Stand-up, Nigel Barton/Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton Review
The Wednesday Play was inaugurated in 1965 at the BBC, and was to become as much a part of the 'swinging sixties' as flower power, protest marches and the Beatles. Under producer James MacTaggart its remit was to break away from the stage-bound naturalism of the earlier 'kitchen sink' generation of TV drama and forge a more dynamic and expressionistic language for the medium. Dennis Potter was there at the start, encouraged to try his hand at drama by story editor Roger Smith. Potter's first TV play, The Confidence Course, is lost, as are several others, but the two Nigel Barton plays, Stand Up, Nigel Barton and Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, thankfully survived. They were popular when first screened, and became the event that really established Potter as an exceptional rising talent.
Even this early in his career Potter's work was displaying many of the methods and techniques characteristic of his best known pieces - autobiography, non-naturalism, and the juggling of different timelines to create what is more a dramatic discourse than a conventional play. Together the two works have the air of a televisual first novel - the author exploring himself and his development, with the writing itself becoming an extension of that process.
Like Dennis Potter, Nigel Barton (Keith Barron) comes from a working-class mining background, and is highly intellectually gifted, winning a scholarship to Oxford University. In Stand Up, Nigel Barton our protagonist is constantly gripped by the incongruities between the two worlds of home and university, and this is conveyed in strikingly innovative ways. One strand shows Nigel's schooldays, and how as a clever boy he unwittingly became 'teacher's pet', consequently getting picked-on by the other kids. But there is no child actor playing Nigel - his adult self is present in the classroom, and the other children are adults too. These same scenes are reworked in The Singing Detective, and the teacher (Janet Henfrey) is the same in both too, remarkably unchanged in a period of twenty-one years. Both Nigel and his teacher address the camera directly, giving their points of view documentary-fashion. It's surprising how seamlessly these devices work, easily blending in with the naturalistic scenes and not disturbing the overall 'real' feeling.
Nigel may be alienated at home and school because of his cleverness, but he's also alienated at Oxford because of his working-class roots. At a party he can't relax and join in the fun, or respond to the advances of posh totty Jill (Vickery Turner). Scenes of a dinner-jacked Nigel speaking at an Oxford Union debate are intercut with others of Nigel in a working man's club at home, and he doesn't quite fit in either sphere. Things come to a head when he's approached by a TV producer and invited to appear in a programme about class - this actually happened to Potter. Nigel watches the programme with his parents, and they're dismayed by how he's looking down on his home community, and take it all personally, despite Nigel's protestations about how he's been edited. 'It's all been cut up, Dad,' he says. 'I've been cut up,' retorts his father, in a brilliant illustration of the disjunction that now exists between Nigel and his family, where language itself can no longer convey what is meant.
If Stand Up deals with the conflict between Nigel's roots and his new status as an intellectual, then Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton tackles the conflict between his political idealism and having to play the game of party politics in order to get elected. The sitting Tory MP is killed in a riding accident, and Labour candidate Nigel is asked to stand again, having just recently stood in the 64 General Election, which put Harold Wilson in power. Nigel sees little point, as it's a safe Tory seat, but his agent Jack Hay (John Bailey) thinks otherwise, and sets about priming Nigel for the challenge. Hay addresses the camera directly, lecturing us on the fine points of political pragmatism, and citing Nigel as someone with much to learn. What unfolds is a satire on electioneering, involving a succession of droll scenes, such as a doorstepping session where the householders appear to be on another planet, and a visit to an old peoples' home where a sad amputee asks Nigel if he can get him another leg. Characteristically Nigel remains in constant turmoil, arguing with his wife about their political beliefs and going around in circles. The drama climaxes at the Annual Council Dinner, where Nigel and the Tory candidate give speeches, and Nigel can't resist the temptation to tell it like it is.
Vote, Vote is again autobiographical, based on Potter's experience of standing and losing in the 64 election. His cynicism over party politics soaks every frame, and in a way the piece is a testament to the higher calling of writing, with Potter as creator standing above the melee of the political game, enlightening us with the real truth. Because of this Vote, Vote comes across as a little too didactic, with some scenes hammering home their point unnecessarily hard. Stand Up is a better play because it has a lightness and a freshness in the way Potter explores personal themes, and it provides early evidence that Potter was at his best when dealing with the personal.
Both plays were cutting edge in 1965, and forty years on give a fascinating insight into how TV drama has gained and lost in that period. The technicalities of production might have been more rudimentary, but the content was challenging in a way that today's TV drama is no longer allowed to be.
The originals were shot on black and white 35mm film, some of it telerecording, and the quality comes through well in the transfer. In some outdoor scenes the contrast is a little high, but somehow that looks okay in black and white, and every so often there's a speck of surface dirt. Unfortunately there are no extras. Potter's 1960 documentary Between Two Rivers, exploring his roots, would have been an obvious inclusion, and would have counterpointed the fiction of the plays very well.
For a general overview see: Dennis Potter on DVD