This portmanteau drama serial from 1975 looks at the disparate lives of a group of middle-aged men in the North of England who share one thing in common. They were all in the same sixth-form class in 1949 and all are now at significant turning points in their lives.
Tweety (Written by Arthur Hopcraft)
The first play kicks off the frame-story with ageing schoolmaster Bill 'Tweety' Nightingale (Derek Farr) running full-tilt into a classic mid-life crisis. A long-serving teacher of English at a boys' grammar school in the North of England and self-confessed 'Old Red', he is beginning to harbour self-doubts about his effectiveness as a teacher and his legacy as he approaches his 60th birthday. One of his new pupils is the son of Harry (Bernard Gallagher) one of the boys from the Class of '49, a group of sixth formers he now recalls with great fondness. He decides to organise a reunion at his home but only three of the men attend. On the domestic front, his younger live-in mistress (as he refers to her) played by Pauline Yates is mulling over a job opportunity which would involve moving to Slough, a prospect which fills him with dismay.
Izzy (written by C P Taylor)
Cyril Coutts (Anton Rodgers) is a busy man. He is a professional composer about to premiere a new piece while also preparing for his imminent wedding to his live-in girlfriend, the mother of his two intensely irritating younger children. To his mother's great dismay he has also yet to present his ex-wife with a 'get', the document that confirms their divorce in Jewish law. His ex-wife is also pressuring him to carry out repairs to the house she lives in with their two children. As if that wasn't enough he has to take a labouring job working for his ex-classmate Hal in order to pay for it all. In an attempt to make some sense of his situation he turns to Tweety for advice who, in turn, seeks Cyril's advice on his own imminent change in circumstances. The title of the play is taken from Cyril's middle name Isidore, shortened to Izzy.
Big Sid (written by Jack Rosenthal)
Sid (Ronald Lewis) is a successful professional cricketer first encountered on the day he retires from the sport. His attempts to find meaningful employment seem doomed to failure which bring out the bitter, negative aspects of his character. At his lowest point, he is invited to give a speech at his old school's prize giving day which he sees as an opportunity to air some long-buried grievances much to his wife's dismay. One striking feature about this play is the powerful moment when Sid breaks the fourth wall. He is practising his speech in the mirror at home which is then angled so he appears to be directly addressing the audience with a bitter invective about life's compromises.
Flossie (written by Colin Spencer )
David Fryer (David Swift) is leading a classic double life. Outwardly he is happily married with two children to whom he is a devoted father. He also has flings with attractive young men he encounters in the local park. His latest fling however turns into something more serious and his situation isn't helped by the sudden illness of his offensively chauvinist father and the growing suspicions of his wife. This was strong stuff for 1975 and is treated in a very mature matter-of-fact way. The play is also helped enormously by David Swift playing everything dead straight (in every sense). It would have been unthinkable at the time in a mainstream drama to show the two men doing anything more than sitting on a couch together but the treatment of their relationship is mature and non-sensational.
Spivvy (writen by John Finch)
Harry (Bernard Gallagher) takes his wife and two teenage sons for a weekend away in a rundown cottage he has bought in the middle of nowhere. Tensions between him and his younger son reach breaking point. This is the only play to be shot entirely on location on film and is atmospherically lit by David Wood and directed by Peter Plummer which makes it stand out a mile from the others. The location is used very well - a quasi-derelict cottage on the moors. One other asset this play has is Anne Reid, in the middle of her jobbing actress period, delivering a stand-out performance as Harry's wife. However Gerrard Ryder as Harry's younger son, the cause of all the heartache looks and acts a lot older than seventeen which undermines the piece slightly.
"A. J." (written by Alexander Baron)
Major Alistair Cartwright (John Carson) is on the brink of retiring from the army and taking up life in civvy street. He decides to drop in on Tweety to catch up after many years and finds him at loggerheads with a parent over a delicate situation. Cartwright applies his negotiating skills to resolve the situation. This play pretty much treads water prior to the final play's wrap-up of the main frame-story. This is possibly the weakest of all the plays. Cartwright is under-written and not enough time is spent on him. He is little more than an adjunct to Tweety's story in this. However John Carson is a sympathetic skilled actor and does the best he can with it. Tweety himself comes across as uncharacteristically narrow-minded and a martinet which weakens our sympathy for him in the run-up to the resolution of his own story.
Decision (written by Arthur Hopcraft)
In the week before his 60th birthday Tweety welcomes his son back from working in India. This is an excuse to bring the whole family, including Tweety's estranged wife, together for a day out on the moors during which she tells him some long-buried home truths. At the same time Margaret, his 'mistress' makes her decision about moving to Slough. These events lead him to finally face up to his own future. Barbara Lott is best remembered now as a comedy actress (she was Ronnie Corbett's stifling mother in Sorry) but proves herself a capable dramatic actress here as Tweety's wife. She is also a very good wrangler of fractious child actors.
The seven plays are split across two single-sided discs. Each play runs approximately 50 minutes which was standard for the time. Most of the plays are made using the usual methods of the time - studio interiors on tape and location exteriors on grainy 16mm film. Spivvy however is filmed entirely on location minus the other regular characters which gives it a standalone feel. The video masters are in extremely good shape and there is only one instance of very minor tape damage. The audio is mono, of course, and the dialogue is surprisingly clear given the variety of production methods.
There are no subtitles nor any extras on this release.
This really is a forgotten gem. Some of the top TV writers of the time contributed to this and Jack Rosenthal's script in particular is a standout. British society in the mid-70s was changing rapidly and many middle-aged people, particularly men, were finding that many things they took for granted were disappearing. This serial tackles this from a variety of viewpoints. The casting is uniformly excellent and the writing is, for the most part, strong. Most importantly the overall tone has a maturity and restraint lacking from similar dramas nowadays. Highly recommended for connoisseurs of classic TV drama.
Nightingale's Boys is a web-exclusive release available to order direct from Network DVD.