by Simon Farquhar
Written by John Harvey-Flint, produced by Graeme McDonald and directed by James Ferman. Broadcast at 9.25pm on Monday 11 June 1973.
It feels regrettably apt that John Harvey-Flint’s quietly fascinating Play for Today, Edward G – Like the Film Star, has fallen into obscurity, junked shortly after its sole broadcast in 1973. It’s a tender, wistful piece about a dusty world, about obscurity and underachievement and dead ends. Reading the yellowed script and sifting through the four surviving black and white photographs of the production, they themselves feel like they belong within the world of the play, and its gloomy location.
John Harvey-Flint is, in person, a beautiful storyteller, blessed with wise, twinkling eyes and a mellifluous, confident but compassionate voice, and his gift is vividly exemplified in a play in which storytelling is both the catalyst for the story, and its chief dramatic expression. In a still sea of short sentences and half-expressed feelings, the meek, haunted Edward is given two marathon monologues, fittingly perhaps for a man who for the first and only time in his life is in the spotlight.
Edward’s moment in the spotlight has its origins at the Oxford Headlights. ‘I was a student, involved with the Headlights, and just before I went home for the Christmas vac in 1971, they asked me if I could write a play for them to take to the Edinburgh Fringe the following summer’, the author explained to me in an interview. ‘I arrived home for Christmas and found to my horror that my mother had arranged for me to play Father Christmas at the children’s hospital. I was rather dreading it. I went to bed that night, and had a traumatic dream about the worst thing that could possibly transpire. That was the starting-point for the play. But when I woke up in the morning, rather than write it, we went Christmas shopping. Thankfully, however, it didn’t fade, so when I got back to Oxford, I got it down.’
The play begins, strikingly, with lowly Edward Morris (the moon-faced Robert Lang), a shipping clerk for ‘an old firm’, returning home in an ill-fitting Father Christmas outfit. The furnishings, as described in the script, are of a ‘dark, Edwardian unfashionableness’, dull and faded. We later learn that Edward was born here, and that his parents moved in when the house was new. There are three bedrooms but no children. Edward and his wife, Eileen (played by Anne Reid), are small, stranded figures in draughty spaces.
For a one-room, intimate, talky play, its visual sense is meticulous and impressive: the opening image of a ramshackle, haunted Father Christmas, the house, almost a character in itself, reflecting Edward’s stagnation; even the curiously vivid sense of place. We are only told that we are ten miles from the sea, yet there is a strange sense of Edward’s locality, which is in fact the north of Essex, a weird enclave that I know well, a place where time moves slower, a phenomenon accentuated by its proximity to the hustle-bustle of the city, and its post-metropolitan (or anti-metropolitan) population.
‘The set for the television production was absolutely perfect. It was designed by Richard Henry, a quite remarkable designer’, John recalled. ‘By this point he was extremely eminent, but I found out that he had specifically asked to work on this. When I asked him why, he said: “Because as soon as I read the script, I knew that house”.’
Edward has returned from playing Father Christmas at the children’s ward, a favour for his nephew, Alan (Keith Drinkel), a paediatrician, where an incident that he cannot understand or explain has shattered him. After handing out the presents, he told the children a fairy story, ‘The Constant Tin Soldier’, and, as he told it, a child in the ward who had been completely unresponsive suddenly
‘…turned to look at me. It was the first time I’d seen him move. And so, I smiled. He didn’t smile or say anything, but he got up and came over to where I was sitting. Without a word he pushed through the others and sat on my knee, and then he leant his head on my shoulder. I was nearly speechless but somehow I kept the story going. Eventually I got to the end, where the tin soldier is melted away and the paper doll is burnt. There was a long silence when I’d finished. Then quite suddenly the boy’s head slumped across me, and his body went limp. Several of the children gasped, but the nurse was behind my back and she couldn’t see the boy. I don’t know what I did. I kept thinking “do something”, “quickly”. But nothing happened. One of the children reached out a hand and pulled it back and one said “he’s asleep isn’t he?” I’d no idea what to say so I just mumbled “That’s the kind of sleep Father Christmases bring” and I got up and started to walk out of the ward carrying the boy. Somehow my hood got pulled off. All the children could see the elastic strap for the beard and my bald head. The nurse came and took the child. And I got away as fast as I could.’
His wife Eileen has listened patiently but is as bewildered by Edward’s reaction to the event as he is. ‘Why are you so upset? I mean I know it’s very unpleasant, but you don’t know him. It was unfortunate that it happened to you, but that’s all.’ With that, she moves on to deciding that he needs a snack.
