1970s Alan Bridges BBC drama David Mercer Directors Play For Today Writers

Play for Today: The Cellar and the Almond Tree

by Jonathan Owen

 Written by David Mercer, directed by Alan Bridges and produced by Graeme McDonald. Broadcast on BBC1 at 9.10pm on Wednesday 4 March 1970 (The Wednesday Play) and on BBC1 at 9.20pm on Thursday 10 June 1971 (Play for Today).

David Mercer’s The Cellar and the Almond Tree was first broadcast in 1970 in the Wednesday Play slot and repeated the following year for Play for Today.[1] Mercer was by this point a well-established writer, with ten previous television plays under his belt as well as a burgeoning career in theatre and cinema. Hailed as the first dramatist to reckon seriously with television as a medium, he bestrode the TV landscape of the 1960s, as daring in his formal experimentation as he was challenging in his incorporation of leftist politics (his 1962 play A Climate of Fear had had to be ‘vetted’ at the BBC for ‘possible pro-CND propaganda’).[2] Mercer remained prolific and continued to see his work widely produced until his untimely death in 1980, though he did not enjoy quite the same success in the 1970s and fell somewhat out of step with the decade’s new cultural trends.

For one thing, Mercer, though a self-declared socialist with Marxist sympathies, found himself at odds with the new strains of political radicalism that emerged in the late 1960s. Symptomatic is a hostile assessment by drama critic D.A.N. Jones in The Listener, published two months after the first broadcast of The Cellar and the Almond Tree. Jones objected to the very labelling of Mercer’s work as Marxist, remarking on the peculiarity that a supposed Marxist should focus so exclusively on the crimes of communist governments and only ever feature Marxist characters who were ‘disenchanted and embittered’.[3] Taking to The Listener to respond to Jones, Mercer countered that it was impossible to be an ‘enchanted and unembittered’ Marxist without being a Stalinist, and that in any case he chose to write intuitively, not according to a programme or a set of objectives – including ‘the crude imperatives of political philistines’.[4]

The Cellar and the Almond Tree provided grist to Jones’ polemical mill, just as it also highlights the virtues of Mercer’s intuitive, psychologically introspective approach to political drama. This is the second part of Mercer’s so-called Kelvin Trilogy, following On the Eve of Publication (1968) and preceding Emma’s Time (1970) (these were also directed by Alan Bridges, who directed five of Mercer’s plays). Robert Kelvin, the central figure of these plays, is a successful but hard-drinking and self-destructive novelist – and, indeed, a disenchanted Marxist, haunted by his connections with communist Eastern Europe. Kelvin is clearly something of a variation or stand-in for Mercer himself, a cosmopolitan, well-travelled writer who had once been married to a Czech émigré. In The Cellar and the Almond Tree, it is not Kelvin but Kelvin’s Czech dissident friend Volubin (elsewhere known as Sladek) who takes centre-stage. This play thus brings to the foreground the crimes of a ‘Marxist’ government, the tendency of revolutions to ‘consume and destroy’ their own followers and ideals.[5]

In the published text the play’s setting is identified only as ‘an old town in Central Europe’, though it is fairly evident that this is Czechoslovakia in the early days of the communist regime, with war, occupation and revolution still fresh in the memory. They are especially fresh in the memory of Volubin, a former poet, partisan and now a communist official – albeit one at odds with official communism. During preparations for a commemorative banquet at the local palace, Volubin is entrusted with getting hold of the keys to the palace wine-cellar. The keys belong to the countess who still resides in the now state-occupied palace, but communication proves difficult with this elderly aristocrat lost in her fantasies of genteel pre-communist life.

As other commentators have noted, the play’s setting and story have something of the fable or fairy-tale about them. Its world is neither overtly artificial nor scrupulously realistic, containing both recognisably real details that situate and ground the story (Czech-language signs, the regional brandy slivovitz) and imaginative elements (the made-up place names, the cast’s undisguised English accents) that edge it towards something more abstract. This world is one largely built in the television studio. Influenced by his early screenwriting engagements, Mercer increasingly experimented with cinematic methods in his TV work, using shorter scenes and more exteriors, but this is hardly his boldest venture into filmic style. Yet, while the filmed location work is relatively sparse here, it transcends its onetime habitual role of simply stitching together the long passages of studio time, and plays an important part in the depiction of memory and fantasy.

Peter Vaughan as Volubin

The play begins on an appropriately ominous note. Volubin, a morose, slightly hunched man (played with an apt mix of severity and sympathy by Peter Vaughan) is peeping down over a parapet, a single red flag fluttering behind him, as he watches tanks passing – the scene a gloomy, impoverished echo of the communist leader surveying a stately military parade. We cut to what we soon realise to be flashbacks of a dark room in which Volubin is being beaten by two men in Gestapo uniforms. Back in the present, Volubin trudges through the grounds of the palace complex and enters a doorway guarded by soldiers. The doors bear uplifting slogans in Czech (‘Socialism – safeguard of peace’, ‘At the end of our struggle is man’), but as they open to reveal a beckoning darkness inside, we move seamlessly into flashback, with Volubin being dragged down a dark corridor by his Nazi interrogators.

