about the exhilarating education in music, poetry, drama and ideas which they received as regular listeners to the early Third Programme, but they of course were all young at the time, and, when you are young, adventure and experimentation of all kinds comes naturally. As mentioned earlier,  my own Radio 3 listening in the pre-internet age was always erratic, but one programme which I did hear regularly was Critics’ Forum. Acquiring a radio of my own at the age of 17 or 18 in the mid-1970s,  I came across this arts review magazine by accident one Saturday tea-time and was quickly lured by its elevated conversation on books, theatre, cinema, music and broadcasting. Its time slot was inconvenient but I was always happy to catch some part of it regularly even as my activities and priorities changed during its broadcasts of the next 15 years.

Critics’ Forum was produced by Philip French, also a long-time film critic with The Observer. The engrossing Philip French and the Critical Ear  included the snippet that the programme might have continued longer than 1990 but for disagreement between French and the new Controller of Radio 3, John Drummond.  Critics’ Forum was based on a Home Service programme from the 1950s and 1960s called The Critics, and so, as the documentary pointed out, it is apposite that its closest modern equivalent is back on Radio 4, Saturday Review

(Although the premature termination of  Critics’ Forum reflects badly on Drummond, I always associate his tenure as Controller with that great early 1990s initiative of weekends of programmes from cities abroad – Berlin, Minneapolis/St Paul and Prague    which must have been the inspiration for the themed or residency weekends and seasons which have continued on Radio 3 to this day.)

The Third Programme ran for six hours every evening, although that was cut to just three hours in 1957, due to a combination of low audience figures and the then widespread fear in broadcasting circles that the popularity of television was dooming all radio to extinction. Amazing in many ways that the concept of a radio channel dedicated to high culture remained sufficiently strong in the BBC management mind for a full decade more until the more confident days of 1967 and the new stations of Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4. 

One of William Haley’s ideas for the Third Programme was that it should have “no fixed points”, no mandatory programme or timing such as for a news bulletin. Each evening was a blank page for whatever the planners imagined, no matter how different to what had been broadcast the night before, and occupying the full six hours with one event or theme if appropriate.

It seems natural now to compare the Third Programme story to that of those later TV channels which were created with smaller and specialised audiences in mind: BBC2, Channel 4, BBC4. Each of these gradually shifted into something blander and less innovative. A neglect of foreign-language and small-budget films and of the famous plays from the theatre canon; a neglect of opera and classical music outside the Proms; a tendency to repeat and recycle the safe rather than the challenging from the archives; factual programmes which adopted a sensational tone and style and which were dominated by the personality of the presenter rather than the richness of the topic; an over-fondness for the history of popular music and TV; a serious over-fondness for the format of the game show.  It has happened to BBC2 and Channel 4 since the millennium, in my opinion, and most disappointingly, to BBC4 within only a few years of its launch.

In contrast, the present-day Radio 3 still bears a good deal of similarity, in the best way, to that original template for the Third Programme. On a few random glances through early Third Programme schedules via BBC Genome, you can find Bach music alongside a Bernard Shaw play Jacobean drama and discussions about contemporary Africa and literature and the visual arts alongside world musicAny evening on Radio 3 this year could have provided an equally invigorating mix.

 

 

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From a different world, yet still familiar

 

A major drama series of the 1970s which would not be made nowadays is  Bill Brand, written by left wing-playwright and future Oscar nominee Trevor Griffiths and directed by, among others, future Oscar nominee Roland Joffé. Its narrative centres on a year in the life of a new Labour MP during a period of Labour government.  It does cover his family and romantic life – Griffiths liked to use familiar dramatic genres – but is most engrossing when dealing with his professional life, including election, party meetings inside and outside Parliament, a factory sit-in,  the national party conference and the election of a new party leader and Prime Minister.

