Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989): George's Room/The Last Train Through Harecastle Tunnel/Sovereign's Company
This is one of a series of reviews of the BFI's box set. For the other reviews, in chronological order, go to:
Half Hour Story
The Hallelujah Handshake/To Encourage the Others
Under the Age/Horace
The Love-Girl and the Innocent/Penda's Fen
Penda's Fen (standalone release)
A Follower for Emily/Diane
Danton's Death/Beloved Enemy
Stars of the Roller State Disco/Contact
Alan Clarke's first drama directing credits for television were for Half Hour Story for Rediffusion. In all, thirty-eight Half Hour Stories (around twenty-five minutes each, with a commercial break) were made in three series, between 1967 and 1968. Clarke directed ten of them, of which seven survive. The other six are on the bonus DVD which is exclusive to the limited-edition thirteen-disc boxset (eleven Blu-rays and two DVDs) I am reviewing here, a disc at a time.
George's Room, written by Alun Owen, was the nineteenth and final story of the first series, broadcast on 30 September 1967. It's not atypical of the other stories that Clarke directed, the ones that survive, at least. So why is this not on the bonus disc but on Disc One of the boxset (and therefore available to those who buy the non-limited DVD box Dissent)? The answer is due to its circumstances of production, as it was made twice. First, it was made in black and white, 405-line video almost certainly. This was the version broadcast, and the tape was wiped soon afterwards. However, it was made a second time, this time in 625-line and in colour. This was partly as an engineering experiment: BBC2 had started broadcasting in colour in July 1967, making it the first station in Europe and the second in the world to do so. The ITV network and BBC1 would not start colour broadcasting in November 1969, and Rediffusion never would, as they lost the ITV franchise for London weekdays and closed down on 29 July 1968. A second reason was to enter the episode to the Monte Carlo Television Festival, though it didn't win. It is the colour version which survives, though the second half of it was lost until recently.
As with the other surviving Half Hour Stories directed by Clarke, George's Room takes place in a single location with a small cast. Like most of the surviving stories in this boxset, it's a two-hander between a man and a woman (John Neville and Geraldine Moffatt), who are never named. In fact, George is the only named character and he's dead: the woman is his young widow looking to rent out his room, and the man is the one who has answered her advertisement. Over the next twenty minutes or so, their conversation reveals a lot about how controlling George was, and the restrictions he placed on his young wife. The play is a struggle for dominance over the room and what it represents for the woman. It's not hard to pick up the subtext of this, a seduction, with Neville playing his role with a deceptive suavity and Moffatt – in a very different role to the title character in Stella (which you can find on the bonus disc in this boxset) – playing hers to emphasise her character's vulnerability. Clarke cuts back and forth between the two of them, maintaining the intensity. (He did that even more in the black and white version, according to Moffatt: that contained some two hundred cuts. This colour version contains plenty, but not quite as many as that.) On the surface, not a great deal happens, but quite a lot does under the surface.
The Last Train Through Harecastle Tunnel (76:03)
Clarke's first production for the BBC is now lost. The Ladies was a double bill of shorter plays in a 95-minute slot, written by Alun Owen. It was broadcast just once, on BBC2 on 18 September 1969 in its Plays of Today slot (not to be confused with the later BBC1 Play for Today). From the Radio Times synopses, in the first play, Doreen, “two men and two girls work out the results of a pickup” and in the second, Joan, involves “a mysterious interview”. As well as Owen being once again the writer, Clarke reused some of his Half Hour Story actors: Alan Lake and Geraldine Moffatt both acted in Doreen. Maybe one day a copy will be found, but as I write this the plays exist only in the memories of those who saw them on their sole broadcast.
The Last Train Through Harecastle Tunnel, written by Peter Terson, was Clarke's first television production over an hour in length, if you count The Ladies as two plays. It was first broadcast just two weeks later, on 1 October 1969 in the Wednesday Play slot on BBC1. It had a repeat showing on 2 September 1970, as part of a six-play retrospective after The Wednesday Play strand had been discontinued. Benjamin Fowler (Richard O'Callaghan) works in an office and is something of a figure of fun to his colleagues due to his interests in trains. He's due to spend a weekend away, taking a trip on the last train to go through Harecastle Tunnel before it is decommissioned and blocked up. But he has several strange encounters on his way...
