Alan Plater has died.
I don’t know how many outside the UK will even recognise the name, but he has been one of the finest and most important writers on British television ever since the days of Z-Cars.
Hm, pauses, considers … I have a bit of explaining to do, don’t I?
Police shows have always been popular on British television, but throughout the 1950s they tended to be extraordinarily respectful of the police, and the criminals were always evil beings who got their comeuppance in the end. In the early 60s, Z-Cars changed all that. The cars of the titles were police patrol vehicles in a fictional port city that bore a remarkable resemblance to Liverpool, and the series was about the ordinariness, the human fallibility, of the men who drove them. I remember, sometime around 1962, the visceral shock of an episode in which the bad guys got away with it because the police screwed up. That hadn’t happened on British television before. It was one of the markers of the end to deference. (It was also one of the first times a Liverpool accent was heard on television as anything other than comic.)
I don’t think Alan Plater wrote that particular episode, but he certainly wrote a number of episodes of Z-Cars, and even more episodes of the follow-up series, Softly Softly. From then on he was a regular on British television, writing sitcoms and cop shows and serious drama. He was, with people like Denis Potter and Alan Bleasdale, one of the solid, reliable craftsmen of the medium. If you saw Plater’s name attached to a programme, you knew it would be worth watching. He also wrote novels and hit West End stage plays, but I think it was on television that he really found the medium that suited him best.
His work was gritty but not cruel, and typically, even in the darkest pieces, a grim Yorkshire sense of humour would show through. Which is why I think the very best thing he wrote, and possibly one of the finest comedy-dramas ever shown on British television, was The Beiderbecke Affair. It was first produced in 1985, has been repeated a couple of times since then, and spawned two follow-up series with the same characters, The Beiderbecke Tapes and The Beiderbecke Connection, though these were never quite as good as the original. Did these ever get shown in America? I suspect not, they are far too British in their tone, their sense of humour, their subject matter, too parochial I suspect for American television; but if that is the case I can only pity you.
The setting is Leeds where our two central characters, Trevor Chaplin (James Bolam) and Jill Swinburne (Barbara Flynn), are respectively the woodwork teacher and English teacher at ‘San Quentin High’ (we never learn the school’s actual name, we don’t need to, everyone calls it ‘San Quentin High’, and the name sums up the place perfectly). San Quentin High is a run-down inner city school with a jobsworth headmaster – “Are you eating, boy? You should know by now that eating is forbidden. That’s why we supply school dinners.” – who is universally despised, and a chronic lack of equipment. When Jill starts teaching Tess of the D’Urbervilles to form 4b there aren’t enough copies of the book to go around the class, until local bookshops start reporting a spate of shoplifting in which sex manuals and copies of Tess of the D’Urbervilles keep disappearing.
Jill and Trevor are an item, though their relationship is very British and very hesitant, at least until Trevor has to leave his old flat because it is being pulled down, at which point he moves in with Jill as a “probationary co-hab”: “Did the earth move, Darling?” “No, but the dressing table twitched a few times.”
The plot starts when Trevor buys a set of Bix Beiderbecke records through a catalogue, only when the records show up they aren’t Bix Beiderbecke, they’re not even jazz. Another teacher, Mr Carter (the incomparable Dudley Sutton) – “Mrs Swinburne, may I sit with you and kindle my desires?” – has had a mishap with a hedge-trimmer he bought from the same catalogue. So Trevor sets out to track down the people behind the catalogue, which turns out to be Big Al (Terence Rigby – I mean, how could you go wrong with a cast list like this?) and his brother Little Norm (Danny Schiller) who are running a little private enterprise – “We call it the white economy” – from the shed on Big Al’s allotment. The police, in the form of Sgt Hobson (Dominic Jephcott), a graduate copper despised by his superior, Chief Superintendant Forrest (Colin Blakely), starts to show an interest in the subversive goings-on involving Mr Chaplin, Mrs Swinburne, Big Al and Little Norm – “We could have a dawn swoop. I’ve always fancied a dawn swoop – they have them all the time in London.” “Yes, well the thing I have against dawn swoops is the time of day – I mean, dawn, from all accounts, is very early.” And while I’m introducing the cast I mustn’t forget the old man with a dog called Jason – “So what’s the man called?” – who wants to be a supergrass as a way of supplementing his pension.
It’s a cast of eccentrics in a small scale story, but somehow it expressed a huge truth about the state of Thatcher’s Britain at the time, at least as effectively as Bleasdale’s slightly earlier Boys from the Blackstuff or Peter Flannery’s much later Our Friends in the North. We see a Britain where local services are falling apart, where chancers have to operate in the interstices of society, and where corruption is rife. Trevor’s chance purchase of Bix Beiderbecke records, Jill’s attempt to stand for the local council as “Your conservation candidate” – “We are on the brink of a new era, if only …” – and their alliance with Big Al and Little Norm leads them to expose conspiracy that involves the local planning department, local businesses and the police.
The show is never less than funny, the lines are always tart and clever. When we first got together, my wife and I would exchange Beiderbecke lines whenever we were out shopping. Even today we know people who will quote at length from Beiderbecke. And yet it is an acute dissection of local politics in Britain, and a withering assessment of the state of the country. I rate Boys from the Blackstuff and Our Friends in the North as two of the best political dramas ever shown on British television, and The Beiderbecke Affair deserves to be considered in the same light.
Alan Plater was still writing right up to his death, and his CV includes some of the great classics of the medium, including adaptations of The Good Companions and A Very British Coup, but for me and, I suspect, for many others his masterpiece remains The Beiderbecke Affair. It is time to dig out the DVD and watch it yet again.