Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Story For Today - The Wednesday Play and Play For Today

The Elephant's Graveyard @ Saturday Buddha
In the previous post about Elvis Presley I referenced the BBC Play For Today production Long Distance Information. In the past few months I have also watched two other plays again from that long running series - Elephants Graveyard from 1976 and The Comedians from 1979.

Peter McDougall's Elephants Graveyard revisits the great folk myth of industrial Britain that in the good old days some men who were out of work got up in the morning anyway out of pure shame and went about their business to give the impression of gainful employment. This ties in with commentary in Paul Mason's recent Why It's All Kicking Off Everywhere as to the black social contract of the Nineties in the UK being essentially that a lifetime of dole money would compensate for a lifetime of work in post-industrial Britain without too many questions being asked since employment opportunities were essentially now extinct. The play stars Jon Morrison and Billy Connolly hiding out in the Scottish countryside away from their wives' gaze and has certain supernatural overtones in its resolution. The two actors had starred the previous year in McDougall's magnificent Just Another Saturday about the Orange marching culture in Glasgow.

Trevor Griffiths' The Comedians had played theatrically for several years by the time of the television production and is the story of a nightclass for budding stand up comedians in Manchester - including a young Jonathan Pryce as the maverick student alongside a Seventies stage Irishman, a Frank Carsonesque Ulsterman and a stereotypical Jew amongst other hopefuls. Pryce's performance at the talent night itself is extraordinary to behold and there are also sobering asides from the teacher - portrayed by Bill Fraser from The Army Game - on racist and sectarian generalisations and his horrifying war experiences. Quite simply it is one of the best television plays of our time.

Play For Today began in 1970 with Ray Davies of The Kinks taking the lead role in The Long Distance Piano Player and ran until 1984. It was the successor to the BBC's The Wednesday Play which started in 1964 and with the namechange reflecting the now varied transmission day. The BBC Head of Drama at the time the series commenced was Sydney Newman who had earlier produced the similar Armchair Theatre for independent television and he aimed to continue making dramas that balanced social realism with a broad public appeal. Furthermore he wanted to get away from the BBC's safe image and produce content with "agitational contemporaneity". Mr Newman - if you are still with us - I trust you are utterly transfixed by the current edgy status of New Britain.

Often controversial, the most famous plays of the series were the Ken Loach-directed Up The Junction in 1965 which focused on working class life in Battersea - and which was later made into a successful feature film starring Dennis Waterman and Suzy Kendall - and Cathy Come Home from 1966 which tackled the subject of homelessness in raw and unflinching fashion. Loach's The War Game was totally withdawn from transmission for twenty years under government pressure because of its controversial depiction of a nuclear attack on London. In a British Film Institute poll in 2000 for the greatest British television programme of the century The War Game was placed 27th and Cathy Come Home second. Alike with several episodes of Steptoe and Son, Dr Who and George Best's only international hat trick many of the episodes were wiped with only 63 out of the 173 made in the BBC archives today.

More than 300 programmes of Play For Today were subsequently produced and as consisting of original television plays and adaptations of stage plays or novels alike. The quality, timelesseness and reknown of so many are extraordinary to consider in hindsight and covered all genres through to even science fiction with 1980's The Flipside of Dominick Hyde. Certain plays such as Willy Russell's 1977 Our Day Out that had transmitted elsewhere on the BBC network were also given a repeat showing in the Play For Today slot. Rumpole of Bailey and Gangsters from 1975 would subsequently become full television series on ITV and BBC respectively.

Some of the best remembered of the plays would be Edna, the Inebriate Woman (1971), The Foxtrot (1971), Penda's Fen (1974), Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976), Nuts In May (1976), Spend Spend Spend (1977), Abigail's Party (1977), The Black Stuff (1978), Blue Remembered Hills (1979) and Just A Boy's Game (1979).

Alike with The War Game two plays would be pulled from transmission entirely due to controversy over the content - Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle in 1976 which contained a rape scene of a disabled woman and the borstal violence portrayed in 1977's Scum. Both these dramas would appear in cinematic form before their eventual transmissions as original television plays.

In the aforementioned BFI poll of the year 2000 no less than five Play For Today programmes were regarded as being in the top 100 British television productions of the 20th Century: Abigail's Party (eleventh), Blue Remembered Hills (36th), Nuts in May (49th), Bar Mitzvah Boy (56th) and Edna, The Inebriate Woman (57th). Alan Bleasdale's The Boys from the Blackstuff which was a sequel to the original television play was seventh.

Play For Today naturally also covered the subject of the Ulster Troubles though several plays commissioned were not produced. Ironically the civil disorder of the Northern Ireland conflict would remain much in the background of the two best-remembered plays set there - Stewart Parker's Iris In The Traffic, Ruby In the Rain in 1981 and Too Late To Talk To Billy by Graham Reid in 1982.

