Bingeathon: The Barchester Chronicles -in memoriam Alan Rickman


Back in 1995, playwright, novelist and television dramatist Alan Plater gave a big interview to the Guardian on the Saturday that his new series, Oliver’s Travels, based on his fifth and final novel, began a five-part adaptation on BBC. He slated the production, detailing the many ways in which the producers and director had undermined, ignored or just mistreated the story. He made particular reference to the casting. The title part had been written for Tom Courtney but he hadn’t even been approached, the role instead being played by Alan Bate. The female lead was played by Sinead Cusack in her native Irish accent, although the point of the character was that she came from Northumberland, and her similarly Northumbrian son’s role was given to an actor with a pronounced Cockney accent.

Despite all that, I still watched the series, because it was Plater, because I enjoyed the novel. He was right, though. The series simply did nt work because – and I watched this pile up with fascinated horror as the weeks accumulated – not just the principal actors, but everybody, down to the shortest walk-on, line-saying role, was wrong.

It was stunning in its own way. How can you cast a prestigious Saturday night series and miscast absolutely everyone? Not a single actor fit their role.

And whilst I watched Oliver’s Travels drown in this fashion, I thought back to Plater’s own Beiderbecke Trilogy, and I realised for the first time that part of its beauty and charm was that it was one of the most perfectly cast series I’d ever seen. And it still is: there’s not a role on the series, down to the smallest, that isn’t played by someone who is the slightest bit out of step.

Which is by way of a lengthy prelude to today’s bingeathon, which I promised to myself last week, when the dreadful news of Alan Rickman’s death broke on us. Rickman’s first major role on screen was as the Reverend Obadiah Slope, in the BBC’s seven-part adaptation of the first two of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, under the title, The Barchester Chronicles. Fittingly, the dramatisation was by Alan Plater, and it is the equal of The Beiderbecke Trilogy in being the most perfectly cast series I have ever seen.

The Barchester Chronicles was first broadcast in 1982. I remember hearing it being described as a story set amongst a feuding religious community, and deciding that was not for me. In 1989 or 1990, I can’t remember which, it was repeated on BBC2 on Tuesday nights at 9.00pm. I was newly in my first house and had taken a week off to decorate my lounge, starting with the back wall, which was the simplest – no wondows, doors or chimney breasts – but longest. After a day of videotapes, I had gotten surfeited with Last of the Summer Wine and was grimly pasting up the last sheet to something on BBC2. I was in mid-sheet when that finished and I overran into the next programme.

When I got to the screen, I immediately recognised the lovely Barbara Flynn and stopped to watch. Fifty minutes later I was hooked, and looking for the paper to check just what it was I’d been watching.

Plater’s dramatisation adapts The Warden and Barchester Towers. The first is a short novel, a ‘one-decker’ as it would have been termed on publication, taking as its theme a series of Church scandals exposed in the Press, of clergymen being paid excessive income for minimal duties administering charities, whilst the poor beneficiaries get almost nothing.

The Reverend Septimus Harding is the Warden of a Hospital caring for twelve old men. He has a lovely home for himself and his daughter Eleanor and a more than ample income. He was appointed by his lifelong friend, Bishop Grantley, whose son Theophilus, is both Archdeacon, and Harding’s son-in-law. Local Doctor John Bold, a reformist campaigner (and aspirant to Eleanor’s hand) uses the Law and the Press, in the shape of the Jupiter (i.e., the Times) to challenge the situation. Ultimately, by legal technicality, the Esatablished Church prevails, but Mr Harding, a simple and good man, resigns his Wardenship, having come to the moral belief that he is not entitled to riches from the Charity when the stipend for his old charges and friends has remained unchanged for 400 years.

The Warden takes up the first two episodes. The series stars Donald Pleasance as Mr Harding – playing against type as a gentle, somewhat unworldly, round-faced, cherubic old man, Pleasance being mainly known for playing villains – and Nigel Hawthorne as The Archdeacon. Pleasance is delightful throughout, the only true clergyman in the whole series, retreating, accepting, but still having enough of a will of his own to do what he sees as the right thing in the face of everybody else’s opinions, but Hawthorne (then still staring in Yes Minister) steals the shows, with his overdramatic gestures, his rages and furies, exasperations and desperations, and his oily, briliantly comic smoothness.

