By Simon Farquhar
Written by Alan Sharp, produced by Irene Shubik and directed by Philip Saville. Broadcast on BBC1 at 9.20pm on 15th October 1970.
‘Men with Something to Say,’ was the fanfare Radio Times headline in the week that BBC 1 launched Play for Today. Alan Sharp, John Osborne, Dennis Potter, Clive Exton and W. Stephen Gilbert, significantly the writers, not the directors or lead actors of five of the forthcoming dramas, proffered their thoughts on television as a dramatic medium.
John Osborne described writing for television as being akin to the extremely tricky short story form, while Dennis Potter took the opportunity to assert that ‘television is the only medium that counts’. But to a writer working in television today, the words of Alan Sharp, author of the debut play, The Long Distance Piano Player, must read like fantasy. ‘Television is better than films from a professional point of view in that less people are involved, but it’s still a committee process. It allows you to do more daring things.’ His only gripe was that ‘it’s finished so quickly. There’s no permanence in what you’re writing’.[i]
The Long Distance Piano Player began life as Sharp’s first radio play, broadcast by the BBC in 1962 and subsequently entered for the Italia Prize (an annual competition established by RAI, the Italian national broadcasting system, for recognition of the highest achievements in music, drama, and documentary broadcasts in both radio and television). Later the writer of screenplays such as Night Moves (US 1975) and Rob Roy (US 1995), the Greenock-born writer of the exhilarating novel A Green Tree in Gedde freely admitted that his Play for Today contribution was inspired by a fascination with the Horace McCoy novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? which coincidentally was being transformed into a movie by Sydney Pollack at the same time that his lowly television play was in production. It was director John Robbins who brought his story to producer Irene Shubik’s attention soon after she began working on The Wednesday Play, but it was a further three years before the play finally graced the screen, by which time delays caused by endless rewrites had forced original director James Ferman to leave the project, replaced by one of the series’ most prolific contributors, Philip Saville.
The play tells the story, with unashamedly child-like simplicity, of Pete, a young pianist who has decided to break the world record for non-stop piano playing. His agent Jack tries to drum up local support to cheer him on in the village hall, but the most Pete can hope for as an audience through his four day ordeal ‘without rest or stoppage’ are the occasional prying eyes of the gang of ruffians playing snooker next door and a scattering of pensioners.
What attracted Shubik to the play was that ‘the subject was unusual, and the script, at times, when the young man’s futile pursuit obviously represented the monotonous routine of most people’s lives, was moving.’[ii] The play also wages a battle of wills between Pete’s girlfriend and Jack, who at times seem to be fighting for his soul in what becomes a tug of war between the exploiters and the exploited, ‘quarrelling over him like Punch and Judy over the baby’.[iii] As the emotions run high, Pete pounds on with his task, the strain involved being ‘the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest’, until, as a cathartic rain tumbles down, he collapses onto the night street in failure, a burbling heap that has suddenly screamed his way out of his self-imposed sentence of hard labour.
Initially Sharp’s brief was to explore the effect upon a marriage of the husband’s eccentric endeavour, but the script gradually spiralled out of control with an interminable series of rewrites that got bogged down with hints of homosexuality between Pete and his manager and rather lumpy Freudian explanations. Shubik, working as always without a script editor, tried desperately to rein it back in, until finally a less cluttered drama was ready to roll.
Although Play for Today was treated to a very bold launch in the press, the piano player’s marathon was a low-key start to the series and is by no means a classic. It does however possess traits which would recur throughout the series: unusual casting, an unashamedly bleak tone, innovative direction and a writer who acknowledged the daring nature of television drama but who would eventually defect to cinema.
The risky casting here was Philip Saville’s suggestion to entrust the part of the piano player to The Kinks’ singer-songwriter Ray Davies, in his first major acting role, an eye-catching choice that led to this play being chosen to spearhead the new series. ‘The series was always trying to experiment with unusual casting, the comics, singers or whatever. It’s the exact opposite of today when one can’t get anything done without Robson Green or David Jason, or before he died poor John Thaw’, said Shubik in 2002. ‘There was a desire to find people that nobody had seen before. I am strictly a classical music and jazz person, so I was quite apprehensive about Ray Davies, but he could not have been sweeter and more gentlemanly’.[iv] Davies wrote two songs for the play, ‘Marathon’ and ‘Got To Be Free’, and the point at which they drift into his playing, accompanying his sleepy half-smiling melancholy, James Hazeldine as his friend sitting captivated beside him, is a tender, endearing central moment, the lyrics capturing the play’s innocent acceptance of life’s monotony and the strange little things we do to relieve it, express it and escape it.