Peter Terson (born 1932) wrote for television and radio, but was best known as a stage playwright. His play Zigger Zagger, written for the stage in 1967, involves football hooliganism. It became a staple of amateur and schools drama productions, and BBC Schools adapted it for television, split into three episodes, in 1975. Clarke was nothing if not a football fan, and treated the subject in far less family-friendly terms in his final film, The Firm.
Nowadays, much television drama takes its inspiration from film, but in the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of it harks more towards the theatre than the big screen. You can see it in the work of many of the leading television writers of the time, Dennis Potter being a prime example. There's a tendency towards emphasising stagecraft and characters speaking dialogue that's often consciously written rather than specifically naturalistic. Last Train, shot on multi-camera video in the studio with a small amount of exteriors shot on film, is in this tradition. While Clarke certainly could stylise if he wanted to – and there are examples of this in this boxset which I will be going on to - much of the time his impulse was towards realism. The result here is a play that for all its qualities is a little at odds with itself, and the device of using a recurring shot of a train with The Kinks's “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains” (from their 1968 album The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society) on the soundtrack, as a punctuation point, adds to this impression.
Parts of the play do work very well, and for what is basically a comedy, darker elements soon make an appearance. In British culture, “trainspotter” is often the epitome of “nerd”, and that's how Benjamin is portrayed at the start: awkward in dress and manner, with bottle-end glasses and a ring of acne around his mouth. It's to Richard O'Callaghan's credit (as well as Terson's writing) that he does become a sympathetic figure, one we laugh with rather than at. The play is a series of encounters with people who do open up to him, such as a woman (Noel Dyson) confessing to a dull marriage, the retired signalmaster's (Joe Gladwin) disappointment in his gay son (in a scene with a fair amount of casual racism in its dialogue), the gay son (as played by Griffith Davis, a camp stereotype which does date the play), to the hippie-dressed daughter (Angela Pleasence, giving the most mannered performance) who openly has sex with a groundsman. This last storyline ends in a very dark secret coming out. The play is notable for an excellent performance by John Le Mesurier, who by this time had played the role he will forever be remembered for, Sergeant Wilson in Dad's Army, for two series, but who reminds us here how good a character actor he was. He plays Judge Grayson, a fellow railway enthusiast, who epitomises an old-school, rather repressed type of Britishness. One of Benjamin's work colleagues suggests that he will never know complications of any kind, particularly of the emotional kind. Benjamin experiences just that in the weekend over which this play takes place. Grayson's primary motivation is to keep them at bay.
Sovereign's Company (76:34)
“It's because we give orders to kill, or to save lives. So they have to take away our individual reactions, make it uniform. And because we give the orders, make decisions, we have to be more uniform, less likely to break down.”
Andrew Cantfield (Gareth Forwood) comes from an army family. Instinctively a pacifist, he nevertheless follows his general grandfather (Roland Culver) by enrolling as an officer cadet at a military academy. But all is not what he expects.
Clarke's second and final Wednesday Play, Sovereign's Company, written by Don Shaw, was broadcast on BBC1 on 22 April 1970. It had a repeat showing as part of Play for Today: Seven Selected Plays on 15 April 1971. The Last Train Through Harecastle Tunnel had been shot in studio, mostly on video. By the time Sovereign's Company was made, BBC1 (and ITV) had begun broadcasting in colour, and Clarke made the play on film (16mm) and outside the studios. In between his two Wednesday Plays, he had made The Comic for ITV's Sunday Night Theatre, broadcast 29 November 1969. (It survives in the archives, as does Clarke's earlier Sunday Night Theatre Play, The Piano Tuner, broadcast 8 March 1969.)
At first sight, Sovereign's Company, with its setting of an officer's military academy (Sandhurst in all but name, though not filmed there but in a disused school as they refused permission) seems an odd fit for Clarke. But it's a study of an institution, and the effects of that institution on those people in it, and as such a fit with several of Clarke's later works in this set – in specifically military terms, they would include Psy-Warriors and Contact. It's also one of Clarke's earliest films with an almost-entirely male cast and centring on confrontations between men. (One precedent in this is the Half Hour Story The Gentleman Caller.) The play was, however, an autobiographically-inspired piece by Shaw (born 1934), who had spent time in an establishment just like this one. However, Cantwell is on the sidelines for much of the action, and is less interesting than some of the other characters surrounding him: perhaps due to insufficient distance between author and semi-autobiographical creation. That said, over the hour and a quarter, the workings of this military academy do have their effect, where fear of being seen as a coward leads to a climactic episode of violence. The academy is a world which rewards privilege (despite a couple of black faces among the cadets). Its treatment of its subject even provoked a question in the House of Commons after its first broadcast. Much television drama at the time made a virtue of being provocative and controversial, and this was a first taste of it for Clarke.
