1970s BBC Douglas Livingstone Irene Shubik Nigel Stock Play For Today Writers

Play for Today: I Can’t See My Little Willie

By Simon Farquhar

Written by Douglas Livingstone, directed by Alan Clarke and produced by Irene Shubik. Broadcast on BBC1 at 9.20 pm on 19th November 1970.

The stately BBC1 continuity announcer Peter Bolgar fell shy of introducing the play by name. However, despite its knavish title, I Can’t See My Little Willie proved to be far more than just a barrel of laughs.[1]

Douglas Livingstone started writing in the early 1960s when he was a young actor whose role in Peter Shaffer’s The Private Ear, The Public Eye at The Globe Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue had involved a thumb-twiddling amount of time waiting in the dressing room. Aware that television was hungry for new dramatists, he sent his first script, It Gets in Your Blood, to Sydney Newman. ‘A larkish and endearing comedy about a working class man and his hobby of exploring sewers’ was the BBC Script Report’s pronouncement on the play and, in appreciation of the play’s pleasing comic tone, the BBC sent an encouraging rejection.[2]

A mere fortnight later Livingstone sent a second, Pass by the Khyber, which, although rejected as well, prompted a more promising response from the script reader:

It does seem a pity that this writer, with a very distinct gift for realisation through dialogue, should fail to hit the mark through a striving (perhaps?) after distinction too soon. I would suggest trying to guide him along one of the common paths and confining his originality to some simple twist on some familiar situation. I think he’ll do something producible one of these days.[3]

The BBC kept a canny eye on Livingstone over the next four years, as he began to get scripts accepted by ITV, including Beggars And Choosers (9 July 1964) for ATV’s Love Story strand, starring Leonard Rossiter, and I Remember The Battle (Play of the Week, 22 March 1965), with which an ITV Monitoring Report by the BBC was especially impressed. After Cry Baby Bunting (23 February 1967), a play about teenage marriage, Irene Shubik wrote personally to the author to praise him on a piece which she found ‘beautifully written and moving’.[4] ‘I’d been introduced to Douglas through Philip Broadley’, she recalled, ‘who had adapted the first Tony Parker play that I did, The Unknown Citizen (Story Parade, BBC2, 21 August 1964). I then had him in for talks, and the idea for this new play was in his mind. So I commissioned him to write what became I Can’t See My Little Willie.’[5]

Douglas Livingstone explained his inspiration: ‘My mother-in-law had an enormous pub in Margate, the Kent Hotel, which is now an amusement arcade. I always loved the place: on a Saturday night or on a Bank Holiday it was wonderful, people singing and dancing a Conga round the pub, and the most magical atmosphere. My wife was sick of it all, but I used to go down and work there occasionally because I was so captivated by it. I’d also always loved these naughty Donald McGill[6] postcards, and we invented a whole load of them to fit the theme of the play. We used them to highlight bits of the show, to add a bit of a fantasy dimension. The lead character, Arthur Palmer, played by Nigel Stock, sees the place as perfection compared to his dull life as a housing officer and dreams of escaping to run this pub there, but everyone else can see he is deluded.’[7]

The play begins with a typically rowdy evening in The Sea Dog, where the salty congregation, conducted by the snappy M.C. Johnny (Ronald Clarke), chant Douglas Livingstone’s specially-penned title song. Hearty landlord Frank (George A. Cooper) presents the pints and presides over the jolly scene. Outside forty-seven-year-old Arthur Palmer (Nigel Stock) stands amidst the penny arcades and cafés enigmatically gazing at the pub before browsing a rack of comic postcards, including a well-endowed lady card player who asks ‘do you wanna see my pair?’ and a floppy-bosomed woman opening her door to a Vicar who announces ‘I come to bring you uplift’.  A host of specially created postcards in the style of Donald McGill feature in the play when we peep into Arthur’s imagination, the punchlines spoken over them by Nigel Stock in a range of silly voices.

Initially there is something puzzlingly compelling about finding cheerful smut in a rather moody setting, the town clearly not yet in season and Arthur alone at the end of the pier. Then we cut to the Housing Department of a local council, where Arthur works with David and Christine (Michael Graham Cox and Avril Elgar) who do not take him particularly seriously. David in particular is rather cocky and ambitious and is played by Cox as a man just bland enough to find his job unduly fascinating. We return to Arthur beside the seaside as he checks into the boarding house where he was born. We flash back again to David and Christine grinning at him, but we are not sure how much of this is paranoid fantasy and how much genuine memory.

Arthur and family are in Margate for a christening and staying at The Sea Dog, which belongs to Arthur’s in-laws. Being presented with three time streams so rapidly is rather bewildering at first, as we do not realise until the end that the Arthur who seeks sanctuary in the boarding house is the one in the present, the housing office scenes are both memory and embroidery, and the christening and domestic scenes are from the previous few days. Interweaved are fantasies in which all worlds collide in Arthur’s tombola mind.

