ARMCHAIR THEATRE Volume Two / DVD Review

Network return to the legacy of Dennis Vance, Sydney Newman, Leonard White and latterly Lloyd Shirley with this second volume of plays from the reknowned ABC/Thames drama anthology Armchair Theatre. Newman replaced Vance as producer of the series for ABC back in 1958 and by the time the plays featured in this collection had aired, he had long since moved on and had made his impact at the BBC with The Wednesday Play and, later, its legacy in Play for Today.

Leonard White then produced the series from 1963 and handed it on to Lloyd Shirley when Thames took over the ABC franchise. It continued to produce single plays under the same banner and as Mark Duguid notes on the BFI's Screenonline, "In the face of routine pessimistic prophecies of 'the demise of the TV play', Armchair Theatre was, in name at least, an unwelcome reminder of a stage influence that television had outgrown. The series struggled on until 1974, when its 18-year run finally came to an end." That unwelcome reminder is something you'll find as part of this second collection. 



Disc One kicks off with a play that fans, including myself,  of Anthony Marriot and Roger Marshall's Public Eye will be thrilled to see included here, Wednesday's Child (10/11/70). It is in effect a prequel to a Roger Marshall episode of that series, My Life's My Own (20/08/1969) and while it doesn't feature private enquiry agent Frank Marker, Marshall focuses on two of the episode's characters and explores the events that reach crisis point and are concluded in My Life's My Own.

The events in Public Eye follow on directly from Wednesday's Child and both dramas, for their time, were willing to examine the mutual attraction between private nurse Shirley Marlow (played by Prunella Ransome and then later in Public Eye by Stephanie Beacham) and the convalescing Chris Nourse (played in both dramas by the superb Katharine Blake). This was some time before the first on-screen lesbian kiss in Girl (25/02/74), an edition of the BBC's Second City Firsts, and while the drama is mainly concerned with the implications of this developing relationship between the two women, Wednesday's Child is not only one of the few dramas that attempted to address the subject but it also situates it in a complex web of other moral and social mores.
... the roles of mother, daughter, friend and lover merge together
Chris's husband Charles, (Gary Watson, who also returns from playing the same in Public Eye), a doctor, hires Shirley to help his wife who is still recovering, physically and psychologically, from a hysterectomy as the result of an ectopic preganancy. As the play rather tenderly depicts the growing relationship between Shirley and Chris, one that revitalises Chris and rescues her from the onset of depression, Charles's attitude transforms completely. Early on we see him clearly fancying his chances with the young Shirley, then being rejected by her, and finally as his solution to set her up with a male friend of his, Jim (Robin Ellis), backfires when it becomes clear that Shirley has no interest in the man.

Although shocking now, his misogynistic attitude and eventual disgust at same-sex desire probably says more about the antagonistic reaction that many men had towards second-wave feminism's drive, in the 1960s and 1970s, to resolve inequalities and issues about sexuality, family, the workplace and reproductive rights. Marshall's writing catches something of the nature of the power struggle between elitist masculinities and traditional gender relationships, the institution of marriage and, in Shirley and Chris, the constraints and freedoms of the relationship between a younger woman and an older woman where the roles of mother, daughter, friend and lover merge together.

With Kim Mills's no nonsense direction isolating the central performances in only the way that multi-camera studio productions can, Roger Marshall's sensitive scripting, where the interior emotions of characters threaten to shatter the drama, is allowed to shine through. If you enjoy Marshall's writing for Public Eye then this is worth your time and watched back to back with My Life's My Own it can be seen that great care was taken to link the two plays through casting, continuity (the sherry decanter bracelet, the costumes and Shirley's penchant for cranking up her transistor radio) and production.

Competition (05/10/71), by Douglas Livingstone and again directed by Kim Mills, is a wry examination of the relationship between an unemployed father Jimmy (a sterling performance from Michael Jayston) and his teenage son Ray (William Relton). The overarching story concerns itself with Ray's success at a poetry recital competition in which all depends on his perfect reading of Browning's 'Home-Thoughts, From Abroad.' The poem acts as a marker of cultural and class distinction between the father and son in the play as well as a symbol of the parental desire for their offspring to engage with and compete with their peers. Much of this is wittily depicted in the recital itself as Ray desperately tries to fend off competition from various other boys (one of them, Maxwell, is played by a very young Keith Chegwin), representative of other classes and aspirations, as his father, his best friend and the woman he has been having an affair with all go into emotional meltdown.

