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1970s Barrie Keeffe BBC drama Gotcha Play For Today Writers

Play for Today: Nipper

Written by Barrie Keeffe, produced by Margaret Matheson and directed by Brian Farnham. Broadcast on BBC1 at 9.35pm on Tuesday 15 November 1977.

At the time of his death in December 2019, it was his screenplay for the cult thriller The Long Good Friday (1980), and its heady cocktail of London East End gangsters, docklands’ redevelopment and IRA violence, that had emerged as writer Barrie Keeffe’s best-known work.[1] It was, however, his writing for theatre and television in the 1970s which initially brought him to public attention and earned him a reputation for bold and provocative writing. Born in the East End of London, Keeffe began his career as a journalist before finding success as a playwright. His most famous play, Gotcha, first produced at the Soho Poly in May 1976, also went on to became his best-known work for television following its transmission on 12 April 1977 when it formed part of a Play for Today double-bill that included Brian Clark’s play Campion’s Interview in which a headmaster takes the opportunity of a job interview to complain about political interference in education.

Gotcha

Set in a comprehensive school storeroom on the last day of term,  Gotcha concerns a disaffected school-leaver (played by Philip Davis) who holds his teachers hostage by threatening to drop a lighted cigarette into a motor-bike petrol tank in an outburst of rage against the educational system that has betrayed him. Although the BBC management were alarmed about the anti-establishment tone of the piece, it was the play’s use of language that aroused the greatest concern. The BBC production had, in fact, toned down the language of the original play but this was insufficient to prevent a rush of viewer complaints. It also prompted Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers and Listeners Association to write to the then Director-General, Sir Charles Curran, who went on to issue a public apology for what was referred to as the play’s ‘excessive’ language.[2]

Gotcha

The same concerns resurfaced the following year when the production was scheduled for a repeat. Even though the play had already been billed in the Radio Times (for 15 August 1978 at a later than normal time), Curran’s successor as D-G, Ian Trethowan, decided that the programme should nonetheless be pulled from the schedules on the grounds that  the BBC had made a commitment ‘to be more careful about bad language’.[3] Following the corporation’s decision earlier in the same year not to transmit Roy Minton’s Scum (directed by Alan Clarke) and the row then occurring  in relation to Caryl Churchill’s The Legion Hall Bombing (eventually broadcast in a re-edited form the week after the repeat of Gotcha was due to be shown),  the decision – somewhat inevitably – added to protests against what was regarded as growing censorship at the BBC and Gotcha itself acquired the added notoriety of becoming a ‘banned’ BBC play.

The controversy surrounding Gotcha also revealed the ongoing tensions that existed between the BBC’s senior management and those actually involved in the making of plays. For while Gotcha may have upset some viewers and provoked management anxiety, Keeffe’s work continued to be commissioned and produced by both the BBC and ITV (which also broadcast two of his plays in 1977).[4] Nipper, Keeffe’s second contribution to the Play for Today slot, was broadcast only a matter of months after Gotcha’s original screening when it was unapologetically promoted as ‘a return to the theme of his controversial play “Gotcha”.[5]  It is, of course significant that both Gotcha and Nipper were produced by Margaret Matheson who had not only publicly disassociated herself from Charles Curran’s apology for the earlier play but was also responsible for Scum which had been filmed earlier in the year and intended for inclusion in the same  1977-78 Play for Today season as Nipper. With the launch of the new season, Matheson took the opportunity to restate in the Radio Times what she regarded as the series’ mission, defending the right of the series to be ‘controversial’.  ‘Almost by definition the plays will be nothing if not controversial’, she declared. ‘A playwright making an impassioned statement on any contemporary issue is likely to disconcert someone. With an audience of six million it would be impossible to do otherwise. But that doesn’t stop the plays from being funny or entertaining’.[6] In the case of Nipper, the play did not generate quite the same level of controversy as its predecessor, Gotcha.  However, it did undergo some cuts before transmission and successfully divided audiences and critical opinion. It was also never repeated with the result that it is now barely known and has been largely overlooked in discussions of Keeffe’s career and writing.

