Thursday, 21 April 2011

Play for Today #003: The Lie

TX: 29/10/1970 (dir. Alan Bridges, w. Ingmar Bergman, trans. Paul Britten Austin)


"We have to be able to lie to live together..."

There can be no in-depth study of PfT #002: 'The Right Prospectus' (TX: 22/10/1970), as it has not yet surfaced in the BFI Mediatheque's Play for Today collection. It is apparently 'a satirical piece in which a wealthy couple disguise themselves as schoolboys to infiltrate a public school' penned by erstwhile 'Angry Young Man' John Osborne, known for the feather-ruffling of Look Back in Anger and - for me, more affectingly - The Entertainer. It stars George Cole and Elvi Hale as the couple. Contemporary reviewer Chris Dunkley was very critical: 'he made no attempt to explode the widely accepted myth, and show how truly appalling it would really be to go back to the best regimented days of our lives. In rapid succession he aimed petulant slaps in the general direction of the technological revolution, democracy, protest marches, tradition, co-education, public schools, and a host of other subjects which cropped up too fast to memorize'. (The Times, 23/10/1970, p.15)

Nancy Banks-Smith is fairy noncommittal, highlighting the 'dream-like quality' of a play in which nobody at the all-boys' school bats an eyelid at Mr Newbold's age or Mrs Newbold's sex (The Guardian, 23/10/1970). George Melly, however, is entirely won over; partly as it chimes with his own experiences of public-schools. In particular, he praises Christopher Witty's performance as the Head of House: 'I can still remember boys like that. I still glow when, in adult life, one greets me warmly. I still detest everything they stand for.' (Observer, 25/10/1970, p.32) He acclaims it as a more 'profound' work than Lindsay Anderson's If... 'The Right Prospectus' is readily available in book format, but seemingly not in its televisual version - although it must exist, as some gent on a Minder fan-forum alludes to having seen it. I am sure it would at the very least be an interesting counterpoint to If... and the superb Wednesday Play of 1966, 'The Connoisseur', dissected here.

But now to the main point of this article - a consideration of the following week's 'The Lie', a translation of an Ingmar Bergman play. The Swedish version, 'Reservatet', was directed by Jan Molander and actually broadcast on Swedish television one day before this BBC version. Molander's version features Gunnel Lindblom, Per Myberg and Erland Josephson as Anna, Andreas and Elis; in the British version, they are Anna Firth (Gemma Jones), Andrew Firth (Frank Finlay) and Ellis Anderson (John Carson), respectively.

The story is a classic love-triangle, with plenty of the existential angst one expects of Bergman. It was acclaimed 'best drama production' of 1970 at the Society of Film and Television Arts awards, held on 4th March 1971. On 16th May 1972, The Times reported in its TV Guide that the play was being 'repeated yet again' and was 'a superb if searing production', boasting 'alpha performances' from Gemma Jones and others. Is it worth this acclaim?

It has much to commend it, but is problematic, as one might expect of Bergman being transposed to bourgeois England. The play certainly has its moments but it takes some time to gel, and the translated dialogue is often stilted in the extreme. The music is un-Bergmanian, though this was not a problem for me; Marc Wilkinson's theme is jazzy and sedate, all vibraphone, flute and horns. Wilkinson has an interesting resume of British film and TV music: he composed soundtracks for If..., Days of Hope, Quatermass, Blue Remembered Hills and The Blood on Satan's Claw. This latter soundtrack is astonishingly ancient sounding - a rare piece of music to sound simultaneously of the psychedelic era and the seventeenth century.

The photography from Brian Tufano is exemplary - capturing the staid, stultifying darkness of this enclosed bourgeois world. The couple's house is the most Swedish thing here - all clinical, clean modernism of the low-rise variety, wood and panels - autumnally shot by Tufano. They live in the sort of modernist house beloved of wealthier people, pre-brutalism. It is interesting to consider that Tufano, now 71, went on to photograph one of the greatest of all Play for Todays, Sunset Across the Bay and also over-rated popular successes such as Trainspotting and Billy Elliot.

I am probably harder on 'The Lie' due to my love of Bergman's filmic oeuvre; one Saturday last year, with a friend, I watched Summer Interlude and From the Life of the Marionettes - a double bill of his films spanning nearly thirty years. The former is a gloriously bittersweet reflection on lost love and the time it can take to achieve catharsis and move on. The latter film is an unremittingly bleak exploration of neuroses and psychosis within a faltering relationship, ending in violence - this is all treated as an academic detective case by the psychoanalyst. It really is a despondent, nihilistic film, forming a fascinating contrast to the hard-won, humanist optimism of the earlier film.

