Humour, with some glorious exceptions, tends to be of its time, prose humour more so than film or television. The best exception to this rule is the life and works of P.G. Wodehouse, but for longevity, A.G. Macdonell’s England, Their England runs the old bean close.
The book, a comedy classic, was first published in 1933 and has remained in print ever since It’s a gently comic, affectionate, almost lovingly satirical portrait of England in the Twenties, adjusting to life after the Great War, from the point of view of that closest of outsiders, a Scot.
Macdonell’s book is semi-autobiographical in spirit if not actuality – the book is accepted as being a roman a clef whose multifarious characters can be traced back to real-life figures. He translates himself into Donald Cameron, a somewhat shy and naive young Scot, still feeling some of the after-effects of shell-shock, who is commissioned by a Welsh publisher to write a book about the English.
Overall, the book is a joy, which is obvious from its survival to this day whilst the rest of Macdonell’s output is the stuff of specialists, but it is especially worshiped by cricket enthusiasts for the classic chapter involving a cricket match between a Sussex village side and a team of literary folk: poets, novelists, publishers, and a professor of ballistics in which the decisive catch takes four pages to descend, without a wasted word!
In 1973, the book – or rather the cricket match chapter – was adapted for the BBC by Peter Draper as part of a six-part series of 50 minute programmes under the title Sporting Scenes. No information seems to have survived as to the other five episodes, and I have no recollection of even being aware of the series at the time.
But a decade after, I arrived at work, checked the paper, and mention of this episode being repeated in a 2.00pm slot. I phoned home to have it videoed. Fortunately, a new tape was in the machine so this went on at the start, because I loved it and have kept it ever since. It inspired me to go out and buy the book, and I have kept it and re-read it every few years with the same easy enjoyment.
In recent years, I have had a problem in that I still have a small number of videos, with various recordings that I want to keep, but no video-player on which to play them, nor television to hook it up to. However, I have finally stirred my stumps (that’s the Swallows and Amazons film still having an effect on me) and I have had two such items converted to DVD. And this morning, I watched The Cricket Match again, for the first time in over a decade.
And it’s still gentle, lovely and very funny.
Only a couple of the names involved are familiar. Fulton MacKay, who, only the same year, would achieve national recognition as Chief Warder MacKay in Porridge provides voiceover as the voice of A G Macdonell, whilst the minor part of the characbanc driver Perkins – a lovely, low-key lugubrious role – is played by Paul Shane, who would achieve fame on David Croft and Jimmy Perry’s Hi-de-Hi. Brian Pettifer, who would go on to play supporting roles to the present day, has a non-speaking role as a sixteen year old batsman surrounded by a ring of faces.
Draper’s adaptation adopts the structure of the book, starting (in black and white) in the trenches with Donald Cameron’s meeting with his future publisher, whilst Macdonell’s voiceover (taken in every instance directly from the book) assures us that this is not a war story.
From there, it cuts to London (and a gentle, washed out, friendly colour) to Cameron’s introduction to poet and literary editor Bill Hodge, and to his acceptance into London’s literary circles on the grounds that he can play cricket and is available on Saturday for a game against a Sussex village!
The first part of the story sets the style and tempo. The nervous, almost detached Cameron turns up at the appointed place at 10.15am, complete with cable enjoining him not to be late. He is alone. It is nearly half an hour before the first team-mate arrives, and promptly treats Cameron as baggage-master whilst he goes to have a shave. Everybody leaves their bags with Cameron, especially after it is discovered that the pubs in this part of London open at 11.00, at which point there is a general, indeed rapid exodus.
By the time Hodge arrives, it’s 11.30, the time the match should start, fifty miles away. Even his sense of urgency doesn’t change everything, especially when the charabanc journey suffers multiple halts – outside pubs, coincidentally. It’s well after two when the idyllic Sussex village, with its idyllic cricket pitch, hoves into sight.
The visitors’ first stop is the village pub, the Barley Mow. The already late start of the match is delayed further, not merely by drinks, but by the fact that Hodge’s side has only nine men. But not for long. Two locals take unfavourably to fielding for both sides and batting for neither and go home, just as Hoge’s ranks shoot up to thirteen. There is an eventual compromise on 12-a-side.
And the game rolls out exactly as described in the book. You might say that Peter Draper has had an easy job as adapter, given that there isn’t a line of dialogue, nor voiceover, that doesn’t directly come from England, Their England, but that confirms all the more the credit he deserves for recognising the quality of the England, and the humility he possesses in not presuming he can add something of equal and greater value.
The beauty of the game is that it is played out for real, on a real village pitch that has been chosen to match the specifications of Macdonell’s story. Indeed, given that the book is recognised as an amused roman a clef (Hodge’s team is based on an amateur club that exists to this day), it would not surprise me to learn that the pitch was based on a real village, and that the programme was filmed on the actual pitch intended by Macdonell. If this is so, what wonderful authenticity!
I’m not going to go over the incidents of the game, but to the cricket lover each and every one is a gem, starting with the opening ball, delivered by the Village blacksmith at great speed off a run-up that starts so far down a slanting slope that the batsman is only aware the bowler is running up when he breasts the hill about three paces from the popping crease!
Not all the cast can be actual competent cricketers, and they’d be out of character if they were, but the programme indulges in very little camera trickery – tight focus, clever angles – to disguise competence among the ranks. And John Moffat, who plays the impeccably neat, gentle and finicky boy-novelist, Bobby Southcott, was quite clearly a genuine batsman!
Though the series was called Sporting Scenes and is directly about the famous match, Draper sensibly broke up the story at the tea interval, by having a house party arrive to greet the team. This imported some splendid lines and characters from another chapter of the novel, to no harm whatsoever, rounding out the episode and extending its picture of the world and its times.
The literary men having batted first, it is the village team who have to chase an eminently gettable 69 runs: eminently gettable that is before the redoubtable Major Hawker reduces them to 10 for six wickets, and one stump broke. Unfortunately, a break in play allows the Major into the back door of the Barley Mow and, a quart and a half later, his bowling has lost something of its ferocity.
The Village eventually level the score at 69 for 8, but a splendid burst of improbable but entirely believable wickets means that it all rests on the blacksmith, laid up with a severely sprained ankle and batting with the captain as a runner, hitting the ball directly into the air.
The majesty of the shot, the comprehensive slapstick of the runners and the fielders, takes four pages in the book. The programme cannot match that but it does a sterling job. The Match is tied. peace and silence descends upon an archetypal English scene. The viewer, tickled to death, reaches for the rewind button, and starts again.
And it must also be stated that, just as with The Beiderbecke Trilogy, the casting is a thing of perfection and every one of the actors sinks into their parts as into a comfy chair, serene and irreplaceable.
I wish that there was some means of you being able to see this programme for yourself. Like the book, it deserves to be preserved indefinitely, an unshaded window into a summertime long since gone, but which lives in our hearts as an ideal of cricket that all of us who love the summer game aspire to, no matter how different our experiences have been. I am so glad to have access to it again.