Friday, 25th June, 2010

 

Here Begins Our Lasting Joy

There are few things that have ever brought me so much pleasure as The Beiderbecke Trilogy, written by Alan Plater who has died today aged 75.

The series are a curious beast; intelligent, warm, funny (though gently so, rarely displaying much effort in reaching for the jokes), political, plotted as if by slight-of-hand – in short, it is extraordinary, the most sophisticated kind of writing, and yet also an exercise in realizing a lost craftsmanship. This is the television of dry-stone-wallers, wicker-weavers and the cottage pew. In some respects it appears to be Last of the Summer Wine with a moral and social conscience – but that appearance is in itself deceptive. It is so very, very much more.

There is something that Stephen Poliakoff says about what he calls ‘slow television’; that rarely in the current day do producers allow a programme – a limited unit of time – to linger on any single visual scene. It’s easy to understand why this is the case, that in a tightly packed schedule, it seems obvious that every moment must be justified to funders by something happening. Silence, stillness – well, that just seems a waste – and yet it is an insult to imagine that audiences can only read the things that are being said, that they only respond to plot, and dialogue, and flashing lights, and speed. Bleak House at break-neck speed, Little Dorrit in little snatches – great, but it’s not the only way, and it reduces the viewer’s need to consider the events and the non-events on our screens.

Which is why Beiderbecke was brilliant. In 1986, Plater dared to devote several minutes of a television programme to establishing shots of the windows of a modern comprehensive school. Written down, that doesn’t sound much. These images, the sight of children walking inside cages of uniform glass – evocative of Hitchcock’s opening to North by North West (an allusion picked up on in the 1988 Beiderbecke Connection: “This usually reminds us of a film”) – say so much about Britain in the twentieth century, and yet they say nothing, they are merely accompanied by a soundtrack of Bix Beiderbecke’s “bullets shot from a bell.”

There are so many brilliantly judged moments; there is a shot in The Beiderbecke Connection which pans through windows as Trevor tucks ‘first-born’ into bed, taking in Jill leaving the house to eventually show the yellow van driving away in the distance, which parodies Orson Welles perfectly, but with all of the skill of the original. There is the slowest car chase imaginable that turns into some Busby Berkeley routine from above. Big Al quoting Henry VI, which is such an affirming moment of there being goodness in the world: “Here begins our lasting joy”.

The programmes are full of such allusions, my favourite being in the 1987 Beiderbecke Tapes where they encounter an American ex-serviceman who speaks only in Fitzgeraldean aphorisms. Sitting upon a bench in Edinburgh in the rain, he says of Jill and Trevor:

I believe those kids already found themselves a bit of action. Sweetly, and tenderly, and in the afternoon.

It’s a gorgeous line. I’ve not been able to track down whether it is a quotation from something, but suspect it was original to Plater who had the most tremendous ear for dialogue.  Either way it’s very, very good and deserves to be remembered. It all does. It’s really a most brilliant thing.

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