In the 1980s, PBS and A&E aired a number of choice British plays, some of which I videotaped for posterity – and against the time when I might live in the boonies and not have easy access to quality entertainment. Well, I now live in the boonies, sort of, and I have well over 100 cable TV channels, plus Netflix, plus an active amateur theater community nearby. But I am still glad I taped those plays, because none of them is now available commercially – no DVD, no videotape, no Netflix, and no longer shown by the TV channels, which seem to be preoccupied with dross like “American Idol.” A&E now seems to be given over almost entirely to “The Sopranos,” and even PBS has slipped noticeably in recent years.
But back to these tapes. There are five of them in my collection, and they are all keepers.
This one, written by Simon Gray, is the best of the lot. It takes place mostly in the teachers’ lounge at a British school chartered to teach the English language and culture to foreigners. The teachers are all fascinating characters, and we get to know them, their families (by reference), and their problems very well. There is the classics teacher Henry, who boasts incessantly about his daughter, studying for her “0-level” exams. There is the spinster Melanie, who regrets rejecting Henry years ago and now cares for her invalid mother, whom she despises. There is Derek, newly employed as a part-timer, who is an accident-prone sad sack. There is Mark, an aspiring novelist whose wife has just left him. There is Anita, a pregnant woman maintaining a brave front in the face of her husband’s affair. And then there is St. John (“Sinjin” in Britspeak) Quartermaine, an amiable, chronically forgetful fellow, everybody’s friend but an incompetent teacher, barely tolerated by the principal, Eddie, played brilliantly by John Gielgud. Edward Fox gives the performance of his life as Quartermaine, Eleanor Bron is the unhappy Melanie, Peter Jeffrey is an unforgettable Henry, and every other cast member is absolutely perfect.
Simon Gray has referred to his play as a “serious comedy,” and that about nails it. Certainly I know of no play in which the characters’ personalities are so fully revealed in the space of less than two hours. It is, simply, a dramatic masterpiece, and it is a crime against humanity that the BBC production appears to be lost forever.
This is the farce that established Alan Ayckbourn as Britain’s preeminent contemporary playwright. Young Greg and Ginny have been living together for about a month in a London flat. Greg loves Ginny but is uncomfortable knowing that at least one man previously shared the apartment and the bed with Ginny. A constant stream of gifts (chocolates, flowers) and a pair of men’s slippers found under the bed don’t help. When Ginny announces that she is off for a weekend to visit her parents in the suburbs, Greg snatches what he believes to be the parents’ address and sets out by train to meet them himself and to declare his intentions. But the address is not that of Ginny’s parents, but that of Ginny’s old flame Philip, a middle-aged man leading a sedate life with his wife Sheila, whom he also suspects of having a secret liaison.
Philip enters the garden to find Sheila at breakfast, and the mistaken-identity plot is launched. Greg believes Philip and Sheila to be Ginny’s parents, Philip believes Greg is Sheila’s paramour, and Sheila doesn’t know what to think. When Ginny shows up (her intention was to make a final break from Philip), the farce turns uproarious. The far-fetched plot demands pitch-perfect performances by the actors, and it gets them. Nigel Hawthorne is Philip, Gwen Watford his dotty wife, Michael Maloney is Greg, and Ginny is played by a yummy, mini-skirted Imogen Stubbs. The four are the only characters in the play, and the two sets are simple, so the play is revived often. But the BBC’s production is still the gold standard, and, since my videotape is giving out, I would be ecstatic if someone would produce a DVD.
Waters of the Moon
This play, by N.C. Hunter, was shown as part of an A&E series called “Stage” in 1983. The setting is a stately old guest house in Devonshire, inhabited by four permanent residents living out their twilight years in quiet boredom. There are two elderly ladies, one irrepressively jolly, the other melancholy and self-pitying, a retired Army colonel, and a courtly Austrian exile, trying to adapt to English life and customs. Other characters include the housekeeper, Mrs. Daly, and her two children, a young man afflicted with “a weak chest” and a 28-year-old daughter embittered by what she sees as a dead-end life. A heavy snowstorm howls outside, and there is a knocking at the door. Thus into this sleepy environment blow the Lancasters, an upper-class British couple and their daughter. Their car is stuck in the snow, and they require shelter. The woman, played brilliantly by Penelope Keith (BBC mainstay Geoffrey Palmer plays her husband), imperiously takes over the house, its guests, the Dalys, and the play. Like “Quartermaine’s Terms,” this one classifies as a serious comedy, with the accent on the “serious.” My tape is now a quarter-century old and starting to look a bit tired. But the content is so good that one can put up with the technical imperfections.
Another “serious comedy” by Alan Ayckbourn, with Geoffrey Palmer (who must have been the most steadily employed actor in history), Barbara Flynn (who is still going strong), Peter Vaughan, Anna Massey, and other old BBC friends, all getting together for a Christmas holiday. Palmer is busy preparing his annual puppet show for the children (dreaded by children and grown-ups alike), Vaughan is a right-wing zealot ready for whatever the new order throws at him, and Massey is a spinsterly mass of neuroses ready to take the plunge (or is she?) with a new writer friend. It’s all impossibly complicated, and before the farce ends the writer is shot (Vaughan thinks he’s a burglar), Palmer, an impossibly incompetent doctor, wrongly calls him dead, and Massey’s virginity is not an issue after all (the writer is more interested in Flynn). Well, you had to be there.
Hotel Du Lac
This one is actually available as a DVD, but it is a Region 2 DVD (for European DVD players only), and most Americans are to be deprived of this excellent production of the Anita Brookner novel, starring Anna Massey, Denholm Elliott, and a sterling supporting cast, notably including a wonderful Googy Withers. Massey plays an English novelist who leaves her intended (but unwanted) husband at the altar and escapes the ensuing shame by fleeing to Switzerland, where she puts up at the Hotel Du Lac, a posh lake retreat where she encounters several (mostly British) vacationers, including a wealthy widow (Withers) and her pampered daughter, a single woman (Patricia Hodge) bored with life and starved for companionship, and a successful electronics executive (Elliott) who attempts to sell Massey on the idea of a marriage of convenience. Most novels suffer from the compression into a two-hour TV production, but this one does not. The essential wisdom of the book comes through here, and I can’t think of a thing of real value that the telescript could have added.
There are undoubtedly many other television productions of excellent British plays that were shipped across the Atlantic in the 70s and 80s for a brief shining moment on American TV – and then seen no more. How can it be that now, when there are hundreds of channels for the asking, there is no place to find them?