Nipper

Keeffe began the story of Nipper as an unpublished novel in 1974, intended for the publisher Hamish Hamilton, before deciding to turn it into a television play. Television, he felt, was not only a good medium for addressing contemporary social issues but also for reaching a large audience whose attitudes he believed could be changed.[7] However, although his plays addressed contemporary social issues,  Keeffe differentiated himself from the ‘epic’ approach of political writers such as Howard Brenton and David Hare (whose dissection of post-war greed and corruption Brassneck had been turned into a Play for Today in 1975). His focus was, instead, the socially disadvantaged and marginalised, particularly those working-class youngsters who struggled to find a place in an unequal and unfair society.[8]  In doing so, Nipper expands upon Gotcha’s denunciation of the education system by dramatising more generally the ways in which the ‘nipper’ of the play’s title, Jimmy (John Fowler), is ill-served by both an unhappy home life and an inadequate support system of social care. As the Radio Times explained at the time, Keeffe’s ‘stark story’ tells ‘why and how an East End kid, from a lousy family, first comes to the attention of a society that seems to him to be alien’ and serves only ‘to increase his isolation, fear and hostility’.[9]

John Fowler as Jimmy

Nipper begins with the funeral of Jimmy’s father (a lorry driver who has been killed in a motor crash). Jimmy’s mother, Jean (Coral Atkins), almost immediately moves in with another man, Alfie (George Innes), whose two sons, Kevin (Peter-Hugo Daly) and Billy (Stuart Wilde), torment Jimmy and pressurise him into shoplifting. Jimmy hopes he might be able to move in with his kindly paternal grandparents (played by Frederick Radley and Betty Hardy). However, when his mother reveals that her late husband was not in fact Jimmy’s father, Jimmy’s anti-social behaviour quickly spirals into an ‘orgy of destruction’ that the police and probation service, whose orbit he has already entered, prove powerless to prevent.

Family life in Nipper

In some respects, Nipper tells a familiar tale of a youthful victim crushed by the weight of circumstances beyond their control. Thus, in spite of Jimmy’s desire to escape his circumstances and benefit from a happier life, events constantly conspire against him as matters go from bad to worse. The manner in which the story is told, however, partly departs from the expected conventions.  Jimmy is not an entirely ‘innocent’ or sympathetic victim and his responses and actions generally exceed what might be anticipated. In his correspondence with the Controller of BBC1, Bill Cotton, over a cut to the play involving Jimmy wringing a chicken’s neck, Keeffe defended the scene on the grounds that he didn’t want to write ‘black and white drama’.  There was a danger, he continued, that, without this example of Jimmy ‘behaving horrendously’, ‘the kid is painted too white – everything happens to him’.[10] Even without the scene, however, Jimmy’s smashing of lorry windscreens and subsequent acts of arson at both the corner shop and the lorry yard may be deemed to be extreme reactions and to complicate the viewer’s responses to the character and his status as a victim.

Nipper, in this respect, may be distinguished from the more sombre documentary-influenced social realism of Ken Loach’s work for The Wednesday Play or Jim Allen and Roland Joffe’s The Spongers (24 January 1978) which came after Nipper in the 1977-78 Play for Today season.[11]  As was evident in the responses to Gotcha, Keeffe’s work was characteristically perceived to depart from ‘realism’ and employ what were taken to be ‘excessive’ story-telling devices: the melodramatic excess of the dramatic situation (a boy threatening to set light to a motor bike), the crudity and excess of the spoken language, and the excessiveness of the violence that the teachers employ at the play’s end (when the schoolboy is viciously kicked while lying on the ground).  Similar concerns about plotting, plausibility and language also arose in the case of Nipper which might be said to have continued to embrace an aesthetic based upon exaggeration and excess.

