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1970s Alan Cooke BBC BBC drama George Cole Irene Shubik John Osborne Play For Today Radio Times

Play for Today: The Right Prospectus

By Simon Farquhar

Written by John Osborne, directed by Alan Cooke and produced by Irene Shubik. Broadcast on BBC1 at 9.20pm on 22 October 1970.

The Long Distance Piano Player, broadcast on 15 October 1970, was the first of the new season of television plays broadcast under the title of Play for Today.  However, it was the second that really announced the series’ arrival. One of the few television plays written by John Osborne, The Right Prospectus remains one of the most baffling yet beautifully realised and captivating plays ever produced for television. W. Stephen Gilbert is probably not exaggerating when he calls it ‘possibly the best thing Osborne ever wrote, and certainly the finest thing he wrote outside of the theatre’.[1]

Background

Three years earlier, Osborne had been approached about writing a television play for BBC2’s Theatre 625 slot, having not written an original play for television since A Subject of Scandal and Concern formed part of the BBC’s Sunday Night Play strand on 6 November 1960.

Osborne mooted the idea of a television production of A Patriot for Me, but Head of Drama Sydney Newman refused the piece because the theme of homosexuality was in his view treated far too explicitly for television. ‘I guess we’re at least five years away from being able to put it on’,  he wrote to Osborne, and admitted that the Lord Chamberlain having banned the play in the theatre from anything other than club performances would have made the BBC appear rather impudent.[2] The Lord Chamberlain had refused to license the play for public performance specifically because of the scene of a drag ‘coming out’ ball. Mischievously, Osborne and the BBC discussed instead ‘a serious play which makes use of the talents of a female impersonator such as Danny La Rue’.[3]

Osborne was, however, more taken by a juicier prospect that might have eased his controversial piece towards production. Head of Plays Gerald Savory suggested a season of five plays, Epitaph for George Dillon, Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, Inadmissible Evidence and, in theory at least, A Patriot for Me, to be produced in colour, with a possible US co-production deal ‘bringing in extra lolly for all concerned’.[4]

Savory’s plan was to assemble a repertory company and he suggested Nicol Williamson and Osborne’s wife Jill Bennett as potential members. The idea came to nothing, but the hope of a television play of some description glowed in the ashes.

Osborne was still unsure if he was really suited to television but was happy to give it another go when he was less busy. After Theatre 625 folded in 1968, Irene Shubik took over the task of trying to pin him down, tempting him with the offer of one of three all-film slots which she had at her disposal. A year later, when Osborne experienced that peculiar dream which seems to travel from house to house in England, in which he had imagined himself to be back at school in adulthood, The Right Prospectus was born. Prompted to ponder how a middle-aged couple would cope if they flung themselves back into the school system, he became uncomfortably preoccupied with the idea, feeling, quite rightly that this was something ideally suited to the small screen.

Shubik was delighted to commission a script and made an inspired choice in Lindsay Anderson as director. Anderson was riding high on the unexpected success of his brilliant public-school allegory If…. (1968) and was excited by the piece, but unfortunately was already engaged on other projects. Shubik and Osborne were happy to wait for as long as he needed, but eventually it became obvious that they would have to find another director, since Shubik was only confident in Anderson’s abilities on film, knowing he had very little experience in a studio, and she realised that waiting any longer would ruin the chances of shooting the play entirely outdoors in spring conditions.

Shubik instead approached the prolific Alan Cooke. ‘Alan was very good technically, rather like Philip Saville. It was fable-like, but the script itself gave very little direction on how it should be realised’, she recalled.[5] She spoke fondly of the surreal quality inherent in the script, which Cooke restrained from overindulging. In fact, considering the production budget was already severely stretched before an inch of film had been shot, it is wondrous that Cooke manages such a consistent, sustained and uncompromised piece of work.

The Production

 After an alarming alternative Play for Today title sequence depicting a billboard poster plastering itself onto a wall in time to some particularly anarchic music, the seventy-five minute film, shot entirely on location, doesn’t bother to waste time trying to come up with a satisfactory reason why two adults should want to return to school, or how the practical difficulties of a middle-aged couple in an all-boy’s school seem to go unremarked upon by the other pupils and the masters. Osborne’s extraordinary script has the Newbolds, an affluent middle-class couple played by George Cole and Elvi Hale, select an appropriate public school based on the prospectuses they study, and then simply enrol.

They arrive at Crampton’s School, and are immediately treated like every other pupil. No-one responds to them as adults at any point in the film. They are put in separate houses, he in Grant’s, she is MacReady’s: ‘smug and academically brilliant’ is its reputation.

As the winter term gets underway, Mrs Newbold becomes a model student, academically impressive, popular and a useful addition to MacReady’s sports teams, energised by the fact that she is in the best house. (All public schools have one.) But it’s a different story for poor Mr Newbold, who struggles with everything, is constantly lonely and hungry, and begins to feel alienated from his wife both by the strict rules forbidding inter-house fraternising and by the gulf in achievement between them.

