Play for Today at 50: Part #2 – ‘O Fat White Woman’ (1971)

“Come on, let’s be having you! Like a lot of good military English gentlemen!”

Major Digby-Hunter (Peter Jeffrey)
Figure 1: Major Digby-Hunter cajoles his Upton Grange charges (01:25)

Fifty years ago today, a strange, divisive Play for Today was broadcast. While not quite as out-there in its narrative or visual style as, say, The Bankrupt (1972), Steps Back (1973) or John McGrath’s two-part The Adventures of Frank (1980), it is an example of Play for Today’s abrasive modernism, reflected more widely in its incumbent title sequence, the musical ident of which was composed by Delia Derbyshire. This play is written by William Trevor, an Irish Protestant writer – like Shaw and Beckett – and a renowned short story writer and novelist, who was known as exceptionally good at delineating southern English characters. Of his novel The Old Boys (1964), Peter Porter claims: ‘This story of an obsessional school feud carried on into senility combined the grotesquery of Dickens with a scalpel-sharp awareness of the persistence of snobbery, cruelty and infantilism in English life.’[1]

O Fat White Woman (4 November 1971) is a brilliant example of Play for Today’s mainstay aesthetic form: primarily video-studio-shot, with some filmed inserts. It is directed by one of the strand’s most varied practitioners Philip Saville, responsible for the first Play for Today The Long Distance Piano Player (1970) and who would soon direct Barry Reckord’s incisive script of Jamaican inequality and geopolitics In the Beuatiful Caribbean (1972) and, later, with David Rose at Pebble Mill, Philip Martin’s incredible Gangsters (1975). It seems probable that Producer Irene Shubik commissioned William Trevor to write this, which later was published as a short-story within The Ballroom of Romance and Other Stories (Bodley Head, 1972). I am assuming then, that this was first conceived for Play for Today; please inform me, if you know otherwise! Shubik’s autobiography indicates this was shot in August 1971, which fits with the hazy summery quality of the filmed sequences.[2] Actor – and now Opera director – William Relton, who plays the key role of Wraggett, recalls it being a 3-4 week project including extensive rehearsals at North Acton and three days shooting at Television Centre at the end.[3] Relton recalls the experience very fondly, and director Philp Saville as being ‘very tanned and very kind’. However, Relton was only paid a fee of £75 for his work, which compared with £25 per week for his earlier performance in The Winslow Boy in the West End – Relton’s acting breakthrough – and £100 for Douglas Livingstone’s Armchair Theatre Competition (1971).

Trevor’s story is of Major Digby-Hunter (Peter Jeffrey), who, using his wife (Maureen Pryor)’s family fortune, has opened a boys’ preparatory school, Upton Grange. This ex-military martinet is proud of producing entrants into the major public schools of England, barring Eton – which he is targeting for Wraggett (William Relton). Digby-Hunter’s methods involve psychological and physical bullying; in Maths and Latin lessons his pupils appear a drilled, dehumanised unit. Digby-Hunter’s violence to Wraggett causes his death; this jolts Mrs Digby-Hunter into questioning her marriage.

Saville and Trevor’s Play for Today is video-studio-dominated: only 10 per-cent of its duration is filmed.[4] Contrasting with Saville’s style on The Long Distance Piano Player, the videoed sequences are faster than the filmed sequences: their mean Average Shot Lengths (ASL) are 10.6 and 13.3 respectively. Saville uses film sparingly to establish Upton Grange’s languid, festering social topography. It is unmistakably in the South of England but mythically vague as to where, in line with Major Digby-Hunter’s reeling off the names of the major English public schools – which he pushes his charges to get into – near the start. Saville uses visual and auditory effects to evoke the environment’s claustrophobia and pressure. His long, aerial take omnisciently surveys a classroom space that also includes beds, conveying that work overwhelms wellbeing within this coercive space:

Figure 2: The Upton Grange classroom (14:50).
Rounded effect is mine.

When the Major orchestrates the boys’ Latin recitations, Saville’s remorseless cutting mirrors his words: ‘This room is like a machine’. The effect remains, as William Relton says today, ‘terrifying’.[5] Later, Saville zooms slowly outwards from the Digby-Hunters’ monochrome marriage photograph, conveying Mrs Digby-Hunter’s mind-set during a party. Reverb-drenched choral music merges in the soundtrack with an organ and the indistinct hubbub of voices. A 24-shot sequence, with a rapid 2.04 ASL, mimics Mrs Digby-Hunter’s disorientation: frenzied glances at party guests including Miss Rone, who her husband is talking to; a pair of distanced statues metaphorical of her marriage (34:39-35:28).

Figure 3: Subjective truths in section of montage (34:47-34:51)

Saville’s point-of-view shots of a lamp going in and out of focus evoke Wraggett’s failing vision following Digby-Hunter’s violence, underscored by Delia Derbyshire’s cold, metallic drone (35:44-35:59). Later, Saville uses flashbacks, while looped fragments of previous dialogue echo amid Derbyshire’s eerie electronic soundscape (44:38-45:23). After Wraggett stumbles down to the kitchen, out-of-focus and doubled shots of Dympna (Susannah Williams) and Sgt Wall (Martin Boddey) mimic his faltering vision, underscored by Derbyshire’s pulsing, alienated drone (45:23-45:42). As Irene Shubik details, the double vision effect as ‘achieved by putting mirrors on the sides of the camera and through the use of special lenses.’[6] These modernist aesthetics impressionistically evoke narrative crisis and Mrs Digby-Hunter and Wraggett’s tragic subjectivities.

Figure 4: Philip Saville’s modernist style (35:34-45:36)

After Wraggett tells Mrs Digby-Hunter ‘your husband takes pleasure from hurting people’, the camera imperceptibly zooms into a CU of Pryor, punctuated by a monochrome flashback to the Digby-Hunters in bed on their wedding night seen from above.

An exemplar of slow VS pacing is Mrs Digby-Hunter’s climactic monologue to Miss Rone (Alethea Charlton), who her husband is cheating with. This sedate two-hander (49:40-56:18, 56:33-61:54), with its ASL of 28.8, foregrounds the performances. Four shots exceed a minute, including a 204-second take, which zooms out and back into a violently tormented Pryor who comes to a rational realisation: ‘A boy’s been murdered… By my husband’. Derbyshire’s treated, submerged piano notes recur with finality as Pryor repeats the noun ‘death’. Daringly, Trevor historicises the Major’s brutal violence: Digby-Hunter compares her previous passivity to wives who ‘just went on knitting’ when their Nazi husbands sent Jewish victims ‘to another kind of oven’.

