1970s BBC Play For Today Ted Whitehead Writers

Play for Today: The Peddler

By Simon Farquhar

Written by E. A. Whitehead, directed by Claude Whatham, produced by Graeme McDonald. Broadcast on BBC1 at 9.25pm on Tuesday 23 March 1976.

Through the BBC Plays Department, the Royal Court and the burgeoning fringe, Britain was thrusting some seriously good writers into the spotlight in the 1970s, and it is telling how many of them went the distance, compared to the high casualty rates of new writers of the 1980s, particularly on television. One of my favourites has always been Ted Whitehead, in person a genial drinking companion, his Liverpudlian lilt and reflex chuckle giving him the air of a compere, but on paper a powerful peddler of emotional nausea and sexual warfare. His work has echoes of Strindberg and Albee but, within a television context, perhaps his closest counterpart was the late, great John Hopkins. The crucial differences are that Whitehead’s work is much more accessible and usually working class in its concerns and settings.

His first play, The Foursome (1971), was an unsolicited script that was awarded not only a run at the then new Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, but a West End transfer. A vivid and frank presentation of the ugliness of the mating game, it was followed by the astounding Alpha Beta (1972), a ferocious study of a loveless marriage, the couple trapped in a perpetual torment by the roles and expectations that society has forced on them and tortured by their failure to succeed at them. It ran on the main stage at the Royal Court before becoming a worldwide success, the performances by Albert Finney and Rachel Roberts being captured in an abridged film version the following year.

Whitehead had by now made some tentative steps in television, with three plays featured in the Saturday night arts beano Full House, and a disturbing piece for BBC2’s Thirty Minute Theatre, Under the Age (14 October 1972), directed by Alan Clarke, starring Paul Angelis as a confrontational gay publican serving after hours to two sex-hungry men and the women that they prey on (inspired by a legendary Liverpool landlord known as ‘Sadie’). However, three years later, he was still eager for a major break into teledrama.

Alec (John Hurt): a man whose life is falling apart

“The genesis of The Peddler is probably more interesting than the play itself”, he told me in 2003.[i]The Foursome transferring to the West End had led to the Royal Court inviting me to become resident playwright at £20 a week, an invitation that I couldn’t refuse. I moved from Liverpool to London and took up the 12-month appointment in August 1971. After Alpha Beta transferred too, the Court introduced me to Peggy Ramsay, who agreed to act as my agent. So, there I was, set up for life.”

“Set up for about two years, actually. By then funds were running low. I had heavy responsibilities, as I was maintaining a wife and two children from whom I had been separated for some years. I had written those short plays for the BBC and so asked Peggy about the possibility of writing a full-length television play. She derided the idea and advised me to concentrate on theatre. I pointed out that I had a family to support and she said, ‘Abandon them’.”

“I told her that I didn’t share her ruthless dedication to the art of theatre. What emerged in the debate was revealing. She believed that I had a talent for theatre which would be corrupted by involvement with the ‘popular’ art of television. Despite the achievement of another of her writers, David Mercer, she could not take television seriously. I pointed out to her that for someone of my class and generation, the most significant dramatic writing was to be found in Play for Today. Prior to the production of The Foursome I had hardly ever been to the theatre, and in fact my earliest attempts at dramatic writing had been two scripts for television; these had been rejected by ATV but with letters encouraging me to submit any further scripts that I might write.”

“Peggy was unimpressed. And so, against her advice, I rang Christopher Morahan, who was then Head of the Plays Department. I had been introduced to Christopher by Barry Hanson, who had produced Under the Age at BBC Birmingham. I simply said that I would like to write a play about my experiences in the early Sixties as a pharmaceutical salesman for a large drug company. Christopher immediately agreed to commission the script. How simple, and how supportive. I wonder if it could happen now for a writer with virtually no television track record.”

“My experience with the drug company had lasted only a few months, after which time I had become so disillusioned with the selling process that I quit the job and sent an article to The New Statesman. They returned the article in the form of proofs with a cheque for £50. It was my only earlier published writing.”

“What the experience had taught me, apart from a deep cynicism about both drug companies and GPs, was that the great British public was consuming a staggering daily quantity of drugs: sedatives, stimulants, anti-depressants et cetera. While the press carried screaming headlines about cannabis, they completely ignored the alarming and growing dependence on legally prescribed pharmaceuticals. Yet, as I saw it, these were being prescribed to cope with problems that were essentially personal or social rather than medical – shades of Aldous Huxley’s soma in Brave New World.”

