John Osborne’s Luther (1961) was a major milestone along the road to the abolition of censorship. A history of Martin Luther, it traced his life from being a young, fearful monk born in the late 15th century, through his arguments with the Catholic Church, to his advocating a Reformed Church and his marriage to ex-nun Katherine von Bora. The subject matter of the play was obviously controversial and the censor feared that it might be offensive to Christians. Throughout the century the censors had been particularly strict against plays which they felt offended on religious grounds; the chief problem was that it was forbidden to portray the deity on stage, although, as Fowell and Palmer point out in their 1913 book Censorship in England, nobody seems able to trace the origin of this rule. As a result several thought-provoking and quality plays were long banned. For example, W. B. Yeats’ Noh Drama Calvary (1920), based on Oscar Wilde’s story The Doer of Good, has at its core two awkward problems; one, that Lazarus does not wish to be raised from the dead, and two, that Judas betrays Christ in order to escape the trappings of his all-encompassing religion. The Lord Chamberlain could never have permitted Christ to be vilified on stage by his enemies like that. The American Marc Connelly’s fantasy representation of the Old Testament stories, Green Pastures (1929), was also banned outright even though critical opinion felt it was good enough to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1930.
Faced with the prospect of licensing Luther, the Lord Chamberlain had no hesitation in demanding fourteen cuts from the play. Osborne had been appalled at the demands made by the censor of his previous two plays, The Entertainer and The World of Paul Slickey (1959). In the latter case he employed the services of a solicitor to argue with the Lord Chamberlain over changes. Osborne decided that he had had enough unfair treatment from the censor. He refused to comply with the cuts under any circumstances and wrote a public letter to the Lord Chamberlain, who was at the time Lord Scarborough: “I don’t write plays to have them rewritten by someone else,” he said; “I am quite prepared to withdraw the play from production altogether and wait for the day when Lord Scarborough is no more…” Surprisingly, Osborne’s anger made an impression on the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and, presumably feeling threatened, or guilty, they withdrew most of their amendments. Bullies always back down when you face them openly, and Osborne’s easy victory made the censor appear weak and inconsistent. This did the public image of the Lord Chamberlain’s office no good at all. Shocked by the success of his letter, Osborne compromised, went back on his word and agreed to accept the few changes which the Lord Chamberlain continued to demand.
Earl of Scarborough
In the scene where Martin speaks to his father Hans after he has given his first Mass, Hans refers to the weak wine made by the monks first as “convent piss” and later as “monk’s piss”. Osborne agreed to the Lord Chamberlain’s demand to change “monk’s piss” to “monk’s wine” which takes the venom out of the term; and he changed “convent piss” to “kidney juice” which, personally, I think is even more distasteful. In the same scene, Hans refers to Martin as “piss-scared”, which Osborne had to change simply to “scared”. When Martin is discussing the nature of contentment with his religious mentor Staupitz he affirms that: “a hog waffling in its own crap is contented”. It was the word “crap” to which the censor most objected, but Osborne changed the sentence to read “a pig waffling in its own filth is contented”. The image is the same; no real damage done to the play.
The final change that the censor required was the exclusion of the phrase “balls of the Medici”. Much to the amusement of commentators, the Lord Chamberlain’s office suggested that “testicles of the Medici” would be acceptable, ignoring the fact that the coat of arms of the Medici family was a set of brass balls. This goes to show that it’s the use of slang, as much anything else, that the censor found more objectionable. That’s why “kidney juice” was not considered as reprehensible as the slang “piss”, even though the longer phrase dwells on the subject more. Osborne was outraged at the suggestion that Luther, furious with the papal bull which excommunicates him, should cast it in to flames with the dramatic declaration, “as for this bull, it’s going to roast, it’s going to roast and so are the testicles of the Medici!” Osborne complained that the censor took no notice of the double significance of “balls” in this context. The word “testicles”, he maintained, did not appropriately describe the crest; the censor, realising his error, felt compelled to withdraw the objection and “balls of the Medici” stands.
Erik H Erikson
Had Osborne accepted the censor’s fourteen original cuts, the play would have lost much of its structure and bite, and would have been largely ruined. The cuts that he did accept, however, have left the play more or less the way he originally wanted. Nevertheless, most critics agree that the play’s structure isn’t that great anyway. Some say the play falls apart after the scene concerning the Diet of Worms, as the sudden change of the character of the knight – from supporter to enemy – is too unbelievable. As the play is mainly derived from a source work, Erik H. Erikson’s Young Man Luther, you might not necessarily expect to find any of Osborne’s recurrent themes; but Martin is surely much more of an angry young man than Jimmy Porter ever was. He is angry at the Church and angry with himself. He is angry at the fools who buy indulgences and at the Swabian peasants whose revolt against serfdom and whose demands for the pure gospel had to be exterminated. Above all, he is also a stubborn young man. He never gives way.
The language of Luther is uncomfortably but realistically uneven in two different ways. Firstly, there is an enormous range of different types of speeches and there are different speech patterns for each of his characters. Osborne offers us the stichomythic (I know, get me, look it up) conversation of Lucas and Hans, the communal speeches of confession, and general conversational speech, as well as vast debates and tirades which extend over many pages such as those delivered by Tetzel, Martin, both Martin and Eck together, and the knight. The length of the speeches grows as the play progresses and they become more philosophical and more turgid in the process. In the Faber edition of the play, only six speeches cover pages 79 – 88, because of their inordinate length. It seems that Osborne is much more at home with diatribe than with dialogue.
Martin’s visceral language provides a strong contrast with the holy conservatism of the monks, using individualistic words and phrases such as “worminess” or “warm hair and a bony heart… a scraped marrow and a dying jelly”. His sensuous vocabulary sets him aside from the penitent low-key confessions of the other monks who have no feel for language or vocabulary of their own, because they are conforming to the ideal of the platonic monk, and therefore must stifle their own personal tendencies. Elsewhere in the play his vivid linguistic imagination gives way to some splendid imagery. I really admire the phrase: “I wish my bowels would open. I’m blocked up like an old crypt.”
As well as using blasphemous language, Luther also takes up the question of blasphemy itself by pointing out the antithesis between the godly and the ungodly, the sincere and the ridiculous: “and so, the praising ended – and the blasphemy began”. This refers not only to his taking Mass – for which he feels he is insufficiently qualified, strictly in accordance with Christ’s teaching – but is also an oblique reference to the naked child he holds; one requires child-like innocence to enter heaven, but after childhood, man’s life is in itself blasphemy because he is no longer worthy of heaven. The phrase is also, even more widely, a reference to Martin’s life of rebellion against Catholicism.
Pope Leo X
You don’t expect to hear particularly bad language from a member of the Church, so there’s a great shock effect from, for example, Pope Leo calling Martin a “double faced German bastard” – it puts Martin’s earlier use of the words “mother’s tit” in the shade. You expect the clergy to be polite, but they swear; indeed, their bad language is a major outlet for their blasphemy. With his argumentative nature, Martin should have been a lawyer instead of a cleric; rather than saying confession with the other monks, he’s more at home talking about his vivid, sexual, anxious dreams. But over the years Martin realises that the differences between himself and the other members of the Church are symptomatic of the rift he would set in motion.
Looking back, it’s clear how Osborne dominated this period, both in terms of drama and in his struggles against the censor. His argument with Lord Scarborough over Luther indicates the path that other dramatists were about to take but matters had not quite come to a head yet. But we’ll never know what might have been written by those who could not see the point of creating plays which could not be performed due to censorship.
In my next post I’m going to consider plays by Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Samuel Beckett.
I have to admit, it’s lovely to be back at the Bridge Theatre after the complete disaster of trying to get tickets to see their earlier show Nightfall. I booked for a Sunday matinee, only to be told a few weeks later that by then the run would have ended as they were squeezing another show into their timetable. So they transferred me to an earlier Sunday matinee, only to be told another few weeks later that the performance had been cancelled and could I manage a different date? No I could not! Whatever happened to the show must go on? As Oscar Wilde once (almost) said, “to cancel one performance may be classed a misfortune. To cancel two sounds like carelessness.” Clearly Sunday matinees at the Bridge Theatre are a thing of the past, which is a shame because Saturdays are always busy; for us, it will simply mean seeing fewer shows at this otherwise fantastic new theatre.
Anyway…. Allelujah for the return of Alan Bennett to the London stage. He’s 84 now; and sometimes, when a much loved and respected playwright reaches their later years, you can tell it by an increasing laziness or tiredness in the writing. Not so with Mr Bennett. Allelujah! has a sprightly construction, killer punchlines, devastating observations about the NHS and Life in General (whatever that is), memorable characterisations and a neat eye for the surreal. It’s rare for a first Act to end on two bombshells, both within the last ten seconds; but you’ll be going into the interval not knowing whether to be horrified or laughing out loud – probably both. There are some very moving and accurate portrayals of characters with dementia; if occasionally they verge on the cruel, it’s only because dementia itself is cruel and there’s no point hiding it. This play isn’t always an easy watch; more power to its elbow for being that stark.
To fill you in, the Bethlehem Hospital is in a parlous state because it no longer fits in with the modern NHS. It’s a local hospital, for local people; the kind of place where you go in with something wrong with you, they make you better, and you leave. No sexy surgical specialities; the books all add up and in fact the place is run so efficiently that it even makes something of a profit. But there’s a lot of bed-blocking, it doesn’t fit in with 21st century vision, and if they’re not careful, it’ll get closed down and all the patients (and some of the staff, perhaps) will get transferred to Tadcaster, Lord forbid. Save the Beth is the cry of the local protest movement, and TV cameras are out and about covering the hospital’s every move for the Local News. Salter, the Chairman of the Hospital Trust, is constantly fussing around trying to emphasise all its achievements, and brown-nosing anyone he suspects might be of influence; like in-patient Joe’s son Colin, who has cycled all the way from London to visit his dad, but who is known to work in Whitehall, if not actually as part of the Department of Health, but alongside the Department of Health. If anyone might be in a position to put in a good word for the future of the hospital, it’s Colin. But is he on their side? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.