Browning's poem is itself a commentary on this rather illusory view of society, of an imaginary England where traditions hold sway and where this ideology defines class, society and culture. The play also reflects the poem's debate about England as 'home' where we discover that Jimmy's friendship with Tony (John Thaw in a refreshingly different role from the later The Sweeney) and his wife Joyce (Anne Carroll) will never be the same again. Not only has Tony secured himself a new job in Birmingham, and is therefore about to abandon 'home' as Jimmy sees it, but as the play progresses we also learn that Joyce and Jimmy have been having an affair and it is unlikely it will continue, despite Jimmy's desperate pleas to Joyce that they should abandon everything and elope together.

Jimmy therefore longs for 'home' to be forever the same. But Tony and, finally, Joyce are about to destabilise the status quo for him. His son's aspirations, denoted in his distinctly posher way of speaking, also creates a tension. There is a growing estrangement between Jimmy and Ray that illustrates some of the changes between generations in post-war Britain. Livingstone manages to smuggle in this commentary in an amusing and offbeat manner, where the bathetic lurks under the surface as Jimmy suddenly realises that he longs for something - an identity, a home, a family, a friendship - that he fails to define for himself.

Donald Churchill's The Left Overs (22/08/72) is a very simple two-hander, and apart from some brief location filming, is played out on one set. It succeeds or fails purely through the performances from Anton Rodgers and Ann Bell and really depends on whether you enjoy Churchill's modern farces. What will strike you about this is that the set up bears some resemblance to the later Moody and Pegg series that Churchill co-wrote with Julia Jones. Mike (Rodgers) shares a flat in London with his friend and, as the opening location footage in Soho offers, is a kitchen supplies salesman.

Upon returning to the flat after a trip to Northampton, he finds Jane (Bell) taking a bath in what he supposed was an empty flat. It's a typical Churchill set up, two seemingly wildly different people meet and then start to discover that they have in fact a great deal in common. Here, the domestic setting and the day-to-day rituals that take place within it are the background to a witty, well written romance as Mike and Jane gradually find common ground when certain indiscretions in their lives are revealed.

Well worth persevering for Anton Rodgers and Ann Bell as they make the most of a decent script and if you enjoy gentle farce or romantic comedy then you'll appreciate this. It lacks some of the quirkiness and charm of Moody and Pegg, itself driven by two superb performances from Judy Cornwell and Derek Waring, but it's also fascinating to see the seeds for such later work being sown in this play and the strength of Churchill's keen observational powers about the relationships between men and women. Director Jonathan Alwyn, who would also helm a number of Moody and Pegg episodes, makes a virtue of the basic ingredients here and again, like Kim Mills, understands that good actors and a good script in a studio based drama can offer many benefits over an all film production.

The first disc is concluded with a complete change of style and situation. As an anthology series, Armchair Theatre also tackled theatre texts and rounding off this half of the collection is one of Terence Rattigan's few single plays for television, High Summer (12/09/72). It's apt that Network include this in the collection simply by virtue of it being Rattigan's centenary year and the culmination of his reputation undergoing something of a restoration and revival after a period between the mid-1960s and the early 1990s where he was a somewhat forgotten figure.
... a highly artificial looking and theatrical piece
High Summer was originally one of four one-act plays that Rattigan attempted to mount in 1948 and which his producer Binkie Beaumont, believing audiences would never be attracted to one-act plays, only thought would get produced if John Gielgud agreed to play in them. Gielgud turned him down and High Summer, one of three one-acts he eventually wrote, was shelved while the other two The Browning Version and Harlequinade originally played under the title of Playbill. Approached to write a short piece for television, he revised it as an instalment of Armchair Theatre, directed by Peter Duguid and produced by Mills.