Hawthorne is in his element, overplaying his part to the finest degree. I find myself snorting with glee at nearly his every line and movement. It’s a theatrical performance – indeed, the whole series eschews naturalism – but it’s judged to be heightened theatricality, without ever once toppling over into self-parody, ridicule or camp.

There’s a fine array of second-line characters to support this pair over these first two episodes: David Gwillim as John Bold, realising the personal consequences of his principals, the lovely Janet Maw as Eleanor, overwrought at the attack on her beloved father from the man she loves, the aforementioned Barbara Flynn as John’s sister Mary, George Costigan as the Jupiter journalist, Tom Towers, and the blithely lisping Angela Pleasance (Donald’s daughter) as his other daughter Susan, Mrs Grantley.

Still and all, it’s when the adaptation moves on to Barchester Towers that the fun starts to soar. John Sutherland has argued that there is textual evidence that the book was originally planned as a direct sequel, of similar brevity, again focusing on Mr Hardin’s Wardenship, but instead the book expanded in length and cast, to great delight.

Bishop Grantley is dying, but unfortunately for his conflicted son, he outlasts the current Government, ending the Archdeacon’s chances of being appointed his successor. Instead, the new Prime Minister instals Bishop Proudie (Clive Swift). The Bishop is a weak-willed, temporising man, under the thumb of his very determined wife, Mrs Proudie (Geraldine McEwan) and preferring to delegate as much as he can to his private Chaplain, the Reverend Obadiah Slope (originally Slop), an ambitious young man under the patronage of Mrs Proudie. This is, of course, Alan Rickman.

Though this is not emphasised in book or series, the Proudies are Low Church, seeking to establish themselves and their doctrines in a City and Diocese that has thus far been very High Church. Indeed, Mrs Proudie and Mr Slope are very quickly seen as enemies, and it is the interweaving schemes, oppositions and manoeuvres of the opposing factions, and their sheer energy for each other’s destruction that plays out for the rest of the story.

And that’s not all. At his wife’s insistence, Bishop Proudie summons the Canon-in-Residence, Doctor Vesey Stanhope, and family, back from Lake Como, Italy, which has been his actual residence for the last twelve tears (he originally left for his health: a persistent sore throat). This brings back the Stanhope children: the forever laughing, amoral Charlotte, the irresponsible, impecunious, hopeless Bertie (played with great gusto by Peter Blythe, otherwise best known for his ‘Soapy’ Sam Ballard, the new – and preaching – Head of Chambers in Rumpole) and the beautiful but crippled Signora Madeleine Vesey Neroni (played as a manipulative schemer by the still decidedly beautiful Susan Hampshire).

At a stroke, the cast trebles, and the number of heavyweights doubles, or at least so you’d think. McEwan and Hampshire, added to Pleasance and Hawthorne? But that is to fail to reckon with Rickman, a young actor in comparison, an unknown to the television public, but he effortlessly holds his own, and frequently does so much more that his seniors, stealing scenes with no effort, even scenes when he has three or four other actors, playing to the hilt around him.

McEwan is monstrously good. She, like Hawthorne, adopts an entirely theatrical approach, but instead of his extravagant gestures and expostulations, McEwan adopts a gravelly monotone, rising in intensity but not pitch. She’s a monster, and it’s her own husband who is her victim, but she is at all times convinced in the absolute rectitude of her every thought, word and deed. Her scenes opposite Hawthorne are awesome.

As Mcewan’s foil, Clive Swift puts in a masterclass of subjugation. Compared with McEwan or Rickman, he gets the worst of it for lines, especially in scenes featuring these three alone, but he is epic in his expressions as the camera passes him, or catches him in the background. He may be the stooge, but you feel every moment of his despair at never getting any peace.

