Jack Rosenthal at the BBC Review
If you were to compile a list of the greatest British TV screenwriters of the 20th Century Jack Rosenthal's name would be up on the leaderboard. Born to a working-class Jewish family in Manchester in 1931, he wrote extensively for ITV throughout the 1960s and 1970s in various genres including a long stint on Corrie. In the mid-70s he wrote three classic standalone plays produced under the BBC's Play For Today strand, all of which were massive popular successes, received BAFTA awards and made him a household name. Some of his trademark themes to be seen in these plays include his compassion for the underdog and the frustrations faced by women in a man's world. No wonder he came to the attention of a certain Ms Streisand who selected him to co-script her long-gestating vanity project Yentl. Lucky man. These three plays form the core of this set, complemented by two later plays from the 90s, Eskimo Day and its sequel Cold Enough for Snow.
The Evacuees (1975) 1h 15m
This is a gem. Based on Rosenthal's own experiences as a wartime evacuee and directed by (the man now known as Sir) Alan Parker this was a sensational success when first transmitted in 1975. For anyone unaware of the historical background, at the start of the Second World War the UK government decided to move thousands of schoolchildren out of the most heavily-targeted cities into safer areas, both urban and rural. Unthinkable though it is to us nowadays, the children were literally hawked around door to door and billeted with anyone who would take them, regardless of who they were. Needless to say, some of the children were subject to various types of abuse, both physical and sexual but many found it a positive experience escaping the grimy inner cities. But not for the two boys in the play. Neville (Steven Serember) and Danny (Gary Carp) live happily in a two-up two-down in Manchester in 1939 with their mother (Maureen Lipman), father and grandmother and they all just happen to be Jewish.
They are evacuated to Blackpool with their school and find themselves under the 'care' of Mrs Graham (Margery Mason) and her unobtrusive husband. She is a childless possessive control freak who soon has the boys cleaning the house from top to bottom every day while also feeding them pork sausages for dinner, to their visible repugnance. She practises what she considers to be tough love and, for the sake of their mother's peace of mind, Neville the older brother conceals their misery. After almost a year, Danny finally breaks their silence during one of their mother's monthly visits. The boys return home with their mother, to Mrs Graham's disgust, and they face the air raids as a united and loving family.
That really undersells this richly-textured piece. Rosenthal managed to create a consummately entertaining wartime comedy drama while also commenting on many of the issues of the time. The three generations of the family illustrate the integration of European Jews into British life. Whilst the boys are just ordinary Manchester lads, their grandmother is an archetypal hand-wringing Yiddish old lady – too much so perhaps. Out of an extremely strong cast Margery Withers' is probably the least successful performance, something acknowledged by Maureen Lipman in her introduction. This is contrasted with the tacit (and somewhat ironic) anti-semitism experienced by the boys at the hands of Mrs Graham. However, as played by Margery Mason she is no two-dimensional monster. Mason's nuanced performance is perhaps the strongest in the piece and she makes Mrs Graham a character to be pitied rather than despised. She has one brief wordless scene in which the pain of her childlessness is so eloquently depicted that we almost feel sympathetic toward her. There are so many moments and themes that I could comment positively on throughout this richest of plays I will have to stop here or this will run to several thousand words.
The image, by modern standards, is very soft and grainy although the title cards are relatively sharp indicating the transfer is reasonably decent. However the source material has not been restored in any way and there is a great deal of dirt on the print throughout. This is a pity as this is simply one of the best single TV plays of its time. Well-scripted, beautifully-acted and, for its time, visually adept. This was Alan Parker's first feature-length piece and his background in TV commercials shines through with some strikingly composed setups - see below for an example.
Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976) 1h 16m
The worst thing a Jewish boy could do to his family is walk out of his own bar mitzvah. Which is exactly what our young protagonist Eliot Green (Jeremy Steyn) does in Rosenthal's follow-up to The Evacuees. The tone is much lighter and it is more of an out-and-out comedy. Eliot is a pretentious little shit so it's hard to like him but he finds that on the most important day of his life as a Jewish boy, the men in his life prove to be sadly lacking as the models he should aspire to so he decides to scrap the whole thing and stay a boy for a little while longer. Of course it is up to his sensible older sister (Adrienne Posta) to calm their hysterical mother (Maria Charles doing her Jewish Mother routine), restore order and bring the day's proceedings to a satisfactory conclusion – and much dancing ensues.