It’s not the first time a hospital has been used as a metaphor for the state of British society. Allelujah reminded me strongly of Lindsay Anderson’s 1982 film Britannia Hospital, which did very much the same thing; it also featured a panicky and increasingly desperate Chief Administrator, and a TV documentary crew snooping round who (without giving the game away too much) observed some particularly nefarious and illegal goings on. What’s different about Allelujah is that, when everything else has dried up and failed, in the face of all adversity, indomitable human spirit carries on. And that’s shown in the singing.
Singing? So is this a musical? No not at all. Nor is it particularly a play about singing, although singing plays a major role. If you’ve ever had an elderly relative spend a long time in a hospital ward, or a care home, you’ll know that musical entertainment in the form of getting everyone around to join in a sing-song, is a successful way to lift spirits. So on the one hand, it looks a little surreal when all the old patients start singing songs together, but on the other, nothing could be more natural. The music is significant in many ways: 1) on the most basic level, it’s a spirit-lifter for the patients; 2) it reveals the youthful nature of what’s inside us all, no matter how old and decrepit we are on the outside, inside we’re all still 21; 3) no matter what problems beset us, we shall overcome; and 4) as our inexorably failing NHS and society in general steadily decline, we can divert ourselves from this inevitable horror by singing; a little like throwing yourself into the last verses on the Titanic.
I would, however, question the choice of songs. The average age of the people on the wards would, I would have thought, be something in the region of 80. So the songs that are really going to keep them buoyed up would be the songs they enjoyed during their 20s and 30s; so that would be songs of approximately 50 to 60 years ago; so roughly 1958 – 1968. The songs that feature in the show are actually more like those that Mr Bennett’s own parents would have enjoyed; so to me at least they felt strangely old-fashioned. I would have found it even more believable if they’d been singing some rock and roll and some Lennon & McCartney. Actually, the second Act opens with the patients performing a rousing version of Good Golly Miss Molly, just like they would have done in the Good Old Days, and it stood out like a beacon of sheer joy.
Bob Crowley’s design for the play is spot-on accurate in its representation of a busy hospital; all the signs, the notice boards, the reception areas, the magnolia walls, even the dado rails are absolutely perfect. We’ve all been to children’s wards where they’re given names like Disney Ward, Pooh Ward, Noddy Ward, and so on. Mr Bennett’s runs with this idea to create in Bethlehem Hospital, Dusty Springfield Ward, Shirley Bassey Ward, Len Hutton Ward, etc, which works perfectly.
Nicholas Hytner has brought together a comparatively huge cast of 25 to create a great ensemble atmosphere amongst the actors who play the patients; this creates something of an us and them feel in regard to their dealings with anyone outside their own group – so the medical staff, the visiting relatives, the documentary people definitely feel like outsiders. And it’s true, as this play deftly shows, some of those outsiders are not working in the patients’ best interests.
There isn’t a one single star performance in this play because there isn’t one single star role that is that central to the story; but there are some terrific performances throughout the cast. Peter Forbes is delightfully smarmy and slippery as Chairman Salter, constantly on the lookout to emphasise the best and disguise the worst, careful never to be out of the camera’s eye for too long; and, when it looks as though the Beth won’t be saved, he’s the first one to ensure his future security in whatever way he can. He doesn’t know quite how to handle Samuel Barnett’s Colin, though; Mr Barnett plays this strategic adviser-but-also-relative with cool, detached cynicism and a quiet adherence to a more ruthless vision for the NHS. There’s a chillingly eerie performance by the brilliant Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist, making her rounds with silent determination, rarely betraying any emotion; as her complete opposite number, Sacha Dhawan is excellent as Dr Valentine, keen as mustard, trying to engage with the patients on an emotional level – and put through the humiliation of a citizenship test that is truly cringeworthy. There’s also brilliant support from David Moorst as the gormless work-experience lad Andy; negligently trying to get away with as little effort as possible, whist still sucking up to the bosses.
And then there’s the fantastic cast of patients. Jacqueline Clarke shows she still has a great voice and charisma as the woeful Mrs Maudsley; Julia Foster is hilariously mischievous as Mary; Jeff Rawle as Joe shows not only great understanding of dementia but also brilliant comic timing and a genuinely horrified understanding of what his fate is to be. Gwen Taylor’s Lucille is still full of the vigour of a much younger and (what the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle would have called) flightier woman; and Simon Williams’ Ambrose dishes out some fantastic cantankerous malevolence as his patience is tried too often.
Very funny, but also more than a little sad, this beautifully written play gives us lots to think about our own long-term future and how vulnerable the elderly can be. Highly recommended!
P. S. For the attention of Alan Bennett: I have a bit of a gripe with the title, Mr Bennett. I was always taught that if it ends with a J and an H it starts with an H. If it ends with an I and an A, it starts with an A. Hallelujah or Alleluia; make your mind up!
Jean in The Entertainer bears some similarity to the writer Shelagh Delaney. She started off angry, attempted to do something different and make a name for herself, and then she largely sank back into obscurity. That isn’t entirely fair; in the years after The Lion in Love (1960) she wrote short stories, television plays, radio plays and film scripts. Yet she never repeated the success of her first major attempt at creative writing: A Taste of Honey (1958). The story of how she came to write it at the age of eighteen is one of simple motivation and determination. She saw a touring production of Terence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme (1958) and thought that she could write something better herself. This is perhaps an unfortunate reflection on Rattigan, whose faith, incidentally, in Osborne’s ability as a writer was consistently loyal – that is, after the success of Look Back in Anger, the attraction of which he could not understand.
A Taste of Honey is as youthful as its writer, in that the characters are not concerned with big issues – it’s just the here and now that is important. The present is to be enjoyed, the future to be eagerly expected, and the past does not mean a thing. As she was totally inexperienced in mounting a production, Delaney sent her script to Joan Littlewood of the Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Littlewood’s theory (and practice) of the democratisation of the theatre was already well established, and it concurred with Delaney’s philosophy of creating exciting, vivid portrayals of everyday people. The Theatre Workshop had also recently been involved in a conflict with the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and Delaney wanted to show her support for the freedom of speech advocated by Littlewood by sending the script to her. Apparently, the script was partly re-written by Littlewood’s team but Delaney’s tone was kept throughout so much so that when Delaney first saw it performed, she did not realise that the script had been changed at all.
Even though the ban on homosexuality in plays had just been lifted, A Taste of Honey did give the Lord Chamberlain’s office some headaches. The reader, Mr Heriot, called it “the perfect border-line case, since it is concerned with the forbidden subject in a way that no-one, I believe could take exception to.” As a result, he recommended it should be licensed. However the Assistant Comptroller described it as “revolting, quite apart from the homosexual bits”. There was some minor horse-trading over a few lines – references to “pervert” and “castrated little clown” were removed; they concerned the character of Geof, about whose significance more follows later.
The play stands out for three main reasons. Firstly, its general mood and atmosphere, which is one of optimism despite squalor. The play opens with mother and daughter, Helen and Jo, moving into their new flat; cold, damp and derelict, with one bed and “a lovely view of the gasworks”. Delaney sets to work, bringing out the ironic humour of the situation instantly, especially in the form of Jo’s concerns which seem totally out of proportion and misplaced; for example, what she hates most about the flat is that it has “an unshaded electric light bulb dangling from the ceiling”. Jo’s top priority on moving into the flat is to find somewhere she can plant her bulbs. Helen recognises the irony of these priorities and keeps a running commentary with the audience to emphasise the humour. Their relationship, though often tense, is based on love; this explains why Jo feels so threatened by the presence of Helen’s gentleman friend, Peter, especially in their new home, where he had also hoped to set down some roots.
The other unusual aspect of their relationship is that they are equals. Jo refers to her mother by her first name, and not “mum” or something similar. Helen sometimes tries to exercise parental restriction on Jo, only to realise that this is a lost cause. Jo cannot exert influence on Helen not to get married again; so instead of consigning herself to loneliness, Jo determines to get a boyfriend, and this she has achieved by the beginning of the second scene. This is much more dynamic than the inactivity of Look Back in Anger. As its title suggests, the earlier play is rooted in the past. A Taste of Honey takes a similar working-class situation – in fact Helen and Jo are considerably worse off than Jimmy and Alison – but instead of complaining about their plights, the characters actively go off and do something about it. The equality in relationships that is found in Delaney’s work is not present in Osborne’s. Jimmy Porter is a dictator in his house, whereas Helen allows her daughter to do what she likes. It is perhaps this desire for freedom on Jo’s part, doubtless translated there from Delaney’s own experience, that raises the general quality of life in A Taste of Honey.
The second notable aspect of the play is its racial harmony. Relationships between young people of different races had not really been examined on stage before, chiefly because of the middle-class stronghold on the theatre; the young men that Osborne’s Alison would have met at the Tarnatts and the Wains would almost certainly have been Caucasian white. Jo’s boyfriend is a young black sailor, who treats her more gently and with more respect than either Helen or Peter. Interracial marriages were very controversial back in 1958. Revealingly, Jo does not tell Helen that her boyfriend is black, and Helen never guesses. No doubt Jo anticipates that Helen may not have approved and that would have been extra hassle that she didn’t need. Jo tells the boy that “whatever else she might be, she isn’t prejudiced against colour”, but again, maybe she is being tactful to keep the peace. Jo’s two scenes with the boy are touching, lightly comical and not at all coy. As the play progresses, we sense that the boy has been left behind; until we realise that he deserted her as soon as he got her pregnant. This brings the delicate sense of fun they enjoyed together down to earth with a bump, if you’ll pardon the pun.