It is Edward’s bewilderment, rather than the incident itself, with which the play is obsessed, and over the hour there is a sense that the writer is trying to make sense of it as much as Edward is. People will come and go, some of whom get in the way, some leading him closer to understanding.
‘So there I was, back in Oxford, in my room, lying on my bed writing this,’ remembered John. ‘And suddenly I heard the doorbell ring. It was the early hours of the morning, and I had no idea who it could be, so I went downstairs and opened the door, and there was no-one there. I looked in both directions and there was no-one. It was very strange. I went back upstairs, looked down at the page, and the last thing I’d written was “the doorbell rings”. It had rung in my mind.’
The caller in Edward G is Pearson (Trevor Peacock), ‘a boor and a bore’, a colleague of Edward’s who boasts of better things on the horizon. Despite his bumptiousness, the sympathetic script leaves us with a hint that he is a lonely man deep down (and the stage directions doom him to be a perennial bachelor). Colourful a character as he is, Pearson’s intrusion darkens the dynamic in the room. Recounting what happened at the hospital, when Edward gets to the line about ‘the sort of sleep Father Christmases bring’, Pearson laughs at it, leading Eileen to agree that ‘it does sound silly’. It’s a second tremor in the staid, settled life of Edward, another ripple from the day’s events. Edward overreacts to Pearson’s teasing, asking ‘what would you have done?’. Pearson suggests something like ‘God bless him’.
Then comes the arrival of Alan, and with him, Elizabeth (Judy Parfitt), the child’s mother. We discover that Alan asked Edward to play Father Christmas because he read to him as a child and was good at it (though not so impactfully, since Treasure Island was the story and Alan is now a paediatrician, not a pirate.)
Elizabeth appears to unsettle and slightly unravel Edward. She elicits from him that he doesn’t care much for Alan, the family all feeling threatened by his university education. When he tells her that his full name is Edward G. Morris, she says: ‘Edward G – like the film star’ and Edward says ‘I never thought of that’. He is nothing like a film star, and certainly nothing like Edward G. Robinson. But for the first time in his life, today, he gave a performance which had an impact on the world, albeit a vague and sorrowful one. The scant details of Edward’s sparse existence which Elizabeth elicits resonate curiously; even the photograph on the mantelpiece was taken ‘in the fields behind the house’. Edward never had children, and they couldn’t have played there anyway since ‘the stream… is full of rubbish’.
Elizabeth is desperate to understand what happened, and asks him to tell her the story, which he does. (Given the actor Robert Lang’s strength at playing strained suburban men, the mighty melancholy of his voice and his extraordinary face, this must have been a spellbinding spectacle on the small screen). However, when he gets to the line about ‘the sleep that Father Christmases bring’, curiously, he censors himself, and substitutes what Pearson claims he would have said. When the others return, as the tots of whisky tot up, Edward is encouraged to put his costume on again, conducted by Pearson, who says, ‘Shouldn’t you say your famous line?’, something which, to our relief and Edward’s, Elizabeth does not pursue.
We move to the middle of the night for the play’s hushed final act, a sleepless Elizabeth encountering an equally restless Edward back in the living room. Edward’s effect on Elizabeth’s son remains her obsession, but her own effect on Edward himself becomes increasingly apparent. There is a candour to his words, a frankness. Perhaps she is everything that Edward is not, but what he could have been with someone like her behind him. ‘I’m like your film star’, he says. ‘I’m sure he sat up drinking at four o’clock in the morning.’ Elizabeth confesses that she was afraid of Edward before she met him: ‘You’d succeeded where I’d failed.’
Edward then tells his last story of the night, of seeing an Asian man in the town a few days ago feeding the birds and two children watching him. When the man invited them to join in, they turned away and tried to pretend they hadn’t been looking at him. ‘And you find that sad?’ asks Elizabeth.
EDWARD: Yes, I think so. He’s black [sic], he speaks another language, never take anything from strangers. You can hear people saying it.
ELIZABETH: Why do you remember him? Did you want to help him?
EDWARD: I don’t know. I wanted to help your son. I tried and there was nothing to say.
Edward then confesses that he didn’t say ‘God bless’ to the child. Elizabeth, vainly searching for meaning, pleads for the truth. Edward is defensive and voices are raised until they are silenced by Alan arriving and summoning Elizabeth back to the hospital. While she gathers up her things, Alan and Edward engage in small talk about Christmas, Edward saying that ‘we’ll go through and see Mother’. ‘We thought of booking a meal somewhere’, he continues, ‘ but I don’t think anything will come of it’, a line that perhaps sums up his whole existence. Alan states that the boy probably has only a few hours to live, and that there is no hope of a recovery. Edward has not performed a Christmas miracle.
