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‘Armchair Theatre: The Invasion’ (ABC/ ITV, 1963): An introduction by Angus Wilson

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Angus Wilson on ‘The South Bank Show’ (29 June 1980)

One of the four plays included on Armchair Theatre Archive: Volume Two, (one of the titles in our ‘Forgotten TV Drama’ DVD range) is The Invasion (31 March 1963) written by Angus Wilson and directed by Charles Jarrott. Since I wrote the Viewing Notes for the play last year, a few more details have come to light , which are worth sharing here.

Angus Wilson (1913-91) was one of the most popular and acclaimed British literary novelists and short story writers of the mid-twentieth century, whose works biographer Margaret Drabble characterises as featuring ‘brilliant satiric wit, acute social invention, and a love of the macabre and the farcical, combined with humanity, compassion and a lively interest in human affairs.’ As well as writing three much-read novels of the 1950s (Hemlock and After, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and The Middle Age of Mrs Elliot), Wilson also scripted a stage play, The Mulberry Bush (the debut production of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre in 1956). The combination of great literary acclaim, popularity and a proven interest in writing drama, inspired Armchair Theatre producer Sydney Newman to offer Wilson a contract to write television dramas exclusively for the series.

The Invasion is a highly ambitious work that combines two opposing strands, with a characteristic social-satirical story undercut by an outlandish tale of Martian invasion, with human characters so wrapped up in their own concerns that they are oblivious to the invasion happening around them. Margaret Drabble traces the play’s inspiration to Wilson’s experience of the 1953 Coronation in a Trust House hotel, where he observed the celebrations of the young drowning out the feeble attempts of older revellers with approval:

[In The Invasion] only two schoolboys, playing with their television sets, pick up the messages, and like Cassandra, they are ignored. The idea for the play clearly sprang from Coronation Day in Suffolk, and the vision of those alienated prep-school boys hanging around on the fringes of village life – a theme of England divided, un-selfknowing, trapped in the past, unable to meet the future. It is a social comedy rather than a work of science fiction.

Thanks to this review of the play on a Patrick Wymark fansite we can identify Wilson’s original New Statesman article about his experience of the Coronation (and read it on the New Statesman website)

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‘The South Bank Show: Angus Wilson’ (29 June 1980)

Something else which I wasn’t aware of when I wrote the Viewing Notes was that a clip from the play was shown during an edition of The South Bank show devoted to Angus Wilson (LWT/ ITV 29 June 1980). Interviewer Melvyn Bragg invites Wilson to say something about the play before the clip. Wilson’s comments are the closest thing that we have to an Author’s Introduction to the play, and are worth reproducing here:

MELVYN BRAGG: It’s quite difficult to refine an interview with you, because your books cover an immense amount of ground. But one of the persisting themes is a very keen eye on the English in public, and particularly in their attitudes towards each other defined by class. We found a telerecording of a play you wrote in the beginning of the sixties called The Invasion, where you have the conflict between the county set and the nouveau riche new money. Would you like to say something about it before we show an extract?

ANGUS WILSON: Yes. I used there the theme of this English social conflict. At that time I felt very much – and I don’t feel so differently now – that the enormous amount of energy that people put into snobbery and into social mores and social conflict was, all too frequently, blinding them to the much greater dangers that there were in the world. But I didn’t want to make it into a specifically political play, so I made it into a semi-science fiction – but that’s a terribly small thing in it. But there are, lurking, the beginnings of the Martian invasion, and the people who are the Martians have very peculiar and very long ears. These people, these county and new rich people, are going on with their quarrel. They’re locally about who should run the local social life, who should be the new squire – should it be the new squire or the old squire and so on. And these wretched Martians are slinking in and out all the time. They just don’t even notice that these people are totally different to them, and alien.

I thought that this was a way of expressing this. But I found that not unusually a comment made to me about that play was that I had got the two things mixed up. You can’t have a play about Martians along with a play about English class conflict – they don’t marry together. But that was the whole point of the play! There were these people going on having their piffling snobbish fights and just not noticing that they’d been taken over.

(Clip)

MELVYN BRAGG: When you say that England hasn’t really changed much, do you really think that? Do you think that that scene we’ve just watched could be played out again today?

ANGUS WILSON: It’s different now. I think that certainly in the younger generation that kind of snobbery is no longer so violent, but there is I still think an in-turned obsession with our own English manners and behaviours.

 

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