The final aspect of the play which makes it very different from other plays to date is its attitude to homosexuality. The difficulties in presenting a play with homosexuals in Britain before 1958 meant there were not many such plays in existence at the time. The three plays which appeared at the New Watergate Club and which dealt, at least in part, with homosexuality, were all American. In Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, Eddie, a longshoreman, believes his daughter has fallen in love with a gay man and he tries to prevent the relationship from continuing any further to protect her from future disappointment or divorce. Eddie’s attitude to homosexuals is a mixture of distrust and distaste. In Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy, a naïve school student is suspected of having had a homosexual relationship with one of his teachers, and bears the brunt of abuse and prejudices of both other boys and other teachers alike. Again, the old-fashioned attitude is that homosexuals are dirty and a menace to society and morals. In Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the audience sympathises with Brick who has had to keep his homosexuality a secret all his life or run the risk of losing everything.
In all these plays, homosexuals are set apart from society; either simply to be alienated, or as a target for sympathy. A Taste of Honey was the first major British play to feature a central character who was homosexual and who was not ridiculed or abused for it. Apparently, much of this sense of acceptance stems from the Theatre Workshop’s ideas for the play. Shelagh Delaney’s original intention was for Geof’s homosexuality to be far more overt. As the play stands, Geof is a far more rounded and credible character because he is incidentally homosexual rather than primarily homosexual. Jo and Geof carry on a very enjoyable friendship. He is very generous to her and she amuses him. They soon realise that they suit each other because they each recognise each other’s needs and can provide for them. Geof isn’t popular with Helen or Peter; at first this does not matter because Geof and Jo are a content, self-contained unit, but later he is forced to leave when Helen’s jealousy of his privileged position becomes too spiteful. The play ends with Jo unaware that Geof has left, and Delaney spares us the sadness of witnessing that revelation.
It’s a great title, because everybody in it tastes the sweetness of life, even if it is only for a short time. Jo knows love with her boyfriend and her friendship with Geof; Helen has a good time with Peter; Geof achieves a sense of purpose. However, the end of the play appears to be quite arbitrary, and perhaps also ominous; it suggests that this is where the honey ends, and life becomes bitter. With the birth of the child, Geof’s departure and Helen’s return, Jo’s prospects are no longer optimistic.
1958 also saw Peter Shaffer’s dramatic debut with Five Finger Exercise. Fortunately, the Lord Chamberlain’s memorandum on homosexuality appeared shortly before the play was due to open, for otherwise the play would have been surely banned even though its homosexual references were slight. The play had been planned for performance under the auspices of the New Watergate Theatre Club, but the club, whose membership had reached 60,000 in two years, disbanded after the closure of its previous production, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, because the club status now seemed unnecessary. The slight reference to homosexuality centres on Clive’s wish to go away with Walter, the young German tutor, for a holiday, because, as he says, “I need a friend so badly”. The reference is no more concrete than that, except that, later on in the play, Stanley, Clive’s father, accuses Walter of perverting Clive: “what else did I ask you to do? Turn my son into a cissy?”
However, Walter’s insecurity has nothing to do with homosexuality; the root of his insecurity is the main reason for the play’s controversial nature. Walter is a German, whose father was the most respected Nazi in the town. The boy is kind and thoughtful, and has no attachment to his father’s evil history. He has, therefore, had to turn his back on his past and renounce his heritage. This accounts for why he refuses to teach or speak German; and why he lies about his family. When Stanley accuses him of being a “filthy German bastard… Once a German, always a German. Take what you want and the hell with everyone else”, Walter’s inbuilt guilt prevents him from defending himself.
The acceptance of this play by the Lord Chamberlain was controversial and indeed it very nearly was banned, because it falls into the category of being offensive towards a friendly nation. Earlier in the century, many more innocuous works were banned for the same reason: even The Mikado was temporarily banned because the Examiner of Plays thought it was offensive to the Japanese, even though the Japanese themselves thought of it as a welcome linking of eastern and western cultures. Five Finger Exercise warns against adhering to nationalistic characteristics: Walter’s anti-Germanic instincts, Stanley’s essential Englishness and Louise’s French affectations all obstruct genuine communication between people. The play ends on a positive note; Walter revives from his suicide attempt with the words “schon gut. Mir fehlt nichts” (“all right. I am alright”) with the suggestion that he will be able to face both the future and the past.
In my next post, I shall be looking at John Osborne’s Luther.
Despite the considerable influence of Look Back in Anger, there was no immediate enormous swing to realistic, working-class drama. The Suez Crisis had passed, the Hungarian Revolution had passed. As 1956 became 1957, people in Britain felt exactly the same about things as they had before. The direct influence of Look Back in Anger had not yet been felt. Any anticipated, endless supply of prospective dramatists, sending in an abundance of new scripts to the Royal Court, had not materialised; the situation was no different from when Osborne submitted his play and the majority of new drama was still “endless blank verse shit”, as Tony Richardson, who had directed Look Back in Anger, put it. In fact, the only production in the first season at the Royal Court which was financially viable was a star-studded production of Wycherley’s The Country Wife, a Restoration Comedy which transferred into the West End and whose success paid for the continuation of the English Stage Company’s policies.
The next dramatic work to engage the public’s imagination (although its impact was considerably less) was Osborne’s next play, The Entertainer (1957). Before Look Back in Anger, Osborne had written Epitaph for George Dillon in collaboration with Anthony Creighton, where the central character is a performer; and like George Dillon, and Jimmy Porter, and Archie Rice – The Entertainer himself – hasn’t achieved any substantial success. The Entertainer continues where Epitaph for George Dillon left off; this time the central subject matter, the settings and the structure of the play create an analysis of the role of the theatre in everyday life. Archie Rice is an old-fashioned entertainer; unlike George Dillon, he seems unlikely to become acceptable to modern tastes. He is a music hall artiste, a stage comedian and compere whose persona revolves around pubs, girls and mother in law jokes. He’s very much based on the real-life Max Miller. His downfall has been his inability to keep up with the times – although his father Billy, himself an “old pro”, is even further behind; he believes the kind of music-hall entertainment that Archie practices has changed too much since his day and, of course, for the worse.
In his introductory note, Osborne writes: “the music hall is dying, and, with it, a significant part of England. Some of the heart of England has gone; something that once belonged to everyone, for this was truly a folk art.” The Rice family are a microcosm of 1957 England. They are scattered and disunited through their attitudes to relationships, beliefs, age and duty. The confident music hall patter gradually sticks in Archie Rice’s throat as he realises, through the course of the play, the enormous gap between himself and his stage persona. The music hall routine is full of nationalistic pride, but this is a painful juxtaposition with his sorrow at the death of his son returning from Cyprus with the British Army. His jokes are all based on sexual prowess, but we know that he and his wife Phoebe no longer have sex. His songs are full of irony; they contain throw-away asides like “why should I worry?” and “thank God I’m normal”, a bitter humour that pokes fun at anyone who doesn’t conform to the norm; and which also gives the (wrong) impression of a happy, carefree man on a one-way ticket to self-enjoyment. Not surprisingly, at the end of the play, he just crumples up. The glitter and fun and noise of the music hall make it a deceitful art – it only allows optimistic thoughts to be expressed, suppressing the real dissatisfaction people hide behind the smiles – the Tears of a Clown, as Smokey Robinson would have it.
The simplest and most obvious way a music hall performer could inject sexual intrigue into his act was to be backed by a group of nude girls. Music hall itself was never categorised separately in the 1832 Theatres Act and because of that anomaly the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain did not extend to it. However, music hall acts within other plays or revues were censorable. The fact that this form of uncensored entertainment had outlived its popularity and was thus on its last legs could clearly be used by those in favour of stage censorship as an argument for its retention. This was certainly what Billy Rice believed. He’s in no doubt that the nudes are to blame for the music hall’s decline: “they’re killing the business… why should a family man take his wife and kids to see a lot of third class sluts standing about in the nude?” Billy clearly approves of the work of the Lord Chamberlain who, as far as he’s concerned, protects the family unit – knowing how disparate his own family is. Archie, of course, takes the opposite view and exploits the nudes for as much sexual joking as possible: “What about these girls? What about them? Smashin’. I bet you think I have a marvellous time up here with all these posing girls, don’t you? You think I have a smashin’ time, don’t you? You’re dead right!”
Posing girls became an almost unavoidable part of revue entertainment during the Second World War – they became synonymous with the Windmill Theatre, and it was at this time that music hall merged into revue and became subject to the censor’s rules and regulations. Owing to the controversial nature of this subject, the Lord Chamberlain’s office had issued a statement on the use of nudity on stage. As we’ve already seen, actresses were allowed to pose completely nude “provided the pose is motionless and expressionless, it is artistic and something rather more than a mere display of nakedness, and provided that the lighting was subdued”. One would expect that none of these conditions were met in Archie Rice’s show. Actresses who moved were meant to wear at least “briefs and an opaque controlling brassiere”, and “strip-tease” was not permitted in any circumstances. These instructions continued until the 1968 Theatres Act was introduced.
The death of Billy Rice in the play represents the demise of his artistic views and values. Nude girls would inevitably continue to be part of the act. Archie notes Billy’s death with sadness and respect, and is obviously sorry that the type of entertainment he represented has also passed on: “Billy Rice will not appear again. I wish I could sing a song for him – in his place”. But he says he simply cannot, and therefore the nudes continue to have gainful employment. Archie has no respect for the censor – in his end monologue he refers to his nudes as “a lot of madam” and then adds “oh, I put a line in there. Never mind, it doesn’t matter”. A performer like Archie must have found it very difficult and restrictive to keep to a script; but of course he had to because otherwise he would have infringed the conditions of the licence.