Alan Coren in the Times, for example, found the play guilty of ‘over-dramatization’ while Patrick Campbell in The Stage and Television Today complained of ‘overstatement’.[12]  The BBC’s Duty Log recorded a number of protests about the play while the Corporation’s  audience research indicated that a ‘large number’ of viewers not only found the play ‘offensive and distasteful’ but struggled to identify its ‘raison d’être’ (‘not a documentary – certainly nor entertainment’). Others also complained that ‘the characters and situation’ were ‘too extreme to be credible’ as well as ‘exaggerated and over-dramatized’.[13]  While these comments indicate how both critics and viewers believed that a more restrained, and less tendentious, approach might have suited the play better, they also draw attention to the ways in which the production openly makes use of heightened drama and emotional jolts to address its social concerns.

While Keeffe distanced himself from the ‘epic’ theatre of his contemporaries, he was nevertheless influenced by Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop and many of the scenes in Nipper rely upon social typing and ‘gestic’ actions that sum up, or distil, a social situation rather than probe psychological motivation. This is evident, for example, in the scenes of Jimmy’s home life in which his mother, her new partner and step-kids represent heightened (and often grotesque) versions of working-class types rather than complex psychologically-rounded characters.[14] It is also to be found in the unsettling scene in the corner shop in which Jimmy attempts to steal from a predatory paedophile who, in turn, becomes emblematic of the hostile nature and often sheer nastiness of the uncaring adult world with which Jimmy is confronted.

The corner shop

The sense of heightened reality that such scenes create is reinforced by the foreshortened sense of cause and effect, and escalation of consequence, evident within the narrative itself. Jimmy’s introduction to his ‘new Dad’ is followed almost immediately by his discovery by the police in Southend (to where he has run away). The discovery of the truth about his parentage quickly leads to Jimmy’s smashing of lorry windows. The news of the death of his grandfather immediately precipitates his acts of arson while his final attempt to escape his situation by visiting a forest-dwelling tramp whom he had previously encountered on a school trip results in his death. Such plotting not only sets up a chain of causality in which effects are exaggerated but also heavily rigged against the young protagonist-victim.

However, what partly works against this relentless determinism are the jolts and ruptures that this excess of effect generates.  In Gotcha, apart from some grafted-on film inserts at the play’s beginning and end,[15] the action is confined to a single claustrophobic set that, in microcosmic form, embodies the social world in which the schoolkid  (‘Kid’) had been trapped and which he is now threatening to ‘blow up’ (but ultimately fails to do). In Nipper, the social world is less confined and includes filmed scenes that provide the main character with a certain degree of release. In some respects, this sets up a contrast that may be traced back to earlier periods of working-class drama, such as the films of the British ‘new wave’, in which working-class characters escape to the country or seaside but must ultimately return to the enclosed spaces of work and the city. In Nipper, a montage of stills, cut to Paul and Linda McCartney’s song ‘Heart of the Country’, provides Jimmy with an experience of rural life that he seeks to rediscover in his subsequent search for the tramp (John Dearth) whom he finds  living in the woods without the ‘need of cities’ or of ‘people’.[16]

Jimmy and the tramp (John Dearth)

However, other moments of release are directly linked to Jimmy’s criminality and outbursts of aggression. Following his encounter with the shopkeeper within the enclosed space of the corner shop, Jimmy runs out onto the street to join Kevin and Billy who cycle off together (on their choppers). To the accompaniment of The Stranglers’ ‘No More Heroes’, an extended montage of the youths, cigarettes in mouths, cycling on an urban dual carriageway follows, providing a sense of the short-lived exhilaration that they then feel. Even more striking is the sequence that occurs near the end of the play when, having set fire to the shop and to the lorries, Jimmy steals his step-father’s car and drives out of the city past the lorry yard just as the police are arriving and further explosions occur. The Sex Pistols’ ‘Pretty Vacant’ is heard on the soundtrack and, despite the desperateness of Jimmy’s situation, the sequence possesses an energy and excitement that is otherwise missing from Jimmy’s life (and, indeed, from the play itself). In Gotcha, the mounting dramatic tension arises from the possibility that there might be an explosion (should the kid set the motorbike alight); in Nipper the explosion actually occurs and there is a brief moment of dramatic release.