Stewart Parker, whose final play Pentecost took place against the background of the May 1974 Ulster Workers Council strike and indeed stands as one of the greatest pieces of Irish drama to date, set his play on one winter's day in Belfast and followed the parallel lifepaths of the two eponymous women. Belfast punk legends Stiff Little Fingers provided the soundtrack with singer Jake Burns in a supporting dramatic role himself. In 1977 Parker's first contribution to Play For Today was The Catchpenny Twist which covered the songwriting career of two ex-teachers against the political vagaries of Seventies Ireland. His later, and magnificently titled, The Kamikaze Groundstaff Reunion Dinner was shown in 1981 in the series and had white British actors playing Japanese war veterans. He died of cancer in 1988 at the age of only 47.

Graham Reid's play regarded the familial travails of a young working class Protestant in South Belfast portrayed by Kenneth Branagh and with three further plays to follow as based around the character of Billy Martin. Branagh also starred in Reid's Easter 1916 contribution to the Play For Tomorrow mini-series of 1982 which looked at tensions at a Northern Ireland teacher training college on the centenary of the Dublin rising.

Seven other productions over the course of Play For Today's run touched upon the Ulster conflict.

Dominic Behan's 1972 Carson Country - starring Harry Towb and Sam Kydd - looked at Protestant working class life around the period of the Home Rule crisis and the creation of the Northern Ireland state. It was transmitted in October of that year instead of the planned May in order as not to provoke trouble during the marching season. The following month Behan's The Folk Singer for Armchair Theatre on ITV - about the visit of a Liverpool musician to Belfast - was given a later scheduled transmission slot on the instructions of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Three months later in turn ATV chairman Sir Lew Grade banned entirely the transmission of Kenneth Griffith's Hang Up Your Brightest Colours:The Life and Death of Michael Collins and this would not be shown at all until 1993.

Over the remainder of the Seventies Taking Leave (1974) was the story of a British soldier who returned to Ulster after six years of service and considered his parents' wish for him to terminate his service; Colin Welland's Yer Man From Six Counties (1976) focused upon a young boy's move to the West of Ireland after the death of his father in an IRA bomb; The Legion Hall Bombing (1976) looked at the Diplock court system then operational in Northern Ireland and whose transmission was also delayed by further BBC concern over editorial content while The Last Window Cleaner (1979) followed the transfer of a policeman to Ulster and his experiences in wartorn Belfast at The Crumlin View boarding house.

During the Eighties Jennifer Johnston's Shadows On Our Skin (1980) viewed the Troubles through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy in Derry's Bogside - and with Horslip's Time To Kill used in the soundtrack - while Fire At Magilligan (1984) followed upon the consequences of a driver picking up a hitchhiker on the motorway out of Belfast and the two gradually realised they were not unknown to each other after all.

In consideration of both The Wednesday Play and Play For Today as high water marks of television drama and British television alike, they reflect a society clearly vanished in much of its social and even physical constructs alongside now fractured senses of identity and community cohesion. Though the BBC's reputation and content is now a mere shadow of what it once was, these plays truly represent an extraordinary cultural archive of a much-lamented and utterly lost country.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

That's Someone You'll Never Forget - Elvis in Britain

Elvis @ Saturday Buddha

During what would have been the early to mid-Seventies in Northern Ireland I recall as a child hearing one of apparently several comedic parodies of the song The Deck of Cards which was a hit for Wink Martindale in 1959. This version was voiced by somebody impersonating Protestant political leader the Reverend Ian Paisley and when reaching the "face cards" he would note how the Jack was naturally the papist jackanapes of Rome while the Queen was of course Queen Elizabeth II the Defender of the Faith. As for the King - well that was obviously "Elvis Presley!!!"

Elvis touched down twice in Britain.  In 1967 the MGM movie Double Trouble had Presley heading a rock combo on tour in London and Belgium. His leading lady Annette Day from Telford in Shropshire never worked again in cinema after this, her first and only film performance, though the feature does lay claim to some historic importance due to the late Norman Rossington being the only actor to appear in both an Elvis and a Beatles movie - Double Trouble and A Hard Day's Night respectively.

The opening credits and theme song from the movie retain some kitsch appeal although the one minute and twenty seven seconds long single lifted from the soundtrack album - Long Legged Girl (With The Short Dress On) - bombed at number 63 in the Billboard Top 100 and 49 in the UK charts. The album also contains one of the total lowpoints of Elvis' life in the irony-free duet with Day on Old McDonald. Presley allegedly screamed "It's come to this" during recording of this track and was only becalmed by being assured it would not appear on the forthcoming soundtrack album where in fact it remains to this day for all the world to hear forever and ever until the end of time. The soundtrack was actually released on the same day as The Beatle's Sgt Pepper album.