As for The Entertainer itself, the censor demanded a number of changes, which Osborne reluctantly agreed to make. Nearly all were at the expense of some sexual innuendo, as sex was of course still the censor’s chief bête noir (at this time, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was still banned). The individual lines which the censor refused to pass, when taken as part of the whole work, don’t stand out as extreme in any way. Taken out of context, however, they could give the impression of a sex-crazed script, much as Peter Nichols had said of his own Day in the Death of Joe Egg, and I doubt the Lord Chamberlain would have approved.
For example, when the members of the family are discussing Archie and Phoebe’s son Mick at war, Archie denies any allegations that Mick might be suffering from depression: “I expect he’s screwing himself silly. I hope he is anyway.” The censor deleted this line, not only because it advocates sexual immorality but also because the phrase may have suggested a kind of syphilitic madness. The censor could not possibly allow such a flippant attitude to so serious a subject to remain unchecked. After all, Ibsen’s Ghosts (1881), which features a character suffering from inherited syphilis, remained banned in Britain for nearly forty years, and indeed the actual word syphilis was still forbidden. Osborne did not substitute another line for this one – he just removed it and made Archie continue with his speech: “What’s happened with you and Graham?” he asks Jean. Osborne’s original intention was to make Archie imply that sexual problems were the cause of Jean and Graham’s problems. However, now that the reference to sex has been removed from the speech, that implication is missing. Osborne’s original wording enhances our understanding of Archie as a seedy, insinuating person. Without it, it becomes just a bland sequence of conversation.
The censor also shortened the verse of one of Archie’s chorus songs. His songs are, of course, an intrinsic part of his act and reflect the persona with great accuracy. He sings about sex, and about being “ordinary” to make the majority of his audience relate to him. This made the censor’s job more difficult because the audience is on Archie’s side. Therefore, the censor removed the lines: “I don’t push and shove at the thing they call love, I never go in for goings on.” The lines are deliberately ambiguous; again, they do not seem particularly daring in context, where their chief purpose is to confirm the idea “I never really care, I’m what you call a moderate”. However, the censor doubtless saw the references to sexual intercourse: “push and shove”, “go in”, both in the context of “love” and “goings on”. As a result of this cut, Osborne also chose to remove the lines: “I’m what you call a moderate, I weigh all the pros and the cons” in order to make the metre fit the tune again. The whole cut makes the song rather innocuous.
Another major cut is that of the passage in which Archie very frankly described the regularity of his sexual activity. He maintains: “I’ve always been a seven day a week man myself, haven’t I, Phoebe? A seven day a week man. I always needed a jump at the end of the day – and at the beginning too usually. Just like a piece of bacon on the slab.” The censor probably thought that, given the repetition in the speech and the maudlin, drunk tone Archie has adopted, the audience might find this speech embarrassing. The imagery of the piece of bacon was no doubt a step too far. By cutting this speech, it was as though the censor was protecting Archie from himself, and from the audience’s judgment. He is drunk, and possibly he may say something he will regret, especially as in a few moments he will hear that Mick has been killed on his return home. This paternalistic censorship changes our impression of Osborne’s attitude to Archie. Osborne’s attempts to communicate Archie’s coarseness are effectively thwarted and the effect of the cut is to render Archie’s speech confusing if not meaningless. The speech sounds very much as though a key issue has been omitted from it – which, of course, it has: “Say, aren’t you glad you’re normal? Well, it’s everybody’s problem”. That’s a complete non-sequitur. What is? Being normal or not being normal? In fact, the problem Osborne intended Archie to refer to is that of chercher la femme. Archie’s explanation: “either they’re doing it, and they’re not enjoying it. Or else they’re not doing it and they aren’t enjoying it” seems a little out of place without the overt sexual reference.
The only other censored word in the text is the censor’s insistence on using the word “decent” instead of “devout” in the description of an act Archie used to know called “Lady Rosie Bothways”. The censor obviously thought that the religious overtones of the word “devout” were not in keeping with the rest of the description. All in all, the substituted words and passages and censored sections of the play weaken the force of the play; it’s less coarse and therefore Archie himself doesn’t come across as quite so reprehensible a character.
Thematically, any relation the play bears to Look Back in Anger is indistinct. There are hints of class-consciousness, such as Billy’s attitude to Archie’s “third class sluts”, and Graham’s attitude to Jean and her family, but there is no real advocating of a class-struggle. War is just a catalyst, causing the death of Mick, the missing link of the family chain, but not the overpowering threat that it is in the earlier play. The closest association may be seen in the character of Jean who, though, not central to the play, is nearly an “angry young woman”; she is at least sufficiently motivated to protest in Trafalgar Square against the government. She gives up her boyfriend at the end because of class differences and family loyalties. She decides that nothing can be gained merely by turning her back on her family: “here we are, we’re alone in the universe, there’s no God, it just seems that it all began by something as simple as sunlight striking on a piece of rock… somehow we’ve just got to make a go of it. We’ve only ourselves”. Her final position is one of reconciliation with her family, just as Jimmy Porter and Alison are (temporarily at least) reconciled at the end of Look Back in Anger.
Next up I’m going to take a look at Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey.
We really enjoyed our day at the Comedy Crate Festival in Northampton last year, and needed no hesitation to book again for this year! As last time, we were unable to take advantage of the excellent weekend rate (£30 for both days, so that’s only £3 per show) because on the Saturday we were Otherwise Engaged. But we definitely up for the Sunday schedule.
Basically there are two shows on each of two venues all through the day – a show at 3pm, 4.30pm, 6.30pm, 8pm and 9.30pm – and you can mix and match your attendance at either the upstairs bar at the Charles Bradlaugh, or a swanky tent in the garden at the Black Prince. It was a gloriously sunny day (aren’t they all at the moment!) – in other words a perfect opportunity to combine top quality comedy with a bit of a boozy afternoon and evening. Well, you’re only young once. For the most part, the comics were all shaping up their current works-in-progress in preparation for their Edinburgh Fringe gigs next month. This is both a more relaxed way of seeing comedy, as it’s a very informal structure; but it can also be an exciting form of comedy if your comedian suddenly chances on just the right wording or just the right punchline – you can get that feeling that you’re at the birth of some comedy gold.
Originally I had planned to see all the shows at the Bradlaugh, because they were more Premiership comic contenders, whilst the Black Prince performers were slightly more Championship. But I also didn’t want to be packed in a room which was too full and too hot. So in a last minute change of plan we saw the first two in the Bradlaugh and the other three in the Black Prince. Let’s take them one by one.
Kiri Pritchard McLean (3pm Charles Bradlaugh)
Our organisers had kept us informed that Kiri was running late and she eventually appeared at 3.20, a little flustered from the car drive from hell following her brother’s wedding on the Saturday. I’m impressed that she made it all! Shimmering before us in the outfit that Gina G wore for Eurovision (well damn nearly) she explained that this was her third Edinburgh show and the first two had been easy to create, as they were about gender equality and paedophiles. Sometimes it’s hard to get inside the mind of a comedian! And just as she was concerned that she couldn’t think of a subject for her next show, her long-term boyfriend cheated on her; problem solved. So over the next forty or so minutes we heard all about Seymour (not his real name) and Brandy (not hers) with lots of excellent little side details, like the quality of her shoes, the racist tendencies of Kiri’s mother, and Beyoncé’s album Lemonade. Sadly, we didn’t get to see the full hour – and at the moment Kiri decided she had run out of time, she had divulged a big bombshell in her story! There’s definitely an end to that story, and we don’t know what it is! Kiri is a bright, friendly, warm person on stage and I can only suggest that her Edinburgh show definitely looks worth seeing.
Marlon Davis (4.30pm Charles Bradlaugh)
Amazingly, it’s been eight years since we last saw Marlon Davis at a Screaming Blue Murder show in Northampton. He really impressed me then with his intelligent and slightly quirky style. Eight years on, and he’s still intelligent and quirky, comparing his high pitched natural voice and his gently infantile language structure with his son’s basso profundo directness. It’s typical of Mr Davis’ almost anarchic style that he spends maybe five minutes explaining how work-in-progress shows are very important for a comic to gauge what works and what doesn’t in preparation for their imminent Edinburgh appearance – to then kill his whole explanation with his confession that he isn’t going to be in Edinburgh this year. I think I recognised some of his material from eight years ago, although there’s also a nice running joke about nicking towels from hotels, as well as a funny sequence about his neighbour using their trampoline, and also the rather dark humour of his driving into a tree and being forced into what he calls a pussy coma. His hugely likeable personality means he could get away with just reading the shipping forecast and he would be able to make it funny. Very enjoyable!
Tom Lucy (6.30pm Black Prince)
Next up was a name new to me but I can see that he’s already carving out a great reputation. At the age of 22 Tom Lucy is a very gifted comic with terrific stage confidence and an easy way with banter. He quickly struck up a great rapport, especially with the Ryanair Cabin crew man in the front row. Imagine a South London James Acaster, but less bitter. The main thrust of his new show is all to do with understanding what it is to be a millennial, and he took us through several aspects of this subject and his material was excellent. He wasn’t happy with how it ended though – which is asking the audience at what point they found out that their father wasn’t a superhero. This could work, depending on the person you pick on. If he’d asked me, I’d have to have said that mine died when I was eleven and then it would have been a gloomy end to the show – so it’s a risky strategy. Dating apps, a lovely sequence with a clairvoyant, what constitutes an icon – all played a part in the show. And I’m glad to discover he doesn’t understand the “no socks” thing either. Very enjoyable, and I predict a great future for this chap!
Lloyd Langford (8pm Black Prince)
Another completely new name to me, but what a find! Mr Langford is full-on attack right from the start, with his quirky delivery and incredibly creative and inventive material. He comes across as totally fearless and will stop at nothing to explore a comic idea to the full. I loved his material about the totally invasive massage that he wasn’t expecting; also the massage chair at Tokyo airport (massages seem to be his thing), his dad’s useless Christmas presents which consist of what he finds on the beach; and the innate danger of balconies. One of those comics where it’s really hard to remember the gist of what they were talking about because they carried you away on a sea of nonsense and you didn’t want to fight it. His Edinburgh show looks like a must, and I’d really recommend him.