Figure 5: The lengthiest shot (52:13-55:37) begins…

The pacing on video slows whenever the setting shifts to Mrs Digby-Hunter’s illusory safe haven: the set of her hothouse. As Shubik explains: ‘Design, style of shooting and sound once more played an important part in conveying the inner life of the central character, who surrounded herself with fuchsias and food to obliterate the reality of the horrible goings-on around her at the school.’[7] Saville’s slower cutting pace in this set gives the viewer time to observe its details and become immersed in its sickliness as a hiding place. Saville’s use of video may be associated with Talking Heads (1988- date) or close to Gerald Savory’s generally theatrical production style. It is especially sedately paced during Pryor’s aforementioned intense monologue where she opens up about her unhappy life with the Major.

Despite the twin advents of season openers Edna, The Inebriate Woman (1971) and Dennis Potter’s Kim Philby-inspired Traitor (1971), subsequent Series 2 Plays for Today did less well. Average audiences fell to an admittedly still impressive 5.3 million. Trevor and Saville’s Play for Today received 4.24 million viewers – a 29.4 per-cent audience share – perceived as low by BBC management and ‘hindered by a poor title which few would have recognised as a quotation’ from a Frances Cornford poem.[8]

While not quite amounting to the brickbats that greeted The Long Distance Piano Player, critics mostly regarded O Fat White Woman with antipathy. Sean Day-Lewis saw it as ‘below par’ for Trevor and lacking character development.[9] Michael Le Moignan discerned a lack of compassion for the characters, bemoaning ‘seventy minutes of almost unrelieved Jacobean gloom.’[10] Virginia Ironside felt ‘a slight sense of disgust’ at its representation of sadism.[11] Alan Brien and James Thomas saw it as ‘dated’ and ‘a play for yesterday’, themselves not exactly using a fresh discourse.[12] Notably pre-echoing Dominic Sandbrook, Brien likened it to a ‘propaganda exercise’ programmatically ‘tailored to a thesis’. Thomas saw its representation of prep schools as ‘implausible’, a criticism later echoed by BBC Head of Plays Gerald Savory.[13] While Alan Brien praised Saville’s ‘allusive, melting, poetic style’, he privileges what he perceives as the ‘real’ and complex over the fantastical and polemical: a fairly typical critical discourse where Play for Today is measured, positively or negatively against the individual critic’s yardstick of realism. Similarly, James Thomas attacked O Fat White Woman on ‘realist’ grounds; though, bizarrely – and unlike Brien – he didn’t perceive any coherent ‘message’. Of course, ‘realism’ is a moveable feast, as something subjectively perceived by each viewer based on their perceptions of the world or indeed conditioned by expectations of ‘realistic’ drama based on previous TV drama viewing.

Among critics, the acting was widely praised; Pryor especially, with smaller numbers mentioning Peter Jeffrey, Alethea Charlton, Roger Hammond, Susan Penhaligon or William Relton. In her otherwise negative notice, Rosemary Say claimed that it is pulled out of the ‘banal’ by Pryor’s ‘brilliant’ acting.[14] Bernard Davies devoted a whimsical – verging on patronising – paean to Pryor’s performance as the ‘fat woman’, seeing her as akin to a subject for the seventeenth-century artist Peter Paul Rubens.[15] Davies also saw a refreshing realism in how director Philip Saville had not used ‘adenoidal cockney’ child actors to play upper-class boys, as in many other recent TV productions. Phillip Whitehead praised Peter Jeffrey for capturing the Hitler-like sadism of Digby-Hunter ‘to perfection’. Whitehead was Labour MP for Derby North from 1970-83.[16]

Oddly, Alan Brien wanted more ‘real concern for its sadistic headmaster’! This call for a more shaded, sympathetic portrayal of a violent sadist is humanism taken to a questionable extreme and totally against the grain of Trevor’s and Saville’s troubling vision, just as much as, in a different way, Virginia Ironside’s desired, Mary Whitehouse-like sanitisation would have been. More appreciative of this play’s abrasive modernism were Bernard Davies and Michael Le Moignan who specifically commended Derbyshire’s ‘remarkable’ electronic soundtrack. Mary Holland, while lamenting ‘some clichés’, joined Brien in praising Saville’s direction which evoked the palpable ‘terror and tension’ felt by the prep schoolboys. Stanley Reynolds saw Trevor ‘cleverly’ utilising clichés for a ‘subtle and difficult’ message about love while Phillip Whitehead approved of its polemical attack on ‘Horrid little prep schools’ which ‘are miniature totalitarian societies’.[17]

Among BBC managers in their Television Weekly Programme Review weekly meeting, there was minimal discussion of Trevor and Saville’s Play for Today compared with The Long Distance Piano Player, which suggests relative indifference, perhaps also linked with its being the fourth in its series rather a ‘blockbuster’ opener.[18] Gerald Savory said it was ‘perhaps dated, as some had pointed out’ but defended a ‘very good production with a fine performance by Maureen Pryor’, also stating that ‘the boys had also been excellent’. Showing the power and influence of Fleet Street in 1971, Head of Plays Savory basically synthesises recurring strands in the press comment!

Audience reaction was similarly mixed. A fairly sizeable minority thought O Fat White Woman ‘horrid’, ‘repulsive’, ‘weird’, ‘sordid’, ‘incomprehensible’, or ‘pointless’ and echoed Thomas’s ‘dated’ discourse.[19] Its audience Reaction Index score was 58, slightly below Play for Today’s higher-than-usual Series 2 average of 62.[20] While a few echoed Virginia Ironside’s moralism, more were concerned that it had ‘no plot, sense or conclusion’ and how it was characteristic of many recent plays in its open-endedness and ‘confusing flashbacks’. Of Saville’s experimental doubling and out-of-focus shots, ‘one viewer mistook the former for interference for a time’.

While some criticised the music and camera shots as ‘too clever by half’, others admired Saville’s ‘imaginative and effective camera-work’ and Derbyshire’s ‘evocative music.’ Some ‘had to admit that the play had held their attention’ and provided food for thought even if it hadn’t entertained. For ‘a quarter of the sample’, the characters, especially Mrs Digby-Hunter, were seen as ‘interesting’ and a ‘difficult’ theme was ‘well engineered and the atmosphere was perfect’. Beyond isolated claims of ‘over-acting’ there was wider agreement that the acting – Pryor, Jeffrey, the boys – was ‘excellent’. One viewer, who we might perceive as part of the Play for Today vanguard audience, claimed it was ‘great stuff’, exceeding the usual ‘trite nonsense’. 68% watched O Fat White Woman all the way through – according to BBC managers, ‘only’ 68 per-cent [my emphasis] – while 21 per-cent either switched off or viewed a bit. This, however marked an improvement from Saville’s The Long Distance Piano Player, which only 61 per-cent had watched all of – while 34 per-cent had switched off or tried just a bit.

