“I’ve never properly understood what people mean by entertainment. I don’t think that for me the theatre is a place for anything but the discovery and demonstration of the truth of all that’s happening in a given society at a given time. Insofar as I understand entertainment, I would say Hamlet entertains me, but it’s not light, it’s not amusing, it’s not shallow, and perhaps we don’t really understand these categories very well. We tend to think of entertainment as something which is necessarily not to do with reality. I think that the theatre is concerned with reality.
It isn’t exactly that I find television the most satisfying medium, but the important thing to me about it is the kind of freedom I have as a dramatist. Television combines a visual capacity for being able to absorb the solid text. You can use a lot of words – and I’m, so to speak, a words man.”
“Television does not have to be cheap, depressing, and second-rate. It is a beautiful, beautiful medium, capable of anything and everything the human imagination can conceive. It can be whatever we want it to be. Why are we throwing it away?” 1
I acquired a copy of Don Taylor’s 1990 Methuen book Days of Vision in a Stratford-on Avon second-hand bookstore not long after its publication. Thanks to the heritage culture industry stimulated by Thatcher, now continued by her New Labour successors, the Bard’s home town degenerated into an expensive theme park and I had little desire to contribute to the coffers of this particular form of a debased market economy. Like most of my acquired books it took me some time to read. The wait was worth it. Don Taylor (1935-2003) became a BBC TV producer at a very exciting time in British history when it became possible to offer to millions, who could not afford standard theatre prices, not only the best of European culture but also new, exciting dramatic productions within the medium of television equaling those old theatrical productions in the age of Shakespeare. The one major difference was that plays were not limited to those who lived in a specific metropolitan area. Taylor saw television as the opportunity to present a more creative and democratic form of art to a wider audience free from the demeaning controls of commercial restraint that sadly exist today in most institutional structures..
Taylor and David Mercer (1928-1980) lived in those days of vision. They formed a cultural vanguard attracted by a television that appeared to offer creative possibilities for present and future development. Although Taylor deals with a particular moment in British television, his ideas also apply to the American model and most national television systems. What went wrong? What have we lost? Are there other alternatives that could have been followed?
Taylor’s book provides several cultural and political insights relevant to some unforeseen future when television might again be fully used in a more creative manner. Days of Vision concentrates on David Mercer, one of England’s most significant television dramatists. His best work was done within this medium. It demonstrated how television had the potential of being a genuine form of artistic expression. However, Mercer was also a complex and contradictory talent, torn between Marxist beliefs and a morbid pessimistic vision of a society whose inhabitants proved incapable of realizing human potential. His television dramas and plays provide important ideological insights into post-war dilemmas such as the seductive lures of an affluent society as well as the contemporary failure of certain older models of Marxism and Socialism to provide viable alternatives. He depicted the psychological casualties of this era. However Mercer also became haunted not only by the same type of problems affecting his characters but also by feelings associated with his own personal demons. Mercer’s work reflects schizophrenic tension. Conflict occurs between forms of seductive escapism such as alcoholism, infantile regression, and insanity to deny the existence of a threatening world and a strong oppositional resilience that only a few of his characters seemed capable of achieving. Mercer often took the easy way out. But some of his dramas contain tentative hopes for the future. Any examination of Mercer’s early “days of vision” is incomplete without considering his other work and how they reflect issues contained in his first television trilogy.
Taylor’s book is divided into three main chapters: Prologue: Getting There; David, and Others; and Epilogue, the second of which is the most detailed and relevant, revealing the type of creative collaboration between producer and writer now absent in contemporary British television. Like Ken Loach and Dennis Potter, Taylor benefited from that lost era of post-war consensus when government grants made it possible for a new generation of working class children to enter British universities and, sometimes, obtain the “glittering prizes” of Oxford and Cambridge, formerly upper class domains. These new opportunities had cultural as well as political consequences. Taylor begins his book with this very revealing sentence. “I was born into the first generation of serious television viewers.”2 After graduating from Oxford University, Taylor joined the BBC in 1960 and began a training course at a time when most television dramas were recorded live, not taken seriously, and then “disappeared into thin air” (10). Others were recorded and then transferred on to 35mm film-recording machines, a situation paralleling American television’s Golden Age of 1950s drama. Taylor soon became a television director in the BBC drama department. He compared his early experiences to the innovative type of student theatre he had directed for Oxford University’s Experimental Theatre Club.
“For me, the buzz of doing live television was tremendous. It was live, it was real, actually happening, like the theatre, but with the added tension of the cameras selecting their viewpoint, focusing the audience’s attention, adding a new artistic dimension.” (24)
This new medium promised much. Taylor compared its potentials to contemporary achievements within world theatre. Rather than taking an elitist perspective that regarded television as inferior to the established arts, Taylor instead saw relevant associations between theatre and television. He evaluated televised drama according to a series of unified questions: “what was said, how was it said, was it said well and was it worth saying?” (31) Taylor also began working at a time when the upper class bias of the British commercial theatre, manifested in the plays of Noel Coward, William Douglas Home and others, had still managed to survive the onslaught of Look Back in Anger and other works of the Angry Young Man era. Film and television had yet to reflect other “winds of change” attempting to give a true picture of working-class life.3 Since contemporary BBC television drama was then produced by a single department under a single head, it differed from the later corporate model and offered great possibilities for any creative teaming of writer and director. This led to Taylor’s first endeavors, especially David Turner’s The Train Set (1961) a now-lost “workmanlike fable about race prejudice” (39) using rich Birmingham dialect “with a poet’s ear, like Tennessee Williams or Sean 0’Casey, creating an intensity, a passion for language, that was thrillingly exiting.” (40) Creative use of language, dramatic feeling, and the avoidance of British working-class stereotypes excited this young producer who, like many of his era such as future television dramatist Dennis Potter, experienced a cultural limbo by being educated beyond the confines of their original class backgrounds. They sought to reproduce creatively this cultural no-man’s-land in which they found themselves in early dramas such as the BBC 1965 Wednesday Play contributions Stand Up, Nigel Barton and Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton.
Taylor belonged to this background. His father “had been outrageously cheated by the system he had been born into” (45) by being deprived of any form of cultural expression and a university education he could not afford. Since New Labour abolished grants and introduced fees in 1997 the same type of deprivation exists today. Taylor’s comments in his 1990 book appear tragic in retrospect when we recognize that a Labour Government later achieved what Thatcher dared not consider in her own era.
“The concept of free education for all, which has been the lifeline to the working class for two generations, is now under threat from our brutal and philistine government. Surely, surely, we will never let the deprivation that robbed my father and millions like him of the chance to expand their minds begin its destructive work again? Does any nation willingly return to the Dark Ages?” (45)
Although Taylor and his generation benefited from access to the higher education denied to their parents, a cultural and political chasm affected them for the rest of their lives, a chasm that the first David Mercer play, Where the Difference Begins, produced by Taylor examines. By contrast, Yorkshire-born David Mercer had not benefited from a university education. But, like many of that twentieth-century British working-class generation, he experienced a process of self-education that made him culturally and politically aware of historical factors influencing post-war Britain. Adopting Marxism as his chosen philosophy and briefly joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Mercer was no Party man but a talent who saw clearly social contradictions existing in his own society, contradictions that often either evoked faint hope for the future or personal despair.
When producing The Train Set, Taylor discovered a young Birmingham actor Tony Garnett who would not only play a key role in the second and third parts of Mercer’s Generations trilogy but also collaborate as producer with Ken Loach a decade or so later in the type of radical television plays that soon would become extinct following Thatcher’s election victory in 1979. The Train Set also starred Robert Shaw who would also appear in Taylor’s 1962 masterly adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale now lost due to the BBC’s “tape holocaust “consigning much of that decade’s cultural achievements to oblivion. This production also saw the first appearance of Sarah Badel, daughter of the highly talented Alan Badel (1923-1982) also known for his television appearances most notably in his creatively idiosyncratic performances as a memorable Mr. D’Arcy in the late 1950s BBC production Pride and Prejudice, Rawdon Crawley in Vanity Fair, and the title role in the unforgettable The Count of Monte Cristo (1964). Sarah Badel would also appear alongside Garnett in the second Generations play A Climate of Fear. Father and daughter were creative talents at home in any artistic medium who never expressed any disdain towards television nor disappointed their audiences.
