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.