Patrick Monahan (9.30pm Black Prince)
Top of the Bill at the Black Prince was Patrick Monahan, whom we’ve seen a couple of times in Edinburgh, always as a guest at Spank! He’s another comic with a terrific rapport with the audience; it’s very likely that if he catches your eye you’ll become part of the show but it’s never unkind and always hilarious. He spotted Mrs Chrisparkle for a quick chat and for the rest of his gig she was just the scouser. He wanted to know who thought they had married “up” and who had married “down” – and this got cleverly interwoven in his material about Goals, which is the subject of his Edinburgh show this year. He brings in quite a lot of material about his own relationships, both with his wife and his parents, and his hour just flew by. This was the most polished, and the least work-in-progress of the shows all day, and he’s probably the most accomplished and professional comic that we saw too. Very highly recommended!
So that was it! With a bit of over-running we didn’t leave the Black Prince till after 10.45. There’s great commitment from the organisers and it requires a great commitment from the audiences too. And it really repays the hard work – five excellent performers gave us all a terrific day’s entertainment. Huge congratulations to everyone and I hope we can all do it again next summer!
There are many other little niggling qualities about Jimmy Porter which render him irritating and contrary. He smokes a pipe simply because he knows that it annoys Cliff; both because of the smell and because it reminds him of the cigarettes the doctor has forbidden him to smoke. Jimmy makes it one degree worse for Cliff with his self-righteous scoffing: “They’re your ulcers. Go ahead, and have a bellyache if that’s what you want”. He refuses to lend Cliff his newspaper, so although he advocates education, in his own small way he deliberately impedes Cliff’s progress. He rifles through Alison’s handbag, in search of “something of me somewhere, a reference to me. I want to know if I’m being betrayed”, predatory like the bear which represents him in their lovers’ games. He storms off angrily when Alison burns herself on the iron, another symbol, a painful weapon of domesticity, the mark of the bored housewife.
By all accounts, he was no less boorish when younger. The raids made on the friends of the Redferns by Jimmy and Hugh appear not only to have been embarrassingly puerile but also calculated to indulge their greed and their desire to upset all the other guests. He even taunted Alison about her virginity when they got married. By remaining a virgin to her wedding day she remained faithful to her upbringing and class; she had done what was expected of her, and this infuriated her rebellious husband, who still reflects on his first lover, Madeline, to whom, in Alison’s words, “he owes just about everything”. When Alison leaves Jimmy in Act Two Scene Two, she has prepared a leaving note for him in a sealed envelope for Cliff to give him. Cliff seems surprised that she should tell Jimmy in this way, but, as she explains, she is “a conventional girl”.
Here is another cause of Jimmy’s antagonistic behaviour; wherever he goes he runs up against the divisive class system which he loathes. This is, of course, why he and Hugh disrupted the parties of the Arksdens, the Tarnatts and the Wains; they wanted to show they had no affiliation to the upper-middle-class. It was Hugh’s mother who ran the sweet stall, and Jimmy now carries on the trade as a mark of respect for her and what she represents; whilst at the same time scorning the more acceptable and financially viable positions occupied by the very people Jimmy abominates. Hugh’s mother’s stroke affects Jimmy very deeply, for it reminds him of how his own father suffered; both old people felt the scorn and contempt of everyone except Jimmy, and both represent old qualities of socialism which appear to have little relevance in 1956. Therefore Jimmy delivers diatribes of wrath against defenders of Edwardian England, like J. B. Priestley and Colonel Redfern, and reports the quote by the Bishop of Bromley which totally condemns that reputable clergyman: “He’s upset because someone has suggested that he supports the rich against the poor. He says he denies the difference of class distinctions. “This idea has been persistently and wickedly fostered by – the working classes!” Well!” Jimmy’s reaction is outraged but feeble – all he can add to the argument is “Well!”.
Helena, his “natural enemy”, appears to Jimmy at first as the epitome of everything squalid and contemptible about the class-ridden society. She doesn’t maintain her position in society but deliberately “slums it” by being an actress. Jimmy interprets this as her abandoning real life for playing out fantasies. This makes her the complete opposite of Jimmy, who is down-to-earth if nothing else. He forces her to threaten him with physical violence – “If you come any nearer, I will slap your face” – and then refuses to play the middle-class game of giving way to a woman who threatens to slap one’s face: “I’ve no public-school scruples about hitting girls. If you slap my face – by God, I’ll lay you out!” That’s Jimmy’s version of scrupulous fairness and equality.
However, Jimmy’s attitude to class struggles is not as straightforward as it might seem. He may condemn class distinctions, but his own class-oriented behaviour ensures that the traditions of the classes continue. He may seem bitter in his condemnation of Redfern’s Edwardian England, but he is unable to hide a certain resentment, even jealousy, of the contented idyll of something which can never be his, “still casting well-fed glances back to the Edwardian twilight from his comfortable, disenfranchised wilderness”. There is nothing intrinsically honourable about not being well-fed or comfortable; and there is a certain romance in the phrase “Edwardian twilight”, the years before the World War when the well-to-do family felt comfortably free from all responsibility to have care for others less well off. In his own way, Jimmy Porter, would also dearly love some form of capricious disenfranchisement which would free him of his burdens.
Above all, it is the way that Osborne has created the character of Colonel Redfern that proves Jimmy’s reports of him are false. Far from being an unreasonable, dogmatic, overpowering character, he is mild, kind and very understanding indeed. Alison cannot really accept it when Redfern believes that some of the communication-gap between the two parties was his own fault. One might expect Redfern to be far more infuriated with his foolish daughter than he is. He even agrees with Jimmy’s description of him: “one of those sturdy old plants left over from the Edwardian Wilderness that can’t understand why the sun isn’t shining any more”. Rather than representing the past, or arch-Conservatism, or class hatred, or any of the things to which Jimmy is obviously opposed, Redfern is a family man who represents basic decency, and never considers himself infallible. He is quite prepared to try to learn the lesson of the young; he accepts that the amount of time that he spent abroad meant he missed out on trends in Britain. Above all, he is not proud and does not set himself up as Jimmy’s chief opponent. As a result, Jimmy’s heroism looks like just petulance.
Redfern perhaps represents society which refuses to change with the world. Alison tries to sum up the basic difference between her father and her husband: “You’re hurt because everything is changed. Jimmy is hurt because everything is the same. And neither of you can face it. Something’s gone wrong somewhere, hasn’t it?” Both men have experienced change; Jimmy has come through the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War as a child, and, indeed, Redfern served in India between 1914 and 1947. Redfern has not been at home in Britain for as long as Jimmy and this causes the rift between them. Nevertheless, Jimmy is also a static character, whereas Redfern is strangely progressive. The play begins with Jimmy complaining that every Sunday they go through the same ritual of reading all the newspapers, no matter what happens, as Alison does her ironing: “Even the book reviews seem to be the same as last week’s”. The play is, in fact, largely static because even though Jimmy’s lover changes, the new one is still seen doing the Sunday afternoon ironing. Alison seems to use this ironing as a coping mechanism; she pretends to be so involved with her task that she cannot tear herself away from it to answer Jimmy’s irritating questions. This is particularly noticeable after his recriminations against Alison’s brother Nigel in Act One.
The major change in Alison is caused by Helena’s arrival, making her see sense as far as her marriage is concerned. The turning point for her is the moment she announces that she is going to church. Jimmy can only retaliate with some inarticulate bluster, but does not really know how to cope with the situation. Religion is an anathema to Jimmy and is to be treated with the utmost derision. When he thinks of Alison going to church, he calls to mind the story of the Earl’s Court evangelist and the article by the Bishop of Bromley; but more than that, just like her pre-marital virginity, going to church on a Sunday is one of the last bastions of middle-class life which he so despises. So Jimmy sees this as a step back on Alison’s part, heavily influenced by Helena.
In later years, Osborne’s own opinion of the play was that he wanted very little to do with it, and that he became deeply embarrassed if he saw a scene or read a part of it. In 1961 he famously described it in an essay entitled That Awful Museum, as “a formal, rather old-fashioned play”, and it is true that it has dated quickly. This is perhaps because of the special nature of the year 1956 and of the enormous progress made in the theatre since then. I agree with Osborne’s description of the play as formal, with its three-act structure and recurrent themes and images; and perhaps what Kenneth Tynan described in The Observer on 13th May 1956 as “the painful whimsy of the final reconciliation” does indeed indicate an old-fashioned yearning for a neat and happy ending. Today Jimmy Porter would be well into his eighties, maybe ninety – if he has survived; probably still a campaigner against nuclear arms and refusing to patronise any of the chains of American fast-food restaurants. Alternatively, his neuroses might have given him one too many heart attacks by now, and he probably wouldn’t be alive to see what became of the dreams he once had.
Thanks for sticking with me through this week of Look Back in Anger! In my next blog post, I’ll move on to Osborne’s next significant play, The Entertainer.
Another myth that grew at this time was that of the “angry young man”. Today Jimmy Porter and that phrase are synonymous despite the fact that the phrase was first used by the Anglo-Irish writer Leslie Paul in 1951 as the title of his autobiography. The critic John Russell Taylor adapted the phrase to suit his purposes when he published his book Anger and After in 1962. “Angry young man” sums up a good deal of Jimmy Porter’s outward personality, and is, of course, an easy and memorable epithet.
The myth even extends to the period. 1956 was a notorious year. It was the year of the Suez crisis, when Britain decided to join forces with France to invade Egypt after Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. Protests against the Suez invasion lead to the eventual establishment of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958. 1956 was also the year of the Hungarian Revolution, when Hungarian dissidents were strongly supressed by the Russian communists. Amid this turmoil arrived Jimmy, a man, whether he be spokesman or individual, who cared for his country and his people and who turned his anger on the politicians and moralists of the day because they had moulded the national situation into its current, dismal shape.
