Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Upstairs Downstairs: On Trial

Amidst researching the representative Scots peerage and dealing with other matters historical and parliamentary for my job, some voluntary reviewing and a very little paid freelancing, I've had time to fit in some archive television. While up at my parents', I rewatched the first episode of Upstairs Downstairs from 1971, On Trial. This statement has to be immediately qualified because what now passes for the first episode isn't, but a replacement; and it furthermore comes in two versions. This came from a DVD of the first season branded as 'The Colour Edition', which I'd bought for my mother a long time ago; it was released by VCI, and is now long deleted and superseded by the higher resolution transfers from the master tapes released by Network. As detailed at the principal online authority for the series, UpDown (from whose site I've sourced the picture of Jean Marsh and Pauline Collins adorning this review), the original broadcast version of the episode was in black and white, as were the first few recorded episodes of the series, a result of an industrial dispute affecting colour broadcasts; once the series was successfully established and the dispute was over the first episode was re-recorded in colour with two endings depending on whether the repeat or overseas sales package was to include the following black and white episodes or not. In this version, Sarah (Pauline Collins) rather abruptly walks out on 165 Eaton Place at the end of the episode, whereas in the original (wiped) and the version of episode one used with the black and white episodes, Sarah doesn't leave until the end of episode three.

The resulting episode might seem unusual as the launch of a series to eyes of over forty years later, but Upstairs Downstairs was born in an age where the line between the single play and the series was blurred by cycles such as the BBC's The Six Wives of Henry VIII; the writers drawn to Upstairs Downstairs included names associated with serious long-form drama but also at home with popular series or serials such as Rosemary Anne Sisson or in this case Fay Weldon. The considered and detailed depiction of a historical period was then part of the mainstream; settings relied on a deliberated, documented authenticity. Dialogue contains anachronisms and cultural references which the 1971 audience would have had to comb their memories or ask older relatives to confirm. Uniform changes which a budget-conscious production might have questioned are essential to setting and plot.

On Trial, in this form, is very much Sarah's story, and her departure with so many questions about her background and character unanswered might make some viewers expect that this is to be her series rather than that of the characters who she leaves behind. Even so, Sarah's centrality to the episode is balanced by her unknowability; she keeps several identities in the air at a time and it is never clear how much truth or deception there is in her tales, even when she is humbled and denies everything about her claims to French and Gypsy ancestry. Script and Collins's performance suggest she does not know herself. The regulars are introudced through their reactions to her: the sceptical, mocking but proper Rose who holds back the dire and dishonourable fate of Sarah's predecessor Katie until she can keep it in no more; the superstitious, susceptible, malleable Emily, seeking someone to whom to be loyal; Hudson and Mrs Bridges, in their different ways jealous of their authority below stairs and confronting Sarah's discordant influence in distinct methods. While Sarah has to negotiate a place in the servants' hierarchy between her immediate superior as a house- and parlourmaid, the pragmatic and grounded Rose (the series' cornerstone, from co-creator Jean Marsh), and scullerymaid Emily, the male servants Alfred the footman and Pearce the stableman are threateningly predatory, and as intermediary between the upper world of the Bellamys and below stairs Hudson is at times in this story almost a Gothic supernatural presence. Angela Baddeley as Mrs Bridges is more brusque than ferocious but again her apparent sale of a surplus household chicken to the indigent Matty inhabits one of the grey areas of the servants' moral universe which she and Hudson police.

Of the Bellamys, it's Lady Marjorie who is encountered first; while outwardly sympathetic in tone she is also casually controlling to the point of erasure; it's she who renames Sarah for the purposes of the household as a servant can't have a name like Clemence, the name which Sarah has when she arrives at 165 for interview. This is ruthless, callous and dismissive depersonalisation, and yet it's already been anticipated by the servants who resent anything which might disrupt the accepted order. Sarah is the viewer's route into the story in because she is a 1960s/70s free spirit out of her time, denied any privacy - she shares not just a bedroom but a bed with Rose, and sharing a bed with a workmate or family member was a common experience to most in the working class in the century at some stage in their lives - and who finds it impossible to compromise. Her claims to a personal identity are stripped away by others' demands that she exist for them, not for herself, and its hardly surprising she keeps inventing or revealing new facets, perpetuating in day the dreams from which the demands of service life force her to wake. Emily is her less resilient, less individuated, more dependent counterpart; the episode resists foreshadowing her demise though by the time this version of On Trial was taped I Dies From Love had been recorded.

