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1970s BBC BBC drama David Mercer Play For Today

Play for Today: The Bankrupt

By Jonathan Owen

Written by David Mercer, directed by Christopher Morahan and produced by Graeme McDonald. Broadcast on BBC1 at 9.25pm on Monday 27 November 1972.

The Bankrupt was the only play purposely written for Play for Today by the prolific David Mercer. It may seem surprising that this sole bona fide encounter between the most important television dramatist of the 1960s and the flagship drama slot of the 1970s has fallen into near-complete obscurity. Yet this obscurity also feels appropriate to an occult-tinged piece that Mercer himself called ‘weirdish and esoteric’ – a drama about a man’s crisis of vision that itself paints too murky and cryptic a picture.

In a Radio Times interview given to coincide with the play’s broadcast, Mercer protested how his work had ‘been beleaguered by labels’, not least ‘the notion that I’m a playwright with just two themes – politics and madness.’[1] At first sight, however, The Bankrupt only confirms the resilience of the second theme. The protagonist Ellis Cripper, played by Joss Ackland, has suffered a mental breakdown in the wake of being declared bankrupt, the result of fraudulent business activities in property and tourism on the Costa del Sol. The ruined, directionless and partly amnesiac Ellis returns grudgingly to his father, a staunch traditional Northerner uprooted to a country cottage in Oxfordshire. In what is essentially a character study, the still visibly disturbed Ellis alternates between spiky exchanges with his relatives, mock-grandiose outdoor soliloquies with an earthworm and a series of fanciful dreams involving a pentagram. In many ways we are on well-trodden ground here. As one reviewer noted at the time, Ellis himself belongs to a Mercerian lineage of ‘mad’, malcontented anti-heroes going back to the gorilla-fixated writer Morgan in Mercer’s ground-breaking signature play A Suitable Case for Treatment (1962).[2]

Yet the play also reflects a progressive shift of tone and emphasis in Mercer’s work. Compared with, say, the anarchic Morgan, Ellis Cripper is an older, sadder, more defeated figure, his verbal sallies and provocations even more cryptically insular and futile. On the verge of turning fifty, Ellis faces the challenge of ‘beginning again’, with only a ‘parsimonious’ enthusiasm for life and none of the supports that might justify and orient his existence. As Stuart Laing notes, it is upon this struggle ‘to define and re-find meaning and direction’ that the play’s emphasis predominantly falls, rather than on psychological breakdown – or ‘madness’ – themselves.[3] The play therefore reflects the emergence in Mercer’s 1970s’ plays of what Tish Dash calls ‘[a] profoundly Beckettian pessimism about birth, death, the quest for meaning and purpose, and the fear of futility’.[4] A former ‘dishonourable’ capitalist, Ellis lacks even that residual, disillusioned attachment to Marxism and leftist politics that offers a vague point of orientation to other Mercer protagonists. The play’s dramatisation of existential crisis is thus all the starker. Ellis stands in a Beckettian void as dark as the space surrounding his dream pentangle.

Joss Ackland as Ellis

It is clear enough how Ellis’s bankruptcy works as a metaphor for such themes – ‘the business has its symbolic side, wouldn’t you say?’, remarks one of the other characters in what may well be a self-reflexive dig at the obviousness of the motif. Yet much else in the play is harder to fathom. In a letter written at the time of the play’s production to director Joseph Losey (for whom Mercer would script a 1973 film adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House), Mercer reports being asked questions at the BBC regarding the play’s lack of clarity: ‘“is it quite realised David?”; “…now just how do you mean these occult scenes to signify in the play?”; “…isn’t such and such a character a little shadowy?” and so on.’[5] Mercer suggests that such reservations point to a newly ‘anxious atmosphere in the BBC’: ‘I fear the old bogey of self-censorship…is creeping in.’ We might counter that these reservations were not wholly unfounded, and that the confusions or uncertainties indicated survived into the finished piece, perhaps compounded by the play’s realization.