It was first shown on ITV, the most ratings-conscious channel of the day, on Monday evenings during the summer of 1976 – although I personally caught up with it the following autumn in the early days of daytime TV, coincidentally at the same time when I was first appreciating the educational and dramatic value of the televising of real political party conferences.

11 hours of original drama on such a specialised topic yet designed for a large audience is the main reason that Bill Brand would surely never be produced today. Also, as mentioned before, TV drama of that era still drew heavily from the conventions of theatre. Characters spoke to each other in ways, however more conversational and colloquial than in earlier times, which now seem formal, complex and detailed.  In Bill Brand, as most of the characters are either MPs or political activists, there are many conversations about political theory or political tactics, using the language of formal rhetoric or following parliamentary convention. Fascinating as long as you warm to that sort of thing, but certainly challenging, or, if you prefer, verbose and hard to follow.

As in the original Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy , it is striking to see again how male is this working world, how formally dressed people are, how ubiquitous is smoking and drinking. While gender equality is a subject for debate among characters,  it is clearly not yet common practice. The opening credits set the tone: the images of heavy industry, the titles of left-wing publications, the photos of men assuming assertive poses, the martial music. These 1970s people are still heavily influenced by the struggles of their forebears from decades earlier: during the 1889 London dock strike, in physical combat against fascists in the 1930s, both in Britain and in the Spanish Civil War.

The 1970s was a watershed period within the Labour movement. Whether it was destroyed by Thatcherism or led to Thatcherism will depend on your political views. Manufacturing industry was still a mainstay of the UK economy and party membership came from trade unionist manual workers as well as the educated middle-classes. A great deal of argument was taking place about political direction and how best to respond to the changing industrial and social landscape. The Labour governments of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan had tiny working majorities, which necessitated a voting pact with the Liberals. The fractures which led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party were already under the surface.

Ironically, one belief shared here by both the moderate wing of the party who make up the majority of the Labour government and the left-wing Journal group of MPs (obviously based on the Tribune group) is the need for collective discipline, to vote together. The maverick Brand is censured by the Chief Whip early on for voting against a government motion to cut public services but is often uncomfortable too with Journal group  decisions and attitudes.

For much of Trevor Griffiths’ narrative, the clash of political differences seems to be symbolised in the characters of Brand, the young college lecturer who has come to the Labour party from the more revolutionary International Socialists and is definitely still on the left within the party spectrum, and his constituency agent Alf Jowett, who is middle-aged, long-serving, loyal, moderate. Until towards the end when we are struck by Jowett’s criticism of the new “revisionist” Prime Minister John Venables, strongly reminiscent of Roy Jenkins. Every so often the Labour party is led by moderates, says Jowett, but they never win. Not because of opposition by left-wingers like Brand but “ because reality’s not on their side. They think capitalism’s like a coat of paint, like a veneer, and underneath is the structure. But capitalism is the structure. The reality. And it splits us up, sets us against each other and against ourselves…But it breeds resistance…” A point of view from one of the restrained voices in the drama which would be judged as provocative in any Labour MP today.

In the final episode, Brand, disillusioned with the direction the party will take under Venables and about his own future within it, meets a left-wing theatre group led by an old friend. He admires their dedication and comradeship, and, at his house one evening, he seems refreshed by the energy and idealism in the songs they are singing, “Purple Heather” and “Venceremos”. As Tony Williams says, Brand and the audience are “at (a) crossroads”. He and we realise that “political struggle cannot be fought only on the national level. It involves an international approach, culturally, historically and politically…”

Although it is 40 years old, the subject of Bill Brand is still highly relevant. Any present-day journalism or discussion about the Labour party centres on the tensions between the pragmatism and compromises of government and the idealism of activism. Do you change your ideals in order to attract the wider electorate or do you persuade them to follow your beliefs about equality and wealth redistribution regardless of how long that might take? Is it naïve to imagine that the mass support of the past might be ever rebuilt? These ideas are still part of 2016 debate although more often in news and politics programmes than mid-evening high-ratings TV drama.

