ALAN PLATER AT ITV / DVD Review

This week Network DVD release a compilation of the work of Alan Plater, including a number of single plays and contributions to on-going drama series for ITV that spans the 1970s and 1980s. Alan should always be mentioned in the same breath as luminaries Dennis Potter, Jack Rosenthal, John Hopkins, David Mercer, and Troy Kennedy Martin -  they were all there in the early days of 'live' television, shifting the very foundations of television drama from dull replications of proscenium arch telecasts into breathtaking manipulations of sound and vision that captured British contemporary lives that everyone could recognise and connect with.

Whether it was witty depictions of working class culture or vivid explorations of the inner complexes of the aristocracy, Plater ranged across the medium with an incredible television CV that took in sit-com, period drama and political satire. One of a handful of British dramatist-polymaths, he expanded this work into radio, theatre and cinema. Shot through with his own customary self-deprecation, much of his work reflected his Jarrow origins and his Yorkshire upbringing and as Lez Cooke notes in his BFI Screenonline biography he understood, "that in everyday speech there is a richness and music that makes the voice the most powerful and sensitive instrument for human emotion: and that this exists as a tool for the dramatist at its most useful when the voice speaks with a local accent or dialect."

Early 1960s plays for the BBC included The Refugees and A Smashing Day (starring Alfred Lynch and John Thaw and with one critic describing it as “the voice of Coronation Street with the spirit of Chekhov”) before he moved on to the highly regarded Z Cars in 1963. With this two disc set, it is Plater's long-term relationship with ITV regional franchise Yorkshire Television that comes into focus, featuring four productions on this set alone. Alan contributed an enormous amount of work to YTV's comedy and drama output (between 1975 and 1989 he wrote 56 scripts for the company), working with Donald Baverstock, the former Controller of Programmes for BBC1 who was instrumental in asking Sydney Newman to create Doctor Who.
... ensuring "the North had a powerful voice at the conference table." 
Baverstock arrived at YTV in 1967 ("one of those Oxbridge chancers," noted Plater), its first Director of Programmes, and through him, producer/Head of Drama Peter Willes and producer/director David Cunliffe, Plater established himself as a sit-com writer (taking on Oh, No It's Selwyn Froggit after the pilot's writer Roy Clarke was unavailable in 1974) and a dramatist (from single play Willow Cabins in 1975 to Sunday evening serial Flambards in 1979), while taking on commissions from other ITV regional franchises Granada and London Weekend. Plater also saw the YTV and Granada companies as ensuring "the North had a powerful voice at the conference table."

One of a series of plays, Oranges and Lemons, represents some early work for London Weekend in 1973. Brotherly Love (TX: 18/11/73) centres on the constant Plater theme of class boundaries and tells the story of family and union loyalties between dock workers. The conflict between two brothers - one an upwardly mobile family man, Doug (played by Ray Brooks), and Terry, a wide-boy docks worker (a pre-Sweeney Dennis Waterman) - is played out as a police investigation into theft and corruption tests their loyalties and the legacy of their ex-trade-union father (an excellent Tony Melody).

Plater's drama and its themes of union loyalty was a reflection of the times and was transmitted in the November of that year against a backdrop of miner's overtime bans, gloom over the oil crisis and Heath's deteriorating relationship with the major unions. It's therefore a gritty exploration of personal politics and morals at a time when Heath unsuccessfully attempted to reverse the polarisation between unions, managers and workers.

The earliest example of Plater's work for YTV here is an episode from The Loner, three half-hour dramas he wrote for Les Dawson in 1975. Titled Dawson's Complaint (TX: 07/05/75), it follows Dawson's everyman as he attempts to unearth who to complain to about the poor quality biro he's bought at his corner shop. It becomes a farcical exploration of faceless capitalism and bureaucracy as the outraged Lancastrian journeys first to London and then to Scotland to achieve a satisfactory resolution to his demand for quality goods.