Taylor operated in a privileged manner in these early days of vision. He could become his own master by commissioning plays from new dramatists such as Norman Crisp, David Mercer, and David Turner without any bureaucratic interference. As he ruefully points out, in those days “if the playwright did a good job, or, even more simply, if he satisfied me that he had done a good job, the play would be on the screen within a few months of being written. This kind of relationship became impossible after 1964, and it has never been possible in the structure of television drama at any time since.” (85) This was a very creative time for BBC TV, one seeing the appearance of Peter Dew’s 1960 Shakespearean cycle An Age of Kings (consciously or unconsciously inspired by Orson Welles’s 1939 production Five Kings that he later adapted as Chimes at Midnight performed in the Dublin gate Theatre in 1960, featuring Keith Baxter as Prince Hal). Baxter would appear in the now lost 1963 Mercer-Taylor BBC production For Tea on Sunday. In An Age of Kings, a young Sean Connery played a very memorable Hotspur. As Taylor notes, An Age of Kings was “presented as a weekly serial, electrifyingly acted and marvelously directed, still one of the high points of TV drama history, and as versions of Shakespeare in a different class from most of the BBC’s weary trudge through the canon during the late seventies and eighties.” (86) He exhibited high hopes for the BBC Drama Department that had the potential of being “the great National Theatre of the Air” making performances of great plays accessible to those had little opportunity of seeing them theatrically. Taylor saw similar possibilities for televised productions of modern dramas that disavowed past obsolescent formulas to become artistically conceived cultural and political works interrogating the status quo. However, as he notes retrospectively, the idea of a later cultural counter-revolutionary “kulturkampf” associated with Thatcherism and New Labour was far from his mind in those days.4
“The history of the last twenty-five years must suggest that such an artistic project was the most complete and total failure. And yet, in some plays at least, the right questions were asked, the prevailing intellectual attitudes were examined, and the old ideas were discredited. What none of us saw before the late seventies was that ideas that were so completely discredited as rational constructs could still have such vivid life in them, because they embodied the most naked interest and unconcealed greed of irrational, and, I suppose one must say, amoral people. We were a hopeful generation, with great visions and clear dreams. That kind of thundercloud was at that time beyond our comprehension.” (89)
The Generations Trilogy
Before Taylor began his first Mercer production, an organizational change began in the BBC that would later have dire consequences for his own days of vision. Drama department head Michael Barry resigned and Canadian Sydney Newman would later occupy his place to instill a more limited view of drama conceived in journalistic terms. However, Taylor then began his first creative partnership with Mercer that was to last for nearly five years. Mercer had thought very deeply about contemporary European society and in spring 1962 “had found the subject he was to make uniquely his own among English writers, the destiny of Europe, and particularly European socialism, in its psychological and spiritual dimensions, as well as the purely political.”(106)Where the Difference Begins (1961) became the first part of Mercer’s The Generations trilogy that became one of the peaks of early 1960s BBC television drama. It deals with the decline of old socialist ideals and the rootless alienation contaminating a new educated generation of children from working-class families.. Richard and Edgar Crowther return to their family home in Yorkshire where their mother is seriously ill. Both sons inhabit different cultural and intellectual realms. They are equally emotionally and mentally divorced from their working-class origins and their own inner selves. Edgar is an upwardly mobile, pre-Thatcherite (“Reagan Democrat” in U.S. terms) while Richard is more artistic in temperament. Although this first play in the trilogy resembles contemporary kitchen sink social realism, it is more accomplished as Taylor points out.
“The use of Yorkshire dialect was vivid and truthful, alive with the internal poetry of English provincial speech. But there was something else hidden in Mercer’s speeches and scenes, a sense of relevance, a feeling of being at the cutting edge where literature is made. We were making a play that would strike home to our contemporaries, but would also, because of the sheer quality of the writing – the precision of the choice of words, the vitality of the rhythms, the sharpness of the imagery, the insight into human character - speak to other generations beyond our own. We all began to feel, simultaneously, as the first week moved into the second, that we were not only working on a good play, but in at the dramatic birth of an important, perhaps even a great writer.” (113)
Where the Difference Begins is relevant beyond its original context. It can also apply to adverse historical changes in any location where old values are no longer applicable, whether New Deal optimism, the hippy revolution of the 1960s, or the Maoist Cultural Revolution, that now face new challenges from those who have sold out to opposing forces whether neo-conservatism, postmodernism, post-capitalism, and globalization. The old style socialism of the 1930s once inspiring working-class father Wilf Crowther is now dead. No viable replacement appears possible. The play also deals with the “related subject of being educated out of your class, finding who you are and where you fit in, in a bleak new world where all the old socialist simplicities no longer apply.” (115) Edgar represents one solution: adapting to ruthless capitalism. Richard, although yearning for those old heroic days, finds no solution. His alienation will result in another new generation of rootless individuals who either choose adherence to arbitrary solutions to complex personal and political problems or descend into madness. In this play, Mercer achieved that rare balancing act of combining “a powerful political structure of ideas with truthfulness to character” (116) resulting in neither dogmatism nor existential, solipsistic alienation. His characters were all real people. Even those whose views he detested were never treated as grotesque caricatures. Where the Difference Begins concludes with Wilf’s poignant speech that recognizes the vast cultural generational gulf that now exists between himself and his sons. But the father’s final lines reveal a note of tentative optimism as Wilf recognizes that his alienated, intellectual son Richard, who has now nothing to write about, does have another path that he could follow.
“Is there nowt left to paint? Nowt left to write about, like? Or what? Tha munt spend they life doing summat that cannot abide. Tha munt! (He looks at Gillian as if appealing to her, nodding over his shoulder at Richard) He says last night as being a husband and father all he’s capable on, like (Pause) Well, that mun be a start – munt it?
This contrast between fragile hope and pessimism marks not only the distinctive nature of this trilogy but also haunts Mercer’s entire work. From a later perspective, Wilf may be seen as challenging his son to take parental duties seriously by attempting to make his children balanced individuals. They may not follow the path of Wilf’s old-style socialism but have opportunities of arriving at alternatives more relevant to their future depending upon how a soon-to-become “older generation” adapts to new circumstances. The second part of the trilogy will reveal the husband failing while his wife makes the necessary intellectual readjustments to face an inhospitable future.
Following this first successful collaboration, Mercer and Taylor decided to work on a second play that would focus on the character of Edgar’s wife Margaret who would decide to break away from her sterile life-style towards a different type of personal and moral commitment. Although the characters are the same as those in the first play, the names were changed to nuclear scientist Leonard and Frieda Waring. They now have college-age children, Colin and Frances, active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In A Climate of Fear, Mercer moved beyond the working class dramatic confines of the earlier play towards a more universal perspective artistically matched by an acutely developed sense of dialogue. Like the earlier play, A Climate of Fear was no political tract but rather “a complex interweaving of family relationships, all spinning round the centre of gravity of political commitment or the lack of it, over three generations.” (128) Taylor realized that a third play was necessary to make Mercer’s work a more fully realized depiction of problems facing the creation of a civilized socialist society attempting to move beyond the failed promises of the past.
“This was the overall subject of the two plays, not the CND theme, which was a kind of catalyst, or lens, to bring into focus what had happened to the socialist impulse in England, and how much of it was being betrayed by education and affluence.” (129)
When Taylor cast Sarah Badel as Perdita in A Winter’s Tale he saw in her the ideal actress to portray Frieda’s daughter Frances, a 17 year-old “ferocious and uncompromising political hard-liner” fully capable of creating “the intellectual ferocity of the character” (131) despite the fact that she was then apolitical. As Colin, Taylor cast his young Marxist friend Tony Garnett who he believed could play the role with the necessary degree of passion. He was the best young actor for the job, a real-life “working-class intellectual, sharp, ferociously intelligent and witheringly ambitious”, the only person “who could get within a mile of the kind of dialogue David had written for Colin.” (134)
Following the transmission of A Climate of Fear in 1962, Taylor worked with Mercer on the now lost television play A Suitable Case for Treatment. He and Mercer then began collaborating on the final part of a trilogy having a more European dimension than the previous plays. Mercer had Frances marrying a Polish dissident. Poland and East Berlin would be new locations. Director and playwright obtained visas from the Polish Embassy for a reconnaissance trip where they met the charismatic Zbigniew Cybulski, star of Andrzej Wajda’s final part of his own cinematic trilogy Ashes and Diamonds (1958), who “also represented, in a political way, the alienated youth of Europe, the growing dissident movement in Poland as much as the disillusioned socialist idealism of the west.” (145).The now-lost The Birth of a Private Man developed Mercer’s use of poetic imagery and political analysis far beyond the limited concerns of Where the Difference Begins. Taylor noticed very significant introduction of a new character, Jurek, played by Vladek Sheybal who had appeared in Wajda’s Kanal (1957). One wonders whether the more socialist-realist A Generation (1954), that began the Wajda trilogy, may have influenced the style of Where the Difference Begins. Like Wajda. Mercer was beginning to extend his artistic horizons in each part of his own trilogy.
“In Jurek, the world-weary Polish writer, who has been through the camps and the Stalinist repression, and still has a dogged if exhausted vision of a humanistic communism that has inspired his comfortable Western counterparts, David created a figure unique in English drama at that time. In setting up these two groups of characters, the suffering easterners, and the neurotic westerners, and trying to understand their similarities and differences, in terms of a television play, David was setting himself a huge task, Paradise-Lost in its scope: no less than coming to terms, both intellectual and spiritual, with the apparent failure of a revolution. Milton had twelve books and ten years to sort out where the English Revolution had gone wrong. David was trying to do his coming to terms in seventy pages of typescript, and about four months.”(162)
The Birth of a Private Man focused more on the psychological casualties caused by this particular “end of history” than preceding plays. It formed not only an appropriate conclusion to the trilogy but also raised further searching questions as to how characters would personally accommodate themselves to new changes where old certainties were redundant. As Taylor notes, the younger generation are those who are most at risk.
“Frances has concealed her insecurity by donning a mental suit of armour, becoming an unthinking hard-liner, for whom there is always a political formula to explain anyone’s despair, particularly her mother’s and her brother’s.” (163).