O Fat White Woman, a modernist Play for Today of electronically-scored ‘Jacobean gloom’ was repeated on BBC1 on 16 July 1973, but has remained obscure since. This Play for Today’s occasional samizdat emergences on YouTube should be superseded by inclusion within a BFI BluRay release and/or BBC Four repeat.

The great socialist cultural thinker Raymond Williams once praised Alan Plater’s Wednesday Play Close the Coalhouse Door (1969) for its use of folk and music hall techniques to show working-class people to themselves in a way that they would recognise as broadly true.[21] This contrasted with what he saw as TV playwrights’ more detached, anthropological positioning vis-à-vis their characters: he cites William Trevor as one exemplar of this.[22] Now, Trevor is a fine conveyor of human malice, which certainly exists in some people. Williams wanted (working-class) people to be able to recognise themselves on screen; well, surely that doesn’t preclude evil among people of all classes? It’s come to a bland, limiting pass whereby certain human characteristics or groups can only be represented positively, and that surely wasn’t what Williams wanted, even if people may prefer to see their reflections on screen flattered rather than dissected. Role-model representation, with characters idealistically representing how we would like the world to be can be a false circumscription of storytelling, given all we know about humanity, past and present. After re-watching the play before we talked in March this year, William Relton perceived O Fat White Woman as an ‘interesting period piece with a very clear historical perspective on what went on then’ at prep schools and in women’s lives.[23]

Relton feels that William Trevor ‘always […] wrote fantastically good roles for women’. In addition to Pryor and Charlton, younger women cast members have vivid roles. Perhaps as a deliberate red herring, but definitely deepening the social milieu, Trevor presents two apparently sharp-tongued, spiteful young Welsh ladies Barbara (Susan Penhaligon) and Dympna (Susannah Williams), who work in Upton Grange’s kitchen and who badmouth Mrs Digby-Hunter. In their first appearance, the girls both spit in the sandwiches they bring her. Their coarse worldliness may be a rational reaction to their environment. Early in the drama, Mrs Digby-Hunter is distant and inattentive. Of course, there’s nowt wrong at all with gossip and talking about sex, as Barbara and Dympna amply do. While they do anticipate some of the bullying teenage girls at the comprehensive school in Trevor’s final, disturbing Play for Today Eleanor (1974, theirs isn’t clear-cut wickedness.

Figure 6: The irreverent Barbara and Dympna (10:56).

Barbara and Dympna’s impudent attitude is in counterpoint to far worse actions from the bullying Major Digby-Hunter. That great character actor of middle-class parts Peter Jeffrey plays Digby-Hunter as a cold, coiled man, personality totally subordinated to the role of sadistic martinet. Sadly, Barbara and Dympna aren’t deeply fleshed out; however, they appear as plausible objects within Trevor’s scheme, while Wraggett is genuinely a victim of the terrible Major. Mrs Digby-Hunter’s monologue, so unobtrusively shot by Philip Saville in the studio, conveys a harrowing subjectivity. Yes, using Williams’s words, William Trevor here was still recording ‘the weaknesses of his fellow creatures’, but with astonishing depth, imbued with heart-rending power by Pryor’s performance.

Furthermore, O Fat White Woman has an ending unusually radical for a William Trevor play. After Pryor’s last words: ‘Love… can be a monster’, we cut to the dormitory-classroom, which is now empty. On the soundtrack is Delia Derbyshire’s eerie, gadding take on ‘Boys and Girls Come Out to Play’. The Upton Grange pupils enter and begin a pillow fight and upend the desks and chairs in a righteous outbreak of anarchy against a cruel, repressive system. It is left profoundly open as to what will happen next to this ‘crammer’ school.

Thanks for reading! As part of and extending beyond my PhD study of Play for Today (BBC1, 1970-84), I am gathering a range of oral histories. So, if you were involved in this or any other Play for Today production and are happy to talk about your memories and experiences, please email me at

Figure 7: Me while interviewing William Relton via Zoom.

Disclaimer: Quotations, and screenshots in Figures 1-6, from O Fat White Woman are used in accordance with the fair dealing provisions set out under Sections 29 and 30 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 – being for the purposes of research as well as criticism, review and quotation.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Juliette Jones for her sterling work in transcribing my conversation with William Relton.

BBC copyright content reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

[1] Porter, P. (2016) William Trevor obituary, Guardian, 21 November [online] Available at: [accessed: 01/11/2021]

[2] Shubik, I. (2000) Play for Today: The evolution of television drama, 2nd edn. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 127.

[3] Relton, W. (2021) Interview with Tom May. 15 March. Transcribed by Juliette Jones.

[4] Whereas 11.8 per-cent of TLDPP was filmed on location in Skipton. See Simon Farquhar’s historical account of the play here and my very formative analysis here from way back in 2011!

[5] Relton, W. (2021) ibid.

[6] Shubik, I. (2000) ibid, 127.

[7] Shubik, I. (2000) ibid, 127.

[8] Television Weekly Programme Review minutes, 17 November 1971, 3. [BBC WAC, micro film] [accessed: 16 January 2020]

[9] Day-Lewis, S. (1971) Gifted writer’s play below form, Daily Telegraph, 5 November, 10.

[10] Le Moignan, M. (1971) Play For Today: O Fat White Woman, The Stage and Television Today, 11 November, 13.

[11] Ironside, V. (1971) Last Night on TV, Daily Mail, 5 November, 19.

[12] Brien, A. (1971) Bird’s eye viewing, Sunday Times, 7 November, 38; Thomas, J. (1971) ‘Please sir! Teach about a boarding school of fun’, Daily Express, 5 November, 17.

[13] Television Weekly Programme Review minutes, 10 November 1971, 6. [BBC WAC, micro film] [accessed: 16/01/2020]

[14] Say, R. (1971) Goodbye Mr. Kops, Sunday Telegraph, 7 November, 19.

[15] Davies, B. (1971) One man’s television, Television Mail, 12 November, 18.

[16] Whitehead, P. (1971) Television: ITV 2, Listener, 11 November, 668.

[17] Reynolds, S. (1971) O Fat White Woman, Times, 5 November, 9.

[18] Television Weekly Programme Review minutes, 21 October 1970, 5-6 & 10 November 1971, 6. BBC WAC, micro film [accessed: 16/01/2020]

[19] Audience Research Department, BBC Audience Research Report – Play for Today: O FAT WHITE WOMAN, 24 November 1971. BBC WAC, VR/71/452 [accessed: 18 August 2017] All subsequent audience comments cited come from this document.