This is the first disc of two boxsets: the six-disc DVD set Dissent: Alan Clarke at the BBC Volume 1 (1969-1977) and the limited-edition thirteen-disc (eleven Blu-rays and two DVDs) set Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989). A Blu-ray checkdisc was provided for review. The Blu-ray and DVD are encoded for Regions B and 2 respectively.
Dissent & Disruption has an 18 certificate as a whole, and the six-DVD set a 15. On this disc, George's Room has a PG certificate, while the other two plays are rated 12. Out of His Own Light is a documentary with nothing likely to earn a higher certificate than PG, so has not been submitted for certification: to keep it at PG levels, a C-word has been bleeped out.
The three productions on this disc were made in differing ways. While the black and white version of George's Room was almost certainly shot on 405-line video, as were Clarke's other Half Hour Stories, the version on this disc was made with 625-line PAL colour video cameras. It seems the cameras output to 35mm film, which was then edited, a not-uncommon procedure especially if the editing requirements were more complex. (See, for example, several episodes of Adam Adamant Lives!, though that was black and white rather than colour.) The HD transfer of George's Room comes from the negative of what would have been the 35mm transmission print if this version had ever been transmitted. While the resolution will never be higher than the original 625-line (576i), this does look very good indeed.
By 1968, the BBC (though not ITV companies) had converted entirely from 405-line to 625-line, though still in black and white. BBC2 had began transmitting in colour on 1 July 1967, with a live broadcast of a Wimbledon men's single's match, but BBC1 and ITV did not follow suit until 15 November 1969. The Last Train Through Harecastle Tunnel, first broadcast the previous month, is a combination of black and white 625-line and filmed exteriors (a railway station platform, shot in 35mm instead of the more usual 16mm), transferred from the negative of a 35mm telerecording. The jump in resolution for the video material is quite noticeable, and the small amount of film material is sharp, with the blacks, whites and greys as they should be. Sovereign's Company was shot in 16mm colour, and is transferred from a transmission print. From the transfer notes in the boxset book (see below), there were two transmission prints, and this transfer comes from the one from the repeat showing as the original one was more faded, though the Wednesday Play intro was been reinstated. Inevitably with 16mm, the results are somewhat softer, and certainly grainier, than the video-shot material, let alone today's HD, but this is how it would have looked on its original broadcast – or rather better than that, even if you don't consider the fact that the majority of viewers in 1970 would have been watching on black and white TV sets. As all three were shot at twenty-five frames per second for PAL television broadcast, the transfers on this Blu-ray are 1080i50.
The soundtracks are mono in all cases, clear and well-balanced. Hard-of-hearing subtitles are available.
There are two extras on this disc. The first is a gallery (which you navigate yourself via your remote) of stills and programmes for Clarke's years at the Questors Theatre. Ealing, including the production of Macbeth which television producer Stella Richman saw before offering Clarke work at Rediffusion. (For more about this, see my review of Half Hour Story, linked to above.)
The second extra is the first part of a four-hour documentary, Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light (30:59), spread over the twelve discs in the boxsets. This part is rather longer than the others as it also serves as an introduction and covers Clarke's earlier life and career before he became a television director. Richard Kelly, author of an oral-history book on Clarke, begins, with contributions from Clarke's daughter Molly and his sister Norma McMinn, plus former partner from Canada Jane Harris. The documentary is edited as a series of interviews with colleagues and friends, and covers Clarke's work at the Questors, the Half Hour Stories, and the two full-length plays on this disc, though Sovereign's Company is covered less than The Last Train Through Harecastle Tunnel. Also appearing is Paul Greengrass, who found watching Clarke's work as it was broadcast was an inspiration to him to becoming a director himself.
Also in the package is a book, 100 pages in the DVD set, 200 in the thirteen-disc limited. Each of the three productions here have an essay, illustrated by stills: Lisa Kerrigan on George's Room, Alex Davidson on The Last Train Through Harecastle Tunnel and Mark Duguid on Sovereign's Company. All three are detailed pieces unpicking the themes of the plays, and are inevitably spoilerific, so read them after watching. Also in the book are full credits for the plays and transfer notes.