The Bankrupt thus exemplifies the very crisis of meaning that it depicts. Symptomatic is the play’s treatment of the occult, which provides – or seems meant to provide – an overarching poetic commentary on Ellis’s condition in line with the writer’s tendency to use a single recurrent motif – such as animals in And Did Those Feet? (BBC, 1965) and food and eating in Huggy Bear (Yorkshire, 1976) – to psychologically illuminate his characters. The climactic scene of the pentagram even bookends the play, appearing at the beginning and the end in two subtly different stagings (dreamed and real versions respectively?) and investing the play itself with the circular form of the pentagram. Ellis’s fixation on occult ritual can clearly be linked to the desire for self-mastery and self-definition, the search for an ordered and meaningful vision of reality. Equally clearly, the development of Ellis’s magical preoccupations, which appear to move from mere dreams to the creation and use of a real pentagram, charts the frustration and failure of such wishes. The climactic ritual that Ellis stages – which also serves, tellingly, as a perverse birthday party for himself – becomes an obvious enactment of the destruction of personal identity, with a nervous Ellis standing defensively in his pentagram surrounded by the other people in his life, who put out all the pentagram’s candles and finally converge upon and grab him. At the same time these occult sequences are burdened by conceits and details that feel arbitrary or excessive: the recurring appearance of Ellis’s father reinvented as an intimidating, ‘posh’, magus-like figure, the profuse citations of Eliphas Levi’s work on occult lore, Ellis’s incarnation of various quote-spouting historical figures from Tacitus to Oscar Wilde. There is an insistence, a degree of detail, to such elements that does not feel matched by precise enough symbolic purpose.

Ellis in the pentagram

The occultist playbox of demons and magic is an inevitably startling ingredient in any case, and Mercer – uncertain, perhaps, with a subject generally alien to his work – seems to lack the conviction to justify its flamboyant presence here. He does not, for instance, weave these elements into the kind of mythic quasi-allegory offered in another Play for Today entry of the period, David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen (1974) (itself an obscure enough piece), though he does offer vague inklings of such. Through the orchestrations of his sister and brother-in-law (Alethea Charlton and Peter Cellier), Ellis meets Angela (Sheila Allen), a biologist, who develops an abrupt romantic attachment to him and moves him into the stately home that she now uses as a research station. It is in this space that Ellis stages his climactic ‘occult birthday party’, amid caged laboratory animals, technological equipment and whirring electronic sounds. Mercer thus hints here at a potentially interesting opposition of science and magic that goes undeveloped.

The dissatisfaction arising from the use of the occult elements is as much of a dramatic as a symbolic nature, in that this fantastic paraphernalia builds a portentous atmosphere on which the play’s modest narrative does not really deliver. The climax, ending in pitch darkness and with a protracted scream from Ellis, is disquieting but ultimately too abstract. The play’s direction and audio-visual realization seem to collude in setting up somewhat misleading expectations – a sign that maybe even the programme’s makers struggled with the play’s elusive nature when striving for the right tone. The early sequences of Ellis’s return to his father’s house are a case in point, boasting visual and sonic flourishes that heighten the play’s occult, supernatural flavour. At one point during the scene of Ellis’s arrival at the country train station, the camera shifts its focus from Ellis alighting onto the station platform to the presence of a caged white goat – a dash of devilish imagery that is absent from Mercer’s published playscript.

The ‘dream’ incarnation of Ellis’s father: David Waller as Gowran Cripper

More overtly ominous is the realization of a hallucinatory sequence in which Ellis imagines his arrival home as an encounter with the forbidding ‘dream’ incarnation of his father. Daytime shifts to dusk, and the real cottage is replaced by a large country house barred by imposing iron gates; the glowering father, suited and in dark glasses, closes the gates on his son, whose presence seems to summon a large, charging pack of guard dogs. Director Christopher Morahan maximises the eerie impact of this scene with a battery of effects straight from the horror film and art cinema: low and tilted camera angles, quick cuts, a zooming shot that catches the moon through bare trees, and an echoey, atmospheric aural collage that fuses distorted ambient sounds – barks, bird cries – with grating, high-pitched musical notes. There is even a ‘trick’ cut (again unmentioned in the published text) that momentarily transforms Ellis into a child – a signal of his reduced, vulnerable state before the dark, domineering paternal imago.

In themselves these aspects of the play’s realization are imaginative and striking – a reflection of television drama’s increasing ambition to attain cinematic qualities as well as of the visual sophistication of the prolific, veteran director Christopher Morahan (a figure much-noted for the innovative techniques he brought to such productions as Talking to a Stranger (1966]).[6] This sophistication applies not only to the sequences on film (such as the ones described above) but also to the videotaped studio sequences. Morahan ensures that these cohere with the exterior scenes through their use of convincingly natural-looking lighting, and maintains a stylistic consistency too through the imaginative use of shadows and angles (including an arresting tilt as the camera moves in on the patronising laughter of Ellis’s sister and brother-in-law). The pentagram scenes, with their starkness and ritual, even make a virtue of the unreal, performative space of the studio. Mention must be made too of the creepy electronic score (supplied by Malcolm Clarke of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) and of the distorted, exaggerated sounds that reflect Ellis’s disturbed, self-preoccupied mind. In total, however, these visual and sonic stylings jar with the play’s ultimately cerebral tone, closer to a comedy of manners than a horror film. These stylistic elements could be seen as a form of parodic excess, in recognition of the way Ellis’s occult preoccupations have something undeniably comic and risible about them: as his condescending brother-in-law James puts it, such interests are ‘more in the line of dropped-out youth’ than middle-aged men. But, even if intended parodically, the play’s stylistic effects fall victim to their own potency.

