Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989): Under the Age/Horace
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
George's Room/The Last Train Through Harecastle Tunnel/Sovereign's Company
The Hallelujah Handshake/To Encourage the Others
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
At this point, the boxset breaks chronology slightly, no doubt for reasons of balancing Blu-ray contents and bit budgets. Alan Clarke had three plays broadcast on the BBC in the space of eight days in March 1972: Under the Age on the 20th (repeated on 16 August 1973), Horace on the 21st (repeated four days after the Under the Age repeat) and To Encourage the Others on the 28th. The last-named, being the longest of the three, is on Disc Two of these boxsets while the former two make up the present Disc Three.
Under the Age (31:18)
A rainy night in Liverpool. Susie (Paul Angelis) runs a bar with the aid of the junior barman, known only as The Boy (David Lincoln). It's quiet, but then arrive two men just out of work, Mike (Michael Angelis) and Jack (Stephen Bent)...
Clarke began his television directing career with ten Half Hour Stories, which as they were for a commercial channel (Rediffusion) were nearer twenty-five minutes each with an advertisement break. Under the Age, written by E.A. Whitehead, broadcast in the BBC2 Thirty Minute Theatre slot, is Clarke's shortest play after a run of feature-length work. That of course depends on your definition of “feature-length”, but other than Elephant every other single play Clarke did for the BBC (if you don't count the two plays that make up the now-lost The Ladies separately) is over fifty minutes long. Under the Age was made for BBC Birmingham, as was Penda's Fen two years later, though it is set in Liverpool. E.A. (Edward) Whitehead (born 1933) has been primarily a stage playwright, but has some TV and film credits: other than this, he wrote a 1976 Play for Today, The Peddler and the script of the 1973 film Alpha Beta, based on his stage play.
Like the earlier short plays, the surviving ones that is, the video-shot Under the Age has a small cast (six, with two of them – Alice (Rosalind Elliot) and Sandra (Sylvia Brayshay) only appearing halfway through) and a single setting. You could easily imagine it as a one-acter on the stage. It plays out more or less in real time. As with many of the earlier ones, it's a dialogue-driven piece where not a great deal happens on the surface: it's all about the undercurrents.
Much of this is orchestrated by Susie, whom we see in the opening close-up applying lipstick and eyeshadow. It's left open as to whether Susie is transgender – as some have interpreted her - or a cisgender gay man with a taste for wearing makeup. (The Boy, Alice and Sandra all refer to Susie as “she”, but that isn't conclusive either way – I'll use male pronouns in this review.) He runs this bar on a quiet night – it was much busier at lunchtime apparently – and seems to be in some sort of quasi-sadomasochistic master-servant relationship with the junior barman, known only as The Boy. There are references to his leaving The Boy to cope with the crowds to visit “the lavatories” across the road – cottaging, no doubt. Although possessed of a sharp, bitchy Scouse wit his interactions with Mike and Jack have undercurrents of flirtation if not would-be seduction, and they're not there in his interaction with Alice and Sandra. (Paul and Michael Angelis are brothers – with the same birthday nine years apart, Paul being the older – both with long acting careers but this is the only time they have acted together on screen. There's a slightly disturbing edge to seeing that flirtatious undercurrent in the dialogue between their characters.) Gender-bending was a theme which had worked its way into popular culture in the early seventies, following some high-profile transitions (Jan Morris's, for example), though the treatment of the theme can seem heavy-handed, to say the least, to today's eyes. Case in point, the cinema film from the same year, I Want What I Want. See also, The Kinks's 1970 hit single Lola, which was referred to in a 1976 Crown Court of the same name. As a portrayal of a gay man in Clarke's work, Susie is closer to Jackie (Griffith Davis) in The Last Train Through Harecastle Tunnel as he is to the self-doubting Stephen (Spencer Banks) in Penda's Fen, though unlike the former is given centre stage here so is a more complex character rather than a passing stereotype of a kind found in more than a few TV dramas of the time.
With the arrival of the two women, out for a night on the town, at the play's midway point, the atmosphere does shift, and a sense of impending violence which has been under the surface for most of the play so far comes to the surface, with results that do become disturbing in its sexual threat, as per the BBFC's consumer advice. While wearing makeup and adopting a female name, Susie has no real empathy with the two women, and leaves them to their fate.
