“The more seriously I’ve taken writing for television the less success I’ve had.” (Howard Barker, 1981, in Brown, 2011: 26)
What I’m going to do today is consider four original television plays by Howard Barker produced by BBC Television between 1972 and 1974. Despite the status of the author as a major contemporary dramatist, his work for the small screen is about as forgotten as could possibly be, with even Barker scholars largely unaware of their existence. Looking at these plays can help to both identify neglected aspects of Howard Barker’s drama, and to reconsider contemporary thinking about the potential form and content of the television play in the climate of drama production at the BBC in the 1970s.
Although recognised as a major figure, Howard Barker’s uncompromising approach has led to his marginalisation in the British theatre. His plays are difficult to stage and watch on many levels; style, form, content, characterisation, language, register, expense and duration. For all of these reasons, his work is rarely revived in Britain (though more frequently on the continent), and his plays are usually only seen in productions by Barker’s own company, The Wrestling School (the writer perhaps not always being the most sympathetic interpreter of his own work).
Barker’s plays are characterised by investigation into the psychopathologies of power, realised through non-realistic speech that juxtaposes public postures and private desires in theatrically inventive, grotesque scenes.
Barker has defined his work as a Theatre of Catastrophe. When Barker’s characters experience forms of catastrophe – wars, revolutions, extremes of cruelty, grief or desire – other versions of their selves, ordinarily repressed or obscured by politics, social convention or simple fear, arise, making them capable of new, heightened, behaviour and perceptions. In performance, this continually confronts audiences’ political and ideological understandings, where the means of catastrophe dislocates characters from conforming to social type.
Kate Dorney and Frances Grey explain this effect:
“Barker’s commitment is to a Theatre of Catastrophe, which acts as an irritant, like grit to an oyster; he is less interested in clarity and accessibility than in sending the audience home ‘disturbed or amazed’.” (2012: 131)
For Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright, Barker’s treatment of the disruptive nature of desire is crucial:
“Howard Barker stood in the Brechtian line, but took it further by giving sex the same naked energy that Brecht accorded to money, war and power (…) Barker’s landscapes show you places you didn’t expect, and his way of telling the story does the same: it’s like riding switchback over rocks.” (2000: 316)
The four plays that the BBC produced early in Barker’s career show the development of the theatre of catastrophe, through increasingly problematic attempts to fit this vision into studio drama form, a struggle which culminated in the BBC refusing to transmit the final play, Prowling Offensive. The two earliest plays don’t survive in the archives, so my readings of those are derived from the camera scripts.
Howard Barker’s television plays
- 1972 Play for Today: Cows (BBC1, d. John Gorrie, p. Graeme McDonald)
- 1972 Thirty Minute Theatre: The Chauffer and the Lady (BBC2, d. Mike Newell, p. Tim Aspinall)
- 1974 Centre Play: Mutinies (BBC2, d. Derek Bennett, p. Anne Head)
- 1974 Masquerade: Prowling Offensive (BBC2 – untransmitted, d. Richard Martin, p. Herbert Wise)
- 1985 Summer Season: Pity in History (BBC2, d. Sarah Pia Anderson, p. Chris Parr)
Despite the banning of Prowling Offensive, Barker continued to receive television commissions throughout the 1970s, all of which failed to reach production.
Howard Barker’s commissioned, but unproduced, television plays
- 1975 Conrod (BBC)
- 1976 Heroes of Labour (BBC)
- 1976 Credentials of a Sympathiser (BBC)
- 1976 All Bleeding (Thames/ ITV)
- 1977 Russia (BBC)
- 1978 Heaven (BBC)
- 1980 The Loud Boy’s Life (?)
- 1985 The Blow (?)
- 198? Brutopia (?)
I want to bear this in mind when I trace a line of development through the 1972-4 plays, as it suggests that Barker was working towards a type of drama that became increasingly less viable for television. Writing in 1979, David Edgar suggested that “the dominant form of television drama is naturalism (…) in the television age, the masses are (…) swamped by naturalism and, therefore, by its individualist assumptions” (1979: 33) Barker’s TV plays don’t easily fit into a naturalist form, and as his use of heightened language and violent situation developed, became increasingly problematic for the medium.
