The Crunch...and Other Stories
Thomas Nigel Kneale (1922-2006) was always known as Tom to his family and friends, but under his middle name was one of the most significant screenwriters Britain has ever produced. He wrote for both the television and the cinema, prolifically in several genres, but much of his fame rests on his small screen work in the science fiction and horror genres, sometimes both in the same story. His three Quatermass serials of the 1950s (available on DVD as The Quatermass Collection) cleared the streets so that as many as eleven million viewers – not including children or those of a nervous disposition, as the BBC continuity announcer memorably advised – would not miss an episode, broadcast live from Alexandra Palace. It's fair to say that without Quatermass, we might not have had Doctor Who, a show which clearly shows its influence. Spearhead from Space, for example, has more than a few similarities in its premise to Quatermass II. Kneale actually disliked Who, and declined to write for it.
Kneale also had questions asked in Parliament about the content of his 1954 adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. (That production, broadcast live but surviving due to a telerecording, has been forthcoming on DVD for a while, but I suspect we won't get to see it on disc until 2021, after George Orwell has gone out of copyright.) Also in the SF and horror genres were The Year of the Sex Olympics, The Stone Tape and, over on ITV, the anthology series Beasts, his 1979 revisiting of Quatermass and a memorable 1989 adaptation of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black. All of these have been released on DVD and should serve as a fine introduction to Kneale's work. And if someone could find The Road and the Out of the Unknown episode The Chopper, both currently-lost, many people's Christmases will have come early.
The Crunch...and other stories collects three of Kneale's lesser-known plays, all originally broadcast on ITV, so far once only each. Though none of them are SF or horror, they're all decidedly dark. They are also representative of a type of television drama we see much less of nowadays: studio-based, shot on tape, taking up an hour's time slot – fifty-odd minutes plus a commercial break in the middle.
THE CRUNCH (52:21)
The Crunch was broadcast on 19 January 1964. It was made for ATV, which at the time held the ITV franchises for weekends in the London region and weekdays in the Midlands. The play was part of ITV's Studio 64 strand, broadcast fortnightly with another strand, Armchair Theatre, made by the Manchester-based ABC, taking up the same 9.35pm slot on the weeks in between.
London, the present day. Prime Minister Goddard (Harry Andrews) is facing a crisis. Deep in the basement of the embassy of Makang, an ex-colonial African state, is a ten-megaton thermonuclear device. The Makangese are holding London to ransom, threatening to detonate it at midnight and destroy the city if their demands are not met. As the army seals off the area, Goddard tries to resolve the situation.
The Crunch was directed by Michael Elliott, with the outside of the Makangese Embassy recreated in a Paddington street. The first sounds we hear as the credits come up are the sounds of car horns. There's no music score, and it's notable how this production, made for and originally watched on television sets much smaller than those today, with less than hi-fi speakers, uses sound to create tension, with those horns and sirens falling away to silence as the drama goes inside the embassy. There, much of the drama is a confrontation between Goddard and the ambassador, Mr Ken (Maxwell Shaw), in which we hear both sides of the story. If there is a villain to the piece, it's President Jimson (Wolfe Morris), motivated less by love of his country than hatred of the British. Their asking price is equivalent to the value of the tin ore the British mined from their country, using locals as labour. The threat of nuclear annihilation was a very real one at the time this play was broadcast, as just fourteen months earlier, the Cuban Missile Crisis had brought the world to the brink of World War III.
In a few other ways than technically, The Crunch does show its age. There are a couple of racially discriminatory terms used casually in the dialogue, but as mentioned above Kneale is certainly concerned about the price of colonialism from both sides. A little more uneasy nowadays is the casting of white actors in makeup as the Africans, and that's something at least one review of the time pointed out, as the viewing notes in this DVD's booklet tells us. Harry Andrews is well cast, channeling the army officers he often played, but the acting honours go to Maxwell Shaw. Mr Ken resolves the situation using local ways alien to the British. Further down the cast is Peter Bowles, in an early role as an army captain, and in her screen debut twelve-year-old Olivia Hussey (four years before Romeo and Juliet) as one of Ken's daughters.
Lost for a while, after the videotape was wiped and before a 16mm telerecording turned up, The Crunch is a compelling piece, well worth staying in for on a Sunday night back in 1964.
