Written by Dennis Potter
Directed by Gareth Davies
BBC 1, tx 11 April 1966
BFI Southbank, NFT 1, 11 December 2011
It was difficult not to approach Thirty-Minute Theatre: Emergency - Ward 9 without crossing off the Dennis Potter checklist. Hospitals? Nostalgia for and revulsion from a lost social order? Old popular music? Fascinated disgust with physical frailty? All present and correct; and the Potter experts will no doubt be able to both qualify and extend that list.
Dennis Potter's script was placed in the directorial hands of Gareth Davies, who had brought the two Nigel Barton plays to screen; but Emergency - Ward 9 lacked their claustrophobic sense of personal apocalypse. For a play broadcast 'Live from Studio 7', as the narration over the Thirty-Minute Theatre title sequence said, it managed several changes of tone which were reminders that the path to great work doesn't necessarily lie through the editing suite. The path of the Free Church lay preacher Padstow takes him from professedly openhearted Christian to a man hiding behind closed eyes and folded hands, frantically praying as his ears are assailed by profanities issuing from Hell. The audience is left unsettled - having been introduced to them as a figure of reassurance, Padstow ends up unanchored and adrift amidst bored medical personnel of varying levels of enthusiasm, devotion to duty, competence and humanity, his belief in his own skills at navigating the oceans of sociability and society undermined. The title tilts at the romantic heroism of ATV's soap opera Emergency - Ward Ten; in Potter's world the best we can do is to fall a whole number short of our ideals.
Kenith Trodd, story editor of Thirty-Minute Theatre at the time and producer of much of Potter's later television work, introduced the BFI screening with the warning that the audience might experience 'psychic shock', and recalled that at the time the play was broadcast The Black and White Minstrel Show was considered unexceptionable family entertainment for viewers of BBC1, the same channel which broadcast Thirty-Minute Theatre. There were gasps and nervous laughter at the racist opinions, assumptions and language of the overtalkative and undereducated Flanders, performed with appallingly compelling pathos by Terence de Marnay, and at the use of recordings of old popular songs supposedly representing the lives of African-Americans - 'nigger music'. These emphasised the way the presence of prosperous black businessman Adzola (Dan Jackson) disturbed the ward; this is interpreted primarily through the colour prejudice which the play depicts as endemic among the majority population.
Potter is interested in a broad spectrum of postwar social anxiety. The elements of Padstow could probably be found among the preachers of
Potter's Forest of Dean childhood, as could Flanders; but in that
context Adzola would only be understood as the beneficiary of missionary
charity and evangelism. Flanders's belief that Adzola, an immigrant, is stealing the National Health Service which he fought for is depressingly familiar to the viewers of forty-five years later. The aftermath of the scalding of Flanders by Adzola, in response to Flanders addressing him as Sambo ("I thought all niggers was called Sambo..." Flanders weeps, recalling the reassuring picture books about children of the world he was shown at school), sees Padstow attempt to apologise on behalf of Flanders, but this expression of compassion is itself based upon social assumptions which are outdated - Adzola is a successful businessman, proud of his achievements, and utterly contemptuous of the ignorant 'working man' epitomised for him by Flanders. Padstow's faith has survived a death on the ward - the nearest the 'Old Man' gets to last rites are impertinent comments from Flanders, and routine bodywash from a disinterested nurse - but it is visibly rocked here. Tenniel Evans's Padstow was lost and confused in the face of this rejection of his compassion; in the end Padstow and Flanders might not be reconciled, but they recognise each other as familiar types in a changed world.
Thanks to The Television Plays and Serials of Dennis Potter.