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1980s BBC drama Carol Bunyan Play For Today Writers

Play for Today: Sorry

by Katie Crosson

Written by Carol Bunyan, produced by John Norton and directed by Alistair Clark. Broadcast at 9.25pm on Tuesday 3 March 1981.

Carol Bunyan has had a prolific career across theatre and television, but her association with Play for Today is often left out of selections, lists of favourites, commemorations and histories of the strand. To my mind, this does viewers a disservice.sorry More

After her perceptive, multifaceted and affecting Play for Today, Ladies (27 March 1980) following the misadventures (or – without wanting to include spoilers – trauma) of a group of female department store workers, in which Bunyan masterfully explores the differences as well as common ground amongst women from different groups and backgrounds, she went on to write the subject of this post – Sorry (3 March 1981). While this latter work was well received by many viewers, it also divided opinion. This occurred most notably along gendered lines: male audiences more commonly thought it was not ‘true to life’ while a large proportion of women found the piece ‘disturbingly realistic’.[1] Critical responses also varied. However, praise for the production included the proclamation that ‘Sorry needs no apology’ [2] and a cry for ‘More soon please, Carol’ that, at least in the context of Play for Today, sadly remained unheard.[3]

Directed by Alistair Clarke and produced by John Norton, with lead performances by the formidable June Brown (also in Ladies), Meg Davies, Nicholas Ball and Geoffrey Chater, Sorry begins in a remarkably ordinary office space shared by two women with almost antithetical outlooks on life, but with more in common materially than they care to realise. The normalcy onscreen is disrupted by a traumatic lunch break between the staunch young feminist and socialist Kate (Meg Davies) from a middle-class upbringing and the misogynistic, ‘upwardly mobile’ (at least in aspiration) repair man Terry (Nicholas Ball). A sophisticated exploration of sexual violence, and a gender-based sense of duty, co-dependency and exploitation situated within a wider cultural framework of misogyny, ensues.

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While the attempted rape scene in Sorry involves overt as well as covert pressure, with the weaponisation of a sharp object adding another level of pressure on Kate, the onscreen threat remains close to a depressingly common experience: the perpetrator is someone Kate knows (from work) who is seeking to exert power over a woman. His desire to harm her is inflected by a deep hatred for everything that she represents: namely, feminism. The struggle between the pair is thoroughly nauseating – that is to say, it is not made palatable for audiences or in any way eroticised. This makes for difficult viewing, but provides affective drama worthy of serious critical attention and reflection. The play, however, cannot be described as gratuitously re-traumatising. During what would be the truly graphic moments of the assault, the camera pans up to Kate’s face and, thus, avoids fetishising or misrepresenting the act. The emphasis of the play is, instead, on the struggle, containing many commonplace turns of phrase, such as the age-old assertion ‘this has to happen doesn’t it – you saying no the first time?’

One of the most harrowing aspects of the play is the way in which Kate’s concept of herself unravels as she struggles not only with her perpetrator but also with her own feelings as she is caught between her abstract morality (of never softening herself for a man and so on) and her pragmatic and urgent need to escape the situation, culminating in a moment of distress where she exhaustedly exclaims ‘I’m not a bloody feminist – how can I be?!’ This moment raises awareness of the inner turmoil as well as outer pain caused by the kind of sexual and emotional abuse to which Kate is subjected while encouraging audiences to recognise that the perceived disparity between her world-view as a feminist and her actions of self-preservation in a crisis is not paradoxical and warrants no apology.

Ultimately, both Kate and June’s lives are defined by the word ‘sorry’. While we see Kate apologise consistently to herself, her boss and even her perpetrator, June delivers a string of apologies to, on behalf of or as a result of her elderly mother, for whom who she cares. Both characters juggle many burdens, leaving little thought for themselves while constantly expressing the feeling that they fall short of the caring, strong, empathetic and open-minded people that they aspire to be.

Interestingly, the bulk of the emotional response to trauma we see evidenced in Kate’s expressions and actions comes in the quieter moments of the play. These occur in the limited time allotted to reflecting upon her own feelings when Terry moves away from her in the flat, affording her just a moment to digest what is happening to her, or when her boss (Geoffrey Chater) leaves the office and stops breathing down her neck momentarily. The claustrophobic nature of the studio sets here emphasise the importance of physical space for emotional processing, and the impact of being effectively sandwiched between two self-aggrandised and authoritarian men. These delicate moments represent sexual violence as not only a horrific momentary experience, but as a catalyst for lasting psychological damage. They also establish the trisection of female subordination  – in the bedroom, in the workplace, and in the home – that feminist literature at the time was contributing to mainstream thought.