‘Pretty Vacant’

It is, of course, significant that it is The Sex Pistols who provide the accompaniment to this. The confrontational stance adopted by Gotcha subsequently led one writer to describe it as a ’pre-punk’ vision of ‘no future’.[17] The television version of Gotcha, however, contains no music and the original stage play looked to the earlier songs of The Rolling Stones – ‘Satisfaction’, Street Fighting Man’ and ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ – for a musical correlative of the protagonist’s anger and frustration. It is, therefore, Nipper in which the link to punk is made most directly. It is not entirely clear how this occurred. Keeffe began the writing of the story well before the advent of UK punk and the tracks featured in the production (which also includes The Jam’s ‘In the City’) were only released a matter of months before the play’s transmission date. It therefore seems likely that the decision to use this music was taken at a relatively late stage. However, the play’s incorporation of these songs not only provides the play with the excitement of the new and contemporary but also invests it with an outlook that correlates with the play’s aesthetic shifts.

It had been a recurring ambition of Keeffe to bring the excitement of rock and the football stadium into the theatre and Nipper clearly tries to incorporate some of the energy and anger of the emerging punk scene.  In this way, the production avoids simply telling a well-meaning story of youthful victimisation but also gives expression to the ‘explosive’ inner energy, and displaced forms of ‘protest’, that social inequality and lack of opportunity may generate. As such, it is the very features disliked by critics and viewers – the  ‘excessiveness’ of the drama, its general awkwardness and departures from the norms of social realism – that provide the production with the edge and sense of provocation it would otherwise have lacked. This does not necessarily make Nipper a great play, nor even an especially coherent one. But it is this sense of a play caught up in its own internal tensions – between realism and melodrama, high-mindedness and bad taste, moral righteousness and punk-fuelled nihilism – that makes it such an intriguing work.

[1] Michael Coveney’s obituary in the Guardian, 11 December 2019, is relatively typical in beginning with a discussion of The Long Good Fridayhttps://www.theguardian.com/stage/2019/dec/11/barrie-keeffe-obituary

[2] ‘Curran regrets language of BBC play’, The Guardian, 25 April 1977, p.2.

[3] Letter from Ian Trethowan to James Cellan Jones, 8 September 1978 (BBC Written Archives Centre). My thanks to Trish Hayes of the BBC Written Archives Centre.

[4] The first of these was It’s Not Quite Cricket (10 May 1977), an adaptation of the stage play Gem, produced by Thames for ITV Playhouse. The second was Champions, a play about Manchester United fans travelling to London for the FA Cup Final (Granada, 21 December 1977).

[5] Radio Times, 15-21 October 1977, p. 45. Keeffe subsequently went on to write two more Plays for Today: a provocative play about racial tensions and class solidarity in a changing East End, directed by Richard Eyre, Waterloo Sunset (23 January 1979) and his moving reworking of King Lear, King (3 April 1984), directed by Tony Smith and featuring a predominantly black cast led by Thomas Baptiste.

[6] Radio Times, 15-21 October 1977, p. 45. Matheson’s success in mixing the controversial with the ‘entertaining’ was evident in the range of work that she produced for the 1977-78 season in addition to Nipper and Scum: Stephen Poliakoff’s nuclear drama Stronger than the Sun, Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party; the hugely popular comedy Oy Vay Maria, written by Mary O’Malley, David Edgar’s Destiny and two plays by Caryl Churchill, The After Dinner Joke and the much-delayed The Legion Hall Bombing (from which Churchill and director Roland Joffe asked for their names to be removed).

