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1970s Actors Barry Hanson BBC English Regions Drama Brian Parker David Halliwell David Rose Joyce Hawkins Play For Today Regional Drama

Play for Today: Steps Back

Steps Back (14.05.73)

Written by David Halliwell, directed by Brian Parker and produced by David Rose. Broadcast on BBC1 at 9.25pm on Monday 14 May 1973

Steps Back (14.05.73) by David HalliwellSteps Back was the second Play for Today by David Halliwell, broadcast six months after Triple Exposure (6 November 1972), his only other Play for Today. Halliwell was, and probably still is, best known for his 1965 play Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs which was made into a feature film in 1974 starring John Hurt and David Warner. His television work was sparse: a play for the Granada anthology series Friday Night in 1963, now lost; a 1966 Wednesday PlayCock, Hen and Courting Pit; a play for the 1972 BBC2 series Sextet, also lost; the two Plays for Today in 1972-73; two 3-part stories for Crown Court in 1976; Meriel, the Ghost Girl for BBC2’s Playhouse – The Mind Beyond in 1976; a half-hour play for BBC2’s Second City Firsts in 1977; and, incongruously, an episode of The Bill in 1989.

Steps Back was the fourth Play for Today produced by BBC English Regions Drama in Birmingham, following The Fishing Party (1972), which was the final play in the second series, Shakespeare or Bust (1973) and Land of Green Ginger (1973), both of which preceded Steps Back in the third series, which was an exceptional series even by Play for Today’s high standards with plays by Dominic Behan, David Hare, Barry Hines, Arthur Hopcraft, Julia Jones, John McGrath, David Mercer, Adrian Mitchell, Alan Plater, Dennis Potter, Peter Terson, William Trevor and Colin Welland, among others, and with directors including Michael Apted (3 plays), Roy Battersby (2 plays), Alan Clarke (2 plays), Peter Dews, Piers Haggard, James MacTaggart, Christopher Morahan, Mike Newell, Brian Parker (3 plays), Philip Saville and Herbert Wise. There were 28 plays in series three, more than in any other series of Play for Today, eight of which were shot on film. Unfortunately, eleven of the 20 studio plays from the third series are now lost.

Steps Back (14.05.73) - Brighouse
Brighouse

Steps Back was one of the filmed plays[1], shot largely on location in Brighouse, Yorkshire, where David Halliwell was born. It is not difficult to imagine an element of autobiography informing the play, in which Gerry (David Hill) takes his girlfriend Nita (Harriett Harper) back to Brighouse for the first time since he left, fifteen years earlier, to go to London. Like Alan Plater’s Land of Green Ginger, which is also about the return of the main character to her birthplace, the play opens with Gerry and Nita on a train, travelling from London to Brighouse. But where Plater has his central character explaining the purpose of her return to Hull through a conversation with another passenger, Halliwell uses voiceover as the predominant narrative device throughout the play, often in tandem with flashbacks to Gerry’s life in Brighouse, as he remembers it.

The first flashback, as Gerry describes it in voiceover, is ‘The most potent and recurrent of all me Brighouse memories, up the steps at school’, a shot of children running up the school staircase, a recurring image which, we discover, is the central metaphor of the play.[2] Like all the flashbacks the shot uses a vignette effect, a circular shadow around the image, which not only denotes that it is a flashback but gives it a connotation of a fondly remembered moment from the past; the tone of Gerry’s voice, with his strong Yorkshire accent, emphasises this.

Steps Back (14.05.73)_Steps(2)

Back on the train, in the present, Gerry’s voiceover continues as he looks at Nita: ‘Aye she’s looking forward to seeing place.’ The flashbacks continue as he remembers the event that forced him to leave, the meeting with the manager of the factory where he worked when he was told they were going to have to ‘let him go’. This changes to Gerry and Nita in the same office: ‘She’s going to be thrilled when she sees where it took place’, departing from the flashback structure to include a scene which is Gerry’s projection of an event yet to happen, in which Nita is visibly ‘thrilled’. More flashbacks follow: of Gerry working in the factory, with his mates, at school, ending with a night-time pan across the city: ‘Brig’ous’, my town, the town to which I belonged, aye and still do belong!’

Steps Back (14.05.73) - Gerry
Gerry (David Hill)

On the train his voiceover continues as he anticipates how the visit will show Nita how he really is, his ‘roots’, his ‘soul’, before they get married, ‘Brig’ouse will clinch marriage’.

Then for the first time we get Nita’s voiceover: ‘He’s looking forward to seeing Brighouse again. He’s told me so much about it, I wonder what it’s like?’ Her accent is unmistakeably southern, more middle-class than Gerry’s.

