Brassneck

In this time of lockdown we have to make our own entertainment, which means finding an old play that got made in to a TV version, but the TV version isn’t available on YouTube so I just have to read the play and imagine the actions in the theatre of my mind.

The great thing about these old Methuen editions is they have the original production details and usually an Author’s Note as well.

It is from these documents that we can find out that Tom Wilkinson, Roger Sloman, Ian McDiarmid and many other family-friendly stalwarts of 80s/90s film & TV spent the 70s touring the land disseminating left-wing messages more efficiently than The Angry Brigade or any similar group, and being more deserving of their own Special Branch filing cabinet.

Brassneck is a story of Britain After The War, full of anger about how the rising new crooks got together with the old crooks to make sure the country stayed safe for crooks. In the 90s we will get writers sentimentalising about “the post-war settlement”, but while it was still present company it wasn’t so well regarded, as its imperfections were close up for viewing. The imperfections viewed in Brassneck were very close in time and topical: the corruption exposed by the bankruptcy of John Poulson, who admitted to have secured many deals through his own connections and, ah, excessive generosity. This is also the material finally covered in the later TV series Our Friends In The North, which was delayed by fears of legal action; the 1973 play changes enough details to avoid that, whilst being very obvious in its real subject matter to its original audience. More generally, the 80s TV series Muck And Brass also portrayed regional corruption, and ended on the suggestion that its anti-hero was headed for a successful and respectable career on a national level, protected by favours and friendships made during his ascent locally.

The simplest way Brassneck departs from the Poulson timeline is by splitting its main man in to 2: we have the patriarch Alfred Bagley returning to his Midlands hometown of Stanton in 1945, and he creates a property empire he hands over to his son Roderick. Chronology in the play is dealt with by projecting topical backdrops at the start of each scene, taking us from VE Day to Churchill’s re-election and the Coronation and onward. This galloping style of Pathe-sequencing was also used later by Hare in Plenty, when the drama moves up to the high politics of British decline seen in Whitehall rather than the provinces and their small-town bigshots. Bagley arrives with the money from selling off his drapery business in London and gets in to buying and renting property. Soon the local notables want him in their world, centred on the Freemasons; both the local Labour and Conservative Parties are deeply involved in the Lodge. Old Bagley gets on well enough as the apparent nonentity put in to fill a space of Master where no other acceptable candidate for the role; the event is marked by a brief flicker in to fantasy as it is re-imagined as Bagley being crowned as a Borgia Pope.

When the important people are gathered together, they act as they usually do in the works of Howards Barker and Brenton, or other radical 70s authors, which can be described as “The Distinguished Gentlemen are scratching their balls” – an interference pattern of high-flown speech and crudity, sourced from the ever-growing collection of diaries, memoirs and unredacted histories that showed that in fact the Great Men and their women could be just drunken, philistine boors outside of their official presentation to a fawning public. Appeals to idealism and the value of tradition, which might be underscored by a stirring soundtrack in any popular British film of the 60s, are instead cut across with obscenity or the lairiness of powerful men easily bored and contemptuous of each other. Every inspirational story taught in schools will be brought down with the spectators finally speaking candidly, as old Bagley does at his daughter’s wedding:

Alfred has got his age wrong: if he was born in 1872 he would be 73 in 1945.

The female characters do not get much to do in this world: young Lucy is a Posh Nympho from any number of other awful British films of the era, and her mother Vanessa is the Long-Suffering Wife from a sitcom, her hobby-interest in writing bad poetry is hardly used at all. The real business is in the business: all the men trying to make rich by making themselves rich off the Bagley name, which quickly spreads itself too thinly and is caught out when its shoddy workmanship gets in trouble, and Great Britain Ltd has to have a spending squeeze. Reginald Maudling, the Tory Home Secretary who had to resign over Poulson, is here as former minister Raymond Finch. I wonder if the original production had them physically resembling in any way.

Along the way some left-wingers have been corrupted, although there was little sign they believed in much to start with, and the revelation that “Karl Marx said, there are contradictions inherent in a capitalist system which in the end will destroy it” in the mouth of the idiot youngest Bagley son, also makes little difference, since the whole clan end the play by finding a new market they can make better profits in: the drugs trade.

Of course from the standpoint of 2020 it is incomprehensible to suppose anyone could enrich themselves getting contracts on the basis of being friends with Conservative ministers.

Act Three also starts with an excerpt from “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, but that’s already been mentioned on this site, so let’s end with a different musical reference. Like the play, it also existed in 2 versions, and it has a link to Granadaland.

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