If memory serves, Bar Mitzvah Boy was eagerly anticipated and didn't disappoint. It also proved to be a huge success and even spawned a stage musical a few years later with music by Jule Styne no less (the man behind Gypsy and Bells are Ringing amongst others). Which flopped. Anyway, Jeremy Steyn does a creditable turn as the unsympathetic Eliot with whom we do engage by the end of the piece. He is surrounded by a formidable array of Jewish character actors (Maria Charles, Bernard Spear, Cyril Shaps) who all threaten to walk away with the piece but who work together as an excellent ensemble. However, the stand-out performance, for me anyway, is Adrienne Posta as Eliot's sensible older sister Lesley. Up until this time she had mainly played platinum blonde dollybirds and gangsters' molls, as well as her now-iconic performance as Scrubba the kitchen maid in Up Pompeii. However given the opportunity in this she proved herself to be a very capable all-round actress.
Unlike The Evacuees with its stylish almost-cinematic look, Bar Mitzvah Boy is more of a traditional TV play. Notwithstanding being shot on film on location, Michael Tuchner sticks to classic TV directorial style – lots of close-ups and static interior stagings which allow the actors to carry the tone. One thing that struck me repeatedly while watching this was just how much Simon Amstell's recent 'sitcom' Grandma's House ripped off the basic dynamic of Bar Mitzvah Boy but lacked any of its flair or wit.
Spend Spend Spend (1977) 1h 26m
Money can't buy you happiness. This is a radical departure from the previous two plays which drew heavily on Rosenthal's own experiences as a Jew brought up in England. In 1961, Yorkshire miner Keith Nicholson and his wife Viv became celebrities overnight when they won £152,00 on the football pools - roughly equivalent to £3 million in 2011. She promised to 'Spend, spend, spend' and they did, blowing a great deal of the money in spectacular fashion. After Keith's death in a road accident Viv was left penniless when his estate was blocked by their bank. Rosenthal's play is an adaptation of her 1976 ghosted autobiography. Viv was played by the late Susan Littler, who had already worked with Rosenthal on ITV. She became a star overnight following her portrayal but unfortunately lost her life to cancer five years later. John Duttine, who gave a classily unobtrusive supporting performance as Keith, also went on to become a prominent leading man in the 70s and 80s.
Rosenthal's script and John Goldschmidt's direction don't stint on the hardships experienced by Viv through her life. Her story is told in flashback with Viv supplying a narrated voiceover and no-holds-barred commentary on her life which I remember was considered quite shocking at the time. Growing up in poverty in Yorkshire and used as a punchbag by every man in her life, including her father (and this is displayed graphically), Viv is a survivor. Littler's performance is mesmerising (almost as mesmerising as the array of bouffant hairstyles she sports) and justly brought her great acclaim and awards nominations. The presentation of Viv's life is made in the best British kitchen-sink tradition and Goldschmidt eschews any stylistic flourishes to concentrate on the early hardship and later trash-glamour. Unfortunately some of the early scenes of Viv's teenage years are so grim they look a little like one of those Monty Python 'It's Grim Oop North' sketches. But the play soon hits its stride and her rags-to-riches-to-squalor tale is compelling if bleak, culminating in an astonishingly drab final scene as Viv surveys the wreckage of her life. Viv herself was quite the tabloid celebrity during the 60s and made some TV appearances when the play was broadcast. In 1998 a very successful stage musical was made of her story but this has only a thematic connection to Rosenthal's play.
