This Network DVD release brings together three disparate stand-alone television plays by Nigel Kneale, made for ITV networks.
The Crunch, 1964, dir. Michael Elliott (ATV)
Unnatural Causes: Ladies Night, 1986, dir. Herbert Wise (Central)
Gentry, 1988, dir. Roy Battersby (Central)
Kneale may be best known for the 1950s Quatermass serials and his other BBC work, but he wrote a lot for ITV too – notably the 1976 anthology series Beasts and the 1979 John Mills Quatermass Conclusion mini-series. The three television plays in this collection are a welcome addition to Kneale’s legacy in our home collections.
Kneale’s television work has many hallmarks: it is often challenging – both technically and narratively. It is often uncompromising in the way it faces up to the realities of the modern world, and the vagaries of human relationships. These three plays are, on the whole, representative of this, but I think they show us most tellingly how the changes to television production over the years affects the viewer’s perception of the stories they have to tell.
The Crunch is Kneale at his uncomfortable best. A nuclear catastrophe is threatened at a London Embassy, by an ex-British colony seeking reparation for their island being economically and culturally raped in the name of progress. It is dark, ponderous at times, and directed with an edge of realism and a feeling of immediacy – shown, in particular, through the POV external films sequences. Quatermass fans may struggle with uniformed Anthony Bushell, who looks exactly the same here as he did as Colonel Breen seven years previously in Quatermass and The Pit. But as a bonus you can look out for a pre-moustachioed young Peter Bowles giving a fine turn. It’s a great play, very much of its time and easily the gem of the set.
Then we leap forward 22 years, and into colour.
What Ladies Night and Gentry have in common is very much a 1980s ‘sheen’. The incidental music is upbeat, jaunty and – unfortunately - prominent in them. Glossy production values give both plays an unwanted theatricality, so we are aware of the act of watching TV (if that makes sense) which means the plays have to work harder to suck us in to their world, and the audience has to work harder to see through the veneer. They both look and feel like episodes of Only Fools and Horses, frankly. But beneath that the scripts are still sharp, still insightful.
Fiona Walker steals the show in Ladies Night, although Nigel Stock is always immensely watchable. Alfred Burke’s old misogynist, Colonel Waley (who reportedly saved Herman Goering’s life as a matter of honour), doesn’t want ladies in his gentleman’s club, but is a little two dimensional, a little too one-note, to be truly believable. And, unfortunately, Kneale’s work always relies very much on the audience believing in all the characters they meet as real people.
Ladies Night is The Worm That Turned meets Love Thy Neighbour, building to a punchline that shouldn’t surprise the audience and only exasperates the old Colonel. Yes, it’s clearly a satire, an exaggeration of the old Gentleman’s Club world as its outmoded ethos struggles to attract new membership in a society that no longer values the kind of hunting, empire-building, chivalrous old gent of yesteryear. But the overt staginess of the production, drawing attention to itself as ‘television’, means the satire falls flat.
Gentry is also a satire, this time on 1980s society and materialism, as the loss of community values and social consciousness creates starker gaps between classes and ideologies. This is personified by Gerald, Duncan Preston’s conservative, unscrupulous – but perhaps not unscrupulous enough – lawyer, versus Susannah, his wife with her decent, socialist values, both of whom are then posed against the desperate lower / rougher end of society in Roger Daltry’s thief, Colin, and his accomplices.
I’d argue that Duncan Preston is miscast. He did a lot of good work with Victoria Wood, and he certainly looks the part, but in a drama like this he’s just a caricature - you can see him acting a lot of the time, whereas by contrast most of the others sell themselves as real characters. Phoebe Nicholls, Michael Attwell and Roger Daltry are all excellent and totally inhabit their rolls. But here again the unsubtle theatricality of the look and feel of the play means that the satire falls flat.
I couldn’t help getting a sense of these 1980s pieces being like ‘A’-Level theatre studies devised pieces, or dark adaptations of old Whitehall farces, with their limited settings and clear two-act structures – particularly in Gentry where the play works around the arrival or revelation of certain characters. I very much wanted these plays to take a bolder step into discomfort at times – Michael Attwell and Roger Daltry come closest - just to set them at a remove from the comparison.
I didn’t dislike Ladies Night and Gentry and they’re definitely worth another viewing, but I wanted to like them more than I did. Their glossy ‘80s sheen serves to undermine their dramatic impact. It suggests cosy drama rather than gritty realism. Tastes change, I know, but personally I consider that a piece like The Crunch stands the test of time far better than these latter two.