However, this was not the first period of turmoil that Britain had experienced in the twentieth century. If the creation of a character like Jimmy Porter is a natural reaction to the horrors of war, why didn’t an equivalent character arrive on the scene shortly after the First World War, which was far more horrendous and cost many more lives? For me, it was the antagonism between the United States and (what was) the Soviet Union that created the perfect environment for Jimmy Porter. In a most self-conscious attempt at flippancy, Jimmy says: “we get our cooking from Paris…our politics from Moscow, and our morals from Port Said” – a world of fine dining, Russian expansionism and corruption! He is concerned at what he considers to be the threat to British individualism from foreign powers, and continues to maintain a sneaking regard for Colonel Redfern (Alison’s stiff-upper-lip father) and his Edwardian England. However, his socialism causes him to side more with the USSR than with America; he is disgusted with the Bishop of Bromley’s appeal “to all Christians to do what they can to assist in the manufacture of the H-Bomb” because it naturally assumes that the USA are the good guys and that Russia is the enemy. He cannot believe that it can be Christian and, above all, right, to kill off the Russians. There’s no doubt that he’s portrayed as a CND pioneer.
Furthermore, he is revealed as anti-American in most respects. His story about the American evangelist at Earl’s Court, where a woman was badly injured under the weight of enthusiastic Christians who were so carried away by their keenness to get to the front that they did not notice she had been trampled underfoot, is used to demonstrate both the impracticality and horror of organised religion and what he sees as the self-centredness of American influence. It’s no surprise that critical reaction to the play in the USSR was most favourable. Reuters reported on 5th August 1957 that the TASS drama critic had written that “one of the most attractive features of the work is its faith in everything that is good and radiant in the soul”. This radiance is presumably the opposite of the tedium that Jimmy envisages in the future; “I must say it’s pretty dreary living in the American Age – unless you’re an American, of course. Perhaps all our children will be Americans. That’s a thought, isn’t it?” It is a thought, and it’s a shame he doesn’t develop it further.
This kind of behaviour – bringing up an important idea and then not drawing any conclusions from it – is symptomatic of both his fear for the future and his laziness. C. W. E. Bigsby commented in his 1981 essay The Language of Crisis in British Theatre: “Education had given [him] articulateness but nothing to be articulate about”; but that’s not entirely the same thing. Jimmy is clearly an educated man, to set him apart from the other major characters of the play. Colonel Redfern cannot understand why Jimmy has not achieved more than just running a sweet stall in a market, but doubtless the personal contact involved and the more leisurely pace offer him a greater quality of life than the cut-throat worlds of, say, journalism or advertising, two of the careers which Alison says he has tried. At the beginning of the play, education and intelligence appear to be Jimmy’s main preoccupations, as he spends most of his time shaming and bullying house-mate Cliff into admitting that he is ignorant and uneducated. At the beginning of the second act we hear Jimmy playing his jazz trumpet; evidence of eloquence and talent, but wasted as there is no audience. Certainly, Alison and Helena would wish he would keep his trumpet quiet. In fact, Helena’s slight paranoia comes to the fore as she imagines him killing her with it. Does that take the symbolism of the trumpet too far? It is more revealing that she enjoys the danger – she finds him “horrifying and oddly exciting”; her eventual relationship with Jimmy will not come as quite such a surprise.
It is that kind of stifling of Jimmy’s activities and responses which make Jimmy associate himself with the unborn foetus at the end of Act One. Something which does not experience life but has the promise of it; something so protected and untouchable, that it is virtually a prisoner, suffocating in silence; Jimmy believes that he and the foetus share the same plight. A cruel extension of this idea is his wish that Alison should have a miscarriage; ostensibly, Jimmy simply wants to generate a reaction from Alison, a spark of individualism which would prove life and the power of communication. At the same time the death of the foetus would represent the end of Jimmy’s own suffocation.
Jimmy’s use of the foetus as a symbol for his own condition is a good example of his being his own worst enemy. In his efforts to express himself and to provoke reactions, Jimmy manages to be cruel and antagonistic. It’s brutal to wish that a pregnant woman should lose her child. Osborne emphasises Alison’s reaction to his cruelty: “She moves away, stunned… Alison’s head goes back as if she were about to make some sound. But her mouth remains open and trembling…” Normally she takes all Jimmy’s petty cruelties in her stride, but this demand for an elimination of life and love is too shocking for her. She moves as if to speak – which would be her natural reaction – but she does not, because this would signify that Jimmy’s cruelty had hit its target. Therefore, she hovers between the expressive and the insensible and refuses to yield to his violence.
In my next blog post, I’ll conclude this appreciation of Look Back in Anger.
In which Elinor Carlisle is on trial for the murder of Mary Gerrard, and honestly – I haven’t given the game away, you discover that fact in the first sentence of the book! All the evidence is stacked up against her, but is Hercule Poirot convinced? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
The book is dedicated to Peter and Peggy McLeod, doctors who ran the hospital in Mosul, in present day Iraq, when Agatha and her husband were there on archaeological digs. They became friends and kept in touch when the McLeods returned to England and settled on the east coast. Christie was godmother to their daughter Crystal. At the time the book was published, the McLeods were under a lot of stress as their children were being evacuated due to the war, and I think the dedication was Christie’s gift of friendship during this difficult time. Sad Cypress was first serialised in the UK in the Daily Express in March and April 1940; and in the US in Colliers’ Weekly from November 1939 to January 1940. The full book was first published in the UK in March 1940 by Collins Crime Club (interestingly, before the Express serialisation had finished) and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co later that year.
First things first: the title comes from a passage from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. But how do you pronounce it?! Sigh-press? Sea-press? Sigh-prus? Sea-prus? I’ve done some research online and everyone seems to think that it should be pronounced the same way as the country. So Sighprus it is. Then why do I always instinctively call it Seapress? I’m annoyed at myself for doing it! My Arden Shakespeare tells me that the phrase means a coffin of cypress wood, by the way.
This book is structured very differently from most of Christie’s works. There’s a prologue, where we see Elinor in court, being asked whether she pleads guilty or not guilty to the murder of Mary Gerrard. Then we go back in time, and see the lead up to Mary’s death; the introduction of Poirot into the story and his additional investigations; and then finally back to the court to see the witnesses being cross-examined and to see Elinor in the witness box. It has a much more theatrical feel than most of her other books; we know right from the very start that Mary is going to die so there’s considerable use of dramatic irony as we see her make her fateful plans and live her daily life. And there’s always a buzz from a courtroom sequence, which certainly sets this book apart from most.
As the opening conversations between Elinor and Roddy develop, you feel this is more like a romantic novel than a thriller – and I must say after about thirty or so pages I was getting thoroughly fed up with this book. But it’s definitely worth sticking with it! You sometimes sense that Christie is trying her hand at different styles of writing, to see if they work. Part One, Chapter Six is purely epistolary in style, which cleverly moves the narrative forward without having to give a lot of background information to slow it down.
As the book progresses, and it reverts to its detective genre, it sneakily introduces ideas to put us off the scent. The thought that Elinor could take the opportunity to murder is carefully dripfed to us in a very theatrical way; and the awkward, stilted conversation between Elinor and Mary shortly before her death is almost painfully believable.
It’s a welcome back to Hercule Poirot after a brief absence of a couple of years, but to be fair we don’t see Poirot at his absolute best. He’s there purely to act as a detective, but we get to see very little of his character. He’s not particularly meddlesome, or vain, or dandyish; we don’t get any extra insights into what makes those little grey cells tick. I think this is largely because he is deprived of a confidant; Hastings has been off the scene for ages, and there is neither Japp, nor Race, nor even Battle with whom he can chew the sleuthing cud. He has a slightly different relationship with Dr Lord than with everyone else in the book because it is Dr Lord who has engaged him to look at the case; but Poirot can hardly take that as an invitation to share all his suspicions with him. No, Poirot is definitely flying solo in this book and it shows it.
He does have one brilliant moment of invention though; when he suspects that everyone he talks to is holding something back, he pretends that he knows what it is, and that draws out the truth. In conversation with Nurse O’Brien: “”You and Nurse Hopkins, you have agreed together, have you not, that there are some things which are best not brought out into the light of day.” Nurse O’Brien said: “What would you be meaning by that?” Poirot said quickly: “Nothing to do with the crime – or crimes. I mean – the other matter.” Nurse O’Brien said, nodding her head: “What would be the use of raking up mud and an old story, and she a decent elderly woman, with never a breath of scandal about her, and dying respected and looked up to by everybody.”” Before that, Poirot had no clue what “the other matter” might be.
Regular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see if they’re genuine, made up, or a blur between the two. They’re a curious mix in this book: Dr Lord refers to a diphtheria epidemic in Stamford, which of course is a fine old Lincolnshire town with a population of approximately 20,000. Poirot ingratiates himself with the xenophobic Mrs Bishop with talk of a recent visit to Sandringham, which along with some fawning comments about the Royal Family, does the trick. Edward John Marshall, who is called to give evidence in court, gives his address as 14 Wren Street, Deptford; and even if the street doesn’t exist, the London suburb certainly does.
However, the majority of the story is centred on Hunterbury House at Maidensford, neither of which exist; Ted Bigland saw Clark Gable (who definitely did exist, and would have been 39 at the time of publication) at the pictures in Alledore, which doesn’t exist. Dr Lord was in Withenbury on the day of the murder (which doesn’t exist); nor does Boonamba, the fictional part of Auckland where Amelia Sedley lives. The expert gardener, Alfred Wargrave, lives at Emsworth, which is a real town near Portsmouth; in the book, however, it’s in Berkshire, near Maidensford. Maybe this suggests that Maidensford is based on Maidenhead?