Eskimo Day (1996) 1h 24m
Fast forward twenty years and Rosenthal's status is confirmed by the BBC's approach to Eskimo Day. Directed by Piers Haggard and with a large stellar cast featuring none other than Sir Alec Guinness in his final screen role (although Maureen gets top billing...) this has Prestige Drama written all over it. Based once again on Rosenthal's own personal experience of his children leaving for university, this concentrates on two disparate couples and their offsprings' admission interviews at Cambridge University. Working-class Neil and middle-class Pippa (Benedict Sandiford and Laura Howard aka Midsomer Murders' Cully Barnaby) find an instant mutual attraction at the interview. Their parents (Maureen Lipman & David Ross and Tom Wilkinson & Anna Carteret) are drawn together by their children's actions. The day climaxes with an unexpected revelation that changes one of the couple's lives.
Now this would have been fine had he decided to concentrate on these six characters and their contrasting personalities and attitudes. However he also throws in an enormous number of secondary characters including the aforesaid Sir Alec and a pre-Eastenders Cheryl Fergison proving she can do posh. To me all this does is diffuse the drama beyond the point of sustained interest. I confess to being bored after half an hour as yet another pointless comic interlude takes place. But if you stick with it, the last ten minutes provides a satisfying emotional finale as well as an explanation for the title.
Cold Enough For Snow (1997) 1h 31m
In Maureen Lipman's introduction she states that Eskimo Day proved popular with the audience but wasn’t a critical success. However the BBC pressed ahead with this sequel. Beginning a few months after Eskimo Day left off, this takes up the story of the two families with the same cast as before and mercifully few extraneous characters. In contrast to the action of Eskimo Day which takes place over one day, this spreads the action over the course of several years to show the long-term consequences of the kids leaving the nest(s). These are life-changing for all six people involved. Which is a pity as I found it stretches credulity initially. This is a bit like one of those long-running dramas where the writers take all your favourite characters and put them all through the mill just for the sake of it. I get the feeling this is what Rosenthal has done here just for a bit of dramatic bite. Unfortunately it feels too much and, for me anyway, this was by far the least interesting of the five plays in this set. Dramatically speaking however, things do settle down as the play progresses and there is a suitably resolved happy ending for all.
This was one of Rosenthal's last completed works. Judging by the critical comments for the three pieces that followed this it appears a decline had set in, perhaps due to illness? Certainly there seems to be a diminishing return through the 90s. Rosenthal died in 2004 aged 72, working up until the year before his death.
Acorn have lavished an entire disc on each play, possibly to enable them to be sold singly at some later time? Each play is split into six chapters which are menu-accessible.
Transfer and Sound
The three plays from the 70s are presented in their original 4:3 format. As they were produced under the prestigious Play for Today umbrella they were shot entirely on location on 16mm film. This, of course, means the image has a soft grainy quality with a fairly muted palette. Interiors are also darker than would normally be the case with modern productions. Of the two plays from the 90s, Eskimo Day is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen (I thought that practice had died out...) and Cold Enough For Snow is brought to you in proper 16:9 anamorphic widescreen.
Given that each play has an entire disc to itself I'm not overly impressed by the picture quality. As you would imagine the older plays have a softness to the image that you would expect for material of that vintage. The two plays from the 90s fare better but what really did disappoint me is the quality of the graphics on the menus. I usually watch archive releases on my old CRT telly but just for the hell of it I also watched this on a particularly fine 42'' LCD telly via an upscaling blu-ray player which usually brings out every last scrap of detail and makes some DVDs look almost as good as blu-ray. Not this one. The menus have a soft-edged quality which really doesn't bode well for the main content.
All the extra features with Maureen Lipman are presented in anamorphic widescreen and, having been filmed only last year, are excellent but again there is a softness to the image you wouldn't expect to see in something so recent.
The 70s plays have mono soundracks while the 90s plays have 2-channel stereo soundtracks. All are mercifully free of intrusive music.
Maureen Lipman talks about Jack Rosenthal 21m 56s
On the first disc we have a recent interview with the actress Maureen Lipman who is not only Rosenthal's widow but appears in three of the plays. She also provides brief contextual introductions to each of the plays filmed during the same session. There is also a text biography of Rosenthal written by his daughter Amy and a separate bibliography.
The three 70s plays are, rightly, classics and the set is worth getting for The Evacuees alone. The other two are well-made, extremely well-cast and interesting enough but not quite in the same league.