The plot is incredibly complex, and incorporates separate but simultaneous attempts to get the widowed and wealthy Mrs Bold (Eleanor is deprived of her husband in between episodes, and gets a bouncing big baby as an exchange, plus a heavy dose of unflattering widow’s weeds, which also do their best to make Barbara Flynn look unattractive). The dissolute Bertie cannot do anything to pretend that his intentions are other than purely mercenary, but it is the importunate Mr Slope who presses his suit so far as to prompt Eleanor to slap him round the ear.

Rickman is just so good at Slope that whenever he is onscreen, you expect to find pools of slime leaking out of the DVD Player. His casting was certainly against the character’s appearance in the novel, where he is red-headed and physically unprepossessing: Rickman is allowed to be his real self, tall, dark-haired, handsome, a very clever decision that justifies his being able to persuade the ladies he pursues – the Signora after he sees her, Mrs Bold after he learns she is wealthy – to tolerate him long enough for him to worm his way into their lives.

Rickman, like McEwan, restricts his range. He is slow and deliberate, with little bursts of urgent progress, a strutting walk. He reacts carefully to things, often moving only his eyes until he has absorbed the new information. He is an out-and-out slimeball, but Rickman makes him both obvious and plausible in this trait. He can’t take the audience in, and he isn’t trying to, but you can see him, in the more stratified and socially hidebound society of the mid-Nineteenth Century, taking other people in.

There’s just so much to enjoy throughout this series. We see another side of the Archdeacon once he becomes an ally of Mr Harding, as opposed to an adversary, and Pleasance is kept busy with responsive lines to Hawthorne’s outbursts which are sitcom funny but which he delivers without a trace of laughter (I am still unable to decide if he is making pointed jokes or innocent replies, which is another facet to Pleasance’s performance that  delights).

To someone attuned to the wit of this adaptation, without it ever once trying to be funny, The Barchester Chronicles is incredibly funny, and the performances throughout are magnificent. The casting is perfect, but it is Alan Rickman who steals the show, every bit as good and better than star actors, theatrical legends, who ought to blow him out of the water, but instead accept him as an equal. He already was their equal. And he became himself a legend.

And I’ve loved every minute of the seven hours today I’ve spent remembering and mourning Alan Rickman.

Saturday SkandiDrama: 1864 – Parts 1 & 2


Peter, Laust and Inge

It’s been a long while since there’s been any decent Danish drama on BBC4 at 9.00pm on Saturday night, but the new historical series 1864 looks well placed to make up for that drought. It may not be a crime series, but then neither was Borgen, and that was none the worst for that.

As usual, there are two episodes, back to back, and I’m assuming that 1864 follows the traditional Danish template of ten episodes, though on the evidence of the first two, a lot of ground is going to be covered and it’s going to be interesting to see if ten hours is going to be enough to complete everything that’s been started here.

For most Britons without an interest in European history, the date, 1864, will be meaningless. It relates to what the Danish call The Second Schleswig War, which will automatically trigger memories in those of us who studied History A Level in the early Seventies and who cannot help but add the companion word Holstein. We know it as the Schleswig-Holstein Question, an obscure point of complex claims about which the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, once claimed that there were only three men in Europe who understood it: one was dead, another had been driven mad, and the third, Palmerston, had forgotten the answer.

But whilst this may seem an obscure and irrelevant point of history to us, the Second Schleswig War is part of a chain of historical events that sent the history of Europe on a course to where we are now. Where the Danes had defeated Prussia in the First Schleswig War, 1848 – 51, in the Second they experienced a crushing defeat that saw the Duchy of Schleswig absorbed into the German Confederation, only a few years before the Unification of Germany under the dominance of the heavily-militarised Prussia, a Unification that would lead, in due course, to the two World Wars of the Twentieth Century.

So yes, the subject might seem of little importance, it is in fact a key step in how Count Otto von Bismark manipulated the fate of Germany.

But this isn’t going to be a purely historical drama, relating the facts of the War. The first episode, in particular, divides its time between 1851, 1863 and a so-far puzzling strand set in 2014. This is because a major strand of the drama is going to centre upon the three-side romance between Inge, the Estate Manager’s daughter, and Laust and Peter, twin-but-very-different sons of Tolger, a tenant of the Baron who returns from the First Schleswig War with a suppurating leg wound that will not heal (and which kills him at the start of episode 2).