Some other references that I thought I’d look into… Nurse Hopkins suggests Mary Gerrard should try to qualify in massage or in Norland. I’d not heard of that before, but apparently it is a college in Bath that specialises in training for childcare roles. Dr Lord mentions the Little Ease in conversation with Mrs Welman about having the will to live. That, if you didn’t know, was the torture cell in the dungeon of the White Tower at the Tower of London. When Roddy watches Mary run, with a sigh he murmurs “Atalanta…” and that’s the second time Christie has invoked this Greek myth to describe an energetically beautiful woman – the first time was in The Murder on the Links, so I’ve explained the Atalanta myth in that blog post.
I’d never heard the word stertorously before – yet in this book it appears twice. Just in case it’s new to you too, it’s a mid-19th century word meaning “like a snore”. Nurse Hopkins refers to seeing the film The Good Earth – commenting that women in China have a lot to put up with. Like the place names, it’s not often that Christie uses genuine film or book titles, but “The Good Earth” was a 1937 film based on Pearl S Buck’s 1931 book of the same name. It was nominated for five Oscars. She also refers to Mary as not “one of these girls who are all S. A. and IT.” That’s sex appeal (gasp!) and being an It girl – which is a reference that stretches back to a Clara Bow film of 1927, would you believe.
Poirot quotes melodramatically from Wordsworth when he is in conversation with Roddy: “But she is in her grave, and oh, the difference to me!” This comes from his poem “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” and is about a young woman, unnoticed, unloved, all apart from by the author. In another historical allusion, Elinor compares herself to her namesake, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Henry II, who offered a choice of a dagger or a bowl of poison to her rival in his love, Fair Rosamund. It’s not an unreasonable comparison.
In another, cheekier, literary reference, Dr Lord is recommended to Poirot by Dr John Stillingfleet, who said Poirot had done great work in the case of Benedict Farley. The majority of Christie’s readers at the time would not have had a clue what he was referring to, unless they had read the short story The Dream which had appeared in The Strand magazine in February 1938, and in the book The Regatta Mystery which had been published in 1939 but only in the USA. Most of her British readers would have had to wait until the story’s appearance in the 1960 collection, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.
A couple of other things to mention: Dr Lord drives a Ford Ten; they were built between 1934 and 1937, and were a fairly standard sort of car to have – nothing too flashy. And the rose growing up the trellis at the Lodge was a Zephyrine Drouhin; first cultivated in 1868 and still readily available today. And yes, the type of rose is indeed relevant to the story.
You’ll know, gentle reader, that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There are a few such sums mentioned in this book. Elinor proposes to make a gift of £2,000 to Mary from the estate of her mother. That’s approximately £78,000 in today’s money. No wonder she was staggered with the generosity. The other amounts to be paid were £500 to Mrs Bishop, £100 to the cook, £50 to the maids, and £5 to anyone else. That’s £19,500, £4,000, £2,000 and £200 at today’s rate. Major Somervell offers £12,500 to buy Hunterbury – and Elinor is strongly recommended to accept the offer. That’s just short of £500,000 at today’s money. Seems a bargain. And how much did Elinor stand to gain from Mrs Welman’s death, according to Nurse O’Brien? £200,000. Today that would be £7.8 million. Probably worth murdering for.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Sad Cypress: Publication Details: 1940. Fontana paperback, 25th impression, published in November 1989, priced £3.25. The cover illustration shows some half-eaten sandwiches, some roses, a framed sepia photograph and a few iffy looking tablets. All the clues are there!
How many pages until the first death: Depends on your definition! We know that Mary Gerrard has died on Page 1. However, as the story unfolds in retrospect, the first death comes on page 46. These more modern print Fontana paperbacks had a larger font and generally used more pages than the 60s/70s editions; so comparisons (should you wish to do such a thing!) are unreliable.
Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly none that I could identify.
None in particular. The important characters are somewhat one-dimensional and it’s hard to get much of an impression of most of them. However, we do see inside Elinor’s mind quite a bit, especially when she’s in court, so we may have a greater understanding of her than most of the others. Roddy is a weed, taking every opportunity to step away from trouble or emotion whilst profusely thanking Elinor for her thoughtfulness. Dr Lord’s description of him is helpfully apt: “a long-nosed supercilious ass with a face like a melancholy horse”. No love lost there, then.
Christie the Poison expert:
This is a book fairly dripping with poison, as that is not only its chosen murder method but also poison frequently pops up in other ways. When Elinor buys the fish paste she remarks to the grocer that there have been many cases of ptomaine poisoning from the product – and the grocer is horrified to think that he would be selling such a thing. In this context, Christie is describing what today we would simply describe as food poisoning; but it can still be lethal.
The charge against Elinor is that of poisoning Mary with morphine hydrochloride – again, today, more commonly known simply as morphine. The deceased had taken four grains of morphine, according to the distinguished analyst Dr Alan Garcia. Apparently, that’s the equivalent to more than a grain of heroin. There’s also a substance I’d never heard of called apomorphine, used here to mitigate against the effects of morphine, but a little research shows it has a very wide range of clinical uses, including treatment for Parkinson’s Disease and fighting addiction to smoking and alcohol. The police surgeon in court suggests that the morphine used might have been “foudroyante” – violent, in French – but my researches also suggest that, as a technical term at least, this might be a bit of Christie-style fantasy. Poirot, in conversation with Lord, wonders why atropine was not used, instead of morphine. Class/social issues of the time:
There’s plenty of evidence of Christie’s usual themes although perhaps they’re not dwelt on in quite so strong a fashion as she’s sometimes tempted. Just like in her previous book, And Then There Were None, there is some unnecessary emphasis on Jewish traits and appearances; Sir Samuel Attenbury, Counsel for the Prosecution is described as “the horrible man with the Jewish nose”, and his affect on the court is that everyone was “listening with a kind of slow, cruel relish to what that tall man with the Jewish nose was saying” about Elinor. The word usage very much associates the adjectives “horrible” and “cruel” with being Jewish. Given the fact that the Second World War was in its early stages, I can’t help but think that’s particularly insensitive. Fascinatingly, much is made of the fact that Mary had gone to finishing school in Germany; by all accounts, this was quite the fashionable thing to do, as many young British ladies had a whale of a time living the High Life in Nazi Germany – like the Mitford girls, for example – providing they weren’t Jewish.
It’s no surprise to find at least one instance of xenophobia in this book – perhaps the surprise is that there’s only one. Mrs Bishop, the redoubtable ex-housekeeper at Hunterbury eyes Poirot with enormous suspicion until he starts chatting about the Royal Family (as I mentioned earlier). There’s a little nod to Christie’s political slant, with Mrs Bishop’s proud claim that Major Somervell, the new MP, was “returned unopposed […] We’ve never had anyone but a Conservative for Maidensford”.
And of course, there are always class issues. There’s a lot of latent criticism in the book about how Mary has been removed from her class – such as attending the finishing school in Germany – and how that now makes her a fish out of water. Roddy observes: “People never dream what harm they may do by “educating” someone! Often it’s cruelty, not kindness!” Her boyfriend Ted – a garage mechanic – observes how Mary has changed and she herself realises that he no longer suits her idea of what a boyfriend should be like. When Mrs Bishop regrets Roddy’s falling for Mary, “Men, they are all alike: easily caught by flattery and a pretty face”, even Poirot asks her, “she had, I suppose, admirers of her own class?” As ever with Christie, it’s not so much being in the wrong class that’s the problem, it’s meddling one’s emotional affairs in another class that gains her disapproval!
One other interesting subject that gets mentioned – although not in so many words – is euthanasia. Mrs Welman would welcome it: “if they went the proper way about things, my life could be ended here and now – none of this long-drawn-out tomfoolery with nurses and doctors.” Roddy and Elinor tend to agree. ““One does feel, Roddy, that people ought to be set free – if they themselves really want it.” Roddy said: “I agree. It’s the only civilised thing to do. You put animals out of their pain.”” The Voluntary Euthanasia Legalisation Society had only been formed in Britain a few years before the book was written. Added to the stories that must have been coming out of Germany about the Nazi use of euthanasia, it was a hot topic in many respects.
Classic denouement: No, not at all – a very different kind of denouement. As all the final scenes (apart from a short conversation featuring Poirot) take place in court, the great detective is not in a position to point a finger at a guilty party, he can merely explain things in private afterwards. Fascinatingly – and with some frustration too – the fate of the guilty party is never followed up, because, obviously, this is Elinor’s trial, not theirs. It’s quite excitingly written, but it doesn’t have the same impact as one of the classic denouements, and in the end you sense that part of the story hasn’t been told.
Happy ending? Probably, but it’s not a dead cert. And definitely not within the confines of the book, but maybe sometime in the future. Poirot thinks so, at any rate, and he’s usually right.
Did the story ring true? Personally, I have a problem with the credibility of Roddy’s infatuation with Mary. Admittedly, men are capable of doing silly things from time to time, when they become aware of a new person who pulls their strings. But he really does throw everything away on a complete whim. There’s no evidence that he had any real encouragement from Mary. I’m not sure I can believe all that story.
Overall satisfaction rating: Very much a curate’s egg. Slow to start, few if any Poirotisms, and a drippy and irritating character in the form of Roddy. That said, it’s a strong surprise revelation, and the courtroom scenes have their own buzzy life about them. So I’m going for a 7/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Sad Cypress and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is One Two Buckle My Shoe, the second of three Hercule Poirot novels in a row. Again I can’t remember much about this one, so I’m looking forward to revisiting it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!
On reflection, one of the most surprising facts about 20th century British theatre is that the play which has been most widely regarded as being the watershed in modern drama, John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger (1956), with its reputation for anger, generation-gap protest, bald domesticity, and bloody-mindedness, does not fall foul of any of the categories agreed by the Joint Select Committee on Stage Plays (Censorship) in 1909, and did not receive much attention from the Lord Chamberlain’s office.