Dawson is, as ever, at his lugubrious best and shows how adept he was at comedy drama as well as the stand-up and sketches that were his stock in trade. His confrontation with the manager of the biro importer, Harding (another Brian Wilde essay into his penchant for nervy, jobs-worth, middle management types) is wonderfully funny as is his eventual meeting with Lord Ross of Cromarty (Cyril Luckham), the exemplar of the landed gentry who owns the company.

A shame that Dawson's Brief Encounter didn't make it onto this set as it is clearly Plater's favourite of the three judging by his favourable comments in 2007's Yorkshire Post Baverstock Lecture 'The Golden Age of Yorkshire Television' (click on the link to listen) and all three dramas are perfect examples of what he claimed was his "gritty Northern surrealism."
"tilt the world and see who will slide off"
An anthology of plays A Play for Love, also for YTV in 1978, yields Plater's manic and absurd satire The Party of the First Part (TX: 16/04/78) which is a rambunctious deconstruction of family life and the relationship between fathers and sons. The father (a pre Singing Detective Michael Gambon), bored with his job as a commercial artist, deflects his dissatisfaction through unceasing repartee and terrible jokes. His son Peter (David Parfitt), is about to celebrate his eighteenth birthday and refuses to host a birthday party simply out of filial duty. His dad persuades him to emulate his own coping mechanism and use the occasion to "tilt the world and see who will slide off".

Plater's view that life is an absurd thing that happens to you as you hurtle towards the grave is centre stage and his love for the anarchic humour of the Marx brothers (where Peter dresses up as Harpo and wreaks havoc at his own party), clearly one of many nods to his own comedy heroes, shines through in this farce. Peter's stuck up, bourgeois Uncle Ben (lovely twitchy turn from Terry Scully) and Aunt Janet (Sheila Ballantine), and the pricking of their pomposity, are the target of much of Plater's own desire to cut through the pretensions of those who think their station in life has been elevated above your own. 

The opening episode of Flambards is also present and demonstrates how Plater became comfortable with bigger budget, all-filmed productions. A 13 part drama from YTV that went out on early Sunday evenings in 1979, the directing duties on the episodes were shared between two of television's preeminent stylists Michael Ferguson and Lawrence Gordon Clark.

Ferguson's opener Christina (TX: 26/01/79) is a gloriously atmospheric and lyrical exploration of Plater's adaptation of K.M Peyton's novel (he wrote 5 of the 13 and script-edited the rest written by Alex Glasgow and William Humble) which saw the teenage heroine, orphaned heiress Christina Parsons (Christine McKenna), come to live at Flambards, the impoverished Essex estate owned by her crippled and tyrannical uncle, William Russell (the superbly unhinged Edward Judd), and his two sons, Mark (Steven Grives) and Will (Alan Parnaby).

Much of the opening half of the first episode is told in visual terms, with little dialogue, and depends as much on the physical qualities of the actors as well as the stunning locations and riding sequences. It was perfect material for Plater, exploring the divisions in class and politics within one family, looking at the virtues and vices of the privileged, land owning aristocracy at the turn of the century, and the growing romance between 'poor' Christina and 'rich' Will. It also benefits from a startlingly evocative score from David Fanshawe.
... state corruption, exploding hedge trimmers and the north-south divide 
The Beiderbecke Affair, probably considered as one of Plater's outstanding achievements in comedy-drama, began life as a sequel to a four-part YTV series called Get Lost!, which featured a school teacher Judy Threadgold (Bridget Turner) and her woodwork teacher colleague Neville Keaton (Alun Armstrong) investigating the disappearance of her husband. When Armstrong was unavailable for the sequel, Plater rewrote the scripts, the drama was recast with James Bolam and Barbara Flynn, and retitled as The Beiderbecke Affair.