Also back from the war, physically wounded but obviously traumatised, is the Baron’s heir, Didrich. Didrich is going to be a problem, which becomes most clear as he attempts to start a seduction of Inge, who is only about 11 here.

Whilst this picture of a genuinely idyllic childhood, shadowed but lightly yet by the aftermath of a war that Denmark has won, goes on, the story alternates with the political build-up in 1863 to the Second War. This centres upon the political Liberal leader, both an enthusiast for the beginnings of modern democracy and an uber-patriot, Bishop Monrad, whose flagging energies are restored by acquaintance with the passionate actress Mrs Heiberg.

And in the twenty-first century, an unpleasant young woman, a self-centred, cynical, weed-smoking slacker who genuinely believes that the world owes her a living is pretty much abandoned unless she starts acting as a Meals-on-Wheels cum Housekeeper for a wheelchair-bound old man who is the contemporary Baron. He’s nearly as offensive as Claudia, though her self-entitled attitude puts her well ahead on points as far as I’m concerned.

The opening episode meanders composedly between these varying elements, making no effort to tie them into a structured story, confident that we will stick around to see how the pieces go together. And it’s not just the reputation of Danish drama that keeps us in place for a second episode, in which a sense of purpose does start to grow, and 1864 starts to feel like something genuinely great.

The second moves the historical action temporarily into 1863, Laust, Peter and Inge growing into young adult roles and still inseparable friends, though sexual interests are beginning to make themselves felt. In Copenhagen, Monrad, encouraged thoroughly by the now-widowed Mrs Heiberg, starts driving Denmark, God’s own, privileged country, towards a war that will unite Schleswig within the boundaries of the country and force its preponderence of German speakers to speak the holy Danish language only.

In Prussia, Bismark begins to prepare a response that will both crush Denmark and advance his plans for German Unification.

And on the Estate, the Baron acts to separate Inge from her friends, sending Peter and Laust into the Army.

In 2014, Claudia is continuing to visit the Baron, though only with an eye for stealing from him things that can be sold to provide herself and her even more offensive boyfriend with money that isn’t theirs. In a chest, she finds and pockets some jewellery before being disturbed by the present day Baron, but she also finds the book, the thick, handwritten book that is Inge’s memoirs and which is being used to narrate the series: her reading from the book underpins the narrative of episode 2 and the draw to bring her worthless ass back for episode 3.

Before which, Laust and Peter return on leave in the midst of a country dance for which Inge has donned an overlarge soldier’s uniform, and smeared her face with a greasy black moustache that draws Didrich’s eye. But instead she goes off to the woods and the shore with her two closest friends. There, stood with them in the water, she kisses Peter first, but it is Laust with whom she loses her virginity, enthusiastically. We will see where this leads.

Given that Denmark’s talent pool for actors and actresses is not very wide, it’s hardly surprising that there are a number of familiar faces on show here, fleetingly distracting you with the shadow of prior roles: Lars Eriksen (The Killing), Pilou Asbek and Sidne Babbett Knudsen (Borgen) and Nicolas Bro (The Killing 2) this far, whilst the trailer for next week reveals that they will be joined by Soren Malling (The Killing and Borgen). Not to mention a face familiar from non-Scandinavian television and a great favourite of all of us here, the wonderful Barbara Flynn.

Given the complete mess made by Fortitude in trying to put together a Skandi-influenced mysterious series, just the first two episodes alone are enough to make me wonder aloud about why Britain, with its much greater resources, can’t do anything half as good as this? I may say that again, several times, during the next four weeks.

Still Open All Hours – but why?


Arkwright or Granville?

To everything there is a a season – several, if it’s good enough. But, unlike the Biblical injunction, the truth of television is that seasons are not cyclical: harvest does not return each year: once the yield is taken, the time is gone and, like our corporeal bodies, does not return.

That doesn’t stop people from attempting to revive things, in the hope that they can be as good as they were remembered to be. Only today there is a piece in the Guardian arguing for the revival of Top of the Pops, in the face of the fact that none of the reasons for its cancellation have gone away, that the worlds of television and music and their respective audiences bear no resemblance to the conditions which saw the programme thrive and that in order to give any revival a chance of succeeding, it would be necessary to destroy absolutely everything about the programme that is recognisable as Top of the Pops.