The need to send Sarah on her way at the end of this version of the episode leads to the suggestion that Rose has in some circumstances unusual influence above stairs not being explored; the version shown with the black-and-white episodes includes Rose explaining that she grew up on Lady Marjorie's father's estate. Rose is native to and acculturated to this environment, even as she sees and has herself tried to break from its limitations. Nevertheless there's a strength in Jean Marsh's performance which makes her more sympathetic than she might have been, and which picks out the concern Rose has for the rootless Sarah, as if she might easily be swept away under the sweep of an opera cape which at first stands in for the master of the house, Richard Bellamy; an appropriate introduction as his position in the household will be revealed in due course as reliant on his successfully performing above his inherited social station. On Trial in this form seems to close doors behind it, as Sarah departs; but it leaves enough mystery in 165 Eaton Place behind it to provide development in future episodes.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Lords of blasphemy?

Letter from David Drummond, 3rd Lord Maderty to 
James Rattray of Craighall, Innerpeffray, 6 August 1677.
My job currently involves my investigating the peers of Scotland as listed following the Act of Union with England in 1707. One of the more anomalous titles listed is Lord Maderty, which was extant in 1707, and indeed still is; but since 1692 the lords Maderty have held higher titles in the Scots peerage, firstly that of Viscount Strathallan, and from 1902 earl of Perth. Lord Maderty is one of a surprising number of peers who appear twice or even three times on the 'Union Roll', perhaps to insure against counterclaims to peerage dignities where successions might be disputed. The potential arose where one individual had succeeded to multiple titles through different routes, often involving (and forgive me if I've not explained things quite to the standard of someone versed in Scots law, as I'm not) the Scottish practice of novodamus where an estate and dignity might be regranted by the crown to the current holder, but establishing a new line of descent different from that instituted when the dignity was first created.

The Maderty lordship of parliament was one of a series of lordships granted to men who had been granted or inherited the lands of Scots abbeys, exercising the feudal rights of the abbot with the office of commendator. James Drummond (d. 1623), had been appointed commendator of the abbey of Inchaffray, Perthshire, in 1565 when still a child; after a career in the service of James VI, in 1609 he obtained the conversion of the ecclesiastical lands into a lay feudal free barony (though this part of the grant does not seem to have passed the great seal) and lordship of parliament with the title of Lord Maderty. The title was taken from Madderty, near Inchaffray. 

It was this choice of title which was thought blasphemous, at least by John Lauder of Fountainhall who questioned it on etymological grounds. He wrote:

'My Lord Madertie's stile is truly Mater Dei from some cloyster so named in the tyme of poperie; he should be induced to take some other denomination, this seeming to blasphemous like,' (quoted Complete Peerage, viii.347)

Whatever the merits of this explanation of the name, invoking the mother of God in their title did the third Lord Maderty, David Drummond, little good, as his support for the Stewart cause saw him imprisoned in Edinburgh in 1658. After the Restoration he suffered from ill health, and it was his brother William who took over the headship of the family, leapfrogging his brother in the peerage in 1686 when he was created viscount of Strathallan, inheriting the older but junior title of Lord Maderty on David's death in 1692.

Monday, 29 June 2015

On the other side of the rain

Thoughts on the BBC's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Peter Harness and Toby Haynes's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was quietly involving, but only sometimes absolutely enthralling, and suffered at the end from a loss of the sense of scale and boundlessness that the realm of Faerie had in the book. Yet which book-hoarder could not wince as Gilbert Norrell surrendered to the loss of his library, knowing all the time that learning is nothing if it is not applied? Entertaining and exciting it was, but it felt also caught between two forms, the traditional closed-text book-to-television-serial adaptation, and the ongoing series which becomes its own narrative, seen in the SF and fantasy genres in The Tripods  in the 1980s, and more recently in Game of Thrones. The concluding episode felt as if it was hunting a second series commission, but with British ratings having fallen by two-thirds, it is perhaps unlikely that we will see it, unless American ratings are good enough to tempt a new co-production with further partners such Amazon or Netflix. The promised magical alliance of Arabella, Emma and Flora would be more than sufficient to hook a second series on. Incidents in the book which offered more closure were lost, though bequeathing to television potential for Stephen's reign at Lost Hope to be explored in any sequel, as well as introducing characters from the novel suppressed for the sake of clarity in the adaptation.