In addition to Trevor Griffith’s great writing, another element which keeps Bill Brand compelling is that, in common with most TV drama of the period, it was crammed full of great actors and great performances. Some of the cast are familiar faces to those of us of a certain age, like Alan Badel as the left-wing Michael Foot/Tony Benn Cabinet minister David Last, Peter Howell as the suave academic Home Secretary Venables, Ray Smith as the Jack Jones-like trade union leader and Colin Jeavons as Brand’s constituency party rival. Less known but highly effective are Allan Surtees as party agent Jowett and William Hoyland as the unctuous and ambitious junior party Whip. In the earlier stages of distinguished careers were Jack Shepherd as Brand, Cherie Lunghi as his feminist lover and Jonathan Pryce as his left-wing comrade actor. Somewhere in between might be categorised Arthur Lowe, recalling his turn in the film This Sporting Life rather than Dad’s Army in the brief scenes as the northern Harold Wilson-like Prime Minister, who invites ridicule and respect in equal measure.

Stimulating online contributions on Bill Brand can be found by writers who have read and seen far more of the great Trevor Griffiths’ work than I: Tony Williams, Frank Collins and Gerry Cordon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Some questions and ideas about the BBC

 

The Media Show’s special debate on Radio 4 on the future of the BBC included many familiar viewpoints on the corporation’s role, funding and organisation. So it was cheering to hear one contributor, David Elstein, say something which was more unusual: that much of current BBC drama was “low-ambition” compared to that by US producers.

It was an opinion which accords with my own, and challenges the popular one  – created and shared by industry professionals themselves –  that we live in a “golden age” of British TV drama.

Elstein, himself a former producer and executive with various broadcasters, is now the chairman of Open Democracy. By  coincidence, the web-site is currently running its own on-line survey entitled “100 ideas for the BBC”.

Among attractive suggestions from its contributors are that the BBC should make its decades-rich archive of programmes more widely available, perhaps with schools particularly in mind, that BBC4 could be much more artistically innovative, that there might be a return to a proper coverage of literature and of industrial relations and the trade union movement, that the partnership with the Open University be reinvigorated, that excellent local arts events be given a national platform and that the successful 1960s-1980s Play for Today practice of single pieces of drama from individual writers be reintroduced.

Any reservations I might personally express about the present-day BBC are of course the familiar moan of the middle-aged who enjoyed a genuine “golden age” without always appreciating it. But, here goes anyway in order of urgency…  Too much overlap between BBC2 and BBC4;  too much overlap between Radios 1, 2 and 6; the weakness in drama; too much low-quality news; the inflated status and salary of certain “personalities”; and that strange TV creature of the 21st century, the “reality” genre where real people turn themselves into pantomime caricatures and producers make excessive use of drama techniques like camera effects and music enhancement, for example  Strictly Come Dancing, The Apprentice, Fame Academy,  How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?The Great British Bake-Off, The Choir.

And the things which are still really good? Most of Radio 3 , some of Radio 4 and definitely the  iPlayer facility.

 

 

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The march of the women

 

Shoulder to Shoulder, the great 1974 BBC drama series about the Suffragette movement which is happily available at present on You Tube, has recently been getting some new attention as the antecedent of the film Suffragette.

While Suffragette covers the topic mostly through fictional characters, Shoulder to Shoulder centred  heavily on the members of the Pankhurst family who set up and ran the Women’s Social and Political Union, and on Annie Kenney, the one working-class woman who became a senior figure in the organisation.

Although, in keeping with much TV drama of the period, it employed several  writers and directors, the basic artistic shape of Shoulder to Shoulder was attributed to the trio of actress Georgia Brown, film-maker Midge Mackenzie and producer Verity Lambert.

Many of the plot ideas of Suffragette feature coincidentally in one particular episode of Shoulder to Shoulder, the fifth, entitled “Outrage”. Both feature Emily Wilding Davison and her fatal protest at the Derby horse race in 1913, the authorities’ force-feeding of suffragette prisoners and the extension of the campaign into the working-class east end of London.