Bringing back something once popular has been shown, time and time again, to be disastrous. The problem lies in the essential dichotomy between capturing the elements that made the show appealling to begin with – requiring stasis – and the need to present its characters as they are after a period of time – requiring progress. It’s an impossible burden by its very nature, especially if members of the original cast are involved: they have aged, visibly, and in doing so have changed, therefore their characters must have changed also, in the intervening years, yet what is demanded of them is being what they were.

The only truly successful revival (and I discount Doctor Who because, by its very nature, it could reinterpret itself with a wholly new cast) was Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais’s 1972 sitcom revival, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? This was so complete a success because the writers chose to make the five years since the last episode of The Likely Lads into the driving force of the series. Instead of being about the recreation of the beer, booze and birds obsessions of two Sixties’ lads out to enjoy life, the series focussed on the changes in the characters during a five year spell apart, expertly contrasting Bob Ferris’s middle-class absorption into the young executive early Seventies, with Terry Collier’s suspension in time due to his Army service, and his thwarted intent to pick up where he last was, in a world that no longer existed.

And yes, for those who are not familiar with this programme, it was a comedy, and still is very funny indeed.

It was not an approach that was factored into the BBC’s one-off revival of the Ronnie Barker/Roy Clarke sitcom, Open All Hours.

I used to love that programme, and the occasional repeats of it still make me laugh out loud. It tends to be overlooked a little when people discuss the great sitcoms of the past because both its star and its writer were involved in contemporaneous shows that were more popular: Barker as Fletch, in the immortal Porridge, Clarke as creator and sole writer of Last of the Summer Wine (which would go on to become the world’s longest-running sitcom ever).

The show was a quirky three-hander, featuring Barker as Arkwright, the tight-fisted, grasping yet richly-comic small-town corner shop grocer, David Jason, in his first starring role as errand boy Granville, frustrated at all turns, nephew to Arkwright with a dubious father, and Lynda Barron as District Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, living opposite and nominally Arkwright’s fiancee.

Like most of Clarke’s sitcoms, the show developed its own absurd world, revolving primaily around Arkwright and Granville, but punctuated by the regular customers who were the basis of what were virtually mini-sketches as they came and went. The humour primarily in the dialogue, with occasional slapstick, usually relating to Granville on the shop-bike, or Barker with the finger-trapping till, was deftly played. Each episode took place in a day, starting from the opening of the shop before dawn, and Granville’s perenially frustrated attempts to build a relationship with the milkwoman (Barbara Flynn, looking delightful as ever, even if swaddled in coat and woolly hat). It would end with a monologue from Arkwright, nominally about the events of the day, as he brought in the displays from outside.

Open All Hours first appeared as a one-off in the 1973 series, Seven of One, a variation on the BBC’s old Comedy Playhouse format (in which six different comedy pilots would be broadcast, as an audition for series) in that all seven episodes starred Ronnie Barker. Porridge was the ‘winner’ from that run, but in 1976, Barker and Clarke followed up the Arkwright pilot with the first of four series between then and 1985. I believe it was David Jason’s idea, initially, to do a revival as a Christmas special, but that Clarke is very happy to write a full series if this goes down well.

So, how was the revival handled? Well, it certainly wasn’t the worst of such things that I’ve seen. It was even mildly amusing at times, and it certainly attracted the likes of Johnny Vegas and Mark Williams into cameo roles (and Barry of the Chuckle Brothers but let’s say no more about that). What it was, basically, was pointless.

Clarke, Jason and the BBC have chosen not to make any changes whatsoever. Apart, that is, from the most central and inescapable change, namely that the great Ronnie Barker is no longer with us (and would probably have had nothing to do with this if he had been). The show gets around this by turning Granville into Arkwright, a virtual carbon copy. It gets around having to have Jason play Barker by introducing newcomer James Baxter to play Jason: he is introduced as Leroy, Granville’s son, abandoned by his mother as a baby and brought up by his Dad, and all the local women.