This production is very much a rarity as far as Rattigan fans are concerned and while it may have seemed perfectly at home as part of the drama anthology in 1972, our view of television grammar now reveals it to be a highly artificial looking and theatrical piece. Conversely, it's the other side of the coin when examining the television produced in multi-camera studios. It attempts grand visual scale but the jump between over lit studio sets attempting to represent gardens and terraces and Duguid's more successful OB location footage of cricket matches and sprawling mansions is now difficult to reconcile.

In a way, with its origins in 1948, it still represents the kind of drama that was sidelined by the arrival of Wesker, Osbourne, Pinter et al in the late 1950s. However, there are enough ideas at the heart of High Summer to mull over and it's also the intimate character moments, something Rattigan was praised for, that work best here and period or costume drama on television had already succeeded in this approach with the likes of The Forsyte Saga and Upstairs Downstairs.

Lady Huntercombe (a rather regal Margaret Leighton) is unexpectedly visited by her prodigal son Jack (Christopher Gable) when he decides to reclaim his entitlement to the Huntercombe estate as the annual cricket match between the village and the estate draws to a close on a bright summer's day. Initially, Jack wants ownership of the estate in order to sell it to land developers who will then provide social housing. This underlines the play's themes of upper class entitlement, ritual and its divorce from what Jack sees as the real world with all its inherent social problems.

Rattigan comments on the vanishing world of the privileged few and Jack's rejection of it and at the same time understands that this world will eventually succumb, after a final summer,  to developers who understand the dire housing shortage for those who are less well off. Jack, a bohemian aesthete with socialist principles, is not above blackmailing his mother to secure the estate but his principles become clouded when he is reminded by Lord George (a sparkling performance from Roland Culver) that privilege and entitlement are as much about generational continuity.

The Huntercombe estate remains locked in its own timeless bubble, slowly diminishing in the background, as Jack and his mistress Amy Sprott (Nerys Hughes) eventually reject its embalming embrace and drive back out into a Europe that is undergoing rapid social change. As well as Culver and Leighton's pleasing performances, there are some brief but effective performances from sit-com stalwart Donald Hewlett as Dononvan, Lady Huntercombe's partner, and from a young Lalla Ward as Lady Margaret, a progressive woman who tempts Jack into considering his role as master of Huntercombe.

Sadly, Gable's performance is overly theatrical. He seems a bit out of his depth and his stylised acting, suitable for the stage perhaps, never really catches fire in order to engage the sympathies of the audience. Ironically, it's this stylised manner that would pay dividends with his later casting as Sharaz Jek in Doctor Who's The Caves of Androzani, arguably a slice of television that copes well with such high levels of theatricality. High Summer was clearly never intended for television by Rattigan and as such it is partially fixed in the mode of much early television drama where it is simply deemed good enough to stage it and point a camera at it.

Over on Disc Two, another example of how Armchair Theatre would present theatre pieces to a mass television audience can be found in an adaptation of Strindberg's The Creditors (10/10/72). Premiering in Copenhagen in 1889, Strindberg described it as a naturalistic tragi-comedy and Bernard Shaw saw it as a play in which "the man... is the victim of domesticity and the woman... is the tyrant and the soul destroyer" in a story about three characters, Gustav, Adolph and Tekla that seems to have developed out of Strindberg's own marriage crisis and his often recurring dramatic themes about relationships.

The Creditors is a tale of revenge and jealousy where Gustav, the former husband of Tekla, sets about the destruction of her relationship with an artist, Adolph. It explores the nature of love and desire, obsession and honour, the artist's connection with a muse (here it is Adolph's inspiration found in Tekla) and the institution of marriage. The real core of the play is how Gustav cunningly manipulates and twists Adolph's already fragile state to exacerbate the already inherent weaknesses in his relationship with Tekla. Tekla is revealed to Adolph as woman more interested in her own sexual independence than she is in him. This is an aspect of the story that comes over well in Philip Saville's television adaptation and to which he adds his own twisted aesthetic in what is essentially a taut three-hander between Kenneth Haigh, all bulging eyes and mascara as Gustav, Susannah York as Tekla and easily the most comfortable with this adaptation of Strindberg, and an utterly over the top turn from Anthony Corlan (later Higgins) as the foppish, anxiety riddled Adolph.