LADIES' NIGHT (52:36)
Ladies' Night, directed by Herbert Wise, transmitted on 6 December 1986, was made for Central Television. It was one of a Saturday night ITV series of single plays called Unnatural Causes. We're in the Hunter's Club, a declining London gentlemen's establishment presided over by honorary secretary Colonel Waley (Alfred Burke). The club has had to move with the times by admitting women on a once-a-month Ladies' Night. Their resentment of this is hardly disguised and soon boils to the surface.
As the series title indicates, murder is involved. While Ladies' Night could be played as a straightforward crime thriller, but Kneale, Wise and a very strong cast turn it into a pitch-black satire. Kneale had a personal loathing of such gentlemen's clubs and all they stood for, and he's unsparing. The club is a bolthole for men who want to involve themselves with women as little as possible, their misogyny bred into them at public school and no doubt reinforced during their army service, their sense of worth bolstered by the fact that they fought in a war they clearly have much nostalgia for. They're still vindictive little children at heart. Over thirty years on, this generation of men is now very elderly if they're still alive, but recent events (as I write this) show that attitudes haven't changed much. Ladies' Night is as relevant as it ever was.
Directed by Roy Battersby, Gentry was also made for Central, and broadcast on Sunday 31 July 1988 under the banner of The ITV Play. A young couple, Gerald (Duncan Preston) and pregnant Susannah (Phoebe Nicholls), move into a run-down London East End house. Susannah hasn't been aware of some dodgy deals Gerald has done on the side, and that his aim is to do the property up and sell it on at a big profit. But the couple, who would no doubt have been called yuppies at the time, come unstuck when they are paid a visit by gangsters led by Colin (Roger Daltrey, made up with scars on his face), aiming to collect their loot which has been hidden in the house…
Gentry is again a crime story played more as a satirical black comedy, and is, like the other two plays, inspired by trends and currents in British society. With gentrification an issue in parts of London and other cities, those trends are still with us. The publicity of the time emphasised Daltrey's casting, but Nicholls and Preston carry the play as much as he does, the latter using some of his comic abilities (he was a regular for Victoria Wood) in a story which is ultimately deadly serious, with Gerald soon well out of his depth. Ultimately the story is more of a confrontation between Colin and Susannah, who come to a kind of understanding.
The Crunch...and other stories is released by Network as part of their Forgotten TV Drama strand. It comprises a dual-layered DVD encoded for Regions 2 and 4. The three plays, classified as one item by the BBFC, carry a 15 certficate.
All three plays predate the widescreen television era, and are presented on DVD in their original ratio of 1.33:1, with no anamorphic enhancement. The Crunch dates from a time before colour television and was almost all shot on 405-line black and white video, both in the studio and on location with an outside broadcast unit. The original videotape is lost, and the DVD transfer is from a 16mm telerecording. Given that we're a generation away from the original, which was below today's standard definition in any case, you can't expect state of the art, and you don't get it, with the line structure frequently visible, especially when the camera moves. However, within its natural limitations, the image is as good as it's almost certainly possible to get. Ladies' Night and Gentry were both shot on 625-line PAL colour video , all in the studio for the former and both interiors and exteriors for the latter, and they are transferred from the original broadcast tapes. They look much as you would expect taped television drama of the time to look, sharp and colourful though not something to show off your HD TV set with, especially as that will be much larger than the ones people watched these on at the time of original broadcast. (In the case of Gentry, one of those watchers was me.) All three plays have “End of Part One” and “Part Two” captions around the halfway mark, to lead into and out of the commercial breaks.
The soundtracks are the original mono, as broadcast, rendered as Dolby Digital 2.0. Dialogue and sound effects are clear and well balanced. Gentry is the only one of the three to have a music score (by Dave Kelly), though Ladies' Night has Ilona Sekacz's Unnatural Causes theme music. Unfortunately there are no hard-of-hearing subtitles available.
There are two extras on the disc. The final scene of The Crunch was prefilmed on 35mm. This was telecined into the videotape from which this was broadcast, and from which the telerecording and later DVD transfer was made. However, the original 35mm footage still survives and is presented here separately (2:32). Given that we're a couple of generations nearer to it, it looks much crisper than it does as part of the play, without the apparent videotape lines on the main feature. Watch this after you have seen The Crunch as a whole, as it inevitably contains massive spoilers. Also on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (2:24), about half of them black and white for The Crunch, colour for the other two.
Included with the DVD is a twelve-page booklet. It begins with an introduction by Gentry director Roy Battersby, which details how he made the play. The rest of the booklet are detailed viewing notes by Billy Smart. These are full of spoilers, as you would expect, so read them after watching, but if you have any interest in archive television, they are invaluable.