However, after marrying Jurek and understanding his suffering, her shell cracks. Frances may now go in any direction. Her alliance with a different member of an older generation may result in the type of creative collaboration that later occurs at the end of Mercer’s other trilogy, Emma’s Time (1970) when elderly Czech Communist Sladek invites Emma, the young mistress of the late disillusioned and drunken writer Robert Kelvin, to collaborate on writing a “true history of the Czech Communist Party.”6 By contrast, Colin becomes the “private man” of the play’s title. Alienated from family and former political beliefs, he retreats into the privacy of madness and ends up as a self-willed sacrificial victim on the Berlin Wall slaughtered by crossfire of bullets from both sides.
Colin resembles a darker version of Morgan Delt from A Suitable Case for Treatment as well as other characters from plays such as The Governor’s Lady (1962/1965), And Did Those Feet? (1965) Ride A Cock Horse (1965), and Huggy Bear (1976). They usually regress into infantile insanity due to their inability to confront challenging personal and political circumstances, whether trivial or serious. Alternatively, others inhabit moral and spiritual vacuums similar to those encompassing the disparate group in Duck Song (1974) or No Limits to Love (1980). They may elicit amusement in terms of witty dialogue but little sympathy. Nicholas in For Tea on Sunday (1963) and Kate from In Two Minds (1967 are more serious casualties, victimized by oppressive social systems despite the fact that both attempt to struggle against it in different ways. Certain Mercer characters end up as aggressive, self-pitying, tiresome drunks like Robert Kelvin in Mercer’s 1968-1970 BBC TV Kelvin Trilogy (On the Eve of Publication, The Cellar and the Almond Tree, and Emma’s Time). He retreats into alcoholism to avoid confronting creative, personal, and political betrayals.
Mercer’s work reflects a writer in two minds. Despite his Marxist beliefs and clear vision of a failed Western society, his characters often choose retreat from a dangerous and difficult process of social opposition into the comforting domains of alcoholism or escapist insanity. It is a seductive path. However, it evades the harsh necessity of cultural and political struggle against oppressive situations. Mercer and Taylor believed in a progressive concept of days of vision. But both suffered for their ideals in different ways. Taylor eventually became blacklisted from the BBC while Mercer ended up like the biographical character of Malcolm Sloman, played by Frank Finlay in Trevor Griffiths’s The Party first performed at London’s National Theatre on 1973, a disillusioned and ineffectual drunk
The final part of the trilogy was ambitious and complex requiring sophisticated acting skills from everyone involved. Pauline Letts repeated her role as Frances but Sarah Badel was now unavailable. Taylor recognized the nature of her loss. “She was, at that time, unique among young actresses. There was no other in England that I knew of with such a sharp intellectuality, and such a mocking, arrogant power of personality. A good part of her father’s charisma had been passed to her, and she was literally irreplaceable.” (165-166). Jane Merrow could not deliver the type of performance Taylor required so he felt the production suffered a little from the change. The role of Colin as written by Mercer for this final part of his trilogy presented a great challenge for Tony Garnett. From his memories of this lost production, Taylor believes that Garnett did rise to a high degree of acting achievement but did not scale the heights required to fulfill Mercer’s conception. Colin’s anguished character avoided the caricature of insanity marring Mercer’s other work. But a high amount of creative acting was needed to accomplish this challenging role. Garnett recognized that he would never be a major acting talent defining his generation as Olivier and Finney did for theirs. He then decided to work behind the camera as a television producer.
“David had written an extraordinary part, demanding intellectual and interpretative qualities of the highest order, effectively a part for a great actor, which in later years it might have been enthralling to see a young Michael Pennington or Anthony Sher play. None of us doubted that Tony Garnett had the intellect for the part. There were no other actors then, or probably since, better fitted for that aspect of the character. But the picture of a young man being driven over the edge into madness by political despair, however you might argue about it clinically, presented a challenge of sheer acting that would have daunted anyone...The great actor surprises and amazes himself as well as the audience, with imaginative insights that come unexpectedly from hidden shadowscapes within, and suddenly open up new perspectives in the work, windows in the universe as it were. I don’t think Tony was able to do that. But his was a coherent and moving presentation of the role, which made the play work, and stretched him to the limits of his intellectual and emotional ability.” (166)
During 1964 after the appearance of The Generations Trilogy, Taylor began to reflect on the significance of this type of drama in an appendix to the published plays. “David Mercer and Television Drama” was a first draft for Days of Vision. Taylor began his essay by asking whether this powerful means of communication would either be a “new medium for artists of every kind to work in…or the richest private gold mine in the world …a living image of the values of a society that uses the products of the creative imagination in order to sell soap.”7 He saw television drama as not being taken seriously in an industry associated with commercialism and competition with the exception of a “rudimentary artistic climate of opinion” (239) that Mercer’s work could help to change. Television was not primarily a visual medium in Taylor’s opinion since a special creative space existed for the power of the word and Mercer’s work could contribute to that goal. As a dramatist knowing nothing of the rules of television, Mercer had the opportunity of using the medium as a framework for creative thought.
“The result was a series of plays that demand complete and intense concentration on the part of the audience if the viewing is to bear fruit. Language is itself a weapon in these plays, as it is in poetry, and it doesn’t expect to share the viewer’s attention with the kettle or the evening paper. Many people, doubtless, could not take this unexpected thickness of texture. Television viewers have been crammed with the obvious for so long that the subtle tastes strange to them.” (244)
Although Taylor stressed language as a weapon, this did not eliminate using the image as a poetic device. He aimed at creatively combining them. Noticing key elements of Where the Difference Begins, where characters make speeches based on sincere motivations, rather than intrusive didacticism, and delivered with an instinctive rhythmic approach, Taylor saw further distinctive developments in the second part of the trilogy A Climate of Fear.
“Characterization remained completely truthful, but thought was more complex, and language and rhythm had become richer and more lyrical. There were moments of great verbal beauty in almost every scene, and there was at least one tremendous challenge, a scene of intense emotional crisis in Frieda…To my mind, the great strength of the writing, its relevance and absolute truth to the character made the scene successful. It could not be done on the stage, and a film could never match the growing intensity of the continuous TV performance. Pauline Letts as Frieda, held in almost continuous close up, laying bare her deepest fears layer by layer in a restrained and terrified whisper, seemed to me to catch at the essence of television drama.” (246)
Taylor saw Mercer as a political writer but one also engaging in a creative communication of how people live in the twentieth century and why they live as they do. If Spenser used fairy tales to talk about morality and Milton utilized classical epics and the Old Testament to dramatize his religious concerns, Mercer similarly used the Cold War talking “intelligently and subtly about political questions while remaining true to the psychology of the people involved.” (249).This appears to be the strongest aspect of Mercer’s work. There, personal and political issues appear in a fragile and tentative balance where neither side overwhelms the other. When a seductive escapism into madness becomes the only viable personal solution to avoid any form of struggle, they result in the self-indulgent manner of Mercer’s other work. Colin’s despairing death on the Berlin Wall at the end of The Birth of a Private Man represents the tragic consequences of a dilemma when he finally declares himself “Only a man…a thing…a human being.” Yet, however poignant his fate appears he dies as a solitary individual.
Jurek has suffered far more than Colin. He represents an alternative to this estranged Western intellectual who had the potential of learning from someone who has undergone a far more devastating form of historical experience than anyone Colin has known in the West. The old British working-class socialist values of Colin’s grandfather are gone as the old man admits towards the end of the first play. “Summat’s done. Summat’s finished. Summat’s gone.” Taylor saw Where the Difference Begins raising questions such as `Was that way of life worthwhile? And what can replace it? Must we choose between Edgar’s selfish Conservatism and Richard’s overwhelming sense of failure?’ However, redundant Wilf became, his generation once had immense dignity and strength. They fought for the material benefits a later generation enjoyed, especially access to education for their children. But this very education and different life style separates this new generation from their working-class roots leaving them either opportunistic materialists or the alienated individual who would embrace the solipsistic lures of postmodernism a generation later.
Mercer began his trilogy having a definite conception of human personality and its relationship to society. For Taylor, A Climate of Fear represents a transition play merging “political conflict and personal psychology in an absolute and indivisible way” (255) involving commitment from different types of social beings. It focuses on Frieda, the mother of Frances and Colin, who is virtually the same character Pauline Letts plays in the first play but with a different name and a more complex personality. She is the one who makes a personal and political commitment to CND at the end . Other key characters exist such as ex-working class university lecturer Peter Driffield. He sees flaws in the old socialism that produced educated sons like Leonard who betray the hopes of an earlier generation. Frances rebels against parental authority and takes refuge in a black and white definition of the world. Her judgmental personality espouses rigid views of human beings who do not live up to her arbitrary definitions. As Taylor notes, “she can deal with ideas but human emotions and motivations are beyond her.” (258) But her position is also complex and serious. Mercer develops these motivations in the third play. Although Driffield thinks of himself as a radical intellectual, he is really paralyzed by intellectual doubt, unsure of how to act politically and uncertain about his new relationship with Frieda. Colin is passionate about his beliefs but exists in a society hostile to social change. Disgusted at his father’s betrayal of the education that old socialists hoped would bring about change, Colin is psychologically unequipped for the type of endurance that characterized an earlier generation. He then begins to develop a nihilistic attitude making him doubt both humanity and any possibility of social change. This leads to his anguished death on the Berlin Wall.
When Taylor turns to the final play in this trilogy, he expresses a passionate intensity about this next phase of his collaboration with Mercer.