Norman Rossington as manager Jack, complete with phoney Canadian accent and ‘roll-up roll-up’ manner, is a rather unsubtle puppet-master to Davies’s stoic, humble protégé, but he does communicate the ruthless opportunism in what is dangerously close to being a caricature. In the hushed, heads-down Northern setting, he stands out like a human Toby Jug, proclaiming ‘their lives are small and they want something big’. Even when he is tending to Pete’s every need or beating off Ken Hutchison’s litter of local yobs, he is completely devoid of scruples, his only motivation personal gain. We know from just one surreptitious camera shot that if she didn’t detest him, he would sleep with Pete’s girlfriend at the first opportunity. Saville’s rather lascivious direction dwells on Lois Daine’s gutsy beauty as much as it dwells on Rossington’s rapacious manner, as the two sides of the battle scowl it out in an upstairs room to the desperate soundtrack emanating from below.
Daines, making a return to acting after a car accident the previous year, makes a strong contrast both to the sostenuto pianist and the raucous Jack, but surprisingly it is the saturnine Davies who steers the play smoothly into shore. His naturalism and unfeigned good nature keep things drifting along as an inoffensive fable. Sylvia Clayton in the Daily Telegraph spoke of his ‘sensitive Italianate face, whose expression of passive martyrdom deepened as the play wore on’.[v] When he is being shaved while playing, he manages a weak smile at the audience from behind the clown-like mask of foam that transports him for a second into commedia dell’arte. At other times, looking up from his battle with the piano keys, his expression of tired wonder illustrates well that, like another singer given a dramatic role nine years later in the series, Frankie Miller in Just a Boys’ Game, it is a mood or an attitude in an untrained actor that a good director can sometimes harness to create a performance suited to such an intimate visual medium.
For a director notorious for his love of trickery and capriciousness, even in the simplest of scripts, Saville is unusually restrained here, opting to keep the piece stark to heighten the monotony and oppression of Pete’s world. He only gilds the lily once, in the unnecessary final sequence using footage of a rabbit running boundlessly through a wood, taken from the film Lisice (1970), which Philip Purser labelled ‘an unbelievably trite piece of symbolism’.[vi] Another foray into Pete’s mind does however produce an excellent sequence where our hero imagines he is clambering up a hill lugging a piano which is strapped to his back, ultimately collapsing as the instrument topples on to his exhausted body.
Four days location filming in Skipton went without a hitch, before the cast and crew returned to Television Centre to record the bulk of the play in the studio, something which rather disappointed Davies. ‘A nice part. Introverted, which is what I really am. But ninety per cent of it was done in the studio, which is even harder’.[vii] After some technical difficulties with the editing, which prompted one exhausted VT technician to fear that ‘we seem to have another Howards End on our hands’,[viii] the modest effort was completed and ready to be served up to reassure those suspicious about the future of the single play.
Play for Today began on Thursday 15th October 1970, almost exactly three years after Sharp had first been commissioned. Introduced by the first of many different title sequences with which the series would experiment, depicting a model of the words ‘Play for Today’ accompanied by Joseph Horowitz’s jazzy woodwind theme, this unassuming start was watched by five and a half million people, a 10.8% share of the population, while ITV scooped 13.5%.
The BBC Audience Research Report reflected Irene Shubik’s trepidations about the piece. ‘While the first play of the new series has not necessarily strained the credulity, few found it at all moving, gripping or entertaining. In fact, to judge from most of the adverse comment, it was almost as much of a marathon for the viewer as for the piano player! Many were exasperated by the sound. It was certainly an inauspicious start to the series’. The play was praised by viewers for the unusual subject-matter and for its interesting theme of exploitation and endurance, as well as for capturing a small-town atmosphere so well. One viewer said, ‘the sets created exactly the tatty, dirty, third rate feel of those halls in Northern provincial towns’, adding that it was ‘depressingly realistic’,[ix] but the press was largely unimpressed. George Melly in The Observer did allow some credit to the production, even though his review coined the phrase which every lazy reviewer in the years that followed glibly trotted out when they wanted to criticise the programme. ‘More a play for yesterday, with its echoes of Julie Christie in the streets of Sheffield in Billy Liar, early Alun Owen, snatches of Beckett and Pinter, even Coronation Street’, an interesting measure of how clearly demarcated the Sixties seemed to be by the autumn of 1970. But he was enamoured of the play’s simplicity and enjoyed Rossington’s switch from ‘fake Canadian to hard Liverpudlian when he got ugly’.[x] Chris Dunkley in The Times was more positive; despite the play’s derivativeness, ‘Sharp did achieve a remarkable atmosphere and an admirable degree of sympathy’,[xi] while Stewart Lane in the Morning Star saw the play as ‘a comment on contemporary barrenness’.[xii]
The piece did have a fan in Gerald Savory, who selected it for a repeat screening in April 1972, rather to Irene Shubik’s concern. In the same week The Daily Telegraph was due to put out a piece championing the series, which would cause this play to be inadvertently held up as an example. She suggested a repeat of I Can’t See My Little Willie instead, but Savory was keen to give the play a second chance, feeling it had been underrated. However he did concede that the play was too long and had refused a repeat in the months following the initial broadcast unless it could be reduced by at least fifteen minutes.[xiii] The longer version was subsequently destroyed, with only a monochrome print of the sixty-one minute version surviving in the BBC archives.