Steps Back (14.05.73)_Nita
Nita (Harriett Harper)

His voiceover continues, as if taking up Nita’s train of thought: ‘It’s going to be an experience for me, I’m beginning to feel excited. I’m going home, bahn wam.’ According to Costume Designer Joyce Hawkins, ‘Bahn Wam’ was the title given to the play in the production’s Film Diary, dated 28 March 1972.[3] The director Brian Parker confirmed that ‘Bahn Wam’ was the original title (though his spelling of it was different). He explained how he came to direct the play and what David Halliwell told him about the plan to include alternative versions of scenes:

I was in the Bar at Pebble Mill when Barry Hanson [script editor] came in and said “What does Bahn Wham mean.” I said “Going Home”. He said “You just got a job”. That was the original title. I don’t know who changed it or why.’

The shape of the piece is entirely D. Halliwell. The flashbacks and alternative versions of scenes are exactly as scripted, we changed nothing. I remember him explaining that all the characters in a scene would have a different apprehension of what was happening, and he wished to reveal this to the audience.[4]

Referring to the use of the vignette for the flashback scenes Parker explained: ‘I did have the daft idea that when it was His imagination at work, we’d put a pink vignette around the frame and for Hers a blue. Blue or Red crayon on the front glass did the trick.’[5]

On arriving in Brighouse the reality of how things have changed begins to impinge on Gerry’s rose-tinted view of the past when he discovers that the trains do not run there anymore and they have to get a taxi from Huddersfield. At first he is not too fazed by this: ‘It’s still my Brig’ous’. In contrast, Nita’s voiceover conveys her first impressions: ‘My goodness, isn’t it dirty’, but she laughs it off by mocking the old adage: ‘Still “Where there’s muck there’s money!” Isn’t that what he always said?’

When they arrive at their hotel Gerry’s anticipation of a friendly reunion with old friends in the bar, seen in flashback, is met by a quite different experience as the camera zooms in to highlight his astonished expression: ‘The Calder Hotel? Brighouse? This? I never expected anything like this – the Brighouse Hilton! Is this in Brighouse? It’s more like Miami Beach.’ As Gerry signs in at reception we get an exchange of dialogue for the first time, nearly six minutes into the play, as Gerry talks to the receptionist, but the voiceovers continue as the dominant mode of narrative communication. The dialogue is necessary here because this is the first time that we get different versions of the scene, with Gerry seeing a glamorous, confidant receptionist, while Nita sees the same character as awkward, nervous and somewhat less glamorous.

Steps Back (14.05.73)_Gerry's view
Gerry’s version of events

This strategy continues when Gerry is approached by a hotel porter who asks him if he wants his shoes polished in the morning and we see Gerry’s interpretation of the scene, expressed in voiceover, with him revelling in a position of superiority, followed by the same scene replayed from Nita’s point of view as a comic encounter in which Gerry and the porter are ‘Both the same!’.

Steps Back (14.05.73)_Nita's view
Nita’s version of events

The play continues to explore the disjuncture between Gerry’s memory of the Brighouse he knew in his younger days – at school where he describes various childhood initiations and Nita imagines him as an adult in school uniform, getting drunk with his mates, being ‘let go’ by the factory manager – and the reality that he experiences on his return. Gerry thinks Nita is not very interested in his reminiscences and that she is sneering at him, whereas her version of events suggests she sees him much more affectionately.

Eventually he has a revelation which enables him to rationalise the difference between his rose-tinted memory of the past and the disappointment he encounters on returning to his old abodes:

Has place changed? Has everything changed, or have I changed? Is it place, or is it me? Me? Yeah, of course it’s me, I’ve changed, and I’ve changed Brighouse inside me ‘ead. It’s always been like this, drab, flat, mean, uneventful. Aye and futile. Futile, aye, that’s why I left it. Aye, that’s why I left it, that’s right. I left it because I loathed it. Yeah, I left this town because I loathed it. … All those memories of belonging – I made them up and inflated them down in London.

He begins to imagine an alternative scenario, where the flashbacks are given a different, less rosy interpretation. He reconsiders the recurring image of the school staircase in an extended sequence (over two minutes) which shows the children running up and down the stairs, wondering why he always remembers the children running up the stairs, not down: ‘We used those steps several times a day, we must’ve gone down ‘em at least as many times as we went up ‘em.’ In voiceover he analyses the meaning of the steps and concludes: ‘Subconsciously behind the wish-fulfilment I mixed in me real experience of Brighouse – futility. Which means I can ditch that image along with all the rest.’

As they check out of the hotel, we get a different voiceover for the first time: that of the receptionist, who introduces herself as Mona Taylor, one of the girls Gerry remembered running up and down the school staircase. But while she recognises him, he doesn’t recognise her: ‘Far too important to remember Mona Taylor. But I remember ‘im. However much he may try to disguise his origins he can’t fool me. He’s a Brig’ous bloke and he’ll never be able to get away from it.’