It is a fascinating conceit and Osborne refuses to let the tedium of practicality interrupt the flow. Cole becomes the boy packed off alone, while the wife begins as social-climbing parent, exclaiming ‘Of course. Headmaster’ and ‘How delightful’, and becomes the insufferable favourite whom everyone smiles upon.

‘Our ways will be yours in a very short time, and indeed you will find it hard to believe you knew any other’, promises the Headmaster when addressing the newcomers. ‘The house is everything’ is the message that is drummed into the pupils. This place is ‘not bloody Crampton’s, it’s Grant’s!’ as Newbold is reminded.

The Head of House, Heffer (Christopher Witty), delivers a hilarious monologue to Newbold on the do’s and don’ts of the House (one house is, he smiles, ‘lots of beefy hand-holding and buggery’), and with terse politeness spells out to him that as far as heterosexual escapes go, ‘there’s precious little scope there, apart from Matron, the House Master’s wife, who is five foot two, weighs ten stone, has moles on her face and permanently stained armpits’. By the end of this smiling assassination, poor Newbold is a ghost of his former self. ‘You are not expected to reply or express an opinion. You have none and probably never will do. You are a ready-to-wear number.’

The Right Prospectus, head of house

It is joyous to watch a play so confident in its words, and it’s hard to imagine two better central performances, which not only realise Osborne’s peculiar fantasy but develop it. George Cole at this time was developing a nice line in piteous loners, with a particularly upsetting turn in Killing Time, a disturbing play by Hugh Whitemore broadcast in the Menace anthology on BBC2 on 10 November 1970, although he was also splendid in little delights like The Last Lonely Man (21 January 1969), an entry in the BBC2 sci-fi anthology Out Of The Unknown, and the forgotten short Green Shoes (1968).

As Newbold, crammed clumsily into a uniform a size too small, speaking more and more slowly as his optimism wears out and his adulthood erodes away to reveal the dreary boy beneath, Cole contributes a truly endearing piece of acting.

The role of Mrs Newbold went, after a fashion, to the splendid Elvi Hale. Apart from his unshakeable rule that there could be no rewrites to his work, Osborne also insisted the role of the wife went to the then Mrs Osborne, Jill Bennett. The production team were prepared to cooperate until matters beyond their control began to conspire.

Trying to find a suitable public school for the all-location piece seemed impossible as, since If.…., the infuriated Headmasters’ Conference had ruled that no film crews were to be permitted access to schools without their express permission. It’s difficult to imagine any script set in a school pleasing the Headmasters’ Conference, but one particular line was enough to refuse the BBC entry point blank, namely the final word of warning from the Head of House: ‘Stay away from the pretty boys and the maids. As for pulling your wire, that’s no occupation for a gentleman. Although since you’re in Grant’s the likelihood of you being a gentleman is quite small. In this house B is for boy and F is for effort.’

Help was at hand when the maverick Headmaster of a suitable school in Guildford, himself a keen follower of Osborne’s work, offered the crew access. This was ideal for the production, as it transpired that Bennett was appearing simultaneously in a West End play and needed to be safely returned to Shaftesbury Avenue each day after filming. A bundle of the school’s uniforms were prepared for the cast, only for the Headmasters’ Conference to scupper plans again by learning of this and cancelling the shoot.

Only at the eleventh hour did a school in Devon come to light that was happy to supersede their edict, for which the Headmaster in question later got into serious trouble. Shubik informed Osborne that there was now no way they would be able to transport Bennett from Devon to London each evening. Staggeringly, he insisted they hire a helicopter. ‘We ain’t got the money! This is not Hollywood!’, Shubik told him.

In the end the only solution he was prepared to accept was that Bennett’s fee was paid to her in full and another actress replaced her. ‘So Elvi Hale, who I thought was in fact far better than Jill Bennett would have been, came in.’[6]

The Right Prospectus, a couple

It’s a play of great subtlety. Alan Cooke’s direction gracefully detects the emotions bubbling away under the surface, quite a feat for a play set in such a repressive environment. From the Housemaster welcoming the wife with his arm around her, full of optimism for what he clearly sees as potentially a strapping lad, the husband suddenly looking rather impotent in the background, to Mr Newbold’s frail reflection almost camouflaged in a mirror in his Head of House’s study, one could not wish for more from The Right Prospectus. Osborne’s bewildering central conceit could easily have been alienating in less skilled hands, but instead the play is constantly fascinating, rewarding the audience it trusts to decide for itself on the play’s message through a blend of erudite dialogue and touching images.

Being the last to finish a knotty maths exercise is just one of the many childhood panics that the play resurrects, but somehow Osborne’s device of having adults living as children is even more evocative than Dennis Potter’s one of adults playing children, in Stand Up Nigel Barton (The Wednesday Play, 8 December 1965) and Blue Remembered Hills (Play for Today, 30 January 1979). The night he had that fateful dream, Osborne seemed to have inadvertently stumbled on some unsettling vehicle that proves disturbingly effective in evoking those old demons.