Actually, Leroy is not a Granville-clone: not entirely. He has the same worries about who his Dad might have been, but as these are directed at the man who has been his Dad in terms of raising him, and who believes himself to be biologically the father, this introduces a note of psychological depth which is not only alien to the show but also unnecessarily cruel. On the positive side, he’s more popular with the girls than Granville ever was.

Apart from that, it’s all the same. The shop is a bit cleaner and lighter, the sign repainted, the pavement display more extensive, but they’ve still got the till. Former Nurse Gladys Emmanuel still lives opposite (Arkwright never did get round to marrying her). Stephanie Cole reprises her role as Mrs Featherstone, the ‘Black Widow’, looking virtually unchanged (a testament to how well she ‘aged up’ thirty years ago) and Maggie Ollerenshaw returns as the indecisive Mavis, still nursing a mutual crush on Granville but steered even further away from any decision by her widowed sister Madge (played by Brigit Forsyth, the former Thelma of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? who really hasn’t aged well at all.)

No Barbara Flynn though. Sigh. And as for the new characters, apart from the introduction of a couple of Pakistani customers, as a gesture to the changing social background of the Doncaster in which the shop is set, not a one of them couldn’t have come out of a thirty year old episode, in word or thought.

But that’s really all there is. Juggle Granville into a near replica Arkwright, introduce a Granville-substitute with nearly all the same hang-ups and don’t change anything from thirty years ago. It gets a mild, nostalgic chuckle, based on the wish that there’d been a few more of them then, in the same way that the debut of NYPD Blue, a vastly inferior copy of Hill Street Blues, immediately reminded you of the absence of anything with the qualities of Hill Street Blues. The outcome could be achieved more effectively, and more economically, by repeating an old episode of Open All Hours.

Still Open All Hours gives its game away in its title. It is firmly rooted in its season which, like all others, has passed, and should be left to be remembered. A series would be a grave mistake.

The Beiderbecke Trilogy – Part 3


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?

The Beiderbecke Trilogy – Part 2


The Beiderbecke Affair  January – February 1985

Watching this again was every bit the pleasure it was seeing it for the first time, a quarter century plus ago, and no less fun for watching it with a view to analysing it soon afterwards. The Beiderbecke Affair wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s a detective story being played out in the moonstruck outer limits of Leeds by a cast of characters who are, at one and the same time, down to earth and dead ordinary, and truly English eccentrics, who catch our affection immediately. The story is both silly and serious, at heart and in its execution by one of the most perfectly assembled casts I’ve ever seen, never once crosses the line into parody but creates a slightly off-kilter world in which what happens is a matter of real concern.

And it’s still bloody funny from start to finish.

I’ve already described the set-up of the plot in Part 1, and whilst it’s a motivating factor for Trevor and, to a lesser extent, Jill, it’s really a typically Hitchcockian McGuffin. Indeed, the case of the Missing Records, and the Exploding Hedgetrimmer sold to Trevor and Jill’s colleague, Mr Carter, is solved before the end of episode 2 (the explanation? Little Norm cocked up the paperwork).

This McGuffin (the vital, but essentially meaningless object that gets your characters where they have to be for the story) exposes a local network of people organising to get and do things for their friends and neighbours at cost price. This “White Economy”, actually a reinvention of the original Co-op Movement, combined with Jill’s Save the Planet politics and Conservation Candidacy, attracts attention from two directions.

The first is Sergeant Hobson, B. A. Hobson is a graduate copper with first class honours and a thesis on the grey areas at the margins of crime, from where subversive behaviour is bound to arise because people simply insist on doing things that are not normal. Hobson’s eyes are firmly fixed on Trevor, Jill and Big Al, the redundant lathe operator who has set up this White Economy: somewhere in what they’re doing, something has got to be criminal.

The second is a dirty tricks campaign by a prominent local businessman, his Councillor brother who’s on both the Planning and Police Committee, and a certain local Policeman who regards Hobson as a waste of space and is forever urging him to go out and nick some thieves instead of sitting in his office dictating notes and playing with the Police computer. This trio don’t want to see the boat rocked by people who don’t do normal things.