Suffragette follows a long tradition of films set in Britain around World War One, such as  A Room With a View,  The Shooting PartyChariots of Fire,  A Month in the Country The Wings of the Dove and Howards End.  An outdoor scene like Derby Day with wide vistas and large crowds in authentic dress is a familiar element of a period drama. The scenes  of violent struggles between the suffragettes and police and of their force feeding in prison are reminiscent of smaller-scale and lower-budget scenes in Shoulder to Shoulder.

Mostly, however, director Sarah Gavron creates a distinctive picture of the London of the period, with use of fast moving camera, close-ups and subdued lighting. Her ending also takes us by surprise. As the suffragettes leave for the funeral of Emily Wilding Davison, fiction fades into the real-life footage of the elaborate cortege and the packed streets.  Just as we grasp that this event, with the Pankhursts this time only as spectators, might have been one of the real turning points in the whole suffrage struggle, Gavron adds the Brechtian educational touch of a list of the dates when women in various countries around the world gained the vote.

Shoulder to Shoulder was notable for its championing of the stirring “The March of the Women”, composed by suffragette Ethel Smyth, as its theme music. “Outrage” was an episode where other music was inserted pointedly.  A solo rendition of the hymn “Thy Way Not Mine O Lord” accompanies the actions and funeral of Emily Wilding Davison, who says that she is guided by God in her political action, rather like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire. “A Policeman’s Lot” and “Land of Hope and Glory”, incongruous in different ways, suggest both how the suffragette protesters were disturbing many aspects of British conservative society as well as how their actions were becoming as familiar as music-hall songs or patriotic celebrations.

In many places it is Gavron’s restrained use of music which helps prevent the narrative lapsing into sentimentality or melodrama. For example, her single use of “The March of the Women” is a brief acappella snippet in the middle of the narrative.

Abi Morgan’s script for Suffragette presents a cursory snapshot of Emily Wilding Davison as a committed militant who has undergone many prison sentences but, in Shoulder to Shoulder, Hugh Whitemore scrutinises her more closely. She is quiet, solitary, intense, something of a mystic even. A fellow prisoner  describes her as “a real tough nut” with “a look in her eye”. We see her enduring cold water hoses and  force-feeding by nasal tube.  “I feel the influence (of God) very strongly. I never act without it, ” she says. Her contact with Mary Richardson in Shoulder to Shoulder is similar to that with Maud Watts in Suffragette, but, in the former, the actual moment of her death is conveyed only by her imagining the horse’s neighs and hoofbeats and then Richardson’s shocked report afterwards. “She seemed out of place, as if she wasn’t really there ( but) her hand was so steady (and) she seemed to be smiling.”

Whitemore and director Moira Armstrong parallel the real-life death under the hooves of a royal racehorse of the middle-class Davison with the death under a brewery cart of a fictional working-class east ender, Maisie Dunn, who has shown a nascent interest in politics. The news of her death is relayed to Sylvia Pankhurst by her husband. The scene between the two is designed to highlight Pankhurst’s fierce interest in the lives of working-class women, but some of its power now comes from the fact that the husband is played with vivid individuality by the then unknown Bob Hoskins.

On the subject of male actors, the one real weakness of Suffragette for me was the character of the Irish police inspector, played by Brendan Gleeson. It is too easy for the viewer to imagine the pre-production meeting where one or more executives worried that the film needed a male protagonist to make it sellable and Gleeson’s authority figure, experienced in dealing with trouble-makers  in Ireland, seems naggingly similar to the Sam Neill character in TV’s Peaky Blinders. The poor decision is emphasised by the fact that actor and director clearly couldn’t make up their minds whether the character is supposed to be ruthless or sympathetic, and thus confuses the tone of the film whenever he appears.

 

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