Potter’s use of adult actors to play children was to rid the audience of any sentimentality and to act as a magnifying glass on the psychology of the character. In The Right Prospectus the motivation may be less tangible, but, fortuitously perhaps, the result is both powerful and credible, putting the real adult physically back into a childhood environment and reawakening his childhood behaviours.

We recognise that Newbold’s awkwardness and slack performance are in his character rather than because he is clumsily overgrown for his environment. The experience merely blows his cover as a successful man, a masquerade with which he has been able to fool himself within the easy adult world, free of cross-country, double maths and sexual deprivation.

The Right Prospectus, assembly

The critics thought the play was tremendous, and many were deeply aware of the subliminal eeriness of the concept. James Thomas in the Daily Express (23 October 1970) enjoyed the play but was completely bamboozled by it. ‘My guess as to its implications – and I am only guessing – is that the middle-aged think they are way ahead of their children, but if they went back to school today they would discover how far behind they are in thinking and education.’ Thomas also respected that it could never be staged and that no commercially-minded film producer would want it, calling it ‘the kind of eccentric indulgence which only tv will accept’. How times change.

Philip Purser was aware that a public school is, intentionally or not, a perfect microcosm for society, as If.… demonstrated so beautifully, and so pondered whether the point was that, despite the Newbolds selecting the same school, it is the seemingly insignificant decisions that fate makes for us that really determine our place in the world. It is the house Mr Newbold is assigned to that dictates his future, not the broader values of the school. Head of House Heffer sees a future of menial tedium as inevitable for him, but would it have been different for him if he’d been in MacReady’s? It’s a seductive philosophy, suggesting that the city one lives in is less significant than the street, that the smaller decisions in life govern our fate more than the major ones. ‘I may have got it wrong, but I enjoyed trying’, he confessed.[7]

Sean Day-Lewis, writing in the Daily Telegraph (23 October 1970), preferred to see the play as the private nightmare of the lonely James Newbold, whom he saw as another Osborne protagonist to follow in the footsteps of Jimmy Porter and Archie Rice. ‘Characteristically perhaps, Mr Osborne does not use the ludicrous rules and rituals of this Crampton School to make easy fun of the public-school ethos. If anything, Crampton is admitted to be a fair reflection of an equally futile free world beyond its gates. Social comment is, in any event, by the way. The main purpose, bringing Mr Osborne closer to Harold Pinter than anybody would have forecast a decade ago, is to explore private fears.’ As well as praising Ken Westbury’s camerawork and George Cole’s ‘extraordinary reality’, he concluded that ‘I doubt if this will be the general view, yet for me this was not merely the most distinguished original television play of the year but one which will linger uneasily in the mind for years ahead’.

However, the most persistent feeling in the time that passes after one has watched the play is sadness. Carl Davis’ touching score and the beautifully tentative friendship that develops between useless Newbold and brave-faced fellow pupil Partridge (a charming performance by Keith Skinner) is an intriguing and poignant example of English reserve, the reluctance to express our emotions, and the way kindness so often must be wrapped up in bravado.

The Right Prospectus

After the broadcast Shubik was rather concerned not to hear any word from Osborne on his feelings about the end result, and received no answer to her telephone calls to him. She subsequently heard rumours on the grapevine that he was none-too-happy with the piece, but wrote that she was keen to commission another script from him. He replied the following day and cheerily said that he’d love to work with her again but was far too busy for the foreseeable future.

But it took a repeat of the play before the writer finally expressed his admiration for this wonderful production. He later offered a choice of two plays to the programme, The Gift of Friendship and Very Like a Whale. Shubik by this point was off making Wessex Tales, but in her absence Gerald Savory and Graeme McDonald both felt that the former was far too skimpy for a seventy-five minute slot, while the two men were quite clear on what they thought of Very Like A Whale, calling it ‘hellishly expensive, and who cares for this Jock character come to that?’.[8] Both plays were subsequently produced by ITV.[9]

Simon Farquhar is a writer and broadcaster.

[1] Simon Farquhar interview with W. Stephen Gilbert, 15 May 2001. Gilbert himself contributed to the first season of Play for Today with the now lost Circle Line, the winner of BBC TV’s Student Play Competition broadcast on 14 January 1971.

[2] Letter from Sydney Newman to John Osborne, 18 May 1967. [BBC Written Archives]

[3] Letter from Michael Imison to John Osborne, July 1967. [BBC Written Archives]

[4] Letter from Gerald Savory to John Osborne, 11 October 1967. [BBC Written Archives]

[5] SF interview with Irene Shubik, 5 February 2003.

[6] ibid. See also Irene Shubik, Play for Today: The Evolution of Television Drama. Manchester University Press: 2000 [orig.1975].

[7] Leslie Halliwell with Philip Purser, Halliwell’s Television Companion. Grafton: 1986.

[8] Memo from Gerald Savory to Graeme McDonald, 14 June 1972. [BBC Written Archives]

[9] Very Like A Whale, starring Alan Bates, was produced by ATV and broadcast on 13 February 1980;  The Gift of Friendship, with Alec Guinness, was produced by Yorkshire Television and broadcast on 24 September 1974.

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