[20] From October 1970 to July 1973, no specific Reaction Index scores are specified within the audience research reports: curiously, given that all Wednesday Play reports had these percentages. However, I have calculated figures for those 1970-73 episodes which specify figures for audience responses to the same five-point opinion scale on four sets of binaries: ‘Thoroughly entertaining’/’Very boring’, ‘Very easy to understand’/’Very difficult to understand’, ‘Excellent plot’/’Poor plot’, ‘Definitely out-of-the-ordinary’/’Just ordinary’. Thus, for O Fat White Woman I have calculated a mean average for these which corresponds exactly to the A+/A-/B/C+/C- scale used from series 4 on.

[21] Williams, R.; O’Connor, A. ed. (1989) Raymond Williams on Television: Selected Writings. Abingdon: Routledge, 78-79. Williams’s piece on Plater’s Wednesday Play was originally in the Listener, 30 October 1969.

[22] Williams, R. (1989) ibid. 68-69. This was a piece in the Listener (10 July 1969) on Trevor’s Wednesday Play A Night With Mrs Da Tanka.

[23] Relton, W. (2021) ibid.

VERSION 1: published 04/11/2021, excluding material cited from the BBC Written Archives Centre, as I’m awaiting their formal approval.

VERSION 2: re-published 05/11/2021, including material cited from the BBC Written Archives Centre following their formal approval; I have used the form of words to credit this BBC content.

VERSION 3: re-published 11/11/2021, including amendment to information concerning William Relton’s pay for his acting roles following email correspondence with WR.

The Legendary Pink Dots Project Podcast

Alongside Adam Whybray, I have recently started The Legendary Pink Dots Project Podcast, version for radio of our reviews for Kitty Sneezes of the great band’s oeuvre. Join the hardy ten listening cosmonauts so far on Mixcloud here!

Be part of an audience exceeding in number that for many GB News shows and receive emissions of rather more interest, diversity and sustenance!

We are delighted to be broadcast by Repeater Radio, who have featured excellent podcasts on social class (Dan Evans’s Nation of Shopkeepers) and Wales (Rhian E Jones’s Border Country).

Philip Martin (1938-2020) Part Three: Peter Ansorge on script editing Gangsters (BBC 1976-78), plus contributions from David Edgar and David Rudkin.

Forgotten Television Drama

Introduction by Tom May

While Philip Martin’s television drama work might be justifiably termed as non-naturalistic, experimental, postmodernism orpopular modernism, his can also simply be described as a truly original voice.[i]

I only encountered Philip near the end of his well-lived life, via the technological apparatus of Zoom I conducted two interviews in the summer of 2020. Philip was born inLiverpool in 1938 and spoke with the actor’s Received Pronunciation accent he had gained during his time studying at RADA, but his voice also contained the occasional trace of Scouse.

Philip was a key player with Z Cars (1962-78), one of the few to both write and appear on the BBC’s popular and gritty Merseyside-set crime series (he wrote seven and performed in four episodes). After his successful career as an actor on stage, television and film, Philip started out writing with many lunchtime theatre plays, before gravitating to…

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Play for Today: Kisses at Fifty

My piece on Welland and Apted’s Play for Today ‘Kisses at Fifty’ for the Royal Holloway website FORGOTTEN TELEVISION DRAMA, celebrating PLAY FOR TODAY’S 50th anniversary.

Forgotten Television Drama

By Tom May

Written by Colin Welland, directed by Michael Apted and produced by Graeme McDonald. Broadcast on BBC1 at 9.25pm on Monday 22 January 1973

Bill Maynard as Harry

When leaving my last job as a lecturer in a Further Education College, I enjoyed a pint with soon-to-be former colleagues in the Town Wall pub in Newcastle upon Tyne in late August 2018. I was about to start my three-year studentship researching a history of Play for Today, while the others were about to start another year of teaching A Levels. I remember one chat with an Art lecturer born in the 1950s; I asked him which Plays for Today he most remembered. Without hesitation, he replied: Kisses at Fifty

Colin Welland was an art teacher who went into acting at the age of 26. He was one of many Play for Today writers who had initially…

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‘Tender Contempt’: Dennis Potter’s Love-Hate Relationship with Play for Today

Fascinating historical insights from John R. Cook.

Forgotten Television Drama

by John Cook

‘The television play is virtually the last place on the box where the individual voice and the personal vision is central to the experience.’[1]

‘Play for Today !  Just for today !… Something easy, undemanding.  It’s all part of the commercial !  It’s all “pass the time”‘ !

How do we reconcile these two statements from the 1970s, both from the pen of Dennis Potter ?  Granted, the first is supposedly ‘fact’: the articulated views of the writer himself, addressing his peers at the 1977 Edinburgh Television Festival.  The second is allegedly ‘fiction’ – a typical angst-ridden outburst from Potter’s fictional TV playwright character Christopher Hudson (played by Keith Barron).  Hudson is venting his frustrations as he struggles to complete his latest TV play within Potter’s own self-referential Play for Today about the writing of a television play, Only Make Believe (12 February 1973).

Keith Barron…

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Play for Today at 50: Part #1 – ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ (1980)

PLAY FOR TODAY - Chance of a Lifetime TS&TT - 28-02-80

This is the first of an occasional series of posts this year to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the BBC1 drama anthology series, Play for Today.

In 2019, the Christmas Day episode of Gavin and Stacey drew an overnight audience of 11.6 million (growing to a seven-day figure of 17.1 million). Exactly forty years ago today, on Thursday 3 January 1980, the Play for Today ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ (dir. Giles Foster) was broadcast at 9:25pm on BBC1. 27 year-old Guisborough-born theatre playwright Robert Holman’s play is set in coastal Teesside and it concerns the military recruitment of teenage lads about to leave school. It gained 12.89 million viewers, according to BBC statistics: 24.7% of the UK population. This amounted to a 70.8% share of television viewers, a remarkable figure: over seven times as many as the average for ITV programmes from 9:25-10:40pm (9.4%). (1)

It is an excellent play, well worth revisiting; however, it is not only unavailable on DVD/BluRay or the new BritBox but has only been repeated once since its first transmission (BBC1, 03/09/1981). Don Shaw and Alan Clarke’s Wednesday Play ‘Sovereign’s Company’ (BBC1, 22/04/1970), a bitterly angry piece which centres on experiences in the military is available here. In contrast Holman’s play conveys a sad stoicism and inexorable sense of tragedy in how the Troubles impact on northern lives. David Daker is superb as the single-parent widower father Andrew Saville, an ICI worker trying to look after his sons Gordon (Martyn Hesford) and Philip (Richard Tolan). Shaw’s rebellious, uncompromising earlier piece gained a more typical Wednesday Play/Play for Today audience figure of 4.44 million, but was well received, gaining a strong Reaction Index of 63% ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ obtained an even stronger RI of 69% and the BBC’s Audience Research Report quotes viewers’ praise of Daker’s performance, the locations and its overall ‘authenticity’; ‘Viewers considered it well written and absorbing and welcomed this sensitive treatment of a contemporary and controversial issue, particularly as it appeared to be realistic and true to life.’ (2)