One might go further with such speculative proposals; though one might end up instead relating how there was in the year sixteen hundred and eleven a necromancer who came to Oxford and summoned the masters and scholars of all the colleges to meet him at the site of the Swindlestock Tavern, for to recall to life their predecessors slaughtered centuries before on St Scholastica's Day; and how he failed, for the college chefs could not make noodles with grain watered with St Frideswide's tears. Be this so, the Raven King may yet allow a little charity amidst his unkindness.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Drama and Delight: The Life and Legacy of Verity Lambert, by Richard Marson

The hardback jacket for Drama and Delight:
 The Life and Legaxy of Verity Lambert
Verity Lambert rolled up conventions about how women should behave in the masculine television industry of the 1960s and afterwards as if they were cigarette paper; rules were smoked, inhaled and remade because that's how Verity worked and made other people work to the best of their ability. Throughout Richard Marson's book, one gets the sense that throughout Verity Lambert was herself: indefatigable professionally and personally, not mercilessly uncompromising but determined that when she had identified the best way forward everyone was going to follow her plan and complete a programme to the highest achievable standard. At the same time, she emerges as intensely collaborative and generous of support, time and friendship, and one is caught up in her energetic, enthusiastic, positive personality: skills which made her the most widely successful and engagingly creative producer of fiction on television in her generation.

Drama and Delight is a more carefully structured and compiled book than his JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner, which Miwk Publishing brought out two years ago. Footnotes identifying the sources of the quotations are welcome and the narrative is more linear and more focused. The writer's love of and support for the 'studio' era of British television is plain. Though the days of collegiality in the BBC or the ITV companies, when collective responsibility was held to take precedence over individualist notions of success, are celebrated, any rosy glow is balanced by the acknowledgements of collective irresponsibility too and of individual misbehaviour. I'll never quite look at a bar in one hotel, near where I live, again without thinking of an incident involving a male television executive, a female colleague and a broken glass which had implications for the said executive's career, and opened a door for Verity Lambert. Inevitably, comparisons and contrasts can be made with Marson's earlier subject. The world through which Verity Lambert worked and played was just as scandalous as that of John Nathan-Turner but has triumph and style and Verity's sense of the human spirit and achievement, and lacks the seedy, desperate edge of so much of Marson's portrayal of John Nathan-Turner. There are still many eyebrow-raising anecdotes and a few invitations to look for subtext among the professional and personal relationships of Verity's colleagues. The book is a great dispeller of myths already established in the public imagination - the Verity portrayed by Jessica Raine in Mark Gatiss's play about the early years of Doctor Who, An Adventure in Space and Time (2013) is swiftly dispatched in the opening pages, and one is left wondering how the party scene establishing her friendship with Jacqueline Hill in that play would have fared had it instead depicted a poker game, which Verity played with friends and colleagues in her pre-Doctor Who ABC Television days.

Front cover of the paperback edition of
Drama and Delight: The Life and Legacy of Verity Lambert
I've not written or edited a long form biography such as this, so only know shorter forms of a few hundred to ten thousand or so words personally, but would have tried to find solutions for some of the outstanding problems. I think that the reintroduction of some figures who leave and return to the story could have been better handled. Some asides in footnotes could really have been in the text, or provided springboards for discussion elsewhere. Late in the narrative a footnote tells us that industry rumour linked Verity with the job of head of the BBC Television Drama Group in 1983, which might have been better dealt with at the correct chronological point. Indeed, a few more dates here and there would have been useful in pinning down events. Some standardisation of references could have helped; an index would have been useful but having been involved in the last-minute editing of one once I know something of how expensive they are and how difficult to get right. There's lots of welcome detail, though, including entertaining oneself with the thought of a Verity Lambert walking tour of all her London addresses.