Gerry, however, is glad to get away and go back to London: ‘That’s where I belong.’ On the train the voiceovers reveal the continuing disparity between Gerry’s and Nita’s view of events following the trip to Brighouse, Gerry anticipating that Nita will leave him because of the way he has ‘disappointed’ her, while Nita assumes he will be going back to Brighouse: ‘Man and town, I’m in love with them both. I suppose I shall be marrying them both, Well that’s okay by me.’

Back in London, several months later, Gerry finds himself wondering whether London really is where he belongs and he has a flashback to the children running up the school staircase in Brighouse, prompting him to reconsider the meaning of this recurring memory. His final voiceover accompanies another extended flashback of the children running up the steps:

It’s fitting that I should have dressed it up in a glowing image, it deserves ornamental commemoration. Aye, it’s sustained me for fifteen years and it may do so again. I mustn’t let Brighouse take it off me, no I won’t. So I’ll let the children go on running, me amongst ‘em, everlastingly amongst ‘em. Aye I’ll let the children go on running everlastingly up those steps, those steps of that school. Yes, I’ll let the children go on running up the steps of that school in the Brighouse of me mind. In the Brighouse of me mind (final sentence expressed with a sense of wonder).

Steps Back (14.05.73)_Young Gerry
Young Gerry (Alaric Booth)

Steps Back is an unusual play, not least because most of the narrative is communicated in voiceovers. While it was not unusual to use voiceover in television drama, especially in filmed drama, rather than studio drama, to have the majority of the narrative told through the voiceovers of the main characters was highly unusual, as was the device of showing alternative versions of scenes from the different viewpoints of the main characters. This arguably shows the influence of art cinema, films like Kurosawa’s multi-viewpoint Rashomon (1950) and Resnais’ meditation on time and memory, Last Year in Marienbad (1961), and it provides an example of how Play for Today often departed from the orthodoxy of naturalism and social realism in television drama.

Under the leadership of David Rose, BBC English Regions Drama, based at the Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham, had no qualms about giving free rein to writers such as David Halliwell, David Rudkin (Penda’s Fen, 1974), Philip Martin (Gangsters, 1975) and Alan Garner (The Red Shift, 1978) whose work was not only resolutely ‘from the regions’ but who were not afraid to experiment with the form and style of television drama. It may also be significant that 24 of the 38 plays produced by English Regions Drama for Play for Today, including all of the above, were shot on film.

In 2015, on the occasion of a revival of Halliwell’s Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, Mike Leigh, who was at RADA with Halliwell in the early 1960s, described him as ‘one of the great writers who never happened’, someone who should have been ‘up there with Pinter and Stoppard and the rest of them’.[6] Instead, after Steps Back, David Halliwell wrote only two more television plays, including the half-hour Daft Mam Blues (1977) for BBC English Regions Drama, but on the evidence of Steps Back, not to mention the intriguing titles of some of his other television plays – Plastic Mac in Winter (1963), Cock, Hen and Courting Pit (1966), Blur and Blank Via Checkheaton (1972), Meriel, the Ghost Girl (1976) – David Halliwell, who died in 2006, is one of those neglected writers whose work merits re-evaluation.

David Halliwell
David Halliwell in 1965 (Photograph courtesy of Mike Leigh)

Notes

[1] Costume Designer Joyce Hawkins told me that the dates for filming were 4-16 April 1972, over a year before the play was broadcast. Telephone conversation, 14 July 2020.

[2] In an email, director Brian Parker told me: ‘The “recurring image” of children running upstairs involved a cameraman and heavy camera running up too. And consequent risk of injury to both. We realised that we needed 13 copies of the shot to cover the voice over, so sent the negative off to get an inter-positive in order to be able to make the 13 negatives. It became obvious during the following stages that the drop in quality was shocking on 16mm. It was the cameraman who asked me if I could get the kids back. We asked and they too were prepared to do the run another 13 times. And each time you see them trotting upstairs, they are doing it again.’ Email to the author, 13 July 2020.

[3] Email from Joyce Hawkins, 13 July 2020. For confirmation of the meaning I contacted the Yorkshire writer John Finch (Family at War, Sam) and he told me ‘bahn whaam’ was Yorkshire dialect for ‘going home’, but his spelling of ‘whaam’ was different to that recorded in the Film Diary, although it may represent how ‘wam’ would be spoken in Yorkshire dialect. Email from John Finch, 13 July 2020.

[4] Email from Brian Parker, 13 July 2020. Like David Halliwell, script editor Barry Hanson and actor David Hill, Brian Parker is also a Yorkshireman.

[5] Ibid. Unfortunately, on the copy of the play that I viewed, the colour has faded to such an extent that it is no longer possible to identify Parker’s colour-coding of the vignettes. The stills which accompany this article are taken from the only copy currently available.

[6] Matt Trueman, ‘Mike Leigh on David Halliwell: “He’s one of the great writers who never happened”’, The Guardian, 7 July 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/jul/07/mike-leigh-on-playwright-david-halliwell-little-malcolm

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