The audience may also have appreciated the warmth and tenderness within the unconventional family – when his girlfriend Jean (Madelaine Newton) hugs and comforts Andrew when he cries, to the accompaniment of old-fashioned, diegetic light music, it is a richly emotional moment within a blended family; which contrasts with the stark anomie that Shaw and Clarke portray in the platoon. The success of this play also gives lie to David Hare’s partisan pro-film assertions in an article he published in Frank Pike’s Ah Mischief! (1982); he claimed that practically all of the Plays for Today popular with critics and audiences were shot on film, not those using video within the studio. This PFT may prove Hare’s binary; it was shot on location on 16mm film, though the copy I watched was stored on tape and was in significant need of restoration. Yet, the film doesn’t seem to utilise its medium’s more mythical, distancing potentials; it may partially be the copy I was watching, but it seemed to me to have a steady, televisual immediacy. Instead of grandiosity, Giles Foster’s more subdued visual texture fits the muted stoicism of Holman’s script. It points the way to the aesthetic of later PFTs shot on VT on location as Outside Broadcasts like Maurice Leitch and Jon Amiel’s tense 1950s and Northern Ireland-set drama, ‘Gates of Gold’ (08/03/1983). (3)

The play is austere but not entirely gloomy. The characters’ mundane interactions feel like a more subdued xerox of the worldly northern identity depicted in TV dramas by Alan Bennett, Colin Welland and Peter Terson. This is also the era where Victoria Wood had only just come to prominence with the deft, humane satire Talent (Granada, 05/08/1979), which cast a perceptive eye on the world of northern ‘turns’ culture and the entertainment industry – influenced by New Faces (ATV, 1973-78), which had given Wood her first TV appearance as early as 1974. Richard Eyre produced ‘Chance of a Lifetime’, which in its way almost as thoughtful a cultural and political intervention as Eyre’s notable Play for Today productions of works by Trevor Griffiths and Ian McEwan: ‘Comedians’ (25/10/1979), ‘The Imitation Game’ (24/04/1980) and ‘Country’ (20/10/1981).

There is an evocatively nostalgic feeling to its classically inflected score from George Fenton; its winds and brass sounds feel and signify northern while the minor-key is prevalent. Holman subtly investigates the cultural present day. A nurse, in a telephone conversation with someone who is presumably a partner or friend, muses over the cultural options for a Teesside night-out:

“I don’t fancy the pictures. I certainly don’t fancy Black Emanuelle! Well, there’s a folk club in Middlesbrough…”

From the choice available, she favours the folk club over the Italian sexploitation film (dir. Bitto Albertini, 1975): a binary cultural polarity that notably neglects television – which, from the 1960s to the 1990s (Z Cars to Big Brother?), historically exerted its greatest appeal to the British people. Other sections reveal a fascinatingly conflicted, unresolved attitude to permissiveness while the play overall seems to insist on its characters’ dual traits of gentleness and hardiness.

‘Chance of a Lifetime’ has an non-showy feel of the ‘real’ to its often seemingly inconsequential dialogues. The cheery Major Ian Anderson (David Buck) commands his young Cadet charges not to skylark about on their excursion. He later bemoans the passing of Grammar Schools, which he links to the decline in funding and social will behind the ailing Cadet groups; intriguingly, Holman has this reasonable but firm sounding man self-identify as a “pacifist”. When Stephen asks him “Why d’ you do this, then?” Anderson replies: “To give lads like you opportunities you wouldn’t normally get…!” Stephen nods understandingly, which has inevitable sense of tragedy; there’s dramatic irony given what happens later in the play.

Viewers watching the schedule as a whole would have come to ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ after the Nine O’Clock News with Richard Baker. COAL’s doom-laden latter act echoes Edgar’s Play for Today ‘Destiny’ (BBC1, 31/01/1978): Major Rolfe’s son dies in Northern Ireland. This play’s context was as fraught with geopolitical conflict as that earlier play’s was with domestic political conflict over ‘race’ and immigration: on 16/12/1979, Provisional IRA landmines in Counties Tyrone and Armagh had killed five British Army soldiers (and an ex-Ulster Defence Regiment volunteer). (3)

Eight days later, the Soviet Union ordered its troops into Afghanistan, to support its friendly secular regime the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan against a fundamentalist insurgency. Exactly a week before Holman’s play was broadcast, the Soviets assassinated President Hafizullah Amin in Kabul. Much of 1980 was to be consumed by renewed fears of nuclear war – the ‘protect and survive’ culture detailed by Andy Beckett (2015) – as well as whether or not Britain should boycott the Moscow Olympics in the summer. In May, Kingsley Amis’s paranoid dystopian novel Russian Hide and Seek was published, depicting a Russian-dominated UK, due to what Amis perceives as cultural apathy and a lack of patriotic spirit. BBC2’s 20-part educational epic Russian-Language and People – which began at 7:35pm six days after ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ – was perhaps swimming against the tide, unfortunately broadcast just as the Soviet Union had commenced on its own destructive “Vietnam” against the Mujahideen. It got moved around in the schedules to a later time-slot but was also repeated in schools and colleges slots on BBC1.

‘Chance of a Lifetime’ is an especially telling play of its day in 1980, in its portrayal of working-class northerners as forming an undemonstrative, stoical heartbeat of a besieged nation; as well as fears of international entanglements, it subtly conveys internal dread at the high regional unemployment and redundancies to come. On 2 January, just a day before the play’s transmission, a national steel strike had begun, which was to last 14 weeks. While the outcome was not as conclusively preferable for the British Right as the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85, it presaged some of Thatcher government’s ‘divide and rule’ tactics of that crucial dispute. On 12 September 1980, the Consett steel works in North West Durham shut for good, as the government refused to step in to save what it perceived as unproductive jobs.

Ultimately, ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ is just as much a play for today, 3 January 2020. Its foreign policy and domestic concerns seem pressing on this day when our ’emboldened’ Prime Minister is on holiday and has left Dominics Raab and Cummings, unelected adviser and fetishist of scientific “weirdos” and Mafioso mavericks, in the hot seat. On a day when the US has assassinated a powerful Iranian general. Then, the threats were a new Cold War, possible nuclear war, the Troubles and concentrated unemployment. Now, there is the central threat of climate change, the rise of a populist right, possible nuclear war, the challenges posed by “Brexit” to the UK, as well as intense regional inequality within the UK following project austerity (2010- ).

