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1970s, BFI, Granada Television, John Hill

‘Forgotten Dramas 2’ at BFI Southbank: ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ and ‘The Nearly Man’

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Our Forgotten Dramas season continues on Monday 13 February at 6.20 pm in NFT2 with a double bill of 1970s political dramas, made by Granada, at which we will be very pleased to welcome the director of The Nearly Man, John Irvin, and the script-editor of The Eagle Has Landed, Jonathan Powell.

 The Eagle Has Landed (4 April 1973) was produced for the ITV omnibus series, Late Night Theatre launched in late 1972 as a way of introducing authors new to television writing. Although David Edgar had already acquired a reputation as a writer of witty agitprop plays and political satires, The Eagle has Handed was the first of his work to be made for television. The result is an exuberant and wildly inventive satire on the Apollo Space Programme in which two astronauts perform the first ever live variety show from the moon complete with advertising jingles and accompanying television punditry. Events, however, take a more sinister turn when the astronauts decide to ‘drop in’ on an ordinary English family who have been watching the space mission live on TV.

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While The Eagle Has Landed is clearly a product of its time in terms of its political attitudes and dramatic techniques, its bold mix of savage satire, anti-naturalist devices and self-reflexivity concerning the mediating role of television also provides an exhilarating example of a kind of socially critical and formally experimental television drama that it is hard to imagine being made today (and, even back then, it was only considered safe enough to be shown after 11pm)!

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By contrast, The Nearly Man (4 August 1974) is a much more dramatically understated piece but is also a political drama of a kind that is rarely seen today. It was written by Arthur Hopcraft, a reporter and sports journalist turned television playwright, who was gaining a growing reputation for his ‘meticulously-observed slabs of Northern working class life’ (Peter Black). In the case of The Nearly Man, Hopcraft focuses on the predicaments of a middle-class Labour MP, Chris Tomlinson, played with considerable relish by Tony Britton, during a weekend visit, with his wife, to his northern English constituency.

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Hopcraft explained to the TV Times that he was fascinated by the ‘well-to-do intellectuals who thread their way through the Labour Party’ but ‘often don’t quite fit into their constituencies’. As such, the play carefully dissects not only Tomlinson’s own sense of bitterness that he has remained a ‘nearly man’ who has so far failed to achieve major political office but also his growing sense of alienation from his own constituents. This is manifested in his obvious unease amongst the traditional working-class voters upon whom he relies for political support as well as the growing threat to his position from a new generation of left-wing political activists, represented by his agent Ron Hibbert (played with quiet eloquence by a youthful Michael Elphick).

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In contrast to The Eagle has Landed, which is a studio production, The Nearly Man is shot completely on film. Hopcraft had already been well-served by the quality of the directors – such as Michael Apted and Michael Newell – with whom he had worked. In the case of The Nearly Man, he was teamed up with John Irvin who had built a reputation as a director of documentaries during the 1960s before moving into TV drama in the 1970s (and then onto feature filmmaking). Irvin’s unfussy, observational style proved the right choice for this particular piece, helping to maintain a critical distance from the central character, whom we are invited to view with both sympathy and disapproval, and whose problems remain unresolved at the drama’s close.

Although now largely forgotten, The Nearly Man was regarded as a substantial success at the time and went on to win the Broadcasting Press Guild award for the best single play of 1974. It also inspired a seven-part series the following year for which Hopcraft wrote all the episodes and Irvin directed four. The collaboration between Hopcraft and Irvin also led to further work together on their groundbreaking adaptation of Dickens’ Hard Times (Granada, 1977) and the hugely successful Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (BBC, 1979). The latter was also produced by Jonathan Powell who had not only produced The Nearly Man series when at Granada but who, in a link that takes us full circle, was also responsible for commissioning and script-editing The Eagle Has Landed.

John Hill

POSTSCRIPT: A report of the screening and summary of The Eagle Has Landed from the Official Zoe Wanamaker site.

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