“It deals with the largest issues of the modern world, in a European, even a world context, with a penetration of thought and a brilliance of language that has never been equaled on television. It is a work of the most remarkable concentration. There is no scene, hardly a speech that is not directly relevant to the play’s main theme, and yet the characters are minutely and exactly observed and drawn, truly understood from within. It is richer, and more dramatic than A Climate of Fear, more concentrated in every sense, and it shows a growing power in the use of poetic images that suggests the most exciting things to come. It seems to me that in this play Mercer has completely mastered his own style so that it is now an instrument in his hands to be used as he wishes. He had indeed created his own language. It is the English language as recreated by David Mercer.” (268)
The Birth of a Private Man again looks at commitment but also examines the price of contracting out of any human solidarity whether personal or political. Colin’s renunciation of responsibility is crucial here. The play opens with the funeral of Peter’s father, the final death of old socialist ideals mentioned in the first play, and Colin’s announcement of withdrawal from any form of political commitment. He wishes to become a private man fathering a child with his working-class girlfriend but in a manner more alienated than the solution suggested at the end of Where the Difference Begins. Disillusionment becomes neurotic and self-destructive. Taylor sees compelling parallels to two Shakespearean plays.
“Like Hamlet, Colin is burningly aware of the immorality of life that surrounds and involves him; like Lear, he is unable to contain it, and it drives him mad. Later in the play, the image of Lear suggests itself even more strongly.” (271)
Colin eventually moves into “the black poetry of insanity” (272), increasingly aware of the fact that man has “depraved the good and created only horrors.” (273) But although Colin dies in a deliberate act of ritual suicide, he dies as a human being. Taylor draws significant conclusions.
“The end of the play is ironic and savage. The man who contracted out dies a victim of the struggle he tried to ignore, caught in the symbolic crossfire of two great and conflicting social organizations. Mercer’s meaning is plain. Even the hermit cannot pretend to be safe in the nuclear age. And life is a path to be followed towards the ultimate betterment of man. One cannot leave the path. One cannot give up living, without, in some way, dying. Krystyna, who was taken to torture quite at random, still breathes, but she is dead, because she lives without purpose. She is a perfect symbol of withdrawal from life, taken to its logical conclusion.” (274)
Jurek represents another alternative. Subjected to far greater pressures than Colin, he chooses to live and decides to remain rational despite experiencing so much terror in his lifetime. He accepts the tragic aspect of life that unhinges Colin choosing instead to continue struggling despite recognizing other alternative options involving exhaustion, capitulation, or withdrawal. As Jurek looks at his sister Krystyna, he tells Colin, “But I prefer to live.” Fully understanding the complexities of this new struggle, complexities Wilf never faced in his own era, Jurek decides to continue fighting
“With that conclusion Mercer leaves us at present, with a mood of resigned continuance that must be common among socialists in every part of the world.” (276)
Other characters arrive at different personal destinations. Peter becomes fully aware of his intellectual impotence while Frieda accepts the change in her life style after she leaves Leonard. She has now become the person she wanted to be at the end of A Climate of Fear. “To be someone on my own.” Like Jurek, she chooses life. Colin also recognizes this side of a mother Frances distances herself from. “She has courage.” Despite the fact that leaving Edgar involves downward mobility and the end of her comfortable life style, Frieda will not sell out. By contrast, Frances continues to maintain her rigid personal and political attitudes believing that marriage to heroic communist Jurek will confirm such simplistic beliefs. However, Jurek shatters her illusions revealing to her a more complex vision of political life where no real certainties exist. One part of him wishes to retreat from the world while another resists this easy solution. When Colin enters their uneasy marital situation, Frances bitterly rejects him fearing that his own confusion could further undermine her husband. Despite their different attitudes, Jurek recognizes that brother and sister participate in a similar contemporary confused political “structure of feeling” as Raymond Williams would define it.
“The generation that has seen the betrayal of the socialist impulse of the thirties, the triumph of reaction all over Europe, and the mistakes and failures of communism in its struggle for birth, is confused, embittered, and cynical. In such a climate of opinion it is very difficult for an intelligent person to preserve genuine socialist ideals. Colin and Frances choose opposite ways of coping with the situation. Colin tries to stare it in the face, and accept all its implications. Frances withdraws from the struggle, just as Colin eventually does, not away from commitment, but into it. Her refuge from life is the simplicity of dogma.” (281)
Taylor’s comments extend far beyond the generation that saw Mercer’s first trilogy. They apply to later intellectual options offering their own escapist solutions from the personal and political commitment that the playwright sees as essential if any real changes occur. Such options can either take the form of postmodernist relativity or rigid forms of “political correctness” emphasizing race and gender ignoring relevant forces of class and historical materialism affecting such issues.
Jurek and Frances continue their uneasy marital relationship. He wishes to undermine his young wife’s simplistic beliefs making her face the truth about the world and herself. Any type of withdrawal from reality is dangerous. The Birth of a Private Man concludes what began with the more straightforward social message of Where the Difference Begins. While the earlier play ends with Wilf’s recognition of the death of old-style socialism and what his sons have now become, The Birth of a Private Man concludes with Colin’s suicidal death. While Wilf intuitively hopes for a new beginning in the relationship between Richard and Gillian, Jurek patiently waits for Frances to develop a more resilient form of maturity enabling her to survive psychologically and face complex challenges of the post-war world.
When Don Taylor wrote his long appendix in January 1963, he believed earnestly in progressive days of vision that television could offer and suggested that, as “the work of a dramatic poet” Mercer’s trilogy offered “a new standard by which television drama must be judged.” (282) However, changes began that would drastically destroy such hopes and eventually result in the type of cultural wasteland characterizing contemporary television familiar to us today whether in Britain, North America, and elsewhere.
Other Mercer Collaborations
Following the video taping and transmission of The Birth of a Private Man, Sydney Newman began to initiate a new form of managerial re-organization that would soon undermine ambitious television dramas. At the time, this did not affect the production of Mercer and Taylor’s next collaboration For Tea on Sunday. Transmitted in 1963, this lost production further explored the theme of madness as social reaction that Mercer examined in A Suitable Case for Treatment. Like Morgan Delt, Mercer was also a suitable case for treatment following a psychological collapse during 1957 but was fortunate to undergo treatment at the Tavistock Clinic whose leading practitioner R.D. Laing later went on to write a series of influential books such as The Divided Self (1964), The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise, Self and Others (1971), and his collaborative work with Aaron Esterson, Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964). These works associated madness not with biological factors. Instead oppressive social conditions where the family played a major role influenced an aberrant type of behavior officially designated as insane. Laing’s radical psychoanalysis independently revealed behavioral patterns also affecting Mercer characters such as Colin Waring, Morgan Delt, and Kate Winter, as well as Werner (played by British playwright John Osborne) in the 1968 BBC TV production of The Parachute. Dominated by his aristocratic father (played by Alan Badel), Werner possibly engages in a similar suicidal gesture to that of Colin in The Birth of a Private Man attempting to resolve his own personal and political contradictions in another dark historical era.
As Mercer mentioned in a 1973 interview, “It was during the first year of psychoanalysis that I started writing my first play.” Some of Mercer’s television plays unconsciously foreshadow the work of R.D. Laing. He did not read Laing until after the transmission of A Suitable Case for Treatment and For Tea on Sunday making In Two Minds his most Laingian inspired play. Mercer also mentions that Laing “thought of himself as a Marxist.”8 In his early works, Laing regarded insanity and irrational behavior as revolutionary responses to intolerable conditions and Mercer appears to have shared in this belief. However, insanity can play into the hands of the oppressor and nothing becomes changed. Morgan Delt and Nicholas can be safely confined to their own private realms of imagination or end up incarcerated outside a society that becomes secure from their aberrant type of presence. A collective form of human and political opposition is really necessary for any form of progress and Mercer appears to despair of this solution in his later work. Not surprisingly, Laing and Mercer gradually moved away from Marxist inspiration to concentrate on what they believed were more relevant factors influencing human experience. While Laing’s writings became more esoteric and existentialist, Mercer concentrated on chronicling the alienation of upper middle class intellectuals who had lost their roots, politically and spiritually. They end up as the psychological debris of a new form of “lost generation.” They include not only upwardly mobile ex-working class characters like Peter from Ride a Cock Horse (1965) but also those alcoholic and vacuous “Bloomsbury set” descendents populating Cousin Vladimir (1978). Yet despite Mercer’s inclination to wallow masochistically in the sufferings of these characters, often indulging in his own remedy of alcoholic oblivion, faint traces of resistance sometimes exist. They again appear in characters that have experienced worse things than their self-indulgent British counterparts. Vladimir and his cousin Katya and Semyon Rusakov in Cousin Vladimir and Shooting the Chandelier (1977) represent two later examples of this tendency first seen in Jurek of The Birth of a Private Man.
It seems that even towards the end of his career Mercer could not totally abandon himself to despair and nihilism. But these oppositional elements resemble candles struggling against another wind of change embodied by an even more reactionary climate gaining in strength. More often than not, it is aided by people who could oppose negative changes but choose instead to lapse into hopeless abandonment and passivity. Traces of this tendency also appear in Mercer’s earlier plays.