Betty (Patricia England) and daughter: confronting Rose

“Hence The Peddler, which was to be a play about the ironical situation of a man whose own life is falling apart while he goes around flogging his miraculous cure-alls to an avid nation. This seemed a typically ambitious subject for Play for Today. Perhaps too ambitious – for me, anyway, as I don’t think I managed to properly unite the strands of the personal and the professional. One critic alleged that I had failed to acknowledge the invaluable research work done by the drug companies, an argument I had been trained by the company to trot out myself!”

The peddler of the title is Alec Casssell (a weaselly John Hurt), pharmaceutical salesman and philanderer. His only medical experience is an eight-week course; he answered an ad because he wanted a job with a car. He is cynical to the point of sterility. “It’s amazing how drugs can transform people. It makes you sceptical”, he explains, “makes you realise that people are glorified chemical compounds.”

The play begins with his wife Betty (Patricia England) bursting into the crowded surgery of Dr Rose Dane (Deborah Norton), her children in tow, screaming for her to “leave my husband alone”. When Rose tells Alec what has happened, he innocently replies that “if she expects me to support her and the kids, she’s got to allow me some kind of freedom”.

Alec (John Hurt) and Rose (Deborah Norton): ‘she’s got to allow me some kind of freedom’

The mating game is always a brutal game in Whitehead’s work, and television does nothing to prettify it here. Alec’s home is functional rather than residential, perfunctory and glum. His children are practically camouflaged against the furnishings. He treks around shabby surgeries proffering his current wonderdrug, Caladin, “a new tranquiliser… makes you laugh through your nervous breakdown”, and his life is an endless round of flirting with receptionists and hard-selling to GPs. In one scene, the sleazy Dr Mayne (Robin Wentworth) shares a mid-morning drink with him between patients and confesses that groping women is not only a perk of his profession but the reason he went to medical school: “so I could be licenced to look at women’s bodies. Some of them like it too, of course”. He agrees to try Caladin “on the next moaning housewife who comes in” and expects, at the very least, “a fountain pen or a gold golf ball” in return.

Alec’s parents live in a council flat and don’t seem to have much of an emotional connection. Alec is clearly a mummy’s boy, confessing to her that he just doesn’t feel anything for his wife anymore. His conversation with his friends is just as emotionally barren. They can’t figure out why he wants to leave his wife, but he suggests that the only reasons for being married are kids, and “sex, I suppose”, but Graham (Bernard Hill) insists that’s “bullshit. You don’t need to get married to have sex. Anyway, it only lasts five minutes. I’m not knocking my missus but she’s not exactly a pin-up is she. She wouldn’t be after four kids. But she’s a good woman, a good mother… all she thinks about is me and the kids”. It’s the great value of such brutally honest writing; this is the everyday ugliness of mid-Seventies masculinity when it thinks it is expressing benevolence.

Bernard Hill as Graham: mid-Seventies masculinity

Invited along to the gathering is Stella (Louise Jameson), to whom Alec casually imparts that not only does he wish he hadn’t had kids, but that he “probably wouldn’t miss them”. She chips in that she is a nursery nurse but isn’t that fond of kids either. She is divorced, the picture of freedom. Alec mourns that her generation make it sound so simple: “a few years ago if you told a girl you were married, she’d have a fit.” He’s clearly just too old to have fully enjoyed the permissive age though just young enough to feed off it where he can, but his couplings are curiously chilly and joyless. Even Stella’s open marriage she describes as having been “a bit of a drag”.

After the inevitable sex with Stella, Alec stumbles home, drunk, and the play suddenly and bewilderingly switches from a series of bleak encounters into tragedy. Alec’s wife, Betty,  has fled the house, which, to his daughter’s shock, Alec finds hilarious. Later, as he sleeps it off on the sofa, his tiny son wanders the house, finds the Caladin in his bag and, fatally, eats the whole packet.  It’s a badly underwhelming sequence. Alec says he cannot quite believe his son is dead, but Alec’s lack of emotion is sabotaged, rather than underlined, by the rather bloodless realisation.

There is a long time to wait for the funeral, as there’s “a bit of a rush on deaths at the moment”. Alec’s mother dies too, an equally emotionless development; he seems more mournful of the fact that he is now no longer even interested in football. In time, both Rose and Stella drift away from him, Rose now sleeping with a married doctor in his fifties, which suits her as she “doesn’t want to be involved”. Caladin is withdrawn due to its side effects, and Alec moves on to selling throat lozenges. A diligent doctor (played by Roshan Seth) calls him a “social parasite”, in a society where psychotropics have replaced alcohol and profit comes before patients, none of it tackling “the root of the problem”, which, although unnamed, is not hard to identify in this grim portrait of an emotionally wasted society.