Horace, by contrast, is a rather gentler, character-led piece. The fourth collaboration between Clarke and Roy Minton (following two Half Hour Stories and the ITV Company of Five play Stand By Your Screen). Shot on film on location in Yorkshire during the summer of 1971, it seems a little uncharacteristic of Clarke, and also departs from his usual practice by including a non-diegetic music score (mostly based on two guitar motifs, credited to Almeida). But it's another story of not one but two people, one young and the other older, who are both misfits in the community they live in. It was inspired by someone Minton knew in his youth in Nottingham: a man who ate ice creams and sweets with a coat hiding them, as he knew he wasn't allowed to because of his diabetes. And with that aspect front and centre (the title card comes up on a freeze-frame of Horace (Barry Jackson) receiving his insulin injection it's not hard to guess how one sequence is going to work out.
Horace is thought of as a little “simple” but harmless. He lives with his mother, works in a joke factory and brings hot cocoa to his elderly neighbour. Gordon (Stephen Tantum) is a schoolboy who also lives with his mother (Christine Hargreaves). He's not happy at home, knowing full well that his mother is planning to dump him on his aunt so she can go away with her new boyfriend, and he plays up at school. And then he runs away, with Horace going along with him.
Horace is in a much lighter vein than much of Clarke or Minton's work, but it's not sentimental and is ultimately a sad story. Both misfits are failed by society and end up in institutions which you doubt will do much for either of them. There clearly was mileage in Horace, as in 1982 Minton and Barry Jackson revisited him for a six-part ITV (Yorkshire Television) series, though Clarke was not involved. Other than his contribution to the script of the feature film Scrubbers (an underrated distaff version of Scum, set in a girls' Borstal) the same year, the series was Minton's last TV or cinema writing credit to date.
This is Disc Three of the six-disc DVD boxset 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.
The 13-disc boxset has an 18 certificate as a whole and the six-disc set a 15. Under the Age is one of the reasons for that 15, while Horace has a 12.
Both plays are in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1, as you would expect from 1970s television productions. Under the Age was a studio production shot on video, while Horace was shot in 16mm throughout. The former has been transferred from a digibeta copy of the original two-inch quad videotape and the latter from the 16mm transmission print (from back in the days when plays and indeed feature films were transmitted from film prints, not the case for more than twenty years now). The limitations of the source for Under the Age are clear: the rather hard look of multicamera video. Similarly, Horace is softer and certainly grainier than you would expect to see nowadays. But that is inherent in the source materials, and watching on Blu-ray on a set much larger than those available at the time, many of which would have been black and white, including my family's if we had been watching, does show this up. It's still fair to say that both look much better than they ever have, and no doubt will ever do. As both productions were shot at twenty-five frames per second instead of the feature-film standard of twenty-four, the Blu-ray transfer resolution is 1080i50.
The soundtracks are the original mono and the product of BBC expertise. There are strong regional accents on display (Liverpool and Yorkshire respectively) but the soundtrack is clear and well-balanced between dialogue, music and sound effects. That's something to bear in mind at a time when some recent BBC productions have been criticised for unclear soundtracks. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing on both plays but not the extra.
That extra is Part Three of Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light (9:12). While we do see clips of both plays, and Roy Minton is on hand to talk about the inspiration for Horace, this instalment is a more general one about Clarke's outlook. According to daughter Molly, he was more likely to talk football than film while at home. David Hare (who did work with Clarke) points out that Clarke often went for the unusual and “difficult”, and although he did have writers he worked with several times (Alun Owen early on, Roy Minton, later David Leland) he had no interest in working with some of the bigger names of TV drama at the time, such as Dennis Potter and Alan Bennett.
The BFI's book accompanying the boxsets (200 pages in the limited edition, its first half of 100 pages in the six-disc DVD set) has an essay on each play: Alex Davidson on Under the Age and Nick Wrigley on Horace. Davidson discusses the play in terms of its sexual politics, in particular its gay sexual politics, in the context of television drama and comedy of the time. (He's mistaken in saying that The Boy is the only character to refer to Susie as “she” - Alice and Sandra do as well.) Horace is a much more straightforward piece to unpick, but Wrigley does an able job of it, invoking Bicycle Thieves as another example of a episodic story centred on the wanderings of a man and a young boy. As with other essays, there are spoilers in both, so read them after watching the play in question. Also in the book are full credits and transfer notes.