Friday, 18 March 2011

Play for Today #001: The Long Distance Piano Player

TX: 15/10/1970 (dir. Philip Saville, w. Alan Sharp)

"That's what the people want to see..."
"There's no-one here"

'It hadn't the size, the reach that one expects from a "Play for Today." Though, strictly speaking, one hardly knows yet what to expect from this re-titled series' (Nancy Banks-Smith, The Guardian, 16th October 1970, p.16)

This was the first Play for Today, successor series to The Wednesday Play (1965-70), and is subject of the first in a series of articles in which I will write about as many PFTs as possible. The BFI Mediatheque now holds around 60 of them, and I have a few more on DVD; the Mediatheque most accessible to me is based in Newcastle's Discovery Museum and I have made many visits since it opened last year.

As Robin intimated in his last post, 'The Long Distance Piano Player' displays a rather inert, ossifying North with its northern everytown of 'Middleton'. Jack (Norman Rossington) is a small man straining after 'something big'; an impressario with a limited world-view, possessing the overbearing bravado of a Wolf Mankowitz-depicted svengali, slipping between mid-Atlantic and native accent with disturbing ease. 'Tis he who arranges for the premise: that Ray Davies' piano player, Pete, is engaged in a continuous marathon of piano playing, set to last four days and nights. Sharp seems to be commenting on the transience of such gimmickry, with the marathon being sparsely attended for the most part.

Saville's visual aesthetic is, whether by design or necessity, spartan; in keeping with the glumness that Sharp discerns in Northern provincial towns. Drab interiors are captured in an unforgiving light; as Chris Dunkley said in a contemporary review: 'The damp respectable squalor of the church hall [...] must elicit a schizophrenic shudder of nostalgia and distaste from anyone ever involved in Wolf Cubs, jumble sales or party political meetings whose trappings lurk shabbily in corners'. (The Times, Friday 16th October 1970, p.16)

Then there are a few exterior scenes that on archetypal 'northern' bleakness: houses stacked up t' hill, cobbles, Lowryesque chimneys, lonely merry-go-rounds and a pretty lady in a hairnet on a swing. This is Pete's wife Ruth (Lois Daine), looking evocatively glum in impeccably 'kitchen sink' manner.

There are deliciously banal, world-weary asides from the occasional visitors to the hall, who form a sort of Greek Chorus, observing that the "pia-ner feller" is "still playing away!" "It'd be an amazing feat if he does it..." / "Aye, aye..." This element of the play is rather witheringly described by Banks-Smith: 'Commenting on the action are a chorus of village idiots, local louts and deaf old men. The latter conversing interminably - I improvise - along these lines : "Me leg's gone again"; "Gone wheer?" "We're wot?" "We're not wot we were" "Eh?" "Nay." '

The feat seems to be considered almost as if an attraction within a bygone music-hall bill; Davies's character goes along with it through force of habit and convention. One could infer that Sharp has a critical perspective on the rather Guinness Book of Records ethos of the 'marathon' - peddled, lest we forget, by the McWhirters, free-market ideologues to a twin.

"Playing away like that can't be good f' y'!"

There are serene passages in Pete's playing, and the promise of communion ultimately unfulfilled - as when a growing audience asks for requests which start well but peter out. As the days pass, his chords become leaden and dolorous, sometimes achieving an accidental abstraction in tandem with his physical exhaustion. Davies is convincing as the self-effacing Pete; admittedly, not a particularly challenging part, as George Melly states in his Sunday television column: 'As the rather simple-minded but highly strung marathon man, Ray Davies, one of our most talented pop composers, did all that was needed and could, I think, given a part that required it, act.' (The Observer, 18th October 1970, p.32)

Both Melly and Banks-Smith are blunt about the play's limitations - an innate lack of originality - but ultimately find enough to enjoy, as does Dunkley: 'Despite this simplistic derivativeness which almost became a minor theme of the play, Sharp did achieve a remarkable atmosphere and an admirable degree of sympathy.' Indeed, the play captures a 1970 sense of flux, the cultural consensus over, as announced in John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and explored here by the great TV documentarian Adam Curtis.

By the ending, one is left with a sense of suffocation; Sharp captures a characteristic Baby Boomer-generation's feeling of being stifled by humdrum provincial life and petty-bourgeous values. Davies embodies this younger generation with its aversion to responsibility and vague yearnings for 'freedom'. Of course, this freedom ultimately became a remoulded, tradition-trampelling capitalism - as embodied by Branson, Bono, Blair and so many others. But here it can still be identified as liberalism rather than neo-liberalism - capitalism, personified in its clapped-out 1970 form by Jack, is as mistrusted as traditional working-class or upper-class cultures. The increasingly despondent Pete feels oppressed by everything around him:

"What isn't useless...?"

As well as multiple strands of British culture, Sharp seems to be highlighting the influence of the wrong sort of Americanism - with a character pointedly querying Jack's accent: "Why does he talk like that? Like he's an American...?" The ending, with its US-centric rock song, 'Got to Be Free', suggests a yearning for the open spaces and unpredictable freedoms offered by the American counterculture, which held out great promise in the time of 'Quiet Mutiny' in Vietnam (see John Pilger's World in Action documentary of that name from this same year). It is worth noting that the Scottish-born Alan Sharp went on to write screenplays for Ulzana's Raid (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1972) and Night Moves (dir. Arthur Penn, 1975) - examples of the complex, ambivalent filmmaking that Hollywood produced in the pre-Star Wars era.

This first Play for Today works better when read as a metaphorical reflection on British society than as straight 'realistic' drama and its characters are as much archetypes as human beings; marionettes in Jack's faltering puppet-show. Pete is a hamster-in-the-wheel, as well as a harassed liberal who has lost his faith in society (see also in 1970s television: Reginald Perrin, Tom Good). The dulling grind of the marathon becomes a metaphor for the 9-5 experience of conventional work.

Pete and Ruth's relationship offers scant consolation amid the general air of depression - even this seems jaded and ritualistic. The play is not especially light or humorous other than in the choric role of the punters and occasional wry line from Pete; when there's a brawl in the hall involving diffident local hoodlums, he says: "[I] should've played the action music". Overall, a flawed but compelling PFT; as Melly intimates, it both succeeds and fails through adequately evoking the underlying boredom of its 'marathon' scenario. As a play it is far from subtle but is tellingly of its day; it is an articulate expression of inarticulacy and thwarted ideas of freedom.

You can watch it online here, though in a visual quality decidedly inferior to that at the Mediatheque.

-- With thanks to John Archbold for the Radio Times cover


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