Now, we don’t seem to have a topical drama strand like Play for Today to dramatise important contemporary issues that are stake, to include dissenting voices and portray all manner of viewpoints – as in Edgar’s ‘Destiny’ (1978); see my three-part article on that PFT here. We don’t just need panoramic Plays for Today like ‘Carson Country’, ‘Destiny’ and ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ made publicly available; we need Play for Today itself back as a going concern, to help us make sense of our evolving, threatened world; it is one of the BBC’s crown jewels, along with Match of the Day, dinnerladies and Doctor Who.

If you have memories of experiences working on this fascinating production, or have any memories of watching it, please post below, or get in touch – my email is I’d be very interested in hearing from you! If you are from BBC Enterprises or BritBox, please consider enabling more people to see this successful but neglected highlight. Many thanks to the BFI and Kathleen Dickson who supplied me with a viewing copy of this play, the North East Film Archive who kindly housed my viewing in earlier 2019 and James Leggott and Northumbria University who enabled it all. 

(1) It is worth noting, however, as W. Stephen Gilbert (1980) did, that the opposition was five minutes of ITV’s news and then from 9:30pm HTV’s 125-minute studio production by the Welsh National Opera Company of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Don Pasquale. As WSG notes, perhaps Play for Today could only ever be hegemonic when its social realist aesthetic was the only alternative to Welsh-inflected high culture. Or, indeed, BBC2’s Peter Ustinov and Natalie Wood at the Hermitage – in which, according to the Guardian (03/01/1980: 20), ‘Witty Mr U and Pretty Miss Wood’, both of Russian ancestry, visited the famous Leningrad museum to open the channel’s Russian season. This, and the following first-half of a celebratory concert for French-Italian jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, gained an average of 3.6 million viewers, more than double ITV’s figure.

(2) Graham, Clive – An Audience Research Report: PLAY FOR TODAY – CHANCE OF A LIFETIME, 28 January 1980, VR/80/10 [BBC WAC Caversham]

(3) In originally specifying that ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ had been shot on videotape (and, in particular, 625 line PAL colour 2” videotape) I hadn’t been 100% certain and had been relying on TV Brain, Available [online] at: [accessed: 03/01/2020] and the Kaleidoscope Guide to BBC Drama (2011) – both of which claimed its ‘source format’ was 2″ VT. Billy Smart has kindly pointed out that ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ was in fact shot on 16mm film in a Loachian vein, but was edited on 2″ VT – correction made 03/01/2020.

(4) CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict – 1979′ Available [online] at: [accessed: 03/01/2020]


Beckett, A. (2015) Promised You A Miracle: Why 1980-82 Made Modern Britain. London: Allen Lane.
Gilbert, W.S. (1980) ‘The Television Play: Outside the Consensus’, Screen Education 35, Summer, 35-44
Pike, F. ed. (1982) Ah! Mischief: The Writer and Television. London: Faber and Faber.

‘The perennial lodestone of liberalism’ – BOOK REVIEW: Toby Manning’s “John Le Carré and the Cold War”

John Le Carré and the Cold War
Toby Manning

London: Bloomsbury, 2018

Toby Manning - JLC and the Cold War

le Carré’s position on communism was considerably closer to that of the British state than is critically acknowledged or popularly understood. (Manning, p.11)

This book is an important intervention in JLC studies, analysing six George Smiley-centric novels in considerable depth. Manning places the novels in historical context and employs rigorous close-reading in order to shed light on political ideology within the novels. He focuses not just on what is there, but is also what is not there; developing an argument that JLC fundamentally elides any deep discussion of communism as an ideology or cause.

Whether central or ancillary, Smiley has always embodied, contained and ‘resolved’ these novels’ ideological dilemmas: he is the perennial lodestone of liberalism. (Manning, p.183)

Where many writers in Britain ignore liberalism and capitalism as powerful ideological forces, Manning carefully defines and inteprets them. This is especially the case with liberalism: he teases out the contradictions between the individualist, imperialist and often authoritarian Hobbesian strain and milder, twentieth-century social liberalism. Indeed, he locates these as tensions in the ‘national ego’ which are embodied by George Smiley, who is contradictorily portrayed as sometimes a humanistic arbiter and at other times as a forceful, illiberal agent who brings victorious closure to the narratives. GS’s knowledge empiricism is also identified and placed in an intended binary with the unbending, ideological communist enemy, represented by Karla.

Manning makes a powerful argument that JLC’s Cold War fiction fundamentally backs the hegemonic Western Cold War position of ‘containment’, and does not, as many critics have argued, posit a moral equivalence between liberalism and communism. There is typically some acknowledgment of ‘our’ side having to do bad things, but these are invariably shown to be necessary to contain an ‘other’, alien communism. Where communism is mentioned, it is always with emotive language such as ‘evil’. Manning identifies this treatment of the communist enemy as Manichean and not all that far from Ian Fleming’s presentations of the eastern foe. In this argument, he builds on Andrew Hammond’s wide survey of British Cold War Fiction in 2013. As I have argued previously, one of the few writers to seriously question the West’s geopolitical position was Graham Greene. Manning locates Greene alongside Eric Ambler as being fundamentally influenced by their experience of the 1930s and the ‘Popular Front’.

Manning’s other advance is to find references in the texts to the contemporary domestic politics; while there is generally denigration of working-class geographies in the novels – such as the municipal blocks of flats in The Looking Glass War (1965) – Call for the Dead (1961) is said to differ. This occurs in its climactic action, where Smiley kills Dieter Frey and Smiley’s remorse is said to incorporate ideas of ‘home-grown radicalism’, with  textual quotations from an 1830 folk song. Manning describes JLC as usually endorsing ‘an essentially establishment England’ of public-school and Oxbridge; just for a brief moment, here in the first Smiley novel, are glimpses of the domestic political alternative of the Diggers, the Jacobins, John Ball, Williams Blake and Morris. This implicit alternative emerges when Smiley doubts his own ‘gentlemanly’ status, having carried out the brutal act of murdering Frey. Manning’s attention to detail has certainly made me want to go back and read this novel again; exactly what you want from any such academic study.

Manning also deftly interweaves Britain’s post-colonial angst with its Cold War geopolitics; explicitly avoiding the sort of compartmentalising that too many scholars engage in. The main novels where Britain’s colonial legacy features are Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and The Honourable Schoolboy (1977).

This book is the culmination of wide reading, with skilful reference across a range of secondary texts used to place the six primary texts in a rich historical context. There’s a precision in dating the novels’ publication and in identifying the major world and UK events surrounding them. He also utilises contemporary UK and US book reviews to highlight how JLC has previously been denied canonical status by taste arbiters.