[7] Letter from Barrie Keeffe to Bill Cotton, Controller, BBC1, 14 November 1977 (BBC WAC).

[8] See Catherine Itzin, Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain since 1968, London, Methuen, p. 244.

[9] Radio Times, 15-21 October 1977, p. 45.

[10] Letter from Barrie Keeffe to Bill Cotton, Controller, BBC1, 14 November 1977 (BBC WAC).

[11] Nipper possesses a number of similarities to The Coming Out Party (The Wednesday Play, 22 December 1965), directed by Ken Loach and written by Jimmy O’Connor, in which the luckless youngster Scimpy suffers at the hands of his family, especially his mother, and falls into the hands of the police. In comparison, to Jimmy, however, his actions remain largely ‘blameless’. See John Hill, Ken Loach: the Politics of Film and Television, London, BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp.33-36.

[12] The Times, 16 November 1977, p. 23; The Stage and Television Today, 24 November 1977, p.22.

[13] BBC Audience Research Report, ‘Nipper’, 4 January 1978 (BBC WAC).

[14] The ‘blame’ attached to the mother within the play is reinforced by the use of John Lennon’s song ‘Mother’ over the production’s final shot and credits.

[15] Strictly speaking, Gotcha and Campion’s Interview are not separate works and the final credits for Gotcha, shown over film inserts, appear after the second play.

[16] The play is directed by Brian Farnham whose recent work had included episodes of Howard Schuman’s musical dramas Rock Follies and Rock Follies of 1977 which possibly influenced the use of music in the production.

[17] Martin Priestman, ‘Up against the wall’ :  Drama in the 1970s’ in Bart Moore-Gilbert (ed.), The Arts in the 1970s, London, Routledge, p. 287.

3 replies on “Play for Today: Nipper”

Enjoyed this look at a strangely forgotten piece. Regarding the punk references, worth noting of course that the television version of Gotcha does include a mention of the Sex Pistols when The Kid is teasing the Headmaster about possible career paths. Nipper’s playlist could perhaps be seen as a journey from the sentimental to the confrontational, beginning at Dad’s funeral with a Leo Sayer ballad and ending with the Sex Pistols and then, finally, Lennon’s Mother.

I wonder how much of Nipper’s jolting style is to do with the clash between film and video, not in terms of visual texture but in how its action is executed. Moments such as the attack on the shopkeeper look terribly unconvincing compared to the joy ride. The cutting between the two is also rather strange – we cut out of the first sweet shop scene very confusingly – perhaps there was something removed? As you say, the jump from the funeral to Jimmy being found in Southend is rather bewildering too. And the final sequence with the Tramp feels strangely detached and improbable, dreamlike even. But John Fowler is very good in it (Keeffe adored his work on this.)

Thanks, Simon and Billy. It’s interesting that the musical reference in the original stage version of Gotcha is to Andy Fairweather–Low (a member of 1960s band Amen Corner) rather than to The Sex Pistols. This rather confirms how the advent of punk provided a timely reference point, as well as an energising soundtrack, for Keeffe’s tales of alienated youth.

The music in Nipper does provide a degree of guidance through the narrative. In the case of Leo Sayer’s ‘When I Need You’, heard in the opening sequence, the song clearly provides a comment on Jimmy’s neglect at the hands of his mother and thus anticipates the employment of John Lennon’s ‘Mother’ at the production’s close. Played with great gusto by Coral Atkins, Jimmy’s mother is extended so little sympathy or understanding by the play that her portrayal somewhat blunts the play’s more general social critique.

Coral Atkins was an apt choice to play Jimmy’s mother, with her acting career a secondary concern to the commitment of running ‘Crossways’ (a home for disturbed and traumatized children) since 1971.

‘Champions’ was another stage adaptation, originally staged as ‘Abide With Me’ at Soho Poly in 1977 starring Karl Howman and Phil Davis.

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