Despite these features, Herbert Kretzmer, writing in the Daily Mail, revealed a hostile response to Sorry. ‘Where does exploitation stop and art begin?’ he asked, before going on to claim that ‘the playwright appeared here to allow herself to be seduced by the old-fashioned demands of suspense movies, and played the horror to its hilt’.[4] On the contrary, there is no generic mystification of the attempted rape in Sorry: the acts of sexual violence are presented in a way that avoids titillation or voyeurism by means of a mid-shot panning up to Kate’s face upon unwanted contact. The televisual gaze does not fragment Kate’s body or objectify it; nor does the production employ suspenseful music to create a sense of crescendo or dramatic tension. This, perhaps, is where the actual ‘horror’ lies: in the rare portrayal of sexual assault as lengthy, serious and nauseating.

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Kretzmer’s complaint that the rape scene gives the impression of ‘a different play’ from the rest of the production also failed to acknowledge the formal merits of this approach. The play’s techniques successfully depict sexual assault as something which can feel surreal, disorientating and unbelievable, moving a person in a matter of seconds from one plane of existence to another more painful, unexpected one. When the writer suggests that ‘for all its merits, Sorry straddled two different worlds, and failed to find a credible bridge between them’, he ignores how the more unsavoury aspects of culture exist in the same world as the ordinary and routine.

This importance of locating sexual assault as a real-world experience was noted by Sarah Nelson in the Scotsman. For this reviewer, ‘Carol Bunyan’s excellent, hardly bearable Sorry showed that real horror does not lie in vampires, maniacs, stage sharks and towering infernos, but in the ordinary actions and hatreds of ordinary people’, acknowledging that Kate is ‘locked in an extreme version of a battle that is familiar and commonplace (at least to women, and I can only speak for them)’.[5]

This emphasis upon worldliness and everydayness is compounded by the sense of inescapability expertly embedded in the formal design of the play. Kate’s frantic struggle and panic is revealed through slow camera movements, zooming in on her face to create empathy as her situation becomes increasingly dire, and then panning back out to a mid-shot when she declares out of desperation that she is on her period, spitting out the words ‘such a lot of blood’ as an act of rebellion as well as an attempt at a deterrent. These camera movements form a series of repetitions, in and out, exemplifying the back-and-forth nature of the power struggle between the two characters onscreen, emphasising the excruciating nature of Kate taking one step forward towards escape from Terry’s grasp only to be taken two steps back as he re-asserts his dominance. These subtle aesthetic choices also evidence the text’s sophistication in avoiding the simplifying trope of the ‘passive victim’.[6]

A classic example of a studio Play for Today, the use of small, enclosed locations with few camera angles suits this subject matter well, enhancing the visceral claustrophobia created by the scenes of both assault and monotonous work (be it paid or unpaid). At times, works such as Chantal Ackerman’s masterful film Jeanne Dielman… (1975) come to mind, and the attempts at light conversation that are overlaid upon this often intentionally bleak and repetitive aesthetic only reinforces the sense of entrapment within an unsatisfying reality. A script and performance-oriented play, putting emphasis on the characters’ thoughts and experiences, the visual style complements this in the dimly -lit browns of the office space and June’s house, though Terry’s house – where the assault takes place – offers a different visual dimension to the play. His place features immaculately matched warm beiges, flawless and minimal enough to look clean but decorated and homely enough to save it from appearing clinical. Modern, but not gaudy. Sleek, with pearlescent reflective lampshades and finishing touches such as chrome cylindrical shapes in the back of the shot, but still inviting and personal, with houseplants, stacked bookshelves and a conversation-stimulating record collection. All this amounts to a sense of ease and contentment, under painfully false pretences. This refined backdrop usefully challenges stereotypes surrounding sexual violence, such as its perceived happenstance in a dimly lit, damp alleyway. This immaculate and orderly environment situates the assault in reality; invasive in its homeliness.

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Moving on from a focus on Kate’s central arc, perhaps the real star of this play is the heart-wrenchingly optimistic and subservient June (June Brown): a crucially overlooked asset to this play, receiving little to no critical attention when contrasted with Davies in the opposite leading role. To me, the most moving moment and wonderfully performed scene of the play is evidenced in June’s escape into a fabricated dream-world while trying to convince her unresponsive mother (and herself) that she has finally found a lover – and someone to be proud of – while he is assaulting Kate. The dramatic irony is almost too much to bear as she says the words ‘don’t worry – I won’t bring Terry back home without asking you first’. Simultaneously infantilised and perpetually stuck in a caring role with no one to ease her own discomfort, June’s lack of agency in her own life offers a parallel to Kate’s scenes before the pair are reunited back at work, both freed from one form of entrapment and thrust into another as their boss makes seemingly endless and contradictory demands upon them.