You may note that, although this is a comedy, an extremely likeable, lighthearted and funny comedy, replete with Yorkshire humour, that under the mockery these are very serious, and decidedly sinister objectives. Just because they’re absurd, it doesn’t mean they aren’t serious.

This being a comedy, goodness prevails, as far as it is allowed to, and the second set of bad guys are brought down by Hobson, whose fanaticism is easily directed into a different course, but whose prescient depiction of a future that we’ve reached without understanding what it all meant, gives him the standing on which to not only survive but thrive.

But the bedrock on which the Affair stands, and without which it would be a dismal failure, is the cast. Both the small ensemble of characters designed by Plater, and the splendid actors who animate everybody, with wit, a fine sense of how far to go without overplaying their part, and the immediate and captivating charm that bubbles under the whole production.

Each episode begins with a title sequence. An LP revolves on a turntable, a hand lifts the needle into place at track 1 (for our younger readers, the needle was the antideluvian equivalent of the laser, scratching its way along a complex and continual winding groove). A jaunty jazz tune springs up. The sequence emphasises the musical theme: decks, headphones, sheet music etc, intercut with domestic details like goldfish in a tank and faggots, and peas in a tray. This segues into the opening scene and an episode title that is the first line of dialogue, such as “What I don’t understand is…”

Thus begins episode one. A long dolly shot descends towards a stream of pupils streaming out of a prefab comprehensive school, slowly closing in on Mr Chaplain and Mrs Swinburne. It is Mr Chaplain who utters the opening words, stopping only at the realisation that he’s lost his little yellow van keys.

This launches into a prolonged, easily distracted conversation that very smoothly delivers enough back-story to let the tale start, whilst equally easily allowing Bolam and Flynn to impress their characters on the viewer.

Bolam, then in his early forties, and looking it, underplays his character throughout as an easygoing, mainly contented man with few ambitions. Flynn, petite, wholesome, fresh-faced and winsome, is five to ten years younger: fresher, more active, strong-willed and tolerant of her colleague. They have been connected for long enough to be content in each other’s company, are understanding enough to bicker without wounding sensitive areas – except when they rub each other up the wrong way and fight.

In short, they are instantly established as, I say again, off-kilter individuals who work together well. They’re never demonstrative or romantic, they are completely different characters, but without a single declaration, or even conventional statement of love, they will make it pretty clear to us – and even themselves – that they do rely upon, and need each other.

But the big pluspoint for the series is that, from the first moment, they are likeable. The audience settles back, interested in this pair, and willing to follow them about.

But Jill and Trevor are merely the centre of things. Dudley Sutton, Dominic Jephcott and Terence Rigby are in the credited cast, as is Special Guest Star Colin Blakely from episode 3 onwards, whilst Keith Smith, Keith Marsh, Robert Longden and Norman Schiller are fine supporters in small roles. Alison Skilbeck, playing Jill’s love-rival, Helen of Tadcaster, is a much more straight part, a foil for Trevor and Jill in the two episodes in which she appears.

Dudley Sutton plays history teacher Mr Carter, a cynical and yet almost florid member of staff (and recipient of the Exploding Hedge-Trimmer from the Dazzlingly Beautiful Platinum Blonde), who regards Trevor and Jill as his private soap opera, a daily source of drama upon which he comments with relish. In return, Jill and Trevor treat him as a harmless observer, responding to or around him with a mixture of fantasy cliches and cryptic encapsulations of what’s going on that confuse way more than they enlighten.

Dominic Jephcott excels as Hobson: conspicuously clever, well-maintained hair, blonde good looks, out of his depth whenever he’s not relying on his role as Police Officer, and a military habit of clicking his heels when addressing his superior officer that’s driving Superintendent Forrest bonkers. Hobson is every inch the graduate smartarse, superior in manner, the light of fanaticism glowing in his eyes whenever he’s not being talked down, past, over and around by Trevor and Jill, neither of whom can take him seriously enough to be concerned about his increasing attempts to fit them up. Until he becomes useful to them as a conduit for turning the tables on the McAllister Brothers, who conduct the spoiler campaign. Hobson turns on a dime, without so much as a squeak.