Manning is a le Carré enthusiast and scholar who has also written popular music journalism.* He astutely situates these novels in post-WW2 cultural context while elucidating their explicit and implicit politics. Even adherents of the view that these novels are ‘just’ exciting thrillers will be convinced by Manning’s comprehensive investigation of their politics. He convincingly establishes just how wedded to the ‘establishment’ status quo these novels are, always giving us Smiley’s or other upper-class characters’ perspective and barely ever allowing working-class or communist characters a hearing.

Manning places this ‘repression’ of other voices within the context of the mid-1970s. With developments in Vietnam, Portugal, Jamaica, Laos and Angola, the West’s Cold War ‘victory’ seemed far from assured. He also identifies just how anti-American The Honourable Schoolboy is, with JLC again endorsing Smiley’s urbane, traditional but muscular liberalism as the prefered way. The Circus’s intractable bureaucracy is analogised to the Russians’, with Smiley often criticising it, only to himself ultimately steer the UK state bureaucracy to notable victories.

The careful elision of the concept of social class only proves its very power within these fascinating novels, with JLC using a ‘mythic register’ in presenting Oxford, Cornwall and spies’ training centre Sarratt as the true England and Smiley’s liberal, gentlemanly habitus as justly leading to victory in the Cold War.

* I really hope Manning gets his planned ‘folk-spy hybrid’ novel Border Ballads published! He can be heard mentioning this and discussing his JLC book here.

“You cannot have unilateral disarmament […] It’d be national suicide” – representation of the Ban the Bomb debate in ESPIONAGE

ESPIONAGE: 4. ‘The Gentle Spies’, ITV, Saturday 26/10/1963


“Somewhere in Northumbria, there is a herd of Guernsey cows barred from their favourite pasture because of intense radioactive contamination.”

Espionage was a 1963-64 series made by Lew Grade’s ITC; it featured a range of historical and contemporary stories. The former is represented by the Irish Easter Rising story ‘He Rises on Sunday, and We on Monday’ and the China-set period piece ‘The Dragon Slayer’. It’s an interesting mixed-bag of a 24-episode series, with no fewer than three episodes directed by the great British film director Michael Powell. ‘The Weakling’ (dir. Stuart Rosenberg) is the best of those Espionage episodes I’ve seen: Arnold Perl’s taut WW2 tale with the brilliantly cast pairing of Dennis Hopper and John Gregson.

Also good, if not quite as gripping, is the more contemporary Episode 4, inspired directly by acts of the British Committee of 100. ‘The Gentle Spies’ was shown in ITV’s prime-time Saturday night schedule at 8:55pm, followed by The Avengers at 9:50pm. Directed by 42 year-old Mancunian David Greene and written by 38 year-old New Yorker, Ernest Kinoy, ‘The Gentle Spies’ is a typically US-UK collaboration, but with a reasonably sure grasp of UK Cold War concerns; for example, there is reference to a recent protest against Polaris in Scotland. Greene was to go onto direct a mix of trashy and cult films, all rather neglected today: Sebastian (1967), The Strange Affair (1968),  I Start Counting (1970) and Madame Sin (1972). The first of those is of Cold War relevance, while the preposterous, Bette Davis-starring last is one of the most absurd of all nuclear weapons scenario films.

This was broadcast exactly three weeks after the Soviets, Americans and British signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on 5th October; this marked a certain relaxation following the Cuban Missile Crisis-related tensions in 1962. The Treaty was one of the more tangible signs of Nikita Khrushchev’s policy of ‘peaceful coexistence’.

The episode depicts a civilised, largely urbane discourse between the UK government and the anti-bomb CND insurgency. While the peace campaigners are shown as able to commit the direct action of publishing sensitive details of nuclear policy and perform sit-ins, they are also represented by Lord Kemble (Alan Webb), a Bertrand Russell-esque Nobel Prize winner. The group’s breaking the Official Secrets Act by printing details is shown as an understandable move in the campaign to stop nuclear war: “GET YER OFFICIAL SECRETS ‘ERE!”

Establishment men

The establishment is embodied by Godfrey Quigley’s Grimsmith and he-of-the-brilliant-audio-book-voice Michael Hordern as an unnamed Conservative party ‘Minister’. They use Gerry Paynter (Barry Foster), who insinuates himself with the protesters by donning a duffle coat and a CND lapel badge.

Baz Foster in his earlier “man from the ministry” city gent get-up…

Grimsmith says of the protesters, “I suppose they’re all communists […] beatniks, dupes, anarchists, perverts, theatre people?” Paynter responds by explaining that “a lot of them come from universities”. One amusingly RP-voiced hooligan declares: “I am a follower of Gandhi in international affairs only… In my private life, I’m as violent as the next man”. This evokes thoughts of the Mods and Rockers ‘moral panic’ that was to be stirred the following year in 1964.

However, the main spokesperson of the youth wing of the movement is Sheila O’Hare, a 23-year-old protester played by Angela Douglas 26 years before she’d play Doris, the wife of Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart in Doctor Who.


A protesters’ social is shown, wherein Sheila explains how they’re a decentralised group, without a leader: “There isn’t any head […] We’re very democratic…” Sheila also acts as lead vocalist in a jazz protest combo, singing ‘Who Cares’, a TW3-style satirical attack on the bomb: “There’s a big grey mushroom in the sky, why cry?” Its ironic sarcasm works on a different level to the more earnest folk music that you might expect from such a gathering. Other significant jazz contributions to the anti-nuclear theme include Charles Mingus’s ‘Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me’ (1961) and Sun Ra’s ‘Nuclear War’ (1982).


Sheila’s sardonic lyrical points are supplemented by her emotional arguments to Paynter and, later, the Minister and Grimsmith. Towards the episode’s climax, she is given a scathing speech:

“All we want is a future… A future world to make something decent out of… Something that looks like our dreams, our ideas… Not a radioactive wilderness with a lot of dying politicians muttering ‘I’m sorry’…”

Her sincerity and passion is also shown in her claim she would go to jail for “ten years” for this cause. This possibility gets to Dr/Lord Kemble, the patrician reasoner, who is referred to by the Minister as having “always” been “an odd bird”, from his days teaching his son through to his current status as dogged protester. Kemble offers to be locked up himself if the others would be allowed to go free.

Sharp note is taken of changes in language brought on by the age of the Bomb; as Kemble says, “I believe it’s what you call ‘Mega-kills’. Your estimate of the number of innocent people who will perish in a nuclear attack.” Use of this compounded neologism stresses how the lexicon has been infiltrated by a violent new lexis.