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Back in the office, June remarks of her unwell mother: ‘I have to make her world a little bigger than her bedroom’. It becomes clear that Terry as a knight in shining armour has become a fantasy, fuelled by the sense that she has failed both herself (exacerbated no doubt by the condescension she receives from Kate as she attempts to shake up her frankly bleak life) and also her mother (for whom she fulfils the sole role of entertainment and accomplishment). This leads to her bombarding her mother with things she loves about Terry, from his manners to his maroon car, which she fixates on almost longer than she does on Terry. Perhaps she is not craving a lover so much as an escape route.

Free of ‘abstract proclamations of sisterhood’[7], the play explores how the central pair of women are subordinated under patriarchy in very distinct ways but nonetheless share that subordination. Their disparate lives are brought together through the office they share and in which they find themselves continually apologizing; the story then splits in half following both women down their own paths, into other sites for saying sorry. Meanwhile, they clash on several fronts: ideologically, June has a much more traditional outlook than Kate but they also differ in their relative freedoms outside of work. While Kate is shackled to her office job as a result of leaving education for the benefit of her then-husband, and then finding herself with no economic security, qualifications or prospects post-divorce, she still pursues relative freedom in her personal life due to having no dependents. June, however, is restricted by virtue of her caring role. These tensions and differences are explored with nuance in Sorry, and both characters provide a fascinating insight into the experience of womanhood that will resonate with contemporary audiences just as it did when it was watched by 13% of the UK population in 1981.[8]

Ending on a freeze-frame of Kate trapped in horror while incessant phones ring in the background, Sorry is a poetic yet direct look at female subordination. It makes a strong case for re-visiting the archives of Play for Today, reclaiming the forgotten work of (notably female) writers like Carol Bunyan that speaks so eloquently to issues of marginalisation and material inequalities.

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[1] BBC Broadcasting Research Viewing Panel Report: Sorry, VR/81/93, 1 May 1981 (BBCWAC).

[2] Nancy Banks-Smith, The Guardian, 4 March 1981, p. 10.

[3] Hillary Kingsley, Daily Mirror, 7 March 1981, p. 15.

[4] Herbert Kretzmer, The Daily Mail, 4 March 1981, p.27.

[5] Sarah Nelson, The Scotsman, March 1981.

[6] Moniza Alvi, ’An Unsafe Subject’, Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives: Violence and Violation, eds. Zoë Brigely and Sorcha Gunne, (London: Routledge, 2012), p.xii.

[7] Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser, Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto, (London: Verso, 2019).

[8] BBC Broadcasting Research Viewing Panel Report: Sorry, VR/81/93, 1 May 1981 (BBCWAC).

Katie Crosson is an AHRC/TECHNE-funded postgraduate researcher in the Department of Media Arts and the Centre for the History of Television Culture and Production, Royal Holloway, University of London who is working in collaboration with the British Film Institute. She helped curate the season of Plays for Today at BFI Southbank and was the guest curator of a BBC Canvas online exhibition in association with the BFI and BBC History. Her blog post on women and Play for Today may be found here: https://www.bfi.org.uk/features/play-today-50-women-stories

3 replies on “Play for Today: Sorry”

It is worth mentioning that ‘Sorry’ was a stage adaptation, first performed in the studio theatre of The Crucible, Sheffield, in 1979. This theatrical origin accounts for the two features of the play that generally strike contemporary viewers as formally unusual – the use of continuous time in the long scene in Terry’s flat and June’s monologue, both more familiar conventions in staged drama.

Oh, and a happy hundredth birthday to Geoffrey Chater last month! Have there been any other Play For Today centenarians?

Unsure about that, Billy, a very good question! Is the writer Ray Lawler still alive? On 23 May, he is also 100 if so!

Fantastic piece, Katie, really incisive, thought provoking analysis. This is one of the finest PFTs in what was a remarkably varied and expansive 1980-81 series. It feels like a combination of the theatrical video-studio aesthetic with perhaps ‘slow cinema’ elements. As you say, the lack of music is crucial and the carefully anti-sensationalist cutting and framings. Of course, lack of musical underscores was often due to money, and also generally unsuited to studio plays, but I find it impossible to imagine this wasn’t also a stylistic decision. Anything else would distract from the central of the consummate performances and Bunyan’s moving and chilling words. The designer Cynthia Kljuco creates some of the most impressively everyday sets imaginable. Notably, Kljuco had worked on a previous PFT, Baby Love (1974), which has a very different aesthetic to this one.

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