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.