The core of the debate is shown to be, unsurprisingly, between a ‘responsible’ government and ‘idealistic’ protesters (living in a “dream-like world”) with Kinoy’s drama granting neither side an outright win. However, the Ban-the-Bomb lot do gain a moral victory, as it is revealed that the Minister’s wife is the one who has leaked the sensitive material. Sara Forsythe (played by Joan Hickson in pre-Marple days) has apparently read Lord Kemble’s arguments in the Times and been swayed enough to break the Official Secrets Act. There is the implication at the end that it will all be hushed up, so as to avoid the Minister’s embarrassment.

Overall, Sara isn’t really given enough agency or characterisation to be a substantial figure in the narrative, but she does say, “I think I got quite a thrill out of it all… Very cloak and dagger stuff”. And Angela Douglas is eloquent as the Voice of Youth. The episode does enough to be a solidly dramatised time capsule of arguments in its early 1960s era: which says much about what could be expected in prime-time ITV drama then.


“Heroes fit for homes”: ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES… and wars hot and Cold

Series 01.06 ‘The Russians are Coming’
TX: BBC-1, Tuesday 13/10/1981

Knowing our luck, there won’t even be a bloody war…


In 1981, Only Fools and Horses… wasn’t yet a “national institution”, or the “best-loved” British sitcom, as Samsung’s November 2017 poll indicated. (1) This first series of the sitcom averaged 7.7 million viewers and the audience’s Reaction Index had a mean of 70, increasing from the first episode’s 62: emphasising how John Sullivan’s sitcom was gradually finding its audience. (2) The finest episode of its first series was an unusually focused look at domestic implications of the Cold War.

The episode was shown in the midst of the ‘Second Cold War’; the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, while Reagan had been elected as a more bellicose US President in November 1980. In the same year, Cold War ‘doom’-pop had included Kate Bush’s ‘Breathing’, UB40′ and ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’ and The Fun Boy Three’s ‘The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)’ was due in November 1981. The BFI filmed a poetry performance at Chelsea Old Town Hall on 15th April 1981 named Poets Against the Bomb, capturing anti-nuclear poems from the likes of Adrian Henri, Adrian Mitchell, Judith Kazantzis, Harold Pinter and a drily humorous Ivor Cutler. Panorama had addressed the subject ‘If the Bomb Drops’ very early (TX: BBC-1, 10/03/1980).

Only Fools… got to the topic sooner than The Young Ones (‘Bomb’, TX: BBC-2, 30/11/1982), or, indeed, the science-fiction spin-off from Play for Today, Play for Tomorrow – Caryl Churchill’s opening episode ‘Crimes’ (TX: BBC-1, 13/04/1982) featured Dave Hill as a mendacious seller of nuclear shelters. It also got there sooner than Q.E.D.‘s ‘A Guide to Armageddon’ (TX: BBC-1, 26/05/1982), which was followed by The Underground Test (TX: BBC-2, 28/05/1982), where two London couples each volunteered to carry out a ten-day ‘consumer test’ – underground in a nuclear shelter. The programme showed the results of this experiment, which had taken place in the cold Winter of 1981/82.

In ‘The Russians Are Coming’, the Trotter household self-assemble a nuclear fall-out shelter – using stolen lead worth £1,000. The notably all-male family dramatise arguments about nuclear weapons, with Del the voice of complacency and Rodney articulating the explicit and bleak official ‘guidance’ people were being given, as in the public information film, Protect and Survive (1976).

As with Steptoe and Son (1962-74), the lack of women is tangibly felt. We are presented with now-retrograde, then-typical dialogue outlining sexual fantasies (leading to Del describing Rodders as a “sicko” and “pervo”) and nationality stereotyping (“Paddies”). It can be argued that this roots such a sitcom in the naturalistic flavour of its times.

Both Del and Rodney question how they’d know the “four minute warning” was starting, considering that no-one had been informed what the sound was. This reflects how much of the official advice and guidance on nuclear war seemed insufficient and even pointless, considering the cataclysmic main effects of such a war.

However, Del Boy argues for the character-building nature of war, paraphrasing Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1854): “Mine is not to reason why / Mine is but to sell and buy”. He argues that British youth have always needed “a decent war” and that the current younger generation are starved of a war, in this age of computerisation; “they’re doing their National Service on the Space Invaders!” Computer games provide a poor surrogate, in his view. He then speaks of “real war”, using wholly film examples: of Errol Flynn and Kenneth More.

Grandad responds to Del Boy’s claims of these film wars as “Glorious, valiant war, that!”: “Don’t talk like a berk, Del Boy”. He speaks of how, as a “nipper”, he saw soldiers marching off to serve in WW1 and how his brother George was at Passchendale. He brings in personal reminiscences and facts to challenge Del’s second-hand culturally-formed view of war: “Nigh on a half million allied troops died there all for five miles of mud”. He explains the reality of soldiers returning home as maimed, gassed victims.


They promised us homes fit for heroes…

They gave us heroes fit for homes…

Grandad is allowed ample time to make his points here: a sign that sitcoms were willing to countenance straight, serious monologues as part of their arsenal. At no point in Lennard Pearce’s long oration does he try to elicit a single laugh. This monologue is used as a centre-piece of the episode, stating harsh truths about war in the twentieth-century. The episode’s dominant mode of fatalistic gallows humour is immeasurably strengthened by Sullivan’s decision to make the episode just not funny for such a long stretch.

Rodney, who’d silenced Del to allow Grandad to speak, presses home the assault: “I’d never wear a British uniform on principle”. This elicits the first laugh for a while, as he explains the reason; not due to high ideals, but that he’d want to avoid being shot at by Russians. However, Rodney sports a UK Decay band t-shirt; his affinity for this Luton post-punk band, with links to the radical likes of the Dead Kennedys and Crass, does connote his broad sympathies for the counter-culture. He reels off knowledge of the scarcity of resources a nuclear war would bring, and shows awareness of the effects of Strontium 90 and of radiation: causing mutations.

Rodney and Del seem to take comfort in their alone being safe; a sense of exceptionalism that rings increasingly hollow as the final shot depicts the location of their nuclear shelter as directly annexed to their tower-block. The sense that Sullivan is aiming for Oh! What A Lovely War bleakness Grandad’s “War is Hell”. Jingoism is rooted in film representations indicated to be false; the Falklands War was still half a year away. Ironically, however, both Grandad and Rodney can only recall the “War is Hell” quote as being from cinema, speculating on whether it was Alan Ladd, Audie Murphy or Rock Hudson who said it.

(1) Anon. (2017) ‘Revealed: Britain’s favourite sitcom’, Mid Sussex Times, 21st November.

(2) Jan Hewson (1982) Audience Research Report: ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES…, BBC WAC, VR/81/341, 22nd January