Here the play introduces its theme of how the past inhabits or interacts with the present. At one level, this interaction is subjective, concerning the two haunted protagonists and their entrapment in their memories. At another level it is actual, relating to the way the communist present replicates the Nazi past, replacing one system of persecution with another. This latter point is expressed in the neat visual segue that takes us through a doorway in the present into a corridor in the past – a touch that is unmentioned in Mercer’s script and was probably a contribution by director Bridges, whom Mercer credited with visually elaborating on the play’s time-juggling structure.[6]

A further possible comment of this sort is offered by an interesting detail seen during Volubin’s opening walk through the palace: a line of political portraits on a wall, one of which is noticeably that of Party First Secretary Gustav Husák, the then present-day leader of Czechoslovakia. Given that Husák was brought to power in the wake of the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, entrusted with restoring Czechoslovakia to hardline rule, this knowing anachronism is a potent, if easily missed, reminder that communist repression was not a thing of the past, and that the tanks had only recently lined Prague’s streets. Again, the reference to Husák is not in Mercer’s script, but, given his continuing and passionate connection with Czechoslovakia and his denunciation of the invasion as ‘one of the vilest events that’s ever occurred’, it is hard to imagine he did not intend some contemporary resonance for this play.[7]

As past and present interact, so do two different sets of memories, those of Volubin and the Countess Von Reger (a touching late performance by veteran British film star Celia Johnson). The two characters’ relationship, in its intimacy and its ambiguity, is beautifully prefigured in the Countess’s first moments onscreen, when she is shown looking through the window of her upper apartment in the palace. As the mocking words of her servant Marenka have it, she is ‘looking at what isn’t there’ – at the mirage-like vision of her childhood almond tree, focal point of all her memories, that she believes she can see below her window. This time, however, she also sees the real figure of Volubin, seemingly integrated into the scene of the almond tree. At first this unfamiliar ‘man with a briefcase’ is simply an alien element for the Countess, an intrusion from a modern world she does not recognise. Yet Volubin’s superimposition into the cherished scene of her memory also anticipates the strange bond into which her delusions draw him.

Celia Johnson as Countess Von Reger

The contrast between the two sets of memories and their respective mental images is already clear. Volubin’s subjective world is one of mid-twentieth century brutality, a world of enclosure and suffering symbolised by the image of the cellar where he was tortured. The Countess’s world is airy, expansive and unchanging, a rarefied geography of aristocratic family ties spreading out beyond modern national borders. The almond tree, which the Countess planted as a child on one of the Von Regers’ estates, is both an image of her untroubled early life and a symbol of the aristocracy in its rootedness and continuity (shown planting the tree as a girl, she is assured by a relative that it will ‘never die’).

As George Melly suggested in his admiring review in The Observer, these eponymous symbols may sound ‘banal on paper’ but work rather differently onscreen.[8] This is in part because they are developed visually and narratively rather than verbally, and thus have more of an affective than an intellectual impact. Mercer’s handling of these symbols points to the richness of his dramatic methods at this point, his capacity to shift the weight of metaphor from words to images – even in a relatively dialogue-driven play such as this one. Even the perceptible visual differences between the videotaped studio scenes and the filmed exteriors – usually an unavoidable drawback in the TV drama of this time – seems to play a part in the articulation of these metaphors. The almond tree and the memories connected with it are generally shot on film, cast in a hazy light that gives them a delicate, romantic quality. In contrast, the scenes of Volubin’s torture and imprisonment are, naturally, confined to the studio, where the harsher, flatter look of videotape subtly amplifies the resonance of the cellar.

As the play unfolds, it becomes evident that both Volubin and the Countess’s mental worlds have been shaped by traumatic experience and personal loss – Volubin of his lover Katie, executed in the Soviet Union, and the Countess of her son during the war. These traumas have consigned both characters to live in the past, though of course in different ways: Volubin is ceaselessly haunted by his harrowing experiences, while the Countess (whose mind is said to be ‘stuck at 1943’ or 1944) lives in a fortress of consoling memories, as impervious to the present as her wine-cellar with its locked-up treasures. The arrested time in which both protagonists live is set in contrast to the attitudes of two other important characters. Volubin’s colleague Tonda Blaustein (Sydney Tafler), catering organiser for the official banquet, is a cynical pragmatist with little use for the past, even though he has himself spent four years in a concentration camp. At one point Blaustein retells the famous parable of two Zen priests who help a woman cross a village street: ‘Two kilometres outside the village, the priest who carried the woman says: I put her down. Why are you still carrying her?’ The parable serves to chide Volubin, who, with his wounded, wheezing gait, literally carries the effects of his past with him. A similarly down-to-earth figure is the Countess’s servant Marenka (Patsy Byrne), whose sardonic realism butts against – but has little effect on – her mistress’s fantasies. Marenka has suffered her own loss, of a resistance fighter father who blew himself up during the war, but she recounts his death with grim humour, noting that ‘Everything has its comic side’.