The first play influenced by Mercer’s psychoanalytic treatment was The Governor’s Lady. Originally performed on radio in 1962 and later presented at the Aldwych Theatre three years later, The Governor’s Lady was a theatrical drama of the absurd attempting to dissolve traditional barriers between naturalist presentation and illusion in the same way that several of the Mercer-Taylor collaborations aimed at doing. The later television work of Dennis Potter in Pennies from Heaven (1978) and The Singing Detective (1986) also aimed at this goal.9 The Governor’s Lady was a theatrical comedy of absurdist satire. It involved the premise of a liberal ex-Governor’s wife believing that a gorilla is actually her dead husband. Perhaps indebted to Albert Camus and Eugene Ionesco, the play attacked a British establishment that Mercer would assault in other works. It emphasized eccentricity and used the symbol of the gorilla as a hallucinated projection of neurotic fears. The gorilla also appears in A Suitable Case for Treatment (1962) which Taylor describes as a black comedy featuring a funny character “full of pain, witty, allusive, and in himself a symbol of disillusioned, alienated Socialist Man, created without even a breath of ponderous or gloomy self-analysis.”10 Since the production is now lost and we have only the compromised film version Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966) and the published script of the original television production available we can only guess at the type of performance displayed by Ian Hendry in the title role. The play’s innovative role in breaking down established boundaries of television drama as well as Taylor’s reminiscences appear to support its reputation as being one of the most significant televisions productions of its time.
“There were a whole series of structural devices employed in the play that were quite new in television drama: the use of quotations from famous films, as cultural or political cross-references, or as poetic images in their own right, the device of cutting away from a studio scene to a single film shot, for comic effect, and all the dream sequence techniques, which were pretty clearly indicated in the script, even if my own contribution was necessary to bring them to full realization.” (136)
For Tea on Sunday represented another innovative collaboration between these two talents involving a multi-sided use of dramatic metaphor and a series of speeches from its leading character Nicholas (Keith Baxter) resembling imagist poetry. It also unconsciously anticipated the type of ideological attitudes that would dominate British culture from the late seventies onwards. Nicholas is an escaped mental hospital in-patient. He disrupts a cozy upper-middle class gathering for tea by taking an axe and smashing every piece of furniture in an apartment before hospital attendants lead him away unresisting. By concise use of language, Mercer unveils the barbarity lying beneath an affluent lifestyle based upon contempt for the lower classes in which well-off characters are little better than zombies.11 These bored masochistic characters echo both the “me” generation of the Reagan era, British Thatcherites, and New Labour supporters. Nicholas arrives to disrupt their complacent life style. His violent actions also foreshadow terrorist reactions of later generations fueled by despair. Taylor recognized the political implication within Mercer’s metaphorical use of madness in this play.
“Metaphorically Nicholas is all the rejected, dispossessed, enslaved and brutalized members of the human race, all those ghastly people Christine and Sue are frightened of and would rather have gassed at birth. He is too, and most obviously, the lurking spectre of revolution, the suffering millions that threaten one day to destroy the comfortable world of the owners of things and places and people; and the principle of violence, the hairy arms on the daily milkman, all the hidden potential for savagery and the destruction in the psyche of the human race and the way it chooses to organize itself politically: and yet he is at the same time all that is gentle, loving and kind, expressed in images of the animal world, and particularly in the image of ‘a good leopard, a leopard out of paradise, one that would not eat babies or maul their parents, or spring at the weak out of the shadows’.” (175)
Taylor later considered the play’s use of imagery and poetic language as embodying a creative use of metaphor within a verbal imagination that has much to say about the dangerous state of the contemporary world. Production techniques may change and fashionable styles eventually date but “vivid and original words, used with clarity, economy and imagination, manage to preserve something of the passion and fire of their making.” (177) Emphasizing the function of creative language, Taylor sees a link between literary and theatrical achievements of the past and the possibilities offered by this new technology. He regards it as crucial for what he attempted to achieve in television drama, especially in presenting a work such as For Tea on Sunday as a live transmission. Taylor also ominously notes that “In For Tea on Sunday David had a vision of the future: and it frightened him.” (179)
For Tea on Sunday also marked the end of that close collaboration between Mercer and Taylor. Despite the fact that they would work together on three other productions, For Tea on Sunday remained for Taylor “one of the brightest artistic highlights of my life” (183). Both had to move on and face other challenges. For Taylor, the most challenging would be the new industrialized regime of television drama represented by Sydney Newman who began to flex his administrative muscles and change what Taylor hoped would be a creative use of television into a tabloid, journalistic, two-dimensional populist formula. Reorganization also meant the end of the autonomy Taylor once had and eventual rejection by the BBC.
Before this occurred, Taylor expressed reservations about a play Mercer wanted him to direct. And Did Those Feet was a political surrealist fantasy very much in the vein of The Governor’s Lady but radically rejecting the type of “audience-friendly” narrative framework of A Suitable Case for Treatment and For Tea on Sunday by using instead a story emphasizing techniques “designed to emphasize its unreality.” (210) Despite Taylor’s forebodings, he and Mercer again collaborated. The play was transmitted in 1965. Taylor regarded it as the least successful of their collaborations feeling that the combination of 35mm film and studio television dramatic sequences did not achieve the necessary degree of stylistic coherence that characterized their earlier successful collaborations. Taylor also felt that this play lacked the “inner intensity of feeling” (215) that appeared in earlier collaborations since it necessitated a less serious and lighter touch.
Mercer’s television plays had received mixed critical responses. Their subtle, multi-faceted nature contradicted the type of one-dimensional journalistic reception reader responses that the general public and most reviewers felt most at home with. The climate in the BBC was changing and the cool reception he now received from executives made Taylor believe that he “had obviously been black-listed.” (223) Choosing instead to work on a free-lance basis, directing and writing for radio, television and theatre, Taylor officially retired from the medium in 1990, established a radio production company, and assisted his wife in running a children’s theatre until his death in 2003.
Mercer’s work continued to appear on television and Alan Bridges directed a new trilogy that appeared between 1968 and 1970. Unofficially known as The Kelvin Trilogy, On the Eve of Publication (1968), The Cellar and the Almond Tree (1970), and Emma’s Time (1970) focused upon the tragic figure of Marxist writer Robert Kelvin (played by three different actors in each part of the trilogy). In the first play, Kelvin has become an aggressive drunken hack haunted by visions of the past, involving betrayal of his working class origins and the memory of his Czech Communist friend Sladek tortured by both Nazis and Stalinists. Kelvin abuses others and his young mistress Emma (Michele Dotrice). On the Eve of Publication utilizes audio-visual techniques to create a stream-of consciousness device as Kelvin considers his fallen status at a publisher’s dinner party celebrating his latest commercial novel. He remembers the dark days of a past he shares with his Czech communist friend Sladek who does not appear in this play. On the Eve of Publication ends with Kelvin’s death and the revelation that the dinner party was a fantasy on the part of the deceased author.
In the Cellar and the Almond Tree, Sladek (Peter Vaughn), now known as Volubin, is entrusted with the task of getting the key to the wine cellar of an estate once owned by aged Countess Von Reger (Celia Johnson). She now lives completely in the past and has no knowledge of the new Communist world that controls her country. Haunted by memories of torture by the Gestapo (which foreshadow his imminent treatment by Stalinist secret police), Volubin attempts to persuade the Countess to relinquish her keys in a play resembling a dark Marxist version of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Sladek sees through Kelvin’s superficial socialism in flashbacks throughout the play. Once he gains the key to the cellar, he ends up facing another round of interrogation, this time by his own side.
The final play in the trilogy sees Emma trying to make sense of Kelvin’s past. She recalls her abusive relationship with the playwright and visits his old mother and dying childhood friend in Paris. Although she is in danger of becoming as alienated as Kelvin, a final meeting with the nearly blind, ageing Sladek suggests future hope. The old Czech Communist veteran shows her an unwritten journal, his “true history of the Czech Communist Party” that he invites her to collaborate on and dedicate to Kelvin. He says poignantly, “For me, it really begins at Lenin’s funeral. Can you imagine? (Pause.) I was at Lenin’s funeral. (Pause.) A young man.” A clip follows showing the death scene of Zbigniew Cybulski from Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, one of many used in this production. “It was a moving occasion. A most moving event. (Pause.) And if you understand how Russia was at that time.”12 The italics used for “was” can not be accidental. Mercer emphasizes the idealistic purity of Communism before Stalinism, something that also links up with the Czech “socialism with a human face” experiment brutally crushed by Russian tanks in 1968. The final image is stock footage of Lenin’s funeral.
“We see several seconds of the funeral and hear `The Internationale’. `The Internationale’ fades and becomes the Czech national anthem as the credits come up over the funeral scene.
Viewing this new trilogy, Taylor immediately recognized the significance of several references especially to the charismatic Polish star he and Mercer met on their reconnaissance to Poland.
“The Cellar and the Almond Tree I particularly admired, seeing it as the final product of our shared admiration for Wajda, which had so illuminated our visit to Warsaw in 1962. Ashes and Diamonds lurks behind David’s piece, but in the most productive manner.”14
Two years later a drunken and suicidal Mercer phoned Taylor about working on a new television play. Already suffering from alcoholism, Mercer conceived an idea based on Cybulski’s character that became a film rather than a television production. Find Me eventually became a superficial swinging 60s comedy rather than the anguished concept Mercer initially conceived. Although containing recognizable Mercer themes, it lacked his distinctive elements of poetic dialogue. Mercer and Taylor’s last collaboration was a new version of For Tea on Sunday in 1978 that lacked the excitement of the lost original. Although Mercer had given up drinking and moved to Israel, he died of a massive heart attack in 1980.