This play seems a bit of a rehearsal for the grimness to come in Bergman's work - both in terms of FTLOTM and other 1970s films. Outward respectability and 'normal' routines hide a frightening vacuum, as identified by Nancy Banks-Smith in her review: 'Anna and Frank's [sic] marriage is a very streamlined thing indeed. If you discount the fact that they are both walking dead.' (The Guardian, 30/10/1970, p.10) The play explores the deceit that is necessary to sustain many marriages; this is the case in wider society too, as witness the woman at the party's ironic words to Anna: "Your marriage is the only one I know that's happy".

Artifice and ritual are all in this cold world: Anna's wig, shopping-centre escalators, squash between work colleagues, the banal phrase "Be Seeing You" - possibly used as a nod to The Prisoner. This sense of existence as formulaic chimes with Alan Sharp's 'The Long Distance Piano Player' - though this play has a stronger focus on relationships as ritualistic compared with the earlier play's focus on work and 'leisure'.

The goldfish bowl metaphor is extremely laboured, and 'The Lie' does at times resemble that rather po-faced film, The Pumpkin Eater (1964), with its middlebrow straining after profundity. Such as with Joss Ackland's aspiring writer, babbling on about 'a great silence', 'the approaching twilight' and 'the big lie'; who is predictably enough unable to come to terms with his homosexuality. He appears in one overwrought scene with Anna near the start of the play, never to re-appear.

And yet, there is real pain and feeling in the performances from Finlay and Jones, who make this a domestic drama with more than just a surface iciness. Finlay does a superb essay of middle-class reverse and evasion in his "I'm trying to communicate..." Jones is epically glum and glacial as Anna, a lady who is well connected and guaranteed a 'tax-free grant' to travel on her academic business. These are people jaded with success in their jobs and an inability to touch or talk in their relationship.

There are attempts at rooting the play in 1970 Britain: the play is set around Easter and the General Election is 'coming', the result of which may have a bearing on which building projects get the go-ahead. A Wednesday edtion of The Guardian is visible - with the headline: 'VIETNAM MASSACRES - Trial verdict expected today'. A 'Wonderful! Radio One!' jingle mingles and blurs with Wilkinson's thoughtful vibraphone music. There is a 'man from the ministry' on the way in Firth's workplace. Firth himself is an architect, in what was an era of architectural visionaries and crooks. Finlay cuts a Michael Rimmer-esque figure in immaculate, pin-striped suit, though this TV-play is as far away in tone as possible from that irrelevant film satire of the same year - see my 19/05/2010 review of that here. We are never really shown Firth doing any work, tellingly.

Finlay is fine casting; his distinctly cadaverous features suiting this showroom dummy of a man - no surprise, perhaps, that Banks-Smith misremembered his character name as Frank! The Farnworth-born actor is a malevolent force of nature in so much British television of the past five decades: as the glowering father in Bouquet of Barbed Wire (1976) and Dylan Moran's bête noire in the underrated sitcom How Do You Want Me? (1998-99). He would surely have made a good Heathcliff.

Alan Bridges was a fairly prolific television director, who helmed six Wednesday Plays (including David Mercer's 'On the Eve of Publication', TX. 27/11/1968, which is said to be excellent) and further Play for Todays after this. He also went on to make films, such as the flawed but interesting L.P. Hartley adaptation, The Hireling (1973) - also featuring Marc Wilkinson's music - and The Shooting Party (1984) with James Mason and Edward Fox.

The large cast is peopled by the reliable likes of Alan Rowe, Ronald Leigh-Hunt, Annette Crosbie and that voice of Victorian officiousness, John Nettleton. Richard O'Sullivan, so memorable as the tortured voice of conscience in 'The Connoisseur', is subdued as the walking-suit Whiteley. Noel Coleman and Terence Bayler are re-united after their sterling performances as army officers in the World War I zone within Dr Who's 'The War Games' serial. A year after General Smythe, Coleman's formidable sideboards are still very much intact - and he makes an imposing mannequin amidst the others at the bourgeois party.

Ultimately, this is another imperfect early Play for Today - rather predictable in its depiction of well-to-do middle-class people going through the motions, not helped by an indifferent translation of the dialogue from Swedish to English. However, the core performances ensure that these scenes of marriage do register an impact; as Banks-Smith says of its context as television: 'These things are particularly painful and relevant in the living room'. I cannot pretend that 'The Lie' enthralled me in the same way that his films have, but it is worth a viewing for anyone who cannot get enough of Swedish gloom. And for fans of Frank Finlay, who will delight in the darkness.

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