Barker’s first TV play, Cows, was probably his most prestigious television commission, a 65-minute production for Play for Today, the foremost new drama slot on BBC1. The invitation to write for the series is typical of the spontaneous and speculative nature of drama commissioning of the time, coming off the back of two well-received plays at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. Barker conceived Cows as an attempt to work within accepted forms of television drama, describing it as “a domestic story, very much in the existing Play For Today convention, I believed.” (1981, in Brown, 2011: 26).
The play is set on a remote farm, where a very withdrawn adolescent boy, Dennis, suffers the company of his family – the hostility that his eccentric parents show to each other and him, and visits from his haughty sister and her lecherous military husband. Dennis only brightens when tending to his beloved cows (the production problematically using live cows inside the Television Centre studio). A young psychology student, Jane, crashes her car outside the farm and has to stay with the family (“a pretty intellectual among the bovine heard”), unlocking their hidden desires and fears through psychoanalysis, visiting new perceptions and new sufferings upon them.
Although the setting of the play is realistic and domestic, the tone is heightened, artificial and occasionally outlandish. Cows has closer affinities to contemporaneous drama than Barker’s other TV plays, revolving around the archetypal figure of the stranger who arrives at the door and changes lives, as well as the grotesque register of the family dialogue (also found in such plays as B.S. Johnson’s Thirty Minute Theatre: Not Counting the Savages, BBC2, 3 January 1971 or Ian MacEwan’s Second City Firsts: Jack Flea’s Birthday Celebration, BBC2, 10 April 1976), seen on this page in the mother tapping her inner thigh sensually in front of her son and daughter.
The Chauffer and the Lady (“about blind antagonism between a female rentier and a semi-literate communist”, ibid) has another domestic setting, but – helped by the necessary concision of only having half the screen time as Cows – is a more confident work, telling its story in reverse order; in her car, the chauffer tells the lady that his girlfriend has left/ in his room, the girl leaves the chauffer/ in her drawing room, the lady interviews the chauffer for his job.
This retrospective structure concentrates the play on the origins and meanings of the power within its relationships, resulting in a more explicitly dialectical work, as seen here in the chauffer’s interview.
“The story is really rather an important one, because it is about so many people, so much loneliness, and the way so many people respond to it. On the whole I think I am much happier playing roles that are right down there with the rest of us, like this one, than the larger than life theatrical parts” (in Anon, 1972: 5)
Mutinies (1974), about a Battle of Britain ace who faces threats of suicide from his wife and an act of arson from his employees, feels on the surface like a familiar form of television, the suburban office comedy. Aided by the casting of Reginald Marsh – who went on to play interchangeable boss characters in The Good Life (BBC 1975-8) George and Mildred (ITV/ Thames, 1976-9) and Terry and June (BBC 1979-87) – the viewer enters a world in which the manager of Fab Holidays seduces his secretary,
The words spoken within this quotidian world, however, provide the characters who inhabit it with surprising perspectives and insights. Barker’s characters speak in an unnaturally articulate and self-aware register that can make them appear to be looking in upon themselves. The boss leaves the office –
(CLIP: Mutinies 6.00-7.30)
This artificial dialogue permits the audience closeness to the characters’ motivations while also being encouraged to exercise continuous judgement upon them.
As Barker explains:
“I depict the self as wholly articulated. Whereas most drama relies on the unexpressed moment – the loss of speech – my characters excoriate language for emotional exposition, it is a need and hunger in them.” (1997)
Mutinies was written at a stage in Barker’s development when his plays became more confident about deploying long passages of unnatural speech:
“The speech is specific to theatre, one of its highest principles and what distinguishes it most from film and television. In the speech the actor breaks the bonds of the real, disrupts the familiar, scattered syntax of naturalism, with its domestic associations, and draws the audience into a state of intoxication.” (1997: 72)
Fay’s speech in this section provokes oddly conflicted sensations in me as a viewer, empathy and sympathy (more so in the intimacy of the TV image than I might feel in the theatre) combined with a more detached awareness of the absurd and reductive nature of a life spent perpetually almost committing suicide, as unsustainable a position in its way as Gerald’s continual harping back to the courtly honour of the RAF.
