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I've been wanting to focus more on British productions. So I am creating a "sister" essentials thread here.

Jlewis said he will occasionally pop by. These reviews may not be as in-depth as what we're doing on the main essentials thread. But I do want to spotlight some excellent work by British talent.

Specifically I will be looking at the work of directors and writers like Mike Newell, Michael Apted, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, Roland Joffe, Bryan Forbes and Alan Clarke. I know that sounds like only a group of men, but hopefully as we go on, there will be work by women we can examine too. The women tend to be represented more in the on-camera performances instead of behind the camera. Some of the actresses and actors whose work I will be covering includes: Helen Mirren, Brenda Blethyn, Julie Walters, Judi Dench, Lynne Frederick, John Thaw, Billy Connolly, Kenneth Branagh, John Duttine, Stephen Rea, James Fox, Peter Firth and Ian Holm.

I haven't decided on all the productions I wish to go over. But I think the pattern will be: each month I will cover one feature film, and the other weeks, I will look at classic BBC telefilms. The British film industry faced defunding in the 1970s, so a lot of the people I mentioned in the preceding paragraph turned to television. Many of the BBC telefilms that aired as part of the series "Play for Today" used scripts that had been intended for feature films, and a lot of them are adaptations of stage works. So during this period (1970 to 1984) there is a rich collection of telefilms that are as good as anything produced on the stage or for the cinema.

Since it is the 50th anniversary of "Play for Today" a batch of restored broadcasts have been added to BritBox for streaming. (Some of these are also on YouTube). At present there are about 65 of these available for viewing (over 300 were produced). So these will be my main focus in the beginning. I want to encourage people to seek them out and watch them, because they are just so extraordinarily good.

I will start posting my shorter reviews for British features and telefilms in November.

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This is what I plan to discuss the next few months:

November 1: THE L-SHAPED ROOM (1962)

November 8: Play for Today: Home Sweet Home (1982)

November 15: Play for Today: Spend Spend Spend (1977)

November 22: Play for Today: Coming Out (1979)

November 29: Play for Today: The Other Woman (1976)

December 6: Play for Today: Country (1981)

December 13: Play for Today: King (1984)

December 20: NEVER LET GO (1960)

December 27: Play for Today: Scum (1977)

January 3: SCUM (1979)

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Essential: THE L-SHAPED ROOM (1962)

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THE L-SHAPED ROOM stays with you long after viewing. It is all quite memorable– the story itself, Bryan Forbes’ direction (and the changes he made from Lynne Reid Banks’ original novel) plus Leslie Caron’s performance. She should have received an Oscar.

There are so many remarkable scenes. My “favorite” part is the brief montage where she’s walking down the street after taking the pills (to induce an abortion), then collapses. One time I collapsed in public, after drinking too much wine, and this is exactly how it is…where there are these little jumps in time, losing consciousness and going down. Afterward, I felt disoriented and slightly embarrassed, which Caron experiences on screen.

I haven’t read the book yet, but in the original story Jane the main character has a boy. Not sure why Forbes felt the need to switch the child’s gender to a girl in the film. Banks wrote two more books about Jane raising her son, so there is a trilogy.

I think the second-best performance after Caron’s is Cicely Courtneidge emoting as an over-the-top over-the-hill music hall performer. She plays it with the right combination of gusto and vulnerability. She is both repulsive and endearing.

Less effective is American actor Brock Peters. He’s a highly competent performer but miscast. While he nails the beats of individual scenes I don’t think he brings the right amount of pathos to it. I felt Johnny, his character, should have been a bit more tormented about loving Toby and having to witness Toby’s relationship with Jane right under his nose.

In some ways Jane is a protagonist and an antagonist. She’s definitely a catalyst in all their lives, and they are catalysts in her life. Interestingly, daily routines continue as “normal” after she has the baby and leaves.

The final scene where she goes back to retrieve her belongings and meets Jane II, the new boarder in her old room– has echoes of the final scene in ALL ABOUT EVE. Though we are told that Jane II has no intention of interacting with the other boarders, we know she will get drawn into their lives and they will get drawn into hers, just as we had seen happen to Jane I.

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Essential: Play for Today- Home Sweet Home (1982)

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There’s something about Mike Leigh’s work that grabs you. I am not sure if it’s because the characters are simple, and the situations are anything but simple. Or if it’s because despite the contrivances of the plot, the characters are still living out a solemn existence. And in this case, solemn is anything but boring.