While the play itself wasn’t the subject of much debate, a more prescient argument was inspired by the change of title from The Wednesday Play to Play for Today, seen by many as the first sign that the days of the single play were numbered. ‘We said at the time that the unlinking of the single play from a regular slot was the beginning of the end and you know what? We were right!’[xiv] says W. Stephen Gilbert. Nancy Banks-Smith, wrote ‘one hardly knows yet what to expect of this retitled series. The fact that The Long Distance Piano Player was a left-over Wednesday Play shot seven months ago suggests that nothing has changed but the packaging. The reason the BBC changed the title Wednesday Play, and therefore the day of transmission, was a conviction, based on audience research, that people were avoiding the plays out of prejudice, that the very name Wednesday Play sent out shockwaves. I have tried to swallow this… before breakfast, after meals, with water, with whisky… and it won’t go down. I cannot believe it’.[xv]
Unsettled Radio Times readers were extremely perceptive about the change too. One reader summed up the concerns excellently:
The Wednesday Play is dead, but we are told we have Play for Today instead, but it will be on Thursday. Why was it not called The Thursday Play? That may seem a trivial point but trying to read inside a television planner’s mind, I think it probably has a great deal of significance. The title Wednesday Play meant quite simply that there was a new play every Wednesday. People knew where they were and switched on or off accordingly. A nothing title like Play for Today enables the planners to mess about with the placing at will. They can even drop it for a week or two and nobody can complain. It is common knowledge that original plays on BBC1 get lower audiences than practically any Light Entertainment show, but until now the BBC had a fine record in bringing new authors before the public. It now seems that plays will be dropped whenever something with more ‘audience appeal’ comes up. This is a very sad development for anyone who is concerned about the future of drama in this country.[xvi]
Shaun Sutton quickly quashed these fears, explaining that the title was merely ‘to indicate that it is a series of plays for the present day’. Despite his assurances, the series shifted about in the schedules considerably throughout its lifespan, although to be fair to Sutton, the new series had fourteen years ahead of it, and showed no outward symptoms of neglect for at least a decade. Sutton concluded by saying: ‘I can only repeat what I said on many other occasions to the Press and elsewhere: the single play is the root and beginning of all drama, and I have no intention of letting it disappear. The size of audience, even the cost, these are not the first factors. The most important thing is continuance’.[xvii]
[i] ‘Men With Something To Say’ Radio Times 10th-16th October 1970, pp.64-68.
[ii] Irene Shubik, Play for Today: The Evolution Of Television Drama (London: Davis-Poynter 1975).
[iii] Nancy Banks-Smith, The Guardian, 16th October 1970.
[iv] SF interview with Irene Shubik, 5th February 2003.
[v] Sylvia Clayton, Daily Telegraph, 16th October 1970.
[vi] Philip Purser, The Sunday Telegraph, 18th October 1970.
[vii] Ray Davies interview, Radio Times 10th-16th October 1970, p.5.
[viii] Undated memo from Brian Jenkinson to Ann Kirch (BBC Written Archives Centre). The reference is to the ‘Play of the Month’, Howards End, produced by Cedric Messina and broadcast on 19 April 1970.
[ix] BBC Audience Research Report: The Long Distance Piano Player, 12th November 1970 (BBC WAC).
[x] The Observer, 18th October 1970.
[xi] The Times, 16th October 1970.
[xii] Stewart Lane, Morning Star, 17th October 1970.
[xiii] Memo from Gerald Savory to Irene Shubik, 17th January 1972 (BBC WAC).
[xiv] Email from W. Stephen Gilbert to SF, 16th April 2003.
[xv] Nancy Banks-Smith, The Guardian, 16th October 1970.
[xvi] Letter from Ian Waters of Stoke-On-Trent to Radio Times, 31st October-6th November 1970, p. 64.
[xvii] Reply to Ian Waters from Shaun Sutton, Radio Times 31st October-6th November 1970, p.64.