At the same time he was developing new forms of speech in his mid-1970s plays, Barker rejected representation of the domestic, effectively banning the room from his drama. Barker explains:
“There are rooms in my plays, but they are peculiar rooms, rarely domestic and usually varieties of torture chambers (…) I was resisting the reconciliation that the home enforces, for behind all domestic drama lies the spectre of reconciliation. Once the walls were taken down and the home abolished, imagination was liberated.” (1997: 33)
Prowling Offensive, in which a pimp compromises a minister at a fancy-dress ball, is a product of this change of emphasis away from the family and towards public life. The play was to have been one of six in an anthology series, Masquerade, (“Six writers invite you to join the party”, Radio Times, the other five being Alan Ayckbourn, Eric Chappell, Caryl Churchill, Adrian Mitchell and Charles Wood) but went untransmitted, despite Barker being prepared to compromise elements of his script:
“Prowling Offensive was blue-pencilled. I submitted to this, in the wrong belief that it was better to say something than nothing, but even then they were out to ditch it. It was made and then abandoned, so the series it was meant to be a part of went out one short.” (1981, in Brown: 2011: 26)
Barker uses the party setting to an alarming effect, with characters masked for the majority of the play, providing caricatured commentaries on their position. The pimp, Prowling, appears as a wolf, accompanied by his mother, masked to appear as she might have looked 30 years earlier (“Nasty boy!” “My mother was a slut – what do you expect?”)
“devoted to a horrified diagnosis of the warfare of the classes, waged with resort to sex, violence, intrigue and sheer native British nastiness.” (Nicholas de Jongh, 1975)
In addition to its wild and disturbing content, Prowling Offensive also demonstrates a frustration with conventional studio drama form, making distinctive use of the aside, through voice-over and direct address.
In combination with insights created through characters’ speech, the camera technique involves the viewer in the world of the play and implicates them in the action. Drama realised in this way has an exceptionally confrontational effect on its audience, and it is my contention that reasoning behind the play’s cancellation may have been as much because of its general form and tone as to do with its content.
Looking at these four plays presents a fascinating glimpse into a brief moment in television drama when a writer like Howard Barker could repeatedly have plays made (and when Barker was prepared to be flexible enough to adapt his dramatic vision for TV). Although very anomalous, their neglect in the canons of both TV drama and Barker’s works is undeserved.
(Text of a paper given at ‘Television Drama: The Forgotten, the Lost and the Neglected’ conference at Royal Holloway College, University of London on Friday 24 April 2015)
Anon, ‘No More Overacting’, Radio Times, 2 December 1972, p. 5.
Barker, Howard, The Chauffer and the Lady, unpublished script, 1972.
Barker, Howard, Cows, unpublished script, 1972.
Barker, Howard, Arguments for a Theatre, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Brown, Mark (ed.), Howard Barker Interviews 1980-2010: Converstaions in Catastrophe, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2011.
de Jongh, Nicholas, ‘Much of Class’, Guardian, 5 March 1975, p. 10.
Dorney, Kate and Gray, Frances, Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 Plays, London: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Edgar, David, ‘Ten Years of British Political Theatre’, Theatre Quarterly, 1979.
Eyre, Richard and Wright Nicholas, Changing Stages: A View of British Theatre in the Twentieth Century, London: Bloomsbury, 2000.
Lamb, Charles, The Theatre of Howard Barker, London: Routledge, 2005.
Megson, Chris, ‘Howard Barker and the Theatre of Catastrophe’ in Luckhurst, Mary, A Companion to Modern British and Irish Drama 1880-2005, Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.
Rabey, David Ian, Howard Barker: Politics and Desire, London: Routledge, 1989.
Rabey, David Ian, ‘Raising Hell: An Introduction to Howard Barker’s Theatre of Catastrophe’ in Gritzner, Karoline and Rabey, David Ian (eds.), Theatre of Catastrophe: New Essays on Howard Barker, Chippenham: Oberon, 2006.