Double Trouble of course was filmed entirely in Hollywood. In reality Elvis' single fleeting presence on British soil came on March 3rd 1960 at Prestwick Airport near Glasgow while in transit home to America from military service in West Germany - as lampooned in the famous "Elvin Pelvin" episode of Sgt Bilko. The airport in Ayrshire was also used at the time as a USAAF air base and during his brief two-hour stop-over Elvis signed autographs, met fans at the NCO's mess and gave a brief press conference. On exiting the plane he had asked fans "Where am I?" with the crowd shouting back "Prestwick!"

Actually during the pre-digital days of the Eighties I used to acquire some interesting bootleg video and audio-cassette material on Elvis from a dealer in Cambuslang in Glasgow. Very intriguing stuff in hindsight such as magnificent outtakes from the 1968 NBC Special including Presley flirting with the incredibly beautiful Susan Henning during a photoshoot from the bordello sequence and the unbearably sad 1977 CBS Special from shortly before Elvis' death in August of that year.

I remember too buying a grainy copy of the 1968 musical comedy Live A Little Love A Little which included both the future dance hit A Little Less Conversation and the great lost single Edge of Reality which was only released as the b-side to If I Can Dream. Also there was the final Elvis dramatic role of all in 1969's Change of Habit with Mary Tyler Moore as a nun wavering between either Dr Elvis - with his lush sideburns and brilliant black University of Tennessee at Memphis sweat-shirt - or helping to raise the spirits of the downtrodden at the community Fiesta of Saint Juan de Cheguez with some groovy latin music.

There was also a compilation of movie trailers including the appalling Easy Come Easy Go from 1967 where Elvis played navy frogman Lieutenant Ted Jackson - "The bottom of the sea - where the action is!" - and Charro! from the following year featuring Elvis in a cool beard, a striking Hugo Montenegro score, dramatic horse rides through the Superstition Mountains at Apache Junction and not much else. I actually have read somewhere that during the grim endgame of his Hollywood years this was planned as the first of several television movies.

Finally I recall an interesting Elvis bootleg audio-cassette I acquired called Kickin Back which included a gorgeous rendition of Bread's Aubrey with his backing group and a crazed onstage rant about drug allegations - probably leaked by "freaks who carry your bag to the room" - following which he only managed to calm himself down by singing The Hawaiian Wedding Song. Mental.

I got to Memphis in the end too - as haunted and strange a place as that captured in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train without question - and have in my possession to this day my own parents' copy of the iconic 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong album that I have been playing now for over forty years. That collection contained the utterly raucous Big Hunk O'Love while the other June 10th 1958 tracks from that solitary recording session Elvis made just after he had joined the army - including I Got Stung and I Need Your Love Tonight - are mortifying reminders of where Elvis' career could have and should have gone in the Sixties.

The Seventies was naturally a mixed bag for Elvis Presley but a lot of his commercial output has dated very well in hindsight. Be that renowned tracks of the ilk of the stunning Burning Love to criminally overlooked songs such as Paul Williams' Where Do I Go From Here - the latter perfectly capturing a sentiment comprehensible to so many millions of us treading water in life year after year in familiar places now changed beyond recognition:

If I knew the way I'd go back home/but the countryside has changed so much I'd surely end up lost.
Half-remembered names and faces so far in the past/at the other side of bridges that were burnt once they were crossed.

The mostly melancholic From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis,Tennessee album from May 1976 would include a moving version of the Northern Irish anthem Danny Boy with just a simple piano accompaniment and as recorded at Gracelands itself. Danny Boy - which is often used as a non-contentious alternative to the British national anthem at certain sporting events involving Northern Irish representatives - was first published in 1855 as Londonderry Air by Dr George Petrie after composer Jane Ross had transcribed a tune from local fiddler Jimmy McCurry in Limavady. The famous lyrics of exile, loss and love of Ireland were added in 1912 by an Englishman Fred Weatherly.

Returning to Prestwick Airport on that historic day, I also recall that there was even a children's television dramatisation of Elvis' visit to Scotland in the Dramarama series of the Eighties on ITV - Waiting For Elvis as produced by Scottish Televison. Presley furthermore was also the subject of a 1979 Play For Today on BBC television with regard to Neville Smith's Long Distance Information. This was about an English disc jockey and Elvis-obsessive presenting his radio show as the news of Presley's death is broken across the world.

The play ended with one of the characters reflecting upon how if Elvis had been born British then surely "we would have looked after him" or some such. An affectionate and moving sentiment in hindsight - and especially in light of how people of an older Britain saw themselves as a fundamentally grounded nation. Though then again our national character never stopped the career of George Best ending on New Years Day 1974 at the grand old age of 27.

Safe Home Elvis.