The Excellent Talking Pictures TV has hit gold again with the broadcasting each Sunday of Armchair Theatre which originally ran from 1956 to 1974. It was the brainchild of ex Dr Who legend Sydney Newman who wanted to change British drama from the ‘anyone for tennis?’ upper middle class sort of play to subjects that working class people were having to address, so it was more Angry Young Men. Thames TV took over production of the series from 1968 until it ended 6 years later.
I think it fair to say that the quality of the episodes do vary but the series was responsible for blooding a new generation of writing and acting talent in these isles, including such people as Colin Welland (Chariots of Fire), Harold Pinter ( The Caretaker) and Phillip Saville (Boys from the Blackstuff).
The most recent episode (10th February) was the first class Brown Skin Gal, Stay Home and Mind Bay-Bee (1971). The title -taken from the Harry Belafonte calypso folk song- stars the always excellent Billie Whitelaw who is riveting as Ruth, a bored and sexually frustrated psychologist abandoned by her husband and with a young daughter to care for. Her life appears listless and without excitement as it consists of coffee with her girlfriends (fellow suburbanites (Anna Cropper and Ann Firbank), reading Henry Miller sex opuses and tanning herself in her garden.
Her life though gets disrupted when she rents out her basement to Irish manual worker Roger (Donal McCann) and over a period of days and weeks the two of them get the hots for each other. Ruth imagines making love to him whilst he fantasies about them getting married. Her girlfriends joke about her having fun with Roger the Lodger whilst his friend (Mark Kingston) encourages him to “get in there!” (it is the 1970’s after all!).
However both are too frozen by their social mores to get close to doing something to get together and both back out and are ultimately frustrated. To be honest, I think Billie Whitelaw’s character would have eaten poor old Roger alive but both characters are desperately lonely and end up as they started – frustrated and unhappy.
The play though is very well scripted by Robert Hollies who is perhaps best known for the film based on his book about the fight over a newly created African state at the end of the British Empire Guns at Batasi (1964) and had previously served (and was then kicked out of) the Gloucester Regiment for his portrayal of Army life. He creates and sustains the tension needed between Ruth and Rodger but it is Billie Whitelaw who keeps you watching. This is not the Billie Whitelaw as the demonic nanny in The Omen (1976) or the pursuing widow in Payroll (1962) also on Talking Pictures TV, but as a luminous divorcee bored out of her head and wanting adventure, lust, romance and companionship back in her life again.
Certainly well worth a watch.