Terrence Rigby, once a fixture on Z-Cars and Softly Softly plays Big Al, a broad, phlegmatic and philosophic former-building-trade work who, after redundancy, has organised the White Economy around the principle of people helping each other out. He’s introduced at a Cub’s football match, along with the excitable, perennially confused Little Norm (Schiller). Described as having the texture and charm of a small Pennine Chain, Al just wants to be left alone without people poking into his business, especially Hobson. Norm is his brother, as are a great number of people during the story, Trevor included, and Janey the Blonde his sister, though it’s never clear if he has any siblings. Al is, quite simply, a cloth-capped force of nature.

As for the smaller parts, Smith is superb is his somewhat one-dimensional role as Mr Wheeler, the headmaster, brusque with his staff, obsequious with Hobson, appearing from nowhere with his hands clasped behind his back, yet still giving the impression of a man who leaves a silvery trail wherever he passes. Longden, who appears in the last two episodes, plays Town Planning Officer, Mr Pitt, a man of careful demeanour and utter spinelessness. Marsh, a familiar figure from other Yorkshire TV sitcoms, plays Harry, a pensioner who keeps turning up out of nowhere, leading a dog called Jason on a length of string, and who wants to be a supergrass, to regain his self-respect after years of unemployment.

As stated above, Alison Skilbeck plays the only straight role in the entire series. She’s brought in, offstage, in episode 3, when Trevor, in a rush of emotional honesty, confesses to having once been engaged to a woman who, completely unlike Jill, was interested in all the same things as he was, only to call the wedding off because he was boring. Her name was Helen: “of Troy?” enquires Jill, amused and determined not to take her relationship with Trevor seriously enough to admit he really means something to her: “of Tadcaster” Trevor somewhat limply replies.

Needless to say, once summoned by name, Helen appears almost immediately, back from London where she’d “met a bloke”, interested in seeing if Trevor was any less boring, and not expecting to find him in a “relationship”. The ladies get on famously with each other, to the extent of going for a posh meal in a posh restaurant where they get poshly pissed and toss a coin for Trevor. Jill, who has already, in a laconic manner, let Helen know that she’s serious about Trevor, is disturbed less by losing than by being disturbed at losing. She’s typically detached and cool about the whole thing, joking that if Trevor marries Helen, she’ll insist on his moving into the spare bedroom, but underneath it she’s unwillingly distressed at the thought.

It doesn’t matter, actually. Trevor’s repeated question about whether he gets a say in it may be said in jest, but he knows what he wants and between an independent and sassy penurious schoolteacher who hates jazz, and a jazz loving rich girl who lets her Daddy treat her as a child, and who tries to order Trevor’s lifestyle (Daddy is a McAllister Brother, you see, and at the heart of things), Helen doesn’t stand a chance.

Charm, silliness, likeability, political underpinning, belly laugh jokes, perfect casting, an upbeat jazz soundtrack and a gentle, laconic pace. The Beiderbecke Affair  is, quite simply, a gem on every level.

And it’s a joy to have found a way to discuss this show without constant comparisons to its hapless predecessor, Get Lost!, which for a while I thought for a while would be impossible. From the first moment of its symbolic credits and its jaunty music, The Beiderbecke Affair joyfully laughs at Get Lost!s failings.

Someone knew in advance that the series was going to hit, for Plater was persuaded to novelise his own script for release as a book, midway through first transmission. It was his first venture into adult prose, and it’s a worthy companion to the series. It was also so popular that it sold out in Manchester before I could get a copy. Fortunately, a friend saw a copy on sale in Wilmslow and grabbed it for me, handing it over on the Thursday night before episode 6.

I took it home and, before going to sleep, read it up to the end of episode 5, and put it away. The series was too good to spoil.

Next, I’ll be looking at The Beiderbecke Affair‘s first sequel, The Beiderbecke Tapes. But, if I may end upon a personal note, if there are any Jill Swinburnes out there, especially ones who look like Barbara Flynn did during this series, would they be so kind as to contact me, with a view to discussing an underplayed, seemingly ill-matched but underneath rather serious relationship. Saying “I love you” strictly excluded, of course.