TV plays always seemed a bit joyless to me as a kid — they were clearly for adults, but lots of adult stuff was fun. The Wednesday Play and Play for Today were never fun.
Maybe the form is at fault. You have something the length of a film, or a B-movie anyway, but made at a fraction of the cost. While B-movies got around the low-budget problem with simple, expressive lighting, cheap actors and stock sets, BBC plays did all of the above and threw in static filming and talkie scenes.
But the problem is that on top of that, they were drama, which meant they mustn’t be funny. Dennis Potter managed to smuggle in a few titters, but he saved the real comedy for his long-running shows. (A conversation I overheard when The Singing Detective first aired is like dialogue from a play: one girl trying to explain to another this incomprehensible but amazing thing she’d seen. “It was just this guy in a hospital bed with a really bad skin disease.” “Eurgh. Poor thing.” “No, but he kept saying stuff, it was the things he said, it was really good.”)
Maybe my avoidance was simply down to the fact that, inconceivably for us now, these plays made no attempt to be ingratiating or accessible, they were starkly concentrated on the job of alienating anybody who wouldn’t want to follow them where they were headed. Children were not welcome. I suppose some kids would have seen this as forbidden fruit and would be all the more interested, but as I viewed the adult world with a certain amount of terror anyway, I don’t think I was keen on anything that would open a door into it for me.
Still, The Imitation Game, written by Ian McEwen and directed by Richard Eyre, is really good. It does have points of connection with the recent film of the same name. McEwen started out wanting to do the life of Alan Turing but got sidetracked by his researches into the women at Bletchley Park, and the role of women in Britain’s war generally. Harriet Walter, with her long bone china face and hushed, trepidatious voice, plays a young woman determined to play her part in the war, but despite her skills she is steadily demoted instead of promoted, due to her very eagerness to do work at the level she’s qualified for.
Rather appallingly, Turing, here called Turner, is used as a villain, the penultimate in a long line of men who patronize or exploit or betray Walter’s character. McEwen found a great subject when he focused on this aspect of the “war effort” (curious phrase), but it seems a shame he had to further traduce a national hero who’d already been roundly trashed by the establishment. For all the recent dramatic attention Turing has received, the one great drama capturing the totality of his tragedy seems elusive.
Eyre achieves some very nice shots, most of them admittedly static — an austere style in keeping with the period. Locked-off frame after locked-off frame, and the only way out is a cut. This kind of feminist drama, where the men are all bastards of one stripe or another, and each sequence is another mask dropping to reveal this, is out of style now, and it does have a sad, predictable quality, perhaps because drama tied to an ideology tends that way, but it’s at least gutsier than girl power.
Penda’s Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, the most celebrated of the TV play directors, is altogether more cinematic. It sets out its stall with an intro by the author invoking the landscape of “Visionary England.” A teenage boy experiences his homosexual awakening at public school, has mystical visions including angels, demons, and a conversation with Sir Edward Elgar in an abandoned cow shed. Imagery evokes Ken Russell and Lindsay Anderson.
Rudkin seems determined to throw every idea in his head at the page/screen, even creating a TV playwright character who can pontificate on his behalf. Given the play’s urgency to communicate, its baffling detours and mysticism, and the lack of anything else quite like it, I rather assumed he was a frustrated genius who rarely got to write anything that got made, but he was quite busy until the end of the eighties. His science fiction mindfuck …Artemis..8..1…. (you have to get the number of dots right) is fondly remembered, with a bit of head-scratching.
The whole thing’s on YouTube.