Saville attempts to 'modernise' the play by setting it in the 1950s but the time period really doesn't have any impact on the play's language and acting styles. This is again very text heavy, something a modern television audience, used to very short scenes, would perhaps have little truck with these days, and while Saville keeps the camera moving as much as he can through the set and throws in some neat visual flourishes such as the use of split-screen effects, the production is still very much of its time. He also layers on some discordant electronic music/effects just in case we hadn't quite settled on the fact that this is a dark, morbid play despite the hotel resort setting and this use of music is only intermittently successful. It doesn't quite work and teeters over into pretension. Corlan's performance is too big for the small screen and when the character is pushed over the edge into wrecking the room and having an epileptic fit it causes some unintentional sniggers.

This is a bit of a shame because Saville's dynamic direction, an attempt to chuck out the proscenium arch restrictions of televising 'classic' plays, is at least a step forward from the likes of High Summer's studio based scenes. It attempts to get across a sense Strindberg's nightmare world, where we all must face up to bad debts of the emotional kind, with a seedy ambiance and bitterness that both Haigh and York also contribute to. Much of Strindberg's misogyny is also intact and Gustav's denigration of Tekla as "a fat boy with overdeveloped breasts ... a chronic anaemic who haemorrhages regularly 13 times a year" is never going to change that opinion of him.
"that's what the Army's all about, gentlemen - discipline!"
Robert Holles's The Death of Glory (11/09/73) is a tragi-comedy of a different nature. It's abiding concern is with the lives of a father and son, Reg and Billy Turnbull, whose lives are dominated by military service and life - the father Reg (Bill Maynard) is a retired ex-soldier who exists vicariously through recounting his wartime exploits to his cronies in the pub and the son, Billy (Warren Clarke) inspired by his father's example, finds an alternate discipline by leading a military style band with dreams of being a real soldier.

The opening sequence, as Billy arrives in a sand quarry to dole out the week's wages to his workforce, is later transformed through a fantasy sequence as Billy listens to military band recordings, dressed in his uniform, from staging war games on a pile of sand in his bedroom into am imaginary skirmish with guns blazing and multiple explosions. Billy's longed for glory as a soldier seeing action is however reduced to managing a rather terrible bunch of bandsmen and women, including Harold 'you've all done very well' Bennett from Are You Being Served? and Derek Benfield, of The Brothers and Timeslip fame. Billy is resistant to inducting women into the band but is eventually persuaded and the sequences where Billy leads the band at a village fete provides much comic value as his workmates (including Leslie Schofield and a young Karl Howman) reduce it to even more of a shambles than it actually starts out as.

Meanwhile, Reg is in the pub regaling his cronies with war time exploits when an ex-army colleague, Foulkes, suddenly turns up. The cat is out of the bag for Reg, and like his son's daydreams, it seems his tales of derring-do in the Second World War are of an equally fantastical nature. As Reg scuttles home, shocked out of his fantasy, Foulkes replaces him at the table barking out the credo by which Billy and Reg organise their lives, "that's what the Army's all about, gentlemen - discipline!"

As Billy discovers at Reg's funeral wake, it's a false credo. You may have been wondering where Dandy Nichols had got to after her name appeared in the opening credits and it's here that she makes altogether rather brief appearance as a chattering aunt, Marjorie. Billy's illusions are completely shattered when Reg's military past is revealed to be not as glorious as it was painted and his father's resentment is a key reason as to why Billy never made it into the Army. It's wonderfully played by Clarke, Maynard and the rest of the cast and they underline Holles's themes of childhood and adulthood illusions, of creating a life based on deceit with a sense of comedy tinged with regret. 

The Square of Three (16/10/73) continues the military theme but this time writer P. J. Hammond examines the psychological effects of military service on the young male mind. This explores the decision by recent recruit Johnny Orange (Anthony Allen) to drop out and reject the discipline and rules of the service. After refusing to attend parade one morning, he is eventually carted off to be questioned by Major Browne (Gordon Jackson) who intends to discover the reason why he no longer wishes to serve.

While the play explores Orange's desire to opt out of not just the army but of life in general judging by the analysis that Browne performs, it also examines what effect Orange's rejection of the military mind set has on the other soldiers in the barracks. Hammond also neatly explores the methodology that a career soldier like Major Browne employs in order to maintain his own discipline, even if it means cheating on his wife.

