This is another in a series of posts where I look at a common theme over more than one TV play. I was working on one that looked at how past TV dealt with children in peril but in light of the events in Manchester, I’ve decided to shelve that for a little while.
Here, the British Film Institute (BFI) came once again to my rescue with a retrospective of the TV plays of Trevor Griffiths, in particular two of his plays that deal with revolutionary figures.
Griffiths was an accomplished playwright but said of TV:
‘I simply cannot understand socialist playwrights who do not devote most of their time to television… if for every Sweeney that went out, a Bill Brand went out, there would be a real struggle for the popular imagination’.
TV reaches far more people in far wider sections of the population than theatre ever could and the decline of the television play within the BBC in favour of Eastenders (1985 – ) narrowed the scope of themes and issues that could be presented to a mass audience.
Fall of Eagles was an epic series charted the decline of the ruling European dynasties from the 1848 revolutions to the end of the First World War. Created by John Elliot of A For Andromeda (1961) and The Troubleshooters (1965-1972) fame.
Griffiths’s contribution is the sixth episode, Absolute Beginners, concentrating on the rise of Lenin and the Bolshevik/Menshevik split.
Now anyone who has even a vague awareness of the British Labour Party over the last couple of years will notice that there is nothing new under the sun. There are obvious parallels to be drawn with ‘Blairites’ and ‘Corbynisas’ as the struggle between principle and pragmatism that has hindered left-wing political movements since their inception plays out across meeting rooms in London.
The 50 minute running time and the need to fit the narrative into an even wider story leave an episode painted with the broadest of brush strokes and events leading up to the 1905 revolution are reduced to a series of meetings where VI Ulyanov, y’know, Lenin (Patrick Stewart) befriends and then shouts at people. As it’s written by Trevor Griffiths, the dialogue is first-rate, and as it’s produced by Stuart Burge, the casting is flawless but you never lose the feeling that this is simply too big a story to tell with the format and time available. This feeling is only enhanced but some rather severe jump cuts that suggest a heavy amount of editing. Lenin goes from a stormy Party meeting to being rather ill in bed. Next scene, he’s on a train to Geneva and he’s fine.
Major plot developments are dealt with in a line or two and the shifting of characters between London, Geneva and Belgium means the time scale is hard to keep track of.
Within this episode we get no sense of how Lenin arrived at where he did and viewed in isolation it seems to waste Tsar Nicholas II (Charles Kay) and Von Plehve (Bruce Purchase). Nevertheless, by focussing on Lenin and his falling out with Martov (Edward Wilson) we at least get to enjoy Stewart speaking Griffiths’s dialogue. And they’re both excellent, particularly when discussing the proletariat versus the peasants and how the latter are really petty bourgeoisie and thus more likely to work against the revolution.
The conclusion offers no satisfactory climax, but as it’s depicting real events, it doesn’t have to. What we’re left with is a brief moment with someone who shaped the 20 century. Despite the setting, it doesn’t feel intimate.
By contrast, things are more up close and personal in Hope in the Year Two from the final series of the last hurrah of the BBC anthology Screen Two. Where now can you get Michael Brandon and Glynis Barber working with Dennis Potter and Piers Haggard?
I would watch the shit out of Dempsey and Makepeace vs Fu Manchu. With songs.
Helmed by opera director Elijah Moshinsky, probably best known on TV for the 1990 adaptation of Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man, this tells the story of the last days of French Revolutionary Georges Danton (Jack Shepherd), imprisoned and awaiting trial and inevitable execution. Or does it?
Identity and sense of self is at the heart of this production. Shepherd’s character is only credited as ‘the Prisoner’ and he maintains that he is not Danton, merely a decoy. He appeals to his gaoler, Henry (Tom Bowles) that he cannot be him. Danton is a large, loud man.
In his only TV play, Not Counting the Savages (1972), BS Johnson was unhappy with the casting of Hugh Burden, believing him to be too slight of frame to portray the character he had written, thus undercutting Johnson’s dialogue. And here, in the Luxembourg prison, Griffiths has the Prisoner make the same point. By all accounts Danton was a large man, certainly Gérard Depardieu‘s casting in Andrzej Wajda‘s 1983 film Danton does little to dispel this. And yet in this time of idiosyncratic portraiture and lack of photographic equipment how can you be 100% that people are who you think?
The format of this plays is essentially a monologue, Shepherd sometimes addressing the viewer directly. The character veers between nostalgic reminiscing, and pent-up fear at his fate. I’ve always found Jack Shepherd a somewhat charmless actor, but his curiously flat delivery just about works in the setting of his cell, a cage in the centre of a converted Chateau. The faded elegance and makeshift nature of the room gives Moshinsky plenty of scope to make this static piece interesting and there’s decent use of lighting shafting through barricaded windows and awkwardly angled close-ups. There’s a lovely couple of cutaways with Marat and Robespierre, also portrayed by Shepherd and Griffiths has fun with 90s zeitgeist as the Prisoner bemoans ‘political correctitude’.
Tom Bowles’s character is the only other speaking part and his character is largely used as a plot device concerning a hopeless attempt to get a letter out, and to play a macabre game of guessing famous peoples’ last words. The prisoner recalls this later as he decides what words he should use to be remembered by. The story’s theme of identity is now developed to how one’s identity continues after death.
These plays show that revolution is just that, things come round again but I suspect Danton would be happier with his legacy than Lenin, but he’d probably have preferred being Depardieu over Shepherd.