Arthur loves the pub and hates his job (he no longer has coffee at meetings because his hands shake), and when landlord Frank tells him he is looking for someone to manage it, Arthur zealously pronounces himself the perfect choice. Frank calls his bluff, not realising that Arthur is calling his. Sadly, we know from the off that Arthur is as deluded about his dreams of escape as he is disillusioned about reality. Compared to the efficiency drive at the office (‘take an atom bomb to make that lot efficient’) Arthur thinks the pub is ‘fantastic’. He envisages the meeting for the office re-organisation, with David keenly volunteering a scheme of his own devising, as a pub talent contest, casting himself as compère, complete with a cod-Hughie Green voice. David recites his scheme to the pub audience and Arthur conducts them in a heckling round of ‘Knees up Mother Brown’, drowning David out with chants of ‘oh my what a rotten song…and what a rotten singer too!’

Arthur has his head in the clouds but his wife Mary (Daphne Slater) has her feet on the ground. She refuses to indulge him, but it’s their bright spark of a son Peter (Malcolm McFee) who constantly leaves him standing. To try and earn his respect Arthur invites him to lunch with his work colleagues, only then to get embarrassingly drunk. When Mary tells Arthur ‘oh don’t be silly you’re not capable’ with regard to running the pub, he pictures himself as a leering midget being told the phrase by a towering caricature of her. Arthur learns that Johnny and Frank’s wife Val (Jo Rowbottom) are having an affair, and, perhaps inspired by the sauciness of seaside life, clumsily attempts to make a pass at Christine. But when she reveals sympathetically that she is aware of his despair he is furious and denies it. His own attempt at honest vulgarity, like his saucy remarks at the disastrous lunch, end in crushing failure. A drunken Peter, having been freshened up by a taste of ‘hello sailor’ himself, understands his father’s doldrums, and offers to try and convince Mary about moving down to the coast.

At the family christening, an elderly relative collapses, stealing Arthur’s thunder, and in his frustration at sober Peter seeing sense about his plans, blurts out Val’s infidelity to Frank with all the subtlety of one of his seaside postcards. Frank is in fact well aware he is a cuckold but having it spelt out riles him into banishing Arthur from paradise. Arthur leaves with Mary, Peter, and his tail between his legs, but on the road he suddenly breaks and bolts, running out of the car, and we end where we began, with him in the boarding house room with his treasured postcards, lying on the bed contentedly singing ‘I am a man of Margate’.

It’s a strange, sweet play, confident enough to flash its teeth when it giggles. While the preoccupation is with cheerful smut and escapism, the overall tone is rather hopeless, Arthur laughing a little too loudly and a little too long. But he who laughs loudest laughs last here, even if it makes those around him wince. The play leaves Arthur quite happy in his deluded world where he has drowned out the murmurs of the cynics.

In a career usually devoted to more gruelling fare, this play gave director Alan Clarke a rare chance for his own bawdy personality to shine through. He keeps it as it should be: a tight, snappy fantasy. As with his later Penda’s Fen, the key to effective fantasy sequences is to treat them prosaically rather than to use them as a launch pad into flights of fancy, as Philip Saville was so often prone to do. The play itself, in a speech of Peter’s to Arthur, acknowledges the critics’ view that the tale of a stressed office worker seeking escape is oft-told, but it is the truly novel form in which it is presented that makes I Can’t See My Little Willie a definite hit.

‘It was Irene’s idea to ask Alan Clarke to direct it’, explained Livingstone. ‘I knew Alan from working at Rediffusion but he’d never directed anything of mine before: he was known for more serious work. I had a say in the casting, which was very good, but although I was an actor, I never wanted to be in it. Alan was fond of casting non-actors, and for one of the small parts he said to me “come to the pub, I’ve got this guy I want you to meet. He hasn’t done much acting, you know, he’s a bit of a wide boy actually”. And as well as the non-theatrical types he had Daphne Slater who was very good, and of course Nigel Stock was marvellous. Nigel was always getting cast in serious roles, but I had worked with him as an actor on The Password Is Courage (UK 1962) which was made pretty cheaply in Epping Forest, where it was so cold in the mornings that we used to light fires and huddle around them. To keep our spirits up Nigel would play Battleships on pieces of paper, and most of all be very funny. People rarely saw this side of him and so it was lovely we got to use those qualities’. [8]

Douglas Livingstone

Stock’s controlled performance earns not only our sympathy but our encouragement. He plays Arthur as an impetuous child riding for a fall and coming down to earth with a bump when he tries to bring his innocent daydreams into reality. And Arthur’s view of Margate as a carousing carousel wasn’t too far removed from the real one when Alan Clarke and his crew arrived. ‘There was a good deal of chaos in Margate’,  Livingstone chuckled. ‘Alan urinating off the pub roof, all that sort of thing. He was notorious and adored for causing mayhem wherever he went. But he was a total professional when it came to the actual recording in the studio, he didn’t drink and was remarkably disciplined’.