It's a tightly directed drama by Derek Bennett, very reminiscent and slightly derivative of the similar scenarios in that old ABC series Redcap and where I half expected John Thaw to walk in through the door to conduct the investigation himself, but it does raise some interesting issues about army life and the rules, regulations and mindset that you would expect to obey as a recruit.

Orange claims that the exciting life promised to him by the army recruitment marketing is false advertising and the benefits he expected have never materialised. This seems a rather naive, somewhat immature view but as his mother suggests, perhaps it is as well to treat him as a child and "Best to ignore him, when he starts sulking." However, this is an equally dismissive view from a parent about a son who is questioning deeply the nature of life itself. Orange questions the status quo of everything - the army, religion, employment - and can't accept that these structures are how the vast majority live their lives.

A good ensemble cast, including David Troughton, Christopher Beeny (particularly good in the play's climax) and John Duttine as fresh faced army recruits, develop the taut atmosphere which in the final act spills over into an horrific tragedy. Anthony Allen is effective as the young lad who simply changes his mind about being in the army and looks for a way out, treating it as just any other job that he can walk away from, and Jackson is as reliable as ever as the concerned Major. Hammond's writing and Bennett's direction dovetail with the performances to produce a typical example of the television play, one that isn't a theatre adaptation or an old theatre play reworked for television, and works just as well, dramatically and realistically, as Marshall's Wednesday's Child or Livingstone's Competition.

Concluding this second volume of Armchair Theatre is another Dominic Behan play, According to the Rules (09/07/74). Behan's The Folk Singer, an interesting blend of comedy, musical and polemic about 'the Troubles' had been included on the first volume of plays from Network. This entry is altogether a more formally structured but no less funnier play that catches up with three members of a gang, Charles Menton, Jack Conway and Tom Flaherty who robbed a bank presumably toward the end of the Irish War of Independence in the 1920s. Menton has since established himself as a minister and desires to keep his role in the robbery away from the prying eyes of the police lest his political career be ruined.

Conway's son has been sent to prison and Jack blames Menton. When Jack is found shot dead after sneaking into Menton's bedroom late at night to confront him, Tom Flaherty's son, a Chief Inspector of police, is determined to finally reveal Menton as the corrupt politician he is. However Menton will resort to any means to prevent Flaherty from collecting evidence or progressing the case even to the point of blackmailing Flaherty by setting his son up with a gay actor, Maurice O'Connor and hoping the ensuing scandal will kill the case against him. It's a gently witty play that examines honour and loyalty on all sides of the political divide in Irish society and Flaherty and Conway senior, attempting in their own ways to expose Menton's corruption, offer two great performances from Irish actors J.G. Devlin, whose career spanned fifty years and who is probably generally known for his guest starring with Leonard Rossiter in the highly regarded The Desperate Hours episode of Steptoe and Son as well as a wide range of television series and serials, and Paul Farrell, best remembered from Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and for roles in many television dramas spanning Z Cars, The Wednesday Play and Play for Today.

As a follow up to Volume One (click for a review) this is slightly disappointing. It is certainly worth it for Wednesday's Child, Competition and The Square of Three but plays such as High Summer and The Creditors eschew the anthology's more radical work of the late 1950s and 1960s and were probably too concerned with fidelity to theatre rather than television even when they were transmitted. An interesting collection but if there are more collections to be released then digging further back into the archives to the productions overseen by Leonard White, for example, would be welcome.

Armchair Theatre - Volume Two is only available from the website www.networkdvd.co.uk  
Release Date: 12th September 2011 / Total Running Time: 423 mins (approx.) / Screen Ratio: 1.33:1 / Cat No: 7953339

Bookmark and Share

Viewing Figures

The Legal Bit

All written material is copyright © 2007-2014 Cathode Ray Tube and Frank Collins. Cathode Ray Tube is a not for profit publication primarily for review, research and comment. In the use of images and materials no infringement of the copyright held by their respective owners is intended. If you wish to quote material from this site please seek the author's permission.

Creative Commons License
Cathode Ray Tube by Frank Collins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.