The story focuses on three postal workers in Hertforshire who do the same mundane job day in and day out. Two are married (not to each other) and the third one, whose wife left him, is sleeping with both his coworkers’ wives. What I like about the way this unfolds is how Leigh tells us right away that one of the affairs is occurring, but we do not know there is a second affair going on at the same time until halfway into the story. Gordon and Harold (Timothy Spall and Tim Barker), the unsuspecting husbands, don’t find out their wives (Kay Stonham and Su Elliott) are unfaithful with their oversexed coworker Stan (Eric Richard) until near the end of the story.

Woven into this is the fact that Stan’s teen daughter (Lorraine Brunning) is in foster care and a bubbly social worker (Frances Barber) is trying to help the daughter return home to live with Stan. The social worker is an unrealistic do-gooder who says “super” every thirty seconds and glosses over the problems in Stan’s life as well as the fact that Tina, the daughter, is still emotionally unstable.

It’s all rather depressing yet fascinating. Tina is allowed to spend a weekend with her father and while she’s at home, she learns about Stan’s affairs. She discovers her father’s lecherous behavior at the same time that Gordon and Harold find out what Stan’s been up to behind their backs. We’re not meant to pity Stan but rather to feel sorry for the people that Stan screws over; and in some ways, Tina is getting screwed over too because Stan’s no model of stability for her to come home to. 

The dialogue in this telefilm is crafted in a “natural” way that we feel like we’re listening to real dysfunctional conversations. We’re supposed to realize that all these people are trapped in some sort of unhappy working class environment. And we are also supposed to realize that none of society’s solutions work for these people. Honesty leads to heartbreak; friendship leads to betrayal; childcare leads to alienation; intervention leads to disaster; and night leads to another day of misery.

The film ends after Stan’s been found out, shortly after he speaks to a new social worker (Lloyd Peters) about Tina’s mental health. Stan doesn’t seem to be thrilled with the idea of having to deal with court-appointed imbeciles; or having to appear sincere in a conversation about how to fix Tina’s problems. We then cut to a shot of Tina wandering around outside a group home.  

It’s not a feel-good ending at all. But in a way you do feel good after watching this story, because you realize that your own problems pale in comparison to what’s just been depicted on screen.

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Essential: Play for Today- Spend Spend Spend (1977)

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This particular episode of the BBC’s Play for Today series is on YouTube. It won a BAFTA award after it was initially broadcast. It is based on the life of Vivian Nicholson. Vivian was a lower class British woman whose husband won a large sum in a 1961 betting pool (sort of like a sports lottery). You can read about her online since she has a wiki page. She’s famous for an answer she gave a reporter about what they would do with all the money…she said “spend spend spend!” 

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And spend spend spend is what Vivian did. By the late 60s she was broke again and widowed. She had a few more marriages and her colorful life made her fodder for the tabloids. When the BBC commissioned the script for this installment of Play for Today, she had just written an autobiography about her rags to riches to rags story. Parts of her autobiography are used as the basis for this drama.

If you read the IMDb reviews someone says they went to a special screening of "Spend Spend Spend" in the early 2000s and Viv was in attendance at the theater with some of her family. I guess it was a way for them to recall what had happened to her. To review her (more than) 15 minutes of fame. She was still remembered by Brits when she died in 2015. 

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If you watch “Spend Spend Spend” you may come away with it, feeling what I felt-- that money is certainly the cause of trouble for a lot of people. Not only for those who don’t have any, but also for those who have plenty. The tale is decidedly anti-capitalist, because we are led to believe that Viv might have been happier being poor. At the end, she returns to her old run-down neighborhood where she and her husband had lived before he won all the money. She’s very emotional, nostalgic even. Experience taught her the good life is what they had when she thought they had a bad life.

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This story resonates with me, because I had a relative who went through something similar. My uncle Greg barely finished high school, had trouble holding down jobs (blue collar jobs) his whole life…he had a series of destructive relationships with women and was aimless. He lived in poverty for years. At one point, in 2013 he was operating a forklift at a warehouse in central California and someone on the job site sexually harassed him (a male). 

Greg ended up suing and he won a large settlement against the company. Over a million dollars. He met a new woman, moved back to the midwest, bought a huge home and burned through all the money within two years. He soon lost the home, the girlfriend left him, and he wound up living in a low-rent apartment. In 2018 he died from hepatitis, caused by infections from intravenous drug use (used needles were found in his apartment after his death). He was a drug addict, something our family couldn’t discuss until he died. He was so poor at the end that he had gone on public assistance, and a person who was trying to help him rehabilitate, paid for his headstone. He is buried next to my grandparents. 

