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In memory of Big Al, Little Norm and Average-sized Mrs Swinburne

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.

13 thoughts on “In memory of Big Al, Little Norm and Average-sized Mrs Swinburne

  1. It gave me a shock to read this on a US lit-blog, but thank you for writing it. As much as I often admire the US tradition of writing ‘teams’ behind TV dramas (and indeed comedies), especially the work they’ve produced in recent years), I’ve always relished the UK’s trend for lone writers, many of whom produced some of the greatest TV drama of the modern era – Peter Flannery, Alan Bleasdale, Dennis Potter. Sadly, it seems to be a fashion that’s waning – and Alan Plater’s sad death is another sign of this. Newer names and faces don’t seem to be taking the place of the old guard, and we too are slowly drifting into writing by committee. Shame.

    Thanks for a memorable post,

  2. Thanks for writing this, Paul. I don’t know much of anything about Plater, but I know Z Cars. I’ll have to check out the rest.

    What I can’t understand, though, is how you resisted the urge to embed the Z Cars theme.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWflrCrwUSw&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

    1. I suppose one of the reasons I don’t embed stuff is that I don’t know how, or more likely I don’t even think to look for these things. But consider that snippet: Brian Blessed as one of the regulars, along with Colin Welland (before he turned to writing things like Chariots of Fire); and a young Judy Dench as a guest. BBC series like Z Cars used to get some quality guest stars.

      More interesting: you know about Z Cars? I’m surprised any awareness of it has crossed the Atlantic. I am seriously interested in learning how much American audiences are likely to be familiar with things like The Beiderbecke Affair, or Boys from the Blackstuff or Our Friends in the North. These are considered absolute classics of British television, but I would guess they are unknown in America unless they were remade (like Life On Mars) or refashioned into films (like Pennies from Heaven or Edge of Darkness).

      1. Paul,

        I don’t know where I first heard about Z Cars–probably in some British novel/comic/movie/song. The title stuck with me (“Zed Cars!”—always liked that “Zed”), so I checked it out. I don’t know if it ever aired here (it might have: public broadcasting used to show a lot of BBC stuff), but you can find at least some episodes on video. And those who know it, know that it’s a classic of British television. The other series I hadn’t heard of, though. (But I know very little about television in general.)

        Embedding’s easy; you just paste the “embed” code wherever you want to put it. You can get that code by clicking the embed button below the video at YouTube.

        Softly, softly,
        Adam

        1. British television has been pretty well crowded out with American shows since at least the 1950s. We also have British-made shows that are set in France, Holland, Germany (and I don’t just mean war stories) and elsewhere. Yet it seems to me that very few non-American shows are shown on American TV (except for PBS), and even fewer shows set outside the US. Is this just parochialism?

          1. I don’t know how strategic it is, but there seems a fondness for remaking foreign shows and films for US audiences: witness The Office. Witness also so many Hollywood movies these days. Why release Infernal Affairs when you can get Scorsese to remake it as The Departed? Etc.

            I have heard many times (anecdotally, to be fair) that studios buy the distribution rights to foreign films to keep them out of the US market. So, for instance, Miramax bought the US rights to the Thai film Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), then never distributed it. Apparently they were thinking about remaking it (which is absurd). Later, after the Weinsteins left the company, they dumped a lot of such films on small theaters, and Khun Wisit’s masterpiece finally got a (limited) US release.

            Well, I hear about this kind of thing happening all the time (from film critic and film industry friends).

      2. Incidentally, this conversation points out another example of the phenomenon I was trying to talk about here.

        All too often (not here but elsewhere), I see people talking as though everyone is on the same page: that everyone knows the same media, has the same influences. Which is patently false, and often just exposes how little one knows about the mind-boggling amount of stuff that’s out there. (There’s more than any single person actually knows.)

        My suspicion is that this is a very US phenomenon, since mainstream media is so dominant here, and so consolidated. For example, when people learn that I’m from Scranton, Pennsylvania, they of course mention The Office–and then they’re shocked to hear that I’ve never seen a single episode. (And of course the mean the US remake of the programme.)

        But I think it’s very important to note, as you’re doing here, Paul, that mass media, even when it is mass, is contingent, and of certain certain places and times. It’s nowhere near as monolithic as it may seem.

        What concerns me about this monolithic, “single page” phenomenon, ultimately, is that I see it seeping into academia. Too many English scholars really do believe that you can adequately describe the past fifty years by calling it “Postmodernist,” the time before that “Modernist,” the time before that “Romantic.” Which to me is irresponsibly lazy, betraying an unwillingness to really look at and see what’s out there. For example, I rarely see US English scholars pay any attention whatsoever to post-WWII UK books, films, etc.—although I’m sure they wouldn’t hesitate to pronounce it all Postmodernist.

        The obsession with lumping everything together–which is of course mostly a pretext to discovering and naming the New Big Thing that will replace Postmodernism!–is, I think, a form of branding. And why should Madison Avenue be allowed to control intellectual discourse?

        1. It may be less prevalent in the UK than it is in America, but it is still quite common. One reason, in television terms, is that until 1967 or thereabouts we only had two channels on British TV, and it would be another decade after that before Channel 4 joined them. So in fact there was a really good chance that everyone would be watching the same shows. Famously, in the late 60s, the dramatization of The Forsyte Saga attracted so many viewers that churches rearranged the times of their services so people wouldn’t miss an episode. That sort of uniformity enters folk memory, even though I suspect that nothing in the last 20 or 30 years has attracted even a quarter of that audience share.

          And I suspect that this monolithic view is not so much creeping into academia, rather it has always been there. Think of the very idea of a canon, think of Leavis, think of the Harvard bookshelf!

          Having said that, the picture you paint seems more extreme than in the UK. I know schools in England have been teaching postwar English literature since at least the 60s, and from what I can gather most universities have courses that include current writers (even if some of those courses are tolerated rather than encouraged).

          1. Similarly, many people heard Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, etc. And I think that the bottleneck of mass media between, say, the 1920s and the 1960s—there being only a few stations on the radio and TV, plus the monopolistic control of the major Hollywood studios—helped contribute to this idea of “same-pagedness.”

            But even back then, not everyone was listening—for instance, anyone in the US who didn’t speak English (always a sizable portion of the population—but of course, they don’t count). Not to mention the poor, who never count. As well as people who…simply didn’t care about mass media.

            AND of course even when people were all listening together—they weren’t always listening in their own best interests.

            What I find so pernicious about monolithic views of eras in academia (“Postmodernism” etc.) is that they’re often promoted by people who would readily agree that the New Critical canon (and mass media 1920–1960) was racist, sexist, etc. But what has changed? The following isn’t an academic list, but it’s still telling: “Top 10 Works of Postmodernist Literature”:

            10. Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett
            9. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
            8. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
            7. Labyrinths by Jorges Luis Borges
            6. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
            5. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
            4. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
            3. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
            2. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
            1. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

            This list is more populist (Danielewski, Vonnegut, Thompson, Ellis, Heller), but it’s not too far removed from the academic pomo canon (Beckett, Borges, Pynchon, Burroughs, and Wallace, definitely, + Coover, Barth, Barthelme, DeLillo, Gaddis, and now Cormac McCarthy, and OK I guess we’ll maybe throw Kathy Acker on there, too, maybe, if there’s time.)

            