‘He was also very inventive. I remember a long session in the edit in the basement at Television Centre when we couldn’t find the right musical sting to put on whenever we cut to a postcard. Eventually we used a bus bell, a “ding ding” sound, which for some reason was exactly right. As a good director Alan didn’t like you saying things at rehearsal and liked you to give him a week to work with the actors before you came along, but after that he was always happy for you to contribute, and he always invited you to the edit. It was largely done in the studio and I loved that. It was a joy for actors and directors to work like that because you did a whole long scene and you got that interplay between the actors you have to replicate artificially on film. I loved it all. They built the interior of the pub in there and we even got the actual organist from the pub up to London to appear in those scenes. I was standing on the edge of the studio floor the whole time watching it all in delight!’

‘It was unusual for a comedy to have large elements of fantasy, as this was before The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, and also, I have to say, it was in a sense the sort of thing that Dennis Potter was doing a few years later. It was very much written for television and wouldn’t have worked easily in any other medium. Of course, it was destroyed because in those days they believed the tapes were more valuable than the plays, but it all went very well. There weren’t too many comedies in Play for Today and although it was at heart a serious play about a man’s breakdown, the comedy came around him.’

The play remained one of Irene Shubik’s favourites. ‘I loved it, it was so funny and it managed to achieve what Douglas wanted, to make seaside postcards come to life. Douglas was obsessed with all that, he had a vast collection of Donald McGill’s postcards and Alan grasped that, took it all on board and the whole look of the play took on that style.’[9]

Only Mary Malone in the Daily Mirror found the play too confusing, claiming it looked ‘more like a white elephant than a gift horse’[10], but Stanley Reynolds summed up the wider held view that this was a ‘quite serious and very successful drama’ and felt that it was ‘the wildness of the hero’s escape’ that gave it such a distinctive flavour, as he saw ‘innocence and indeed poetry in the warm spontaneity of the pub’.[11] James Thomas praised Alan Clarke, ‘who takes some beating when it comes to whipping up atmosphere’[12] and Martin Wiggins was pleased to say that ‘after a disappointing start this series of plays has become a Thursday night commitment which one approaches with a lively sense of expectation’.[13]

Douglas Livingstone’s writing career continued healthily after his early persistence. An equally tangy slice of seaside life, Everybody Say Cheese, was broadcast as a Play for Today on 3 June 1971, Alan Clarke again directing, this time a saucy tale of lusty old beach photographers, while Mummy and Daddy, for Play for Today on 15 November 1973, was a more wistful tale of a couple whose optimism for their coastal retirement is quickly eroded by reality. Livingstone’s later credits included excellent dramatisations of John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (BBC 1981) and Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up (ITV 1989), and his crowning achievement, We’ll Support Your Evermore (BBC 1985), starring John Thaw, which he also directed.

Avis Bunnage and Roy Kinnear in Everybody Say Cheese

Simon Farquhar is a writer and broadcaster.

[1] Sadly, I Can’t See My Little Willie no longer exists in the BBC archives, so discussion of the play’s production is based on an audio recording, made by Douglas Livingstone from the original transmission, Alan Clarke’s camera script and Douglas Livingstone’s recollections.

[2]BBC Script Report, 17 July 1963 (BBC Written Archives).

[3]BBC Script Report, 28 August 1963 (BBC Written Archives).

[4]Letter from Irene Shubik to Douglas Livingstone, 4 April 1967 (BBC Written Archives).

[5] Simon Farquhar interview with Irene Shubik.

[6]Donald McGill (1875-1962), ‘the Michaelangelo of the great big lady and the little weedy man’, was the designer of thousands of naughty seaside postcards which, in their honest sauciness and innocent merriment, were as British as bacon and eggs. Yet many towns banned his work and in 1954 he was fined £50 for obscenity. He began his career in postcards in 1904 when an in-law encouraged him on the strength of a get-well card he had drawn. He earned three guineas a design at the most, but his artwork now fetches thousands and was the subject of a major exhibition at the Cartoon Art Gallery in London in 2004.

[7]SF interview with Douglas Livingstone, 21st February 2003. All subsequent quotes are from the same interview.


[9] SF interview with Irene Shubik.

[10]Mary Malone, Daily Mirror, 20 November 1970.

[11]Stanley Reynolds, The Times, 20 November 1970.

[12]James Thomas, Daily Express, 20  November 1970.

[13]Martin Wiggins, Sunday Times, 22 November 1970. I Can’t See My Little Willie was the sixth production to be broadcast under the title of Play for Today following the launch of the series on 15 October 1970.


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