There was some bartering over a few words and phrases, some of which Osborne agreed to change, some on which the censor relented. My favourite example of horse-trading getting this play licensed was the censor’s insistence on removing the song title “There’s a Smokescreen in my Pubic Hair”, which Osborne changed to “You can quit hanging round my counter, Mildred, cos you’ll find my position is closed.” Go figure. Bizarrely, the thing that upset the censor the most was Osborne’s imagery of a python devouring its prey as a metaphor for Alison’s sexual hunger. Eventually they agreed on a milder description of the act; maintaining the metaphor but just toning down the language a little. It all seems so petty nowadays.
The play takes war, arguably the most offensive and indecent act in the world, as the starting-point for its anger. Jimmy Porter tells Helena: “I learnt at an early age what it was to be angry – angry and helpless… I knew more about love, betrayal… and death, when I was ten years old than you will probably ever know all your life.” This desperation was caused by the young Jimmy’s concern for his dying father. The rest of his family did not care about him because he had been wounded fighting for the cause of socialism in the Spanish Civil War; this was an embarrassment to them as they preferred to belong to the “smart and fashionable” set. Jimmy’s disgust at this mother, whose only thought was “that she allied herself to a man who seemed to be on the wrong side in all things” went on to cause an obsession with mother-figures; recognisable in both his utter hatred of his girlfriend Alison’s mother, and his unconditional love for his mate Hugh’s mother.
Jimmy’s war-scarred upbringing, then, converted him into a socialist because of his admiration for the supreme sacrifice made by his father. However, rather than trying to be an upbeat promoter of his cause, he tries to inflict the misery which he experienced on others in the hope that, via suffering, they might reach the same conclusions as him. Unsurprisingly, this is not a successful tactic. At best his motives are misunderstood and at worst he’s the epitome of boorish insensitivity. He’s the archetypal “own worst enemy”.
This boorishness and insensitivity led to a critical misunderstanding of the significance of the character of Jimmy Porter. Consider, if you will, the difference of opinion between these short statements: “Jimmy Porter is being offered as a spokesman for a disaffected generation… contrived to express the misgivings, the grievances and the impatience of almost everyone who resented the power and the corruption” (Ronald Hayman, in British Theatre since 1955 – A Reassessment); “there is absolutely no indication in the play that Osborne ever intended Jimmy’s remarks to be taken as a general condemnation of society. Jimmy is an extremely unusual young man and anything but representative of the young men of our time” (George A. Wellwarth’s essay, John Osborne – Angry Young Man?) Fifteen years elapsed between the two comments – Hayman’s was made in 1979, Wellwarth’s in 1964 – and certainly the more recent comment reflects the attitude most widely held nowadays.
Today aficionados of Jimmy Porter and his play would criticise Wellwarth’s opinion, believing that at the time he was too close to the situation to understand its truth – basically, he couldn’t see the wood for the trees – and that the added years have enabled us to see the play in greater perspective. Jimmy fans may well also believe that he was too realistic and accurate a creation to be easily acceptable. Nevertheless, Wellwarth’s comment was delivered eight years after the play, and, as the play itself clearly states, society is continually changing, so I think it is unlikely that he was too involved in the situation to have a clear vision of what was taking place. Supporters of Wellwarth’s argument might well agree that Jimmy is a psychotic individual with an individual tale to tell. Certainly, in performance, the audience is more interested in discovering how the love affairs of Jimmy, Alison and Helena will work out, rather than relating the whole story to Britain in 1956. Perhaps Ronald Hayman’s quote suggests that he succumbed to the easy mistake of considering the myth more than the play itself.
It is important to separate the two. Over the past six decades, commentators have romanticised the play and its characters almost out of recognition. Osborne’s own personal success with it is a kind of fairy story; George Devine, director of the English Stage Company based at the Royal Court theatre, had invited young and as yet unknown writers to submit their plays with a view to their being produced in the 1956 season. Look Back in Anger was submitted in this way, and was the only play from those sent in that was chosen for production. In his famous criticism in the Observer of 13th May 1956, Kenneth Tynan agreed “that “Look Back in Anger” is likely to remain a minority taste. What matters, however, is the size of the minority. I estimate it at roughly 6,733,000, which is the number of people in this country between the ages of 20 and 30…. I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see “Look Back in Anger”. It is the best young play of its decade.” Tynan’s typically sensationalist and emotive language did not cut much ice with many of the other critics. Milton Shulman, never quick to keep up with the times, wrote in the London Evening Standard on 9th May 1956: “Nothing is so comfortable to the young as the opportunity to feel sorry for themselves… [Look Back in Anger] aims at being a despairing cry but achieves only the stature of a self-pitying snivel”.
Despite the enormous variety of critical responses, it was not a box-office success until a scene from it was shown on television. Public awareness of the play suddenly grew, as did the audiences, and the season was extended. Also, despite their reactions to the play itself, the critics were almost unanimous when they considered Osborne’s skill as a writer. Cecil Wilson, in the Daily Mail, also on 9th May 1956, hit the nail on the head as far as many commentators were concerned, when he said: “we can perceive what a brilliant play this young man will write when he has got this one out of his system and let a little sunshine into his soul.”
In my next blog post, I’ll delve a bit deeper into the character of Jimmy Porter.
After a year’s break, it’s a welcome return to the Last Night of the Derngate Proms, which, as our noble conductor Nick Davies pointed out, is also the First Night, but we shouldn’t let that bother us. We had the pleasure of Mr Davies’ company for the same gig back in 2013, so it’s obviously a job he enjoys. He has a warm, welcoming style and is happy to exchange a bit of banter with the audience, both informative and informal. As if this splendid evening of shameless patriotism couldn’t get any better, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by Lord and Lady Prosecco, who need no lessons in how to enjoy themselves. The ladies of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were all decked out in their colourful finery, to give a gala feel to the concert; and of course there were plenty of Union Jacks scattered throughout the auditorium to wave during the familiar exciting bits. And if the orchestra seemed a little hasty to get on and off the stage – as Mr Davies confided in us – orchestra leader Duncan Riddell was going on holiday immediately afterwards, and he clearly had a train to catch.
These concerts are always fashioned as a pot-pourri of Classic’s Greatest Hits, so it was particularly rewarding to see the thought and variety that had been considered for the running order this year. We started off with Vaughan Williams’ Wasps Overture, a lively, buzzy piece of music that immediately challenges the orchestra with its various themes and moods. Then we had the Intermezzo from Sibelius’ Karelia Suite, which the older members of the audience would remember as the theme to ITV’s This Week. Even if the music doesn’t give you that extra nostalgia boost, it’s a superb little piece that builds nicely to its triumphant theme. Great work from the strings and a big shout out to M. Nicolas Fleury, leading the French Horns and celebrating his country’s win in the World Cup earlier that afternoon.
Next up was the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a rousing, swirling dance that cries out for ballerinas and men in tights. Again, the orchestra members threw themselves into all its majestic jollity, transporting us all into the glamorous ballrooms tucked away in our imaginations. Great stuff. Then a big change of mood – George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad, an elegant and pastoral piece that I’d certainly never heard before. Fitting for the Last Night of the Proms as it’s a big slice of Englishness, but with a contemplative nature that appeals to the mind as well as the heart.
Next we were introduced to our soloist for the evening, Soprano Katerina Mina. In a stunning blue evening dress she coquetted through Franz Lehar’s Meine Lippen from his operetta Giuditta, which was also new to me – it only had a few performances in the theatres of Vienna and Budapest in the mid-1930s and never reached London or New York. It’s a great little tune and Ms Mina was delightfully knowing and cheeky all the way through. The final piece before the interval was the Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s Meistersinger, which you might consider to be the German equivalent of the Pomp and Circumstance of Elgar; a Teutonic pageant of musical masterfulness. A fantastic way to lead you into your half-time Chardonnay.
After the interval we started off with Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla, another fizzy crowd pleaser. There’s an art to composing the perfect overture, and in this concert we had two of them. Then we welcomed Katerina Mina back to sing Vissi d’Arte from Puccini’s Tosca. I know it gets trundled out all the time but I think this is one of the most moving pieces of classical music ever written, and Ms Mina sang it with beautiful eloquence infused with tragedy. Absolutely stunning. Then we had Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit, a rather French title for a rather English composition; a lovely, stately ode to romance with just a tinge of Stiff Upper Lip, again beautifully played by the string section. We ended this sequence of music with a lively Slavonic Dance by Dvorak – No 8 in the first set; impossible not to be both shaken and stirred with this smile-inducing, fast paced dance that constantly switches from major to minor and back again.
That’s when Mr Davies gave us our cue that we could start to “join in”. Henry Wood’s heartfelt but introverted Tom Bowling and the always chirpy Hornpipe from his Fantasia on British Sea Songs got us started with the rhythmic clapping – but the audience started too loudly, as usual; then two verses from Rule Britannia, sung by Katerina Mina in a Sgt Pepper jacket and Napoleonic hat, following straight into Jerusalem (my favourite) and then ending up with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No 1 and a rousing double portion of Land of Hope and Glory. We’re here for the music, said Mr Davies, and what’s not to like about that? A very happy crowd went home having wallowed in some of the best classical tunes there are. Huge congratulations to everyone involved!
P. S. I didn’t much enjoy the Last Night of the Derngate Proms two years ago. It followed hard on the heels of the Brexit vote and the jingoistic fervour in the audience was overpoweringly abhorrent. Two years on, things have calmed down a bit and the patriotic fun in this year’s show was just about perfect.
P. P. S. Lord Prosecco says he was “just passing” the stage door when he bumped into the beautiful and charming Ms Katerina Mina, still dressed like an extra from Waterloo (the historical movie, not the Abba song). A Facebook selfie was taken to prove it. Not remotely jealous at all. No sirree.