Bernard Kay as Kelvin

The final character of note is English writer Robert Kelvin (Bernard Kay), who appears in a separate strand of Volubin’s memories, meeting Volubin in a cafe during the early days of Nazi occupation and just before the war. The two old friends’ edgy conversation picks up an important thematic thread of Mercer’s previous ‘Kelvin’ play, On the Eve of Publication: the gulf between socialists in the West and in the East. Volubin bitterly observes that comfortable Western intellectuals like Kelvin enjoy literary prizes and can safely vaunt Marxism to audiences ignorant of Stalinist realities. Critical or dissident communists like himself, meanwhile, must actually live under these realities. The Kelvin flashbacks also provide further detail about Volubin’s past. Kelvin hails his friend as Sladek – Volubin’s original name, identified with his past life as a poet. Volubin reminisces here of a romantic outing with the now dead Katie, and of a poem written in tribute to the occasion, these memories forming another lost idyll to add to that of the almond tree. In an echo of Adorno’s famous dictum about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz, Volubin announces that he will probably write no more poetry after what he has suffered.

While Volubin and Kelvin are friends between whom a bitter gulf of experience reveals itself, Volubin and the Countess are strangers, from utterly different worlds, who move towards an unlikely identification. Upon first meeting Volubin in her apartment, she immediately believes him to be her former butler, also named Volubin, returned from the front. The delusional familiarity brings forth real affinities. At their first meeting, having had tea prepared for them both, the Countess brandishes a lemon that Marenka has procured – a ‘triumph’ given post-war shortages. The lemon represents a first point of connection between them; indeed the fruit becomes something of a leitmotif for Volubin, the madeleine that takes him back into his own memories (he drinks lemon tea in the flashbacks with Kelvin). Lemons re-evoke the former poet in him, the suppressed romanticism that he shares with the Countess: he later alludes to the fruit imagery of Pablo Neruda, aware of course that she ‘won’t have read’ the Marxist poet.

As he tries to make his errand clear to her, Volubin maintains an attitude of compassionate frustration towards the Countess, alternating with sharp moments of resentment for the privilege she represents. Hers is a privilege that lingers on, ironically, into the present: Volubin indignantly observes that this remnant of the aristocracy is being treated humanely by a revolution that is so busy purging its own faithful. Elsewhere he darkly notes to her, rhetorically: ‘History is a butcher. But who ever carved up more nations than families like yours?’ Volubin’s shifting attitudes towards the Countess reflect Mercer’s own ambivalent approach towards class in this play, with the Marxist-sympathising playwright revealing a grudging sympathy for the aristocracy’s dreamy solipsism and confident belief in its own perpetuation. Servant Marenka shares this same ambivalence: though aware of the empowerment that the communist regime has (theoretically at least) granted her as a working-class woman, she remains at the side of her dependent mistress.

Volubin ultimately comes to inhabit the role of butler, reflexively following instructions and uttering ‘Yes, madam’. At one level this is an expediency to get the keys, at another a reflection of his affinities with the Countess’s mental world, at another still an oddly resonant commentary on his real existence. His fictive service of the Countess echoes his service of the communist rulers. The Countess’s contrite recollection of an occasion when she wrongly rebuked her former butler for breaking an ornament even anticipates Volubin’s ultimate arrest by the regime on what is, doubtlessly, a false charge. In this way the imaginary situation tells the truth, just as the Countess remains wise and perceptive amid her delusions. ‘The brutalities of domestic relationships mirror, perhaps, our larger life’, she reflects. Indeed, Volubin’s imaginary life as a domestic mirrors the fate soon to be meted out by power at large.