Like Viv Nicholson, my uncle had no understanding of money. It did not bring him happiness during those two years he had suddenly become wealthy. He just went back to how he had lived before. I hope he’s at peace now.

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I enjoyed this one even though it may require a second viewing later due to the fast dialogue, strong Brit accents and, more importantly, unorthodox story telling. Since it is all done with flashbacks and “flashforwards” (similar to the editing style of both CITIZEN KANE and ABC's landmark TV series LOST), it is a bit confusing to follow. I did like how the scene of Keith's death is shown simultaneous with that moment of jubilation a few years earlier when he discovers they hit it big in the sports lottery jackpot... the greatest high and low in life.

Good that you mentioned Viv Nicholson being a real (and famous in her time) person so I could look her up and now have the full story straight.

Read online that Susan Littler was only alive for a couple more years despite considerable success as an actress. John Duttine is still around.

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Although the structure in its editing was occasionally confusing, if also quite innovative and cinematic-ally fascinating as well, there was a wonderful way of "dating" each scene despite it not being chronological. For example, popular music of the US and UK charts is used to good effect: Joan Weber's "Let Me Go Lover!" was a mammoth hit in late 1954, matching scenes when Keith and Viv became a couple. Canadian crooner Paul Anka's "Diana" was also covered during the early years of their marriage with children in 1957.  I guess their first car after the big win was, in fact, a 1962 Chevrolet Impala and I noticed how banged up it looked in certain scenes to suggest two years went by and it had gotten quite a beating with their rough lifestyle, also hinting to his future doom in a different car later. Her hair styles also changed through the years, as well as dye colors. Also love the vintage photo albums.

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On 11/15/2020 at 5:07 PM, Jlewis said:

I enjoyed this one even though it may require a second viewing later due to the fast dialogue, strong Brit accents and, more importantly, unorthodox story telling. Since it is all done with flashbacks and “flashforwards” (similar to the editing style of both CITIZEN KANE and ABC's landmark TV series LOST), it is a bit confusing to follow. I did like how the scene of Keith's death is shown simultaneous with that moment of jubilation a few years earlier when he discovers they hit it big in the sports lottery jackpot... the greatest high and low in life.

Good that you mentioned Viv Nicholson being a real (and famous in her time) person so I could look her up and now have the full story straight.

Read online that Susan Littler was only alive for a couple more years despite considerable success as an actress. John Duttine is still around.

Thanks for your comments on this one. John Duttine is a dependable actor.

The flashbacks/flashforwards might put some people off now. But I think the telefilm was designed for people in the late 70s who were already quite familiar with Viv Nicholson's life so they wouldn't have had much trouble following it. Plus her autobiography had been a bestseller and she was still very much in the public eye.

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Essential: Play for Today- Coming Out (1979) 

To be honest, I have no idea when the phrase ‘coming out’ was first applied to gay liberation. Since this episode of the BBC’s Play for Today was produced at the end of the 70s, I expected the story about one man’s coming to terms with his sexual identity to be a bit dated. And it is. But it is also timeless.

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What we have is a 69-minute teleplay written by James Andrew Hall, and while the story revolves around lead character Lewis Duncan (Anton Rodgers), we see how interwoven his life is with three other gay men. We start with Lewis having moved into a new home on a rainy afternoon, and he’s by himself. The story then flashes back to cover recent events in Lewis’ life. We quickly learn that in his previous residence (a modest apartment) he was cohabitating with younger lover Richie. Richie is portrayed by the very handsome Nigel Havers who for years on British television has specialized in playing cads. 

Lewis and Richie have a crisis, because Lewis is a workaholic and this leads to Richie cheating on Lewis. Richie uses Lewis for food, a bed to sleep in and new clothes. Lewis is Richie’s sugar daddy; and Richie is Lewis’ boy toy. Adding to all this is the fact that Lewis has an alter ego of sorts, using a pseudonym known as Zippy Grimes. As Zippy he writes spicy romance novels, books that detail the exploits of lustful heterosexual characters. 

Since Lewis does not have a healthy relationship with Richie, and since he has to remain in the closet so he doesn’t alienate his straight female readers, Lewis feels hemmed in. Lewis ends up sleeping with a young black male prostitute to unwind on the side. This is ironic, since he’s mostly faithful and it’s usually Richie who does the cheating.

Meanwhile there is a unique subplot where Lewis is doing research about gay men for a nonfiction piece that he is writing. At one point he visits a woman whose son recently came out of the closet. During the conversation, she says her son admitted he had his first same sex experience and liked it. She then admits that her son is a Catholic priest. 