Roshan Seth as Dr Milma: denouncing Alec as a ‘social parasite’

Alec’s Cortina mounts the kerb again as he drunkenly arrives home for the play’s final scene, one of Whitehead’s typically savage showdowns. “For the past few months, I’ve felt like a corpse slowly slipping into the furnace”, he reflects. “You’ve read too many books”, Betty says. “I wish you’d read a few more”, he spits back. She pronounces that “your mother spoilt you, your father neglected you”, and suggests that his promiscuity is merely a constant search for reassurance. Yet Alec himself has claimed earlier that “all I wanted was a bit of sexual variety”. He might as well stay here since he will never be happy. He ponders the pills for a moment, then flings them back into his bag. The play stops blankly, without music and certainly without closure.

“Playwrights are always quicker to see weaknesses in the production rather than the deficiencies in the script, so let me say immediately that I think the script needed a lot more development,” Whitehead claimed. “The causes of the malaise between husband and wife are never explored, and the role of the wife remains almost a cipher. The crises of the deaths – first the mother, then the child – have nothing like the impact they deserve. The love affair between the salesman and the doctor is neither moving nor convincing. The result is that as an audience we are never deeply engaged either with characters or theme.”

“The production doesn’t help. John Hurt, for all his sensitivity, had nothing of the macho power needed in the role. Deborah Norton as the mistress had the strength he needed but gave not the slightest hint that she was passionately, agonisingly in love with him –nor did she ever suggest the sense of guilt and uncertainty that her part in the affair would provoke. The wife remained a blank (for reasons explained above, probably). Only Louise Jameson was really believable, a flesh-and-blood character representing a new permissive generation.”

Patricia England and John Hurt: the showdown

“Graeme McDonald chose Claude Whatham to direct, but I don’t feel he was the right choice for a drama aspiring to brutal Strindbergian intensity”, Whitehead also believed. Whatham was a wonderful director, but he was an unusual choice for this. Despite having successfully helmed an earlier piece about amorality and emotional disengagement, W. Stephen Gilbert’s Circle Line (1971), The Peddler would probably have benefitted from a director prepared to fully embrace its cold heart, such as Michael Simpson or Christopher Morahan, rather than one who would try in vain to find the humanity in it. As well as his inherent decency and compassion, there was also another reason why Whatham was perhaps not the right choice for The Peddler; he himself had recently lost his son in a road accident. He returned to work with two Play for Todays back to back, The Peddler and the previous week’s Tiptoe Through the Tulips, which he later told me he completely misjudged in terms of its pace and tone, because he was clearly not fully focused at the time. He had little to say on The Peddler, except for remembering that John Hurt’s drinking was olympic; on the night shoot of Alec’s arrival home, he was discovered in a deep sleep on someone’s sofa at a house nearby, “but as soon as I woke him, he bolted upright, ready for action”.[ii]

Whitehead is harsh on The Peddler. “It’s not for me to comment on any virtues the play may have had. Looking back, it strikes me as an honourable but flawed attempt at a good subject for Play for Today.” Although the script needed massaging, there is some good, frank writing and undiluted truthfulness in its depiction of queasy sexual politics and toxic masculinity. Whitehead moved almost entirely into television the following decade. World’s End (1981) was a short-lived late-night BBC2 soap opera inspired by The Mulberry pub, the centre of what was at that time a diverse and colourful corner of the Chelsea he lived in. The pub would change its name to The World’s End, but that was the series’ only legacy. “God, I’d actually forgotten I ever did that”, he laughed.

He excelled from them on with dramatizations, often exemplifying his predilection for sexual frankness and emotional brutality, such as The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1986) and The Mayor of Casterbridge (2003). His own creations were perhaps too nakedly nasty and uncomfortable for television in later years, which is a great shame. Above all else, with its concerns about pharmaceutical companies and its despair over malevolent masculinity, The Peddler is perhaps now, even more than then, a play for today.

Ted Whitehead

SIMON FARQUHAR is a writer and broadcaster. Works include, for the stage, Rainbow Kiss (Royal Court and 59E59 New York), Dream Me a Winter (Old Vic) and Wassail Play (Theatre Royal, Dumfries), and for BBC Radio 4 A Sympathetic Eye: The Story of Man Alive (Archive on 4) and Elevenses with Twiggy. His book A Dangerous Place was shortlisted for the 2016 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. His most recent book, Play for Today: The First Year, may be found here:

[i] SF interview with Ted Whitehead, 26 November 2003.

[ii] SF interview with Claude Whatham, 20 February 2002.

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