The Beiderbecke Tapes December 1987
Before The Beiderbecke Affair even finished, everybody wanted a sequel. Alan Plater wanted it. Yorkshire TV wanted it. James Bolam and Barbara Flynn wanted it (Flynn became a conservationist herself, so impressed was she by her character’s beliefs). And the audience sure as hell wanted it. So why did it take nearly three years before The Beiderbecke Tapes was broadcast?
As a future President of the United States would put it: it’s the economy, stupid!
Plater began by plotting Beiderbecke Two as another six parter, scripting two full episodes of a plot that would apply the expected laconic approach to ever bigger issues: the dumping of nuclear waste and supposed national security. Series two would have its international aspect, with Jill and Trevor accompanying a School Trip led by Mr Wheeler to Amsterdam, and winding up even further afield, in Athens, these scenes to form the bulk of the middle two episodes. There would be roles for all the favourites from The Beiderbecke Affair.
Yorkshire TV was delighted with the scripts but the country was heading into recession (when isn’t it?) and a series involving international filming was out of the question for the foreseeable future. Instead, with Yorkshire’s consent, and justifiable enthusiasm from Methuen after the sales figures for one book, Plater signed up to deliver The Beiderbecke Tapes as a novel, appearing in mid-1986.
(Initially, Plater had intended the series to appear as The Gillespie Tapes, with a possible third series to be called The Yardbird Suite, though I recall a contemporary interview that proposed a different Jazz giant for the third title. He was persuaded by Yorkshire TV that, as he had successfully impressed the name of Beiderbecke on the audience, he should stick to the brand.)
I don’t wish to sound negative, but, for reasons I will describe below, The Beiderbecke Tapes is the weakest of the trilogy and, given its history, it was at that moment that its fate was sealed.
The book was successful, and highly entertaining. The story is, naturally, loose, but once it gets under way, it is more central to events than its counterpart in the Affair, and, where Big Al and Little Norm appear in the unused episode one script, now they, and former Sergeant Hobson, make cameo appearances in the very late stages. I read it with great enjoyment and looked forward to its eventual onscreen version.
Things were not looking good. Everyone wanted it to appear but Yorkshire’s financial state was still a key factor. Now that the story existed in toto, they proposed to buy the rights from Methuen and commission Plater to adapt it as a single, two hour film. The writer was unhappy, the format simply not fitting the story, and requiring a truncation of the plot. The eventual deal was for two episodes, each of ninety minutes (ads included), effectively seventy-five minutes a throw.
Then, having bought the rights in full knowledge of the contents, Yorkshire refused to go to Athens: Rotterdam (as opposed to Amsterdam), yes, but no further afield. After heated discussions, in which Yorkshire made it plain that if Plater insisted on Athens, the show would be pulled, the writer decided to compromise, substituting Edinburgh for the Greek Capital.
Out went Big Al, Little Norm and Hobson. On the other hand, in came the spineless Mr Pitt, taking over from a newly created character in the Registry Office, Dawson in the novel. The Tapes finally reached the screen in December 1987.
Two years have passed since Trevor and Jill exposed corruption in local Government and the local Police. The story begins with Trevor being notified of the intention to demolish his flat to put in a motorway, Jill confidently assuring him that she’ll get it stopped, the flat being demolished and his moving in with her.
Two things happen: Mr Wheeler, the Headmaster, discovers two members of his staff co-habiting and coerces them into accompanying him on the School Trip to Rotterdam, at which point the whole of 5C signs up, cos Miss and Sir are dead cool cos they cohabit and they’re not married (this is 1987, remember). And Jill insists Trevor put up shelves to accommodate his Jazz records and tapes.
Which naturally requires a trip to the pub, where John the Barman is playing music, not muzak: Jazz: Bix Beiderbecke, in fact. (John is an ex-hippy who got bitten by the jazz bug after this series on TV a couple of years ago). John offers to make Trevor some tapes. The problem starts when one of the tapes isn’t of music but of men talking. About nuclear waste. And dumping it. In the Yorkshire Dales.
Jill takes charge, and the tape goes into “a safe place” (actually, into the handbag of Jill’s mentor, Sylvia, The Oldest Suffragette in Town – a joyous cameo by Beryl Reid.) However, recovery of the tape becomes the aim of certain unspecified security organisations, headed by Peterson, the Man with No Name. And in the wake of Peterson’s appearance as heavy, it appears that John the Barman has succumbed to a serious case of being run down by a car.
Between preparation for the School trip, handling Peterson (who may be fearsome but is easily outflanked) and trying to confirm John’s death, episode 1 – the halfway point, remember – ends with Trevor attending a funeral in quite heavy snow, only to find that John is also in attendance, just not in the coffin.
Episode 2 ups the action. Six men in grey suits, with at least one gun between them, prevent Jill and Trevor leaving on the School Trip whilst they thoroughly, but unsuccessfully, search the house for the Tape. Peterson pursues the pair onto the North Sea Ferry, where Trevor gets plastered with a jazz hero. Peterson declares his love for Jill and a completely smashed Trevor completely smashes him down with one punch.
