Arena: Ligmalion (BBC 2, 1985)
'The London demi-monde of hustlers and hangers-on acquired a new generic verb in the late seventies - to lig, which means more or less to be a welcome gatecrasher in clubs, parties and private homes, and thus to be entitled to free board, bed; entertainment and review copies of books and records.' (Celia Brayfield, The Times, 09/04/1985)
Following Desmond Morris and preceding a John Cassevetes film on BBC 2 on Monday 8th April 1985 was this: a musical-fantasy loosely based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. This 'amusing parable' was also likened to Doctor Faustus in a contemporary TV listing. Celia Brayfield describes it is a 'semi-documentary musical'. It is a curiosity, at the very least...
It starts with Gordon Shilling (Jason Carter), a penniless lad from Gainsborough seeking his fortune in London. He is soon taken under the wing of Tim Curry as a Mephistopheles type. Sting as Machiavelli asks if his book is still in print. Style-watcher Peter York points out to the innocent young lad that the pop music world is small-fry and he must aim his sights at the establishment: represented by the City of London. Brayfield refers to the Lincolnshire-born protagonist (Carter was also from Gainsborough) as a 'class-conscious Candide' who is literally stripped of his provincial raiment by a gang of toughs. The Lig of Gentlemen, 'three beady-eyed characters named Sharp, Shifty and Wise', instruct the provincial hero in the seven rules of ligging and send him off to blag his way into a nightclub.
Brayfield is rather positive, describing it as an 'entertaining chronicle of social opportunism, wittily scripted by David Leland'. She describes Sayle as playing 'a creature somewhere between John Bull and the Joel Gray character in Cabaret', demonstrating the telling point that ligging is politically correct in Thatcher's 'self-help' Britain. It isn't just the presence of Alan Price in ITV's schedules (in some supper-club performance alongside Gloria Gaynor) that suggests it could be some sort of 1980s equivalent to O Lucky Man!
The Guardian's Hugh Hebert is not so positive, likening the production to 'an ageing jogger trying to keep up in the cultural race' and bemoaning that its 'fable of the innocent fallen among rogues and con men, and out-conning the lot, is as old as London itself.' He is critical of Alexei Sayle, playing John Bull as a 'dismal imitation of a German political cabaret', and the GG himself - Gary Glitter - who performs a 'feeble shoe fetish number in the gent's bog at the Ritz.' This rogue's gallery is joined by infamous tycoon and crook Robert Maxwell at the end, still in charge of the Daily Mirror at the time and offering to run the protagonist's story in his paper.
Whilst broadly critical, Hebert does praise its great photography and Ken Campbell's mock-archive lecture as Samuel Smiles, father of Thatcherism ("poverty creates greatness") as well as Fanny Cradock's appearance as her 'indomitable and insufferable self'. Campbell was a true eccentric in our culture, who could be compared with Jonathan Meades, Kenneth Griffith and others.
This programme would be interesting to view as a less naturalistic counterpart to David Leland's Tales out of School (1982), released by Network DVD this year (and perceptively reviewed by John Williams and Frank Collins). While likely to be a less subtle and edgy exploration of a culture undergoing its Thatcherisation, historians of the 1980s will want to see its re-release; the IMDb indeed includes a subtitle: 'A Musical for the 80s'. Ligmalion's cast is a kaleidoscopic collection of the enticing (Campbell, Sayle) and the ghoulish (Maxwell, Paul Francis Gadd). The latter may well lessen the chances of it being released, but then the BBC did post this video a couple of years back.
Its context is instructive: Wogan, Monkhouse, Benny Hill, Dave Allen on the most popular channels; Channel 4 wonderfully varied: a documentary on the post-WW2 Cornish artists' colony, 'theatrical tableaux' from the Welfare State Theatre Company, Brookside, Buster Keaton, 28 Up and a Lionel Atwill 'chiller' to round off. The Channel 4 archive clearly needs the sort of attention Network have lavished on the ITV.