The fuzziness that afflicts the play’s symbolic aspects apply too to its ‘real’ elements. Take Ellis’s father, Gowran Cripper (David Waller), whose large and threatening presence in Ellis’s imaginative life clearly points toward a deep-seated conflict and animosity between father and son. For sure, Gowran is an unsympathetic figure – openly xenophobic, complacently ignorant, and ‘unconsciously brutal’ as James calls him – but he is hardly much worse than the kitchen-sink stereotypes from which he is drawn, and thus the magnitude of this oneirically represented father-and-son conflict seems hard to account for. Angela is a more interesting and original character, one who subverts the more pliant norm of Mercer’s female protagonists as she turns from impossibly assured beacon of sympathy and support into a dominating and unnerving figure. Clive James, in his review of the play, went so far as to describe her as threatening ‘castration’; indeed it is she who blows out Ellis’s final ‘birthday’ candle at his climactic rite.[7] But, again, the nature and motivation of her controlling designs on him, though invested with the more sinister resonances of her career as a scientist, remain ill-defined, and she ultimately satisfies neither as a plausibly realistic figure nor as a clearly metaphoric one.

Controlling designs: Sheila Allen as Angela

The play’s climax suggests that all the characters have been trying to exert control over Ellis, to ‘re-make him’, in Stuart Laing’s words, ‘in their various preferred images’.[8] Yet if the final image of all-encompassing domination is meant to reflect, in however psychically distorted a way, the other characters’ real attitudes towards the protagonist, then this has not been sufficiently evidenced by the play’s ‘real’ or ‘normal’ encounters: Gowran, at least, seems less controlling than callously indifferent towards his son’s plight, scoffing at one point ‘You can always do yoursen in’. If, alternatively, we see Ellis as finally succumbing to a terror largely of his own imagining – to what he himself calls his ‘delusions of persecution’ – then the dysfunctional details of his real relationships seem only more irrelevant.

The play is at its most successful when it abandons the other human characters entirely and catches Ellis in his solitary musing with an earthworm. This humble creature is perhaps the most eloquent motif in the play. At one level an image of Ellis’s abject, shrunken financial and existential state, the worm is also an explicit memento mori, with Ellis remarking to it: ‘You and your mates will have fun with me one day’. A homely substitute for Yorick’s skull, at which Ellis can aim his knowingly sub-Hamlet soliloquies, the worm fits neatly and naturally into a recurrent, bathetic parallel that Mercer draws between his protagonist and Shakespeare’s hero. In terms of tone this ‘man-with-worm’ conceit, as Mercer called it, hits an apt balance between the absurd, the pathetic and the poignant that encapsulates Ellis’s situation.

‘Man with worm’

But two scenes with human interlocutors are worth mentioning too, both showcasing Mercer’s well-proven flair for finely phrased, archly ironic dialogue. The first of these is a doctor’s inspection that Ellis arranges in anticipation of his pending ‘blind date’ with Angela, prompted initially by the offhand desire to ‘blind’ her with a certified medical condition – whether this means exemplary rude health or (as ultimately seems preferable) sympathy-grabbing sickness. The scene is a perversely comic one in which Ellis entreats the exasperated physician to find something wrong with him. Revealing his need for a determinate ‘condition’, even ill health, as a means of having ‘something to focus on’, the scene captures the peculiar poignance of Ellis’s sense of insubstantiality in a manner that is witty and grounded rather than portentous. If the occult theme rears its head here too, it does so with the impishness seen in A Suitable Case for Treatment, as Ellis scrawls pentagrams on one of the doctor’s prescription sheets. The doctor (John Woodnutt) has a few memorable moments of his own, offering weary rejoinders like ‘It makes a GP’s stomach sink, when the patient uses the word psychosomatic’ and ‘I fear you are healthy’. The second example is a mortifying dinner scene, a rare moment of real dramatic life between the characters that climaxes with Ellis abusing his family, upsetting his sister Anne and earning a flooring blow from James. The bizarre, extemporising verbiage to which Ellis gives vent here, taking in a parody of Eliot’s Prufrock and further reference to Hamlet, has that flavour of clowning desperation, of whimsy turned barbed and bitter, that is distinctive to Mercer. The scene highlights not only Mercer’s verbal inventiveness but also his ear for a convincingly disturbed manner of speaking and thinking, evident in a contorted patter that feels at once free-flowing and trapped, darting waywardly here and there and yet turning back on itself: ‘Let us go then, you and I, when worms are flying in the sky – like spaghetti etherised upon a table…Or should that be gable?’