Elizabeth thanks Edward ‘for listening. Even the film star unbends a little off the screen’. As she leaves, she says, ‘Goodbye, Edward G’. To her perhaps, and her son, just momentarily, he was something strange, almost wondrous.
After she has gone, Eileen emerges, grumpy, jealous of the whisperings she heard between them, of ‘nonsense, rubbish. Film stars’. Out of nowhere comes scorn and bitterness. ‘Perhaps I’m just being very stupid, very provincial. No doubt she’s your soul partner – platonic attachment, would that be nice enough for her… Stupid isn’t it. I should be crying.’
It’s another slight shiver down the spine of the household, another ripple from the earlier event that they can’t quite understand. ‘It‘s much harder to forgive something you can’t understand’, says Edward. Eileen realises that it is now Christmas Eve. Lamely, she adds, ‘it was a good costume’. ‘I’ll see it’s taken back’, replies Edward. His moment in a starring role is over. And so now is the play.
This tantalising, haunting, sparse, mature play quietly played to great applause at the 1972 Edinburgh Fringe, and was Harold Hobson’s pick of the festival. It then returned to its first home, of the Oxford Playhouse. In the Times, Irving Wardle wrote adoringly of the writing, though less so of the company. It is, as he says, a surprising play for a 22-year-old to write, ‘with none of the self-preoccupation or surface dramatics of the apprentice playwright’, and although the dialogue mostly consists of ‘sawn-off statements and loaded small talk’, he felt that ‘inside its strict limits, the author achieves remarkable delicacy of feeling and characterisation’.
The play was brought into the television studio briskly but the result made curiously little impact. Peter Black, in the Daily Mail, wrote a rather haughty review bemoaning the ‘waiting room dialogue’ but praised Robert Lang’s reciting of the fairy tale as ‘a sudden vivid splash in the grey’. Nancy Banks-Smith was positively overwhelmed by Lang, wondering where he and his ‘remarkable face… a bun from which children have plucked the currant eyes… has been all my life, or his’, but found the play ‘maddening’.
The stony Mary Malone, in the Daily Mirror, who was never going to like the piece, did admit that ‘Edward’s house was excellent. Gaunt, grey, gloomy, dead.’ Laurence Moody’s sympathetic review from The Stage however, was adoring of the writing and the cast. ‘If there was a fault, it lay in the change of medium from the play as it was first performed at last year’s Edinburgh Festival. The natural tendency of the camera to concentrate replaced the claustrophobic sense of the stage set and tended, for me at least, to militate against the play’s deliberately elusive style and made it seem at times somewhat overextended.’
Given the maturity and restraint of the writing, and the skilled cast (Anne Reid as Eileen, Judy Parfitt as Elizabeth, Trevor Peacock as Pearson and Keith Drinkel as Alan), Moody was probably right that the medium itself was what lessened the play’s impact on television. Reading the script is an extraordinary experience. It is an emotional riddle, casting its spell as inexplicably and bewilderingly as Edward himself did in the hospital ward.
After the studio recording, cast and crew assembled for a party at the home of future head of the BBFC James Ferman (for whom the play was a directorial swan song). ‘I remember him asking me what I might have done differently if we had been doing it on film, and I said that I’d have started it with Edward on the top deck of a bus coming home, and the streetlights flashing over him and revealing him in the Father Christmas costume, which Jimmy adored.’
Edward G – Like the Film Star then returned to its natural home, the stage, with a run at The King’s Head, Islington. ‘Robin Bailey played Edward there. For me, he was the best of all of them.’ The play was an international success, particularly celebrated in New York (perhaps because of its impeccable presentation of ageing, costive Englishness), but it remains John’s only television work. After years of teaching, shortly after we first met in 2003, he wrote a short and intensely beautiful coda to the play, depicting Elizabeth and the now-widowed Edward meeting again twenty years later.
But Edward’s story doesn’t end there. John is planning a fiftieth anniversary production to be performed with the coda. Edward G, born of a dream, like a disturbing dream, never quite leaves us.
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. He writes for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent and his book A Dangerous Place was shortlisted for the 2016 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. He is the author of Play for Today: The First Year 1970-71 (2021) and his personal selection of Plays for Today may be found here while his personal blog may be found here.