Taylor wrote a touching epilogue in 1989 surveying the artistic wreckage of the period. He lived long enough to witness the further decline of a medium he and Mercer had high hopes for. Aesthetic and artistic aspirations involving relevant social and political questions were now non-existent in a “brave new world” of declining broadcasting standards. Rather than becoming a means to promote high culture to a mass audience, television became contaminated by commercialism. Taylor now saw his early “days of vision” ideals as flawed especially when viewed retrospectively. Reactionary cultural forces were not dead but actually dormant waiting for the right opportunity to re-emerge as they did in the late 70s. Even in those early days intended audiences preferred commercial dross rather accessing a creative form of culture the upper classes sought to deny them. Taylor believed that British society needed a massive process of social reform if any utopian hopes could be realized. He now recognized that contemporary culture had changed for the worse. The rival field of British independent commercial television, like its American model, utilized commercials that ideologically promoted a negative consumerist culture of acquisition and greed totally at odds with socialist ideals.
“One has only to try to imagine a television service where the daily language and pictorial imagery would be the language of reason, co-operation and the good of the community, to see just how effective its opposite has been.” (243)
Taylor saw a different type of television emerging. Value judgments no longer existed. Instead, confused arenas of relativity reigned supreme. He regarded the contemporary medium as a world hostile to any “products of the cultural imagination which by interaction with the idea of form have produced objects of aesthetic or artistic value” (248). Taylor believed his idea of television had the potential of enduring endure in the same manner various types of classical art . He speaks, of course, from a particular perspective but the same is true of any distinctive artistic achievement from any culture and I’m sure he would not object here to my extension of his arguments. One does need to remain within classical and European domains to appreciate his arguments.
“Bad art presents stereotypes, reinforces clichéd ways of thinking, and because it has no originality, but merely repeats patterns that others have created, without any of their sense of indigenous life, encourages minds to remain closed and tread the safe pathways of conventional thought. Good art is always revolutionary in effect, because its originality encourages people to have alternative thoughts about themselves and their world. Bad art is always reactionary, because its clichés reinforce established patterns and positively discourage fresh thinking.” (252)
Although Taylor is not unaware of achievements of the Golden Age of American television, he saw its dramas eventually threatened by a commercialism that would eventually annihilate them. By contrast, he believes that Britain developed television drama to levels of sophistication unseen in any part of the world. (254) However, today, the individual culturally relevant British television play he espoused is now virtually absent in a medium dominated by soap operas, game shows, heritage Masterpiece Theater productions aimed at American audiences, reality television, and the pedantic reproduction of any genre suitable for commercial ends. By contrast Taylor champions a type of television production that is not only artistic but designed to make people think.. Whether his hopes can ever again be realized remains today an open question.
Taylor concludes Days of Vision with a thoughtful epilogue written with intense passion and conviction.. Although I never saw The Generations, I did view Mercer’s second trilogy and Let’s Murder Vivaldi. All remain in my mind to this day. In addition to understanding those circumstances leading to the virtual erasure of the work of David Mercer as one of British television’s most creative dramatists I wish to explore further certain contradictions that appear in his work eventually resulting in it (with the notable exception of The Kelvin Trilogy) falling far short of his collaborations with Don Taylor.
Mercer acutely understood dangerous contemporary cultural and political dilemmas affecting his many characters and the temptation of retreating into moral and political schizophrenia. No effective opposition could be expected from anyone taking this path. Old-style socialism and Soviet Communism failed their followers. They either become right-wing reactionaries like Mr. Link (played by the same actor who personified the still dignified figure of Wilf Crowther in Where the Difference Begins) or end up as victims of political systems in which they placed their hopes for the future like Jurek in The Birth of a Private Man and Sladek in The Cellar and the Almond Tree and Emma’s Time.15
Themes frequently occur in many of Mercer’s television productions and theatrical plays obsessively resounding like the sound of a bullet fired in an echo chamber.. In 1973 Mercer stated that he was “moving away from the whole area of political solutions and the character and nature of social events and social change” towards a world “created on the screen or on the stage (that) will be a universe of its own within which the characters and the action can operate according to the laws of the play.”16 However, this private universe soon became an artistic and psychological mental prison house. Psychological obsessions dominate his later works. These “laws of the play” inevitably follow the solution taken by Colin Waring and not Jurek – with one notable exception. They significantly operate both before and after his 1973 interview revealing Mercer’s preference to retreat into various forms of mental escape offering no real mature solution for the personal and social dilemmas depicted in his works. These ways of escape embody the psychological traps contained in this theatrical form of “Mercer’s Law”.
Ride a Cock Horse presents the anguished, educated-beyond-his class figure of Peter. He struggles with his own personal, political, and sexual demons and makes life hell for himself, his wife, and girlfriends. Despite some passages of lyrical intensity echoing the poetic writing Taylor applauded in Mercer’s television plays, this drama focuses upon another tiresome Mercer character wallowing in maudlin self-pity who eventually regresses into babyhood as his working-class parents finally appear to confront him at the end of the play. Ride a Cock Horse ends with Father pushing Peter’s wife Nan out of the way and embracing his son. Performed by Peter 0’Toole in the 1965 Piccadilly Theatre production, Peter yearns for regression in which his heart (if not his body and soul) belongs to Daddy. His girlfriend Myra describes this thirty-four year old as “the oldest child in the world.” (30).17 Nan recognizes that her alcoholic husband is “living off Marxist convictions that you don’t hold any more. And loving it.” (67) Peter states that he “used to want revolution…revolution. (Pause.) Hasn’t anything begun to happen, yet? (80) He is oblivious to the fact that revolutions do not spring fully formed out of the head of Zeus but need the type of human effort he can not supply. Neither he nor Nan can ever return home to the working class communities they came from.
As Peter states. “Why’ve you got this obsession about going home? Get off the train late at night in our town and walk the streets and you’ll cry. Weep. The place is utterly changed. Transformed. You lose your way. God knows things were ugly enough, but they’ve yielded to a more vicious ugliness.” (79)
He loathes both himself and middle class people with poor taste, speaking of them in frightening Fascist language and relishing the prospect of an “insect holocaust.” (81) Peter finally declares antipathy towards any efforts towards social change before his eventual collapse into insanity. Ride a Cock Horse presents a frightening image of human nihilism. Although it may accurately reflect a certain type of intellectual mood and an alienated contemporary “structure of feeling”, the message is nihilistic and socio-pathological. Robert Kelvin’s own version of a “private man” begins to develop with Peter. It also occurs in another immature form of representation as the title character of Mercer’s 11 April 1976 Yorkshire Television Production Huggy Bear who finishes the play embracing infantile regression. The credits of that production appear significantly accompanied by familiar music from the BBC radio children’s program Toytown.
Like The Governor’s Lady, Belcher’s Luck is Mercer’s own ineffective type of comic political satire. Here he chooses easy targets can launch his invective against. Belcher’s Luck resembles an upper-middle class version of ingredients from Cold Comfort Farm and Emile Zola’s La Terre containing caricature rather than the complex type of characterization of The Generations. As with And Did Those Feet, Belcher’s Luck deals with the stifling symbiotic class war love-hate relationship deeply embedded within Britain’s social structure. Sir Gilbert Catesby (Sebastian Shaw) has adopted Victor (John Hurt), the son of bucolic, lower-class, sexually promiscuous Belcher (David Waller) as his own son. Catesby’s niece Helen Rawston (played by one of Britain’s most underrated stage and television actresses Sheila Allen who also appears in For Tea on Sunday) arrives on the scene with avaricious, pre-Thatcherite desires for property. Belcher is one of Mercer’s “Fool” characters. Like Flint, he engages in outrageous actions against the status quo that are ineffective and change nothing. Impotent class rage and resentment dominate his mind. The memory of October 1917 appears but becomes overwhelmed by the image of a powerful aristocratic class that frightens Victor. “She looked at me. I was terrified. Then she galloped off.”(42)18 The climax sees a new avaricious generation taking the place of the old with Belcher’s expulsion from his former Edenic environment and Victor’s infantile regression aided by Helen. New institutional values defeat this eccentric priapic individual.
The title character in After Haggerty never appears in the entire play. His eventual fate is announced at the end: killed in action as a black guerrilla in Africa in a battle against Government forces there. Mercer obviously intends a contrast between this politically active figure (who casts a shadow in more ways than one) with white middle class figures inhabiting the play, whether they be British jaded ex-Marxist intellectual Bernard Link (played by Frank Finlay in the original production), his reactionary working-class father (Leslie Sands), Haggerty’s pregnant American girlfriend Claire, and gay interior decorators Chris and Roger. This is the first time gay characters appear in Mercer’s work and they form part of the playwright’s fascination with issues involving working and middle-class sexuality. Yet, despite the fact that Bernard Link and Chris (John White) suffer from second generation alienation, there is no guarantee that gay liberation will be as much of a threat to the status quo as 1960s flower power was. As Chris tells Bernard,
“I run away from one like you, Mr. Link. Just like you, an’a dirty southerner into the bargain. With you it’s all up north and pre-war and this and that and the other. With him it was Dunkirk. El Alamein to Rome! But you’re all the same. You’re all bloody fossils! And we different and you don’t like it. You sneer and mumble at what we wear, what we do, how we feel, how we screw.”19
The title character of Flint is a polymorphous perverse Anglican victor who forms a liaison with abandoned and pregnant Irish working class female Dixie 0’Keefe that scandalizes a conformist society. Although Mercer intends to depict a type of salacious scandalous behavior characterizing Restoration Comedies, the total effect is self-indulgent. It falls far short of satirizing society in the radical manner needed to be really effective.