Upsetting his sister Anne (Alethea Charlton)

Mercer’s dense, literate language is admirably served by a strong cast. Joss Ackland, as Ellis, inevitably attracts the most plaudits in a demanding role that requires multiple shifts of demeanour – from bumptious and confrontational, to dreamy and lost, to abashed and even timid. Because Ackland’s voice and manner have such a naturally authoritative air, his performance is all the more striking when he portrays Ellis in his vulnerable and faltering guise – as a guarded, stooped figure shown clutching a tattered satchel to himself like the meagre remnants of his life. The other actors acquit themselves well in their under-developed roles: Peter Cellier is notably slimy and superior as James and Sheila Allen’s performance is as confident as the character she plays. Of interest too among the performances is a very early appearance by Bob Hoskins (sporting a vague West Country accent) as the surly taxi-driver who brings Ellis back ‘home’. Though onscreen only briefly, Hoskins is effective as a gruffly ‘normal’ foil to the protagonist.

Foil to the protagonist: Bob Hoskins as taxi-driver

The Bankrupt elicited a range of responses from critics, though all of the five contemporaneous reviews sampled show some degree of dissatisfaction or puzzlement. The most overtly negative response came from Clive James in The Observer, who called the play ‘a tiresome demonstration of the law that [Mercer]…is likely to eke out a half-imagined idea by double-crossing his own talent and piling on precisely the undergrad-type tricksiness his sense of realism exists to discredit.’[9] Michael Frostick’s criticisms in The Stage, though balanced with praise, were yet more damning in substance. While calling the play ‘a marvellous wordy piece’ and ‘excellent and entertaining’, Frostick ultimately regarded it as ‘nothing but froth’, ‘fun, but worthless’: ‘this is not a Play for Today but rather something that Binkie Beaumont could have run at the Globe for a year or more in 1948.’[10] Yet Frostick’s verdict that the play ‘skates over the real problems of breakdown and bankruptcy’ must be set beside Phillip Whitehead’s heartfelt attestation (in his own mixed review in The Listener) of the ‘terrifying’ authenticity of Ackland’s depiction of failure and vulnerability.[11] Chris Dunkley, in The Times, praised the play’s formal ambitions but compared its portrayal of ‘tortured’ family relationships negatively to the more ‘precise’ dissection of a mental breakdown in the film Family Life (1971), which Mercer had adapted from his 1967 television play In Two Minds.[12]

Following this lukewarm reception, The Bankrupt was more or less forgotten. It was collected in Methuen’s second volume of Mercer’s plays published in 1994 (and reissued in 2013 by Bloomsbury) but has never been repeated on television and has received next to no subsequent critical commentary. It does deserve attention for its undoubted merits and, above all, for its lack of compromise, for Mercer’s determination to work through his preoccupations and pursue experiments even at the risk of alienating the viewer. Far from indicating creeping caution or growing ‘self-censorship’ at the BBC, the play’s production bespeaks the adventurous, liberal television climate of the 1970s. The play’s dabbling in the occult also gives it an obvious contemporary appeal lacking, say, in Mercer’s more politically oriented dramas, a chance of being swept up into the ongoing fascination for ‘folk horror’ and the arcane, supernatural side of 1970s British culture.

Intimations of ‘folk horror’

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

[1] David Mercer in John Sandilands, ‘The Slag Heap Myth’, Radio Times, 25 November-1 December 1972, p.11

[2] Chris Dunkley, ‘The Bankrupt’, The Times, 28 November 1972, p.10.

[3] Stuart Laing, ‘Introduction’, Mercer: Plays 2 (London: Methuen, 1994), p.xi

[4] Tish Dash, ‘MERCER, David’, in Simon Trussler (ed.), Twentieth Century Drama (London: Macmillan, 1983), p.195.

[5] David Mercer, letter to Joseph Losey, 14 October 1971. Joseph Losey Archive, BFI Special Collections. I am grateful to John Williams for alerting me to this letter and for kindly sharing the relevant passage from his transcription.

[6] See Lez Cooke, British Television Drama: A History, 2nd edition (London: BFI/Bloomsbury, 2018), pp.87-88.

[7] Clive James, ‘Lobbing Match Over a Cat’s-cradle’, The Observer, 3 December 1972, p.34.

[8] Laing, p.xii.

[9] James, op. cit.

[10] Michael Frostick, ‘The Bankrupt’, The Stage, 30 November 1972, p.13.

[11] Ibid.; Phillip Whitehead, ‘Shipwrecked Old Age’, The Listener, 7 December 1972, p.806.

[12] Dunkley, op. cit.

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