The opening episode What I Don’t Understand Is This... (TX: 06/01/85) opens the first disc and ushers in Plater's sublime mix of hard boiled thriller, inspired by The Thin Man series, and the mundane, yet surreal, Yorkshire lives of woodwork teacher Trevor Chaplin (Bolam) and his relationship with English teacher Jill Swinburne (Flynn). It's a supremely funny tale of state corruption, exploding hedge trimmers and the north-south divide and Plater's subversive dramatic structure means that it becomes a joy to meander through his improvisational style in which the audience and the characters often don't understand quite what is going on.

Bolam and Flynn create an unforgettable chemistry between Trevor and Jill (and Plater signalled that both characters represent elements of his own passions and idiosyncrasies) and allied to this is the wonderful jazz scoring from Frank Ricotti and Kenny Baker (and jazz music is a very key ingredient in the Plater mix) which perfectly underlines Plater's clear devotion to thriller conventions, pulp detective yarns, gangster films and the social realism of classic sit-coms.
  
Coming Through (TX: 27/12/85) develops further Plater's passion for D H Lawrence, first fostered in his cinema adaptation of Lawrence's The Virgin and the Gypsy (1970) directed by Christopher Miles. He was reunited with Miles in 1981 for a biopic Priest of Love, starring Ian McKellen, which explored the relationship between Lawrence and his future wife Frieda Weekley. Plater's 1985 play for Central Independent Television uses Lawrence's poetry (Lawrence is brilliantly played by Kenneth Branagh here) as a bridge between the beautifully realised examination of the writer's development and his eventual meeting with Frieda and the contemporary Nottingham set story of an Open University English lit student Kate (Alison Steadman) and her encounter with David, a postgraduate (Philip Martin Brown), who are both exploring Lawrence's legacy.

Again, Plater further examines working class attitudes to culture and education, to the betterment of the self, with the contemporary sub-plot of the growing relationship between David and Kate (she's a married woman) a mirror of Lawrence's discovery of his love for the married Frieda (Helen Mirren) and their eventual elopement to Germany. It excels in the period depiction of Lawrence's relationship to his contemporaries and his parents, especially the antagonism between his mother and father, and in his burgeoning love for Frieda but sadly the modern-day framework, despite the use of poetry and some spectacular landscapes, doesn't quite take off.

The second disc is completed with an instalment from Granada's Shades of Darkness, a supernatural anthology series that ran between 1983 and 1986 to which Plater contributed three adaptations, one of which is represented by a darkly atmospheric ghost story, The Intercessor (TX:03/06/83), starring John Duttine as a writer, Mr. Garvin, who takes rooms at an isolated farm with the Falshaw family. Soon he is haunted by a crying child and eventually sees the ghost of the child materialise both inside and outside the farmhouse. He eventually discovers the truth from the local doctor, MacKinnon, and the Falshaw patriarch. It's a subtle, rather moody piece and Duttine is superb as a the sensitive writer who comes to realise that the peace and quiet he craves has been selfishly attained as the result of the suffering and tragedy of others. The performances and themes are supplemented with some beautifully photographed landscapes.

Network also include an edition of the Yorkshire Television magazine programme, Calendar in which Austin Mitchell briefly interviews three playwrights, Plater, Alan Ayckbourn and Colin Welland. about the way class and regionalism feature in their work. It's good to see Network clearing these archive items for release. Certainly the selection of Plater's work for ITV here is only scratching the surface of his output for the commercial broadcaster, never mind the vast amount of plays and adaptations he completed for the BBC. Plays like Seventeen Percent Said Push Off, Short Back and Sides and Willow Cabins could, and should, perhaps feature in a further volume of Alan Plater at ITV. Adaptations of The Stars Look Down and The Good Companions both equally deserve a standalone release and it is good to note that Network are preparing the latter for release.

Alan Plater At ITV
Selected plays and episodes 1973 - 1985
Network DVD / Released 25 April 2011 / 7953547 / 355 mins approx / Region 2 - PAL / Subtitles: None / Mono - English / 1.33:1 / Colour / Cert: 15

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