Perhaps the best point the book makes is that although she was a producer rather than a writer or director (at least, never openly so - there is some founded speculation about one of the Doctor Who episodes she produced, though) Verity Lambert's productions contain a certain quality which is recognisably hers. One absence in the book is that it doesn't set out to identify with particular precision what that might be, though in another sense it's enough to point out that a wider audience, somehow, knew her. That eye-catching name on the credits of Doctor Who, Adam Adamant Lives, Detective and the BBC's Somerset Maugham plays must have chimed with those viewers who saw the Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch featuring 'Mr Verity' and 'Mr Lambert' on first transmission. I can't have been the only reader whose reaction to the photographs of Verity in her early career as a production assistant at ABC Television, wearing to work those dress-code breaking leather trousers, was to wonder whether the inspiration for the creation of Cathy Gale in ABC's The Avengers, a leather-wearing woman of force, intellect and beauty in a man's world, was rather closer to home than has been realised.

Drama and Delight: The Life and Legacy of Verity Lambert by Richard Marson is published by and is available from Miwk Publishing in hardback and paperback editions.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Forgotten Dramas at the BFI: Pity About the Abbey (1965) and The Golden Road (1973)

This blog has been dormant for several months, a reflection of the busier life I've had in the last year or so. The same busy life has prevented me from getting to more than one of the current Forgotten Dramas: Rediscovering British Television's Neglected Plays season at the BFI, curated by television drama scholars Lez Cooke and Billy Smart. That screening was tonight, and was made up of the BBC 2 play Pity About the Abbey, first broadcast on 29 July 1965, and now the only surviving example from the play strand Londoners (though repeated on BBC1 in The Wednesday Play on 6 April 1966), and an instalment from ITV's long-running Armchair Theatre transmitted on 30 October 1973, The Golden Road.

Pity About the Abbey was subtitled 'A Comedy of the Future'; but it very obviously expressed the public opinions of the better-known of its co-authors, John Betjeman, toward contemporary developments in public architecture, and it's tempting to see elements of the later career of his colleague Stewart Farrar as a Wiccan mystic too. The play concerns a scheme concocted by a fashionable brutalist architect for a money-obsessed developer and the Treasury for a new concrete Treasury building, which will form the centrepiece of the 'Westminster roundabout', a supposedly happy fusion of congestion-clearing traffic scheme, bureaucracy-easing government office and income-generating property development. That it envisages a concrete bridge plugging the Treasury directly into the Victorian gothic of the Palace of Westminster only anticipates the full horror: to build the Treasury office, Westminster Abbey must be demolished, and its services and function as a centre of national religious commemoration and celebration transferred to the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral a stroll up Victoria Street. The architect, Sir Peter Watkin, was a supercilious and facile Henry McGee, a reminder that his most familiar roles as foil to Benny Hill or the Honey Monster were based upon an a career which had cast him as a facilitator to more terrifying behemoths; the Treasury mandarin Lord Barnett (no relation to the real-life originator of the formula, who was not then a peer) a suitably inflated Derek Francis. The play was a fusion of civil service satire, romantic comedy and elegy to the relationship between present and past: the most poetic sequence saw the camera roam around Westminster Abbey with the heroine, Louise Blakenheath of the Heritage Society (Pamela Ann Davy, almost playing Betjeman's daughter Candida here), her civil servant suitor Arnold Fitzgerald (Kenneth Fortescue), property developer's daughter and spark for the campaign Jane Page (Suzanne Mockler) and her boyfriend Douglas Holland (Dennis Adams). Louise apostrophises the warrior queens of old as she prepared to take on latterday threats to the soul of England, manifested through the ancient mysticism of mathematics of construction as much as it is through Christian faith. 'For the glory of God and pi r squared,' says one character; 'Pi r squared is the glory of God', comes the reply.

Pity About the Abbey was unsurprisingly a consciously Anglocentric piece. There was a sequence of spinning newspaper front pages, mostly typographically correct, showing newspaper headlines screaming in defence of the Abbey; the only one showing no interest was The Scotsman. It was also consciously elitist; there was no revolution, but an intrigue within the ruling class, helped by an uncle of one of the young protesters, a friendly and influential peer given to being interviewed by Fyfe Robertson (as himself) on current affairs programmes. Ultimately a new scheme was promoted and the two young couples in the story went off happy and engaged, but the final scene shows the war on the national fabric by insensitive and incompetent bureaucrats and short-sighted property developers continuing, even if the latter have been foiled from running a telephone auction between two Texan bidders for the right to dismantle Westminster Abbey and ship it across the Atlantic. Given the fate of London Bridge, the half-executed plans for St Giles's Circus, and the ambitions for modern conference centres and motorways in Covent Garden and even St James's Park, the tale woven by Betjeman and Farrar, and realised by a team led by director Ian Curteis, was not that far-fetched.