The play comes to an assured climax with a final fusion of memories, characters and time periods. Following scenes in which the Countess and Volubin both recall their traumatic losses (respectively in a present-day recollection and in flashback), they stand before the Countess’s window and the play’s key images – the cellar and the almond tree – merge together in a dissolve – a composite image of history, perhaps, its dreams and nightmares inextricably fused. The Countess, now believing the commemorative official celebration to be an aristocratic banquet as of the old days, sends Volubin down to the wine-cellar with keys finally in hand. Volubin’s imaginary and real identities, and his past and present, finally come together, as this trek to the wine-cellar becomes a trip back to the political cellar: as he returns triumphantly to Blaustein with the keys, a new pair of interrogators – Stalinist not Nazi – are waiting to arrest him. The Countess, meanwhile, enjoys a happier fusion of past and present, a merging of the old and new elites. With her grand entrance into the banqueting hall, she returns to the pomp of high social life, oblivious that this new, red aristocracy adorns its ceremonies with portraits of Marx, Lenin and Stalin.Shortly before this play was first broadcast, Mercer announced in the Radio Times that the Kelvin Trilogy was ‘partly my swan-song to conscious politics in drama’.[9] This proved far from the case, as he would return multiple times to the same themes and contexts. As John Russell Taylor notes, one later play, Shooting the Chandelier (1977), is even a virtual ‘reworking’ of this one.[10] W. Stephen Gilbert has called The Cellar and the Almond Tree Mercer’s ‘most emblematic piece’, and it certainly typifies his status as the most ‘European’ of British writers, in sensibility as much as subject matter.[11] Director Don Taylor, a regular collaborator with Mercer, found the play strongly influenced by Andrzej Wajda’s films, especially Ashes and Diamonds (1958), another work about the political aftermath of war in East-Central Europe.[12] Indeed, as this sombre, melancholy play comes to a close, with the idealistic strains of the Internationale playing over the scene of a communist dungeon, we feel something of Wajda’s fatalism and irony. On the other hand, such qualities as the skilful interweaving of time-frames, the capacity to chart political history through individual fates and relationships, and the highly articulate, artfully wrought dialogue, are very much Mercer’s own.

Jonathan Owen is a writer and researcher specialising in East European cinema, avant-gardes and cult film.

[1] The Cellar and the Almond Tree is one of a number of Wednesday Plays (along with some others) that subsequently became Plays for Today by virtue of repeats during March-April and June-July 1971. In the case of the second run of repeats, Mercer’s play was followed by William Trevor’s The Italian Table (17 June 1971), Hugo Charteris’ There is also Tomorrow (24 June 1971) and Tony Parker’s Chariot of Fire (1 July 1971).

[2] Jeremy Ridgman, ‘Inside the Liberal Heartland: Television and the Popular Imagination in the 1960s’, in Bart Moore-Gilbert and John Seed (eds), Cultural Revolution? The Challenge of the Arts in the 1960s (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 117.

[3] D.A.N. Jones, ‘Mercer Unmarxed’, The Listener, 14 May 1970, pp. 652-653.

[4] David Mercer, ‘Mercer Unmarxed’, The Listener, 28 May 1970, pp. 722-723.

[5] Mercer, quoted in Jones, p. 653.

[6] Mercer, quoted in Stuart Laing, ‘Introduction’, David Mercer, Plays One (London: Methuen, 1990), p. xxi.

[7] Mercer, quoted in Jones, p. 653.

[8] George Melly, ‘Hardy in his Element’, Observer, 8 March 1970, p. 28.

[9] Mercer, ‘“This”, says David Mercer, “is My Swan-Song to Politics” [interview with Anne Chisholm], Radio Times, 26 February 1970, p. 6.

[10] John Russell Taylor, ‘David Mercer and the Mixed Blessing of Television’, Modern Drama, 24: 4, Winter 1981, p. 442.

[11] W. Stephen Gilbert, ‘The Quality of Mercer’, Radio Times, 18 June 1988, pp. 12-13.

[12] Don Taylor, Days of Vision: Working with David Mercer: Television Drama Then and Now (London: Methuen, 1990), p. 225.

One reply on “Play for Today: The Cellar and the Almond Tree”

The two aspects of Mercer’s writing that always strike me as distinct and acute are his treatment of memory and ideology. The accrued weight of living through decades of both crushes his characters, making it very difficult for them to act or have much agency over their present lives. Mercer investigates this through two techniques that you might think wouldn’t go together that well – an impressionistic, filmic, non-linear treatment of time through recurring imagery, and hyper-articulate dialogue. Mercer characters might not be able to do much to change their situation, but they do have a high degree of understanding of it. The conventional division between film location and video interior in TV drama of this period aids this storytelling, allowing the viewer to feel the memories subjectively and then giving the protagonists a platform in which to explain the memories’ significance to each other.

Alan Bridges’ treatment of the studio interiors is highly sensitive and imaginative, and helps to prevent the dialogue from coming across as verbose or speechifying. Two shots in particular linger in the mind, and present Volubin in the context of the Countesses’ quarters. When he waits for an audience and the camera dollies backwards to show the expanse of the corridor, and the orbit around Volubin’s head in one speech, hiding his face from the viewer at the same time that he considers his place in the scheme of things.

The play is also exemplary in its use of the four or five interior sets that you could set up for a big TV Centre studio drama recording, and the design’s deployment of colour is very deft. You can tell that the BBC were two years ahead of the ITV companies when you watch contemporaneous commercial dramas.

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