In the next part Lewis is back in his office, and he talks with a maternal old secretary about what’s on his mind. He is still struggling with his own identity and with how to resolve issues that are cropping up in his relationship with Richie.

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Everything comes to a head later that evening when Lewis and Richie go to dinner at the home of two friends, another gay couple. The problems in the other couple’s relationship are more pronounced, and during the meal, Lewis finds out that Richie’s latest fling has been with one of the men in the other couple. Lewis and the other guy’s partner take all of this in, caught somewhat off guard at the confessions which occur at the dinner table. Although they both sort of expected their partners to be playing around, they did not exactly think their partners were playing with each other! It’s amusing and sordid at the same time.

After the meal, Lewis and Richie go home where Lewis gives Richie the cold shoulder. Lewis then decides they are over and breaks up with Richie. He never admits his dalliance with the prostitute, and he acts like he’s been more of an ideal partner than Richie could ever be. The story comes full circle, because the next day we see Lewis moving into his new home, alone, without Richie. He starts to write an article he calls ‘Coming Out’ where he tells his nonfiction readers that he’s straight writer Zippy Grimes but a homosexual.

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I found this to be a very effective installment of Play for Today. Yes, to some extent we have stereotypical gay men in stereotypical situations. At least for the time. But what strikes me about it all is how much James Andrew Hall puts into the dialogue.

I’ve been with straight men, straight-identified men, bisexual men, gay men and asexual men. But I don’t think I’ve ever lived so much in the gay scene. Hall is a writer who has lived it, to such an extent, that he cannot turn out a single line of dialogue without revealing particular attitudes that men exhibit in this subculture, per 1979 reality. I felt like I was learning new jargon, not just British slang but gay slang.

Also I was learning just how isolated these men are in terms of their own behaviors and how when four of them are alone together in a room at dinner, it all flows out so candidly. These men could not have this sort of melodramatic conversation in public. If they did, they’d probably be judged or shamed; or they would feel like they are playing to an audience who see them only as gays, not as men with real struggles specific to their needs and the dramas that envelope them within their milieu. 

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In some ways it’s a “pure gay” version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with a bit of Dorian Gray vanity tossed in for good measure. Watch this provocative episode of Play for Today on BritBox and see what you think. Of course, I should put an important question to you. Does watching ‘Coming Out’ make the viewer want to come out more or does it make him want to retreat back into the closet? I suppose it depends on what he’s coming out of and what he’s going into. 

Play for Today: Coming Out may currently be streamed on BritBox.

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The British Film Institute has an interesting YouTube video titled After Wolfenden: LGBTIQ+ lives on UK screens that includes your previously mentioned The L-Shaped Room and various TV shows from the late fifties through seventies, if not this specific one. The Play For Today series is fleetingly referenced, however. It could be linked here, but it is easy to find online. Unfortunately, YouTube has that ridiculous age restriction warning on it... which makes absolutely no sense at all since there are no clips of nudity (OK... there is one dimly lit bare behind exposed... big deal) but I think the short same sex kissing scenes are likely the issue here since there is still a very outspoken homophobic crowd that YouTube must please. Obviously if the documentary was all about heterosexual romance in entertainment, it would be "acceptable for all ages".

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7 minutes ago, Jlewis said:

The British Film Institute has an interesting YouTube video titled After Wolfenden: LGBTIQ+ lives on UK screens that includes your previously mentioned The L-Shaped Room and various TV shows from the late fifties through seventies, if not this specific one. The Play For Today series is fleetingly referenced, however. It could be linked here, but it is easy to find online. Unfortunately, YouTube has that ridiculous age restriction warning on it... which makes absolutely no sense at all since there are no clips of nudity (OK... there is one dimly lit bare behind exposed... big deal) but I think the short same sex kissing scenes are likely the issue here since there is still a very outspoken homophobic crowd that YouTube must please. Obviously if the documentary was all about heterosexual romance in entertainment, it would be "acceptable for all ages".

Thanks Jlewis. The BBC's Play for Today series was ahead of its time. It covered a wide variety of social issues from 1970 to 1984 with over 300 episodes. 

The 50th anniversary of its inaugural broadcast is a good excuse to dust some of the stories off and make them available to the public again. Especially since some societal attitudes have not changed.

Next weekend I will look at an episode that features a lesbian couple. It's called "The Other Woman" and was broadcast in 1976, a few years before the "Coming Out" piece.

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