Katy Manning is a performer of many facets, many neglected and overshadowed by her role as Jo Grant in three of the five seasons in which Jon Pertwee played Doctor Who. The Golden Road showed Manning as Anna, bronzed from several months spent travelling in the Mediterranean, confidently smiling her way into a suburban home counties house and persuading owners Cass and Jim that she should lodge with them on the grounds that she is a friend of Jim's niece Charlotte. Anna of course disturbs the balance in the home, her introduction of a coffee percolator standing for more than just a rejection of the British love affair with instant. Attention was rightly drawn beforehand to a scene in the kitchen where Anna's growing influence in the house is challenged by Jim's mother, Mrs Hunter, without the confrontation ever becoming explicit. Levantine dishes of rice and vegetables (it's the courgette which seems to especially worry Mrs Hunter) complement the tales of Canaanite ruling queens and their habit of killing their kings once a child is conceived Anna tells Cass while with delicate sensuality she applies lotion to Cass's face. At the end of the first act, following an awkward encounter between Jim and Anna's occasional lover Bob, Cass expresses her fear she will lose Jim to Anna, but Anna says it is Cass she wants.

This first half of the play is the most rewarding to watch, though its weakness is that it's difficult to see how someone as strong and independent as Anna is attracted to someone as hollow-seeming as Olive McFarland's Cass, unless one allows for Anna's immaturity. Anna's presence is a welcome release for the stultification Cass and Jim inflict upon themselves, Cass in particular being subjected to Jim's career prospects and his responsibilities to his employer and to his mother. Anna's longing for domestic contentment can't be satisfied through reconciliation with her nonconformist minister father (never seen) nor does she expect it from her sexual relationships with men; sex with them she dismisses as 'practice'. She takes Cass as a lover and partner without fully appreciating the depth of the mother-daughter bond. Billy Smart has drawn attention to the shift in the second of the two acts from a play which reveals aspects of character to an 'issue' play, and it's this latter half which is the less satisfactory, as the audience is served up with perceptions of Cass from her mother-in-law (that she and Anna are 'filth') or from her daughter Christie's schoolteacher (that she knows from Jim that Cass has been unwell). Cass's disintegration at home with Anna is dealt with briefly and this and other aspects of the relationship between Cass and Anna needed more development. Smart notes that writer Pat Hooker's other work dealt with 'the mythical, the biblical, the ancient and the poetic' and perhaps this is how the audience has to understand the story. Cass and Anna are allowed one scene in bed together in each others' arms in bliss before tragedy overtakes them silently and invisibly; while we see Jim enter the house the camera then switches to dwell entirely by the two women in the marital bed and we neither hear nor see Jim remove seven-year-old Christie, her clothes and toys from the marital home, the toys being represented by a small selection in the back of a parked car. Cass only seems to find peace in accepting defeat by the system and shutting Anna out of the family home, isolating herself in a bid to prove she is 'a fit and proper person' to have custody of her daughter. The golden road to a tolerant and free Samarkand remains the stuff of poems, not reality.

Katy Manning introduced the screening at NFT2 and remarked on how far we had come, that one now had not only same sex marriages but same sex divorces and court cases about maintenance payments in a way unimaginable in 1973. If The Golden Road seems now only a period piece, it's not only in its treatment of sexuality but in the sense of a world closing in again after the optimism of the 1960s. Director Douglas Camfield - a great supporter of Katy Manning's career, she noted - moves from wide shots of a person or people in rooms to two-shots and portrait shots in increasingly extreme close-ups as the options reduce, until Anna is cast out and Cass shuts the upstairs window on her in an attempt to restore lost order on a house emptied of Jim, Christie and now Anna, standing with a rug under her arm and with her other worldly goods in some well-travelled suitcases. If Cass has had an air of emptiness throughout, it becomes concrete in that last scene.