In Rotterdam, our pair discover that 5C (and Mr Wheeler) have already been deported. The Grey Guardians follow them from bridge to bridge down a canal boat trip and a bunch of elderly Americans smuggle the supposed honeymooners onto their touring coach to Athens. Alas, however, Athens is next week’s itinerary, and Trevor and Jill are wafted off to Edinburgh. There they are cornered by the Grey Guardians, only to be rescued by the Americans springing a bagpipe band onto the Englishmen.
All is officially resolved offscreen. Sylvia confirms the tape is a fake, actors reading from a script, and Peterson makes a final appearance to explain to Jill what she has already worked out: that the tape was disinformation, intended to get into radical hands, be exposed and officially denied, to keep attention away from the less splashy but more serious proposals.
As with the Affair, the Tapes ends in the hills, or rather the Dales, with a piece of news. In the rush to get after the school trip, and the subsequent luxury of the Honeymoon Suite at a posh Edinburgh Hotel, Jill forgot her Pills, and Trevor is going to be a Father.
Watching it again, though I still enjoyed The Beiderbecke Tapes, I have to admit to making a too-critical comparison between it and the Affair. It had a lot of potential, and I’m sure that, given the breathing room of six episodes, it would have worked very well. But the moment that the initial scripts were stopped, that prospect was lost. It’s simply too short. Worse, it’s too thin, both in plot and texture. There is just not enough of it.
Having just recited it, let’s take first the plot. Plater was reaching for something larger in scope, something in which there would be a genuine element of danger to Trevor and Jill, and I think that in a mere 150 minutes, he can’t achieve that. There isn’t enough time to develop a real sense of risk, not to Trevor and Jill, not to our favourite gentle, bickering but essentially eternal pair. The Beiderbecke Affair established an off-kilter world, a gently different reality centred upon this pair: the Tapes doesn’t have long enough to break through that.
It’s not aided by the imbalance in the plot over the two episodes. Far too little happens in episode one: Peterson forces his way into Jill’s house once, breaks in twice (once offscreen), and retrieves a George Formby tape but lately posted at a proper Post Office, but that’s all the forces of evil do in the opening seventy-five minutes, leaving the rest to be squashed into the second seventy-five minutes, practically all of which has to be devoted to the plot, with anything else we might be watching this story to enjoy having to be spread on top, like margarine.
Given Plater’s sheer professionalism at writing for television, this imbalance is surprising to say the least. And it offers nothing to distract us from a doubly dubious ending that doesn’t add up.
If this tape is supposedly so important that not only Peterson is out to retrieve it, but also a separate department that works in sixes and is prepared to snatch British citizens into confinement in foreign countries (I am remembering Athens in the book here, as well as Rotterdam), why does everything fizzle out? An Old Etonian confiscates Trevor and Jill’s passports in Edinburgh and sends them home by train and suddenly no-one’s chasing this tape at all? And Peterson’s confessing it’s all been meaningless all the time?
The logic doesn’t quite work, and there’s nothing to get us looking at the magician’s face instead of his hands.
Because that’s the other side of the problem: the texture’s too thin. The Beiderbecke Affair might have centred on Jill and Trevor, but it wasn’t only about them, both in terms of eccentric characters and what was happening to them. Dudley Sutton contributes more cynicism as Mr Carter, but is woefully underused, Keith Smith is again the dreaded Wheeler, and Robert Longden drifts in as Mr Pitt, having taken ‘lateral promotion’ at a lower salary, and then drifts out again.
Nor do the new characters add much. Peterson is the heavy and the villain, and Malcolm Storrey does all he can with him, but he isn’t meant to be funny, quite the opposite rather, and whilst there are good performances from Beryl Reid as Sylvia, Peter Martin as Charlie, the cheerful gravedigger and a short comic Dutch accent from Bill Wallis, the Americans don’t convince as American accents, and nobody plays off anybody except Jill and/or Trevor.
There’s no texture, no cross-playing between different characters, no multiplication of stories: nothing outside the moving light of Mr Chaplin and Mrs Swinburne. And far too little that doesn’t relate to the plot, the way real life insisys on doing.
That said, it’s enjoyable, and it’s certainly no Get Lost! Revisited: we are far from that, and Barbara Flynn is still a delight to behold, though the shorter hairstyle is nothing like as flattering. The relationship between her and Trevor has grown. There’s still no overt romance, she’s not sure whether she’s going to totally take to him on a 24/7 basis, or at least so she says so, but ‘probationary cohabitee’ swiftly becomes a catchphrase in Trevor’s mouth, and we know it’s alright.
He’s more relaxed than in the Affair, and he talks back more, instead of just avoiding the point with a degree of fantasy. They’ll never ever use the word love, indeed they’ll look shocked if either of them ever does, but these two are a till death us do part duo, and that takes a little of the underlying tension out of it.
It might have been different in six episodes though. Plater did want to set the couple a test, something to overcome, but Peterson’s declaration of love is too implausible to be taken even momentarily seriously, and is allowed so little time as to be negligible.
So, what next? Plater had already begun work on series 3. Things come in threes, it’s a magical creative number. Beginnings, middles and ends. Besides, what are they going to do now they’re going to have a baby?