A poignant poem, “Gone Away”, dealing with alienation from working-class roots, introduces the published edition of The Bankrupt and Other Plays. These plays are all variants on Mercer’s fascination with spiritual abandonment and stagnation. In the November 1972 BBC TV production of The Bankrupt David Waller (from Belcher’s Luck) appeared again in a Mercer drama. He now performs the role of a less eccentric, but still dominant, working-class patriarch that fascinated the dramatist in a play about the alienation of a son who is less alcoholic than Robert Kelvin but still shares similar problems of emotional disturbance and guilt. The BBC 2 television production of You, Me, and Him depicted the schizophrenic dilemma of Coster (Peter Vaughn). With one actor portraying three versions of the same character, You, Me, and Him, again concentrated on the contemporary psychological dilemma of a person trying to make sense out of his own individual confusion, new movements such as Women’s Liberation, the Vietnam War, and the failure of Marxism to act as a crystal ball to depict twentieth century challenges.
“When Marx talked about exploitation, he didn’t know the half of it. Bloody hell no. Not even the quarter. (Pause.) Not his fault, of course…I mean I don’t suppose he thought he was looking into a crystal ball.”20
The play develops the stream-of-consciousness technique used in On the Eve of Publication. But this time Mercer does not use voice-over but an actor playing three different sides of a character plagued by emotional and intellectual self-doubt similar to Robert Kelvin. Kelvin also casts a shadow over the 6 May, 1973 Yorkshire Television production of An Afternoon at the Festival. It involves an anguished director in an anonymous West European country attempting to film Kelvin’s last novel The Last Days of Buster Crook. Since the main character is played by the same actor (Leo McKern) who portrayed Kelvin in On the Eve of Publication, a character having the same self-loathing and sexual hang-ups of his predecessor, this is again another of Mercer’s repetitively revealing self-autobiographical plays “dealing with the moral squalor of human emptiness.”21 Despite Polish nationality, Marek (Anthony Hopkins) in the 1974 BBV TV production of Find Me is no Jurek but another self-autobiographical Eastern European version of a Robert Kelvin alcoholic novelist as well as a Cybulski star figure (referred to in the play) fallen from his earlier heights of achievement in a manner similar to Marlon Brando. Also featuring Sheila Allen (who also appeared in The Bankrupt), her character Olivia aptly describes Marek as somebody critical of both capitalism and communism but one also embodying a “private impression of being a tormented hulk of a man, prone to both physical violence and mental, or perhaps rather emotional, self-destruction.”22 Olivia not only sees through Marek’s charade of post-war romantic bohemianism but also recognizes female complicity in this type of performance. He is little better than a debased political version of a rock star attracting groupies by means of a deceptive and unearned charisma. She tells Marek, “If you can’t live off your past any more in Warsaw – you certainly can’t in London.” (150)
Mercer’s chronicles of despair and misery continue in Duck Song. First performed in the Aldwych Theatre on February 1974, it combines his own version of Sartre’s No Exit with his vision of a different type of latter day twentieth century confused “Bloomsbury Group” facing a disorientated and disintegrating world.23 The 22 September 1974 Yorkshire Television production of The Arcata Promise features yet another Robert Kelvin character. This time it is a burnt-out Shakespearean actor Gunge (Anthony Hopkins) haunted by memories of his former glory playing Richard II and abandoned by his young American mistress Laura (Kate Nelligan), (a composite version of Emma and Claire from After Haggerty). He commits suicide at the end of the play. Characters in Mercer’s unperformed play A Superstition engage in physical and verbal violence against each other reproducing the same type of behavior performed by two sets of characters in the BBC TV August 27 1969 production Let’s Murder Vivaldi. A Superstition also features gay characters engaged in the same type of self-destructive behavior as their heterosexual predecessors in the earlier production. Mercer’s dark psychological chamber dramas concentrate on these types of human relationships and suggest that these conflicts also occurred in his own personal life. The implicit message in these pessimistic plays is that those who lack any form of firm personal, philosophical, and political commitments will soon enter whatever country of the damned they choose to visit.
The Aldwych Theatre Fall 1978 production of Cousin Vladimir contrasts two recent exiles from the Soviet Union with decadent, drunken, upper-middle class English characters they meet in a house close to Regent’s Park London. Alcoholic physicist Austin Proctor has entered into an arranged marriage with Katya enabling both she and her uncle Vladimir to leave Russia. Cousin Vladimir is a more accomplished version of Mercer’s dark political comedies of human manners since it takes commitment more seriously than other plays. Cousin Vladimir compares two systems of West and East.. None emerge favorably. But Mercer scorns those deluded Western fellow travelers secure in their support of the Soviet Union as long as the system does not affect their own insecure personal lives. Valodya (or Cousin Vladimir) recognizes the emotional blight existing within the lives of the comfortable Londoners he encounters. Like Sladek, he has suffered from Stalinist justice getting ten years in prison for disciplining his men after they looted a German village in 1945.
“Is very clear, my friend. (Pause.) This beautiful house reeks of more than drink (Drinks.) Dulled with wits. Apathy. Self-pity. (Pause.) Hard core entertaining but not exactly a vigorous alternative to a life of confidence and purpose. No wives, divorces, children, maddening relatives, illnesses, deaths, bankruptcies. What on earth are you doing with yourself for half a century? Just watching?”24
Katya also condemns this type of Western existence. “I think I would rather fight on my knees, in Russia – than one day to die in your kind of freedom. (Pause.). Heartbroken.” (83)
Fully aware of the problems they will face on their return, Valodya and Katya decide to leave this debased British version of freedom. The play ends with his impassioned speech.
“From the little I see in Europe, your freedom is something you do not know what to do with. (Pause.) I hope I shall live to be a very old man, to watch my Katya’s heart grow – as yours has surely shriveled.” (87)
Televised by BBC 2 on 26 October 1977, Shooting the Chandelier returns to the familiar territory of The Cellar and the Almond Tree. However, it contains a more explicit condemnation of the Soviet experiment and warns about the seductive traps of Stalinism. Set in Czechoslovakia during the early days of post-war liberation, it focuses on three main characters: middle-aged former professor Simon Rusakov (now a Junior Field Officer in the Russian Army and victim of Stalin’s purges), Blanka (the sole survivor of an aristocratic family), and Stalinist Colonel Nikolai. Played respectively in the original transmission by Denholm Elliot, Felicity Dean, and Edward Fox, these characters debate the implications of a complex post-1945 new order. Like Countess von Reger, Blanka yearns for the pre-war era and becomes fascinated by Nikolai until she eventually learns that he plans to turn her large, impressive, (19th house into an “interrogation” center similar to the one Sladek eventually ends up in at the climax of The Cellar and the Almond Tree. As a disgraced intellectual and former occupant of the Gulag, Simon recognizes the opportunistic traits that exist in his former student.
“But you respect no one, Nikolai, do you? (He stands over NIKOLOI, trembling). And we are not permitted to respect ourselves, either. (Pause.) The weak are either crushed, or become fawning caricatures of human beings. The strong – well look at you, Comrade Shchetkin! Ten years haven’t changed you, either. How well I remember you as a student! Watch him, watch him, I said to myself…You have your bit of power. And I suppose you’ve rearranged any decent values you might once have sincerely held. (Dryly.) In the name of that higher morality we call self-interest.”25
This is a powerful piece of writing. As well as having associations with Mercer’s two trilogies, it is relevant today. Simon’s description above can also apply to university teachers who become servile and spineless before authoritative and corrupt higher administrators, those trapped in the sado-masochistic power games of huge corporations, and New Deal Democrats and Labour Party politicians who have sold out to the mercenary aspects of Clinton, Obama, and “New Labour”.26
Simon ruthlessly interrogates cherished socialist concepts such as the nobility of labor and service to the community clearly seeing how they become easily perverted. As an intellectual existing in a system where culture is despised unless it is “dumbed down” to some demeaning bureaucratic concept, Simon understands how the Bolshevik Revolution failed
“Salvation through suffering is a Russian obsession. As in everything else which bears on the suppression of joy, the Russians are not original. Thousands of cockeyed Russian holy men have been peddling the idea for centuries. (Pause.) True joy, if you understand me, is supposed to be achieved through humility and service to one’s fellows. That’s where the spiritual catch comes in. Before you know where you are, humility is humiliation and service is servitude. I wrote to Stalin along those lines once, when tight as a tick. But had the presence of mind to burn the letter.” (123)
Although Simon engages in a ruthless intellectual assault on both Nikolai and Stalinism, Mercer is here too good a playwright to deliver a one-dimensional message. Before Simon shoots Nikolai, Mercer allows the opposing side one last innings in a manner evoking Taylor’s earlier appreciation of the merits of Mercer’s first trilogy that avoided caricatures and stereotypes. Despite his ruthless nature, Nikolai is no one-dimensional villain but a human being with values of his own. His inner personality reflects his own sense of political ideals. Shooting the Chandelier recaptures many of the exciting features Taylor evoked in his early collaboration with David Mercer.
“The people are what they believe. Consequently even the `enemy’ characters, the Tories, with whose beliefs David himself had no sympathy, are believable as human beings, they have their say, and can be played by actors with as much force as David’s heroes. Ideas must be understood and felt in order to be refuted. David never took the easy way, of sticking top hats on his enemies’ heads, and cigars in their mouths, and labeling them class enemies. That doesn’t happen in real life, where people one loves and respects as individuals often turn out to hold positively murderous beliefs. If only the devils wore tails and horns, and placards round their necks saying `I’m wicked’, we would have built Jerusalem long ago.” (116-117)
Such features characterize Shooting the Chandelier. It is one of Mercer’s last plays revealing traces of a former glory before it would flicker away into further self-indulgence. After Blanka enters with the ashes of her progressive father, an obvious victim of Soviet justice, Nikolai verbally savages his opponent.
“We are not antagonists. We are complimentary. You might try asking yourself where we’d be without each other. It didn’t all simply begin with Stalin. Or Lenin. It’s been there all the time. We have the most intimate relationship, you and I. (Pause.) Could we exist without each other? …Don’t look so anguished! The next generations of Rusakovs will speak for you. You’ll all be canonized in the West one way or another. And those who get out will thunder from their lofty moral pulpits. Your predicament is just that you haven’t the courage to raise your voice. You’ll never be heard. (Pause.) And you can’t forgive yourself. (Pause.) Your ego needs it.” (138-139)
During the latter parts of the play Simon shoots at parts of the chandelier, each representing the personal shields each character hides behind to disguise their true natures. Nikolai knows his enemy well, one who dressed up “self-loathing as self-mockery, sidestepping any kind of responsibility for anything” who is little better than a “moral scarecrow.”(135) After shooting Nikolai, Simon admits that he “really has always envied him.” (139). Nikolai is both Simon’s guilty moral conscience and his own version of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor
Mercer’s last three plays are faint postscripts to what has already been said before. The Monster of Karlovy Vary is Mercer’s version of a Czech black comedy with overtones of politics and satire. It is amusing but lightweight in comparison to his other works. First staged at the Hampstead Theatre on 21 May 1979, Then and Now repeats themes that also appear in David Hare’s Plenty (1978). Contrasting the optimism of the last months of World War Two with a different type of society thirty years later, the play contains familiar Mercer themes. John Baildon is another upwardly mobile miner’s son who celebrates VE Day with Isabel, a lord’s niece in Claridges, a posh London hotel. Her father fought in the Spanish Civil War but now believes in “absolutely nothing at all.” (90)27 John’s widowed mother fiercely affirms class barriers as well as the sacrifices she made to put her son through grammar school. But she is no dignified representative of the working class since she regards these sacrifices as an “investment”. Although this primarily means that John should affirm the old socialist values as a result, the use of this term has disturbing reverberations since it implies a particular selfish self-interest. Also, any investment is subject to changes in the stock exchange resulting in a share having a different type of market value than originally conceived. During his evening with Isabel, John mentions his encounter with Simon. Now a displaced person, he died of typhus but not before he “died laughing, since I was trying to explain at the time where the Bolshevik Revolution had gone wrong.” (102)
Over thirty years later, John and Isabel are intellectually displaced persons. Separated and having liaisons with other people, they face a different world. John is married to a young woman, Emma. Named after the heroine of Mercer’s second television trilogy, this character has become the type of rigid Trotsykist Trevor Griffiths criticizes in his 1973 play The Party.28 Husband and wife engage in the same type of verbal duels characterizing the two couples in Let’s Murder Vivaldi but here they are more culturally and politically motivated. John tells her that he was “an idealist at your age…But shied away from your lot’s vulgar fanaticism.” (106) Emma criticizes the 1960s as “just one more elaborate mystification of the working class” while John responds that he “thought people were rather enjoying themselves at that time.”(110) Both reflect the standpoints of different generations now as alienated from each other as the children who benefited from earlier sacrifices became spiritually displaced from the old pre-war socialism of their parents. John states that the inside of a real-working class home would have provided a real education for Emma and her Trotskyist circle who appear little better than their Stalinist enemies.
“What amuses me about your friends though is their conception of democracy/. Bring your disagreements into the party, comrade. And once inside, as history taught us long ago, the dissenting voice is drowned in the clamour of the organised caucus.” (111)29
When John later meets Isabel in his Rome apartment, he tells her about Emma’s new version of political correctness surrounding art and literature.
“Her new political convictions have forced her to reappraise everything. Drama to start with of course. I mean – she left the theatre, albeit in the nick of time. To work for this improbable party of hers…Then literature became insipid, and painting irrelevant. A load of elitist crap, you might say. (Pause.) Now music’s down the drain as well. She’s really got it in for old Wolfgang Amadeus. (Drinks.) It transforms them you know, this revolutionary passion. Changes their entire perspective.” (123)
This type of attitude not only contradicts Trotsky’s own writings on the importance of art and culture but also evokes the reactionary discourses of postmodernism that would emerge to dominate bourgeois intellectual life a few years after Mercer’s death. It also echoes the disturbing scenes Mercer and John Arden witnessed when they went to talk on art and revolution to Essex University students and encountered instead a virulent form of anti-intellectualism reminiscent of the burning of the Reichstag. Not only was Mercer, along with Arden, and Jean-Luc Godard, condemned in no uncertain terms, but one student even wanted to burn all the books in the university library.30
Then and Now ends with the possibility of physical violence between husband and wife of different generations, the type that concluded one segment of Let’s Murder Vivaldi. Performed at London’s Warehouse Theatre on 2 October, 1980, some two months after his death in Israel, Mercer’s last play No Limits to Love is another chronicle of the psychological wreckage of rootless middle class intellectuals. But this time it involves the prominent role of gay rather than heterosexual relationships. In a very rare preface to one of his plays, Mercer described No Limits to Love as his attempt at writing a grotesque “comedy of absence”, involving the absence of the spiritual, emotional, and aboriginal man, the latter of which certainly influence Mercer. Seeing the contemporary world as characterized by the creation of “a civilization of unparalleled aridity”, he argued for the need of a “kind of Dickens of spiritual poverty” who would chronicle “the awful deadening impact of our culture on human possibilities of spontaneity and freedom.”31
Mercer certainly saw himself in this type of role and it would be a mistake to identify him exclusively with fictional creations such as Colin Waring, Robert Kelvin, and Marek who quasi-autobiographically depict the worst sides of a creative talent wallowing in intellectual and political despair. Mercer and his creations are complex and contradictory and it would be a mistake to rigidly categorize them and dismiss them entirely – as the Emma of Then and Now would certainly do.
The dramatist was the chronicler of a particular form of twentieth century Western intellectual dehumanization. He may also be seen as the Henry Mayhew of his era rather than a contemporary Charles Dickens. But his work is not entirely nihilistic. Faint glimmers of hope exist, glimmers that may be crushed by the surrounding intellectual and political darkness. However, there also exist opposing voices such as Jurek and Sladek who have experienced harsh historical and political lives. They can inspire a younger generation such as Frances and Emma if they and do not make the same type of mistakes characterizing earlier generations.
This message represents the positive aspect of the legacy of David Mercer. His works speak to us today in all their contradictions still containing possibilities that may inspire future days of vision. Mercer and Taylor worked at a particular time in an organization characterized by what Mercer described in a 1970 interview as espousing a particular “benign, paternalistic civil service temperament” but also having certain free, liberal, and gentle virtues that “have possibly disappeared in fact from the set-ups all over the place, not only the BBC.”32 Mercer also recognized the power of the communications media over citizens of the East and West, something unparalleled in the history of human society. “The concentration of physical power and the means of psychological manipulation in the hands of the state and/or big business, is unprecedented.”33 However, he defended the individual’s freedom of enquiry against any type of totalitarian repression and expressed his total commitment to “television drama as a valid form of drama” in terms similar to Days of Vision. However, Mercer added, “It’s ultimately very democratic. People can switch off.”34
Writing a year after Mercer’s death, John Russell Taylor acclaimed Mercer’s talent. Mercer had also written the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Providence, a screenplay still only available in French, as well as scripting Joseph Losey’s 1972 version of A Doll’s House starring Jane Fonda.
“All the same, Mercer remains unique. Other playwrights of his generation in Britain have treated television very seriously, and some, like Pinter, have found it playing an important role in their rise to fame. But Mercer is the only one of whom one could say that all his essential works are for television, while the stage plays (all except the last) remain resolutely marginal.”35
Despite this final verdict, Mercer embraced an artistic horizon encompassing cinema, theatre, as well as television. In an early 1963 interview, he regarded television as “an existentialist kind of art”, one lacking a history, and a form that could not be separated from cinema and theatre. “I can’t think of anything I’ve done which couldn’t have been presented more effectively in the cinema and theatre.”36 He shares the same feelings about television having the potential of being as creative as any other artistic form as Taylor did in Days of Vision. Mercer also affirmed that a good television play could far surpass anything that appeared in the commercial cinema. “The strange, the offbeat, the unusual can be got through by the stronger personalities.”37 At the same time, he recognized a dilemma that occurs in all his works. The writer generally writes for himself but his appeal is often limited by the different types of audiences who reflect different social classes that watch television, several of whom merely seek entertainment. The discussion ended with the hope that new writers could resist the pressures that other more conformist media put on their work. Unfortunately, this was only possible for a brief moment in time. Today British television is as bad as its American counterpart but things were once different. The historical significance of the collaborative achievements of Mercer and Taylor provide a model for the future when the difference can really begin in the fullest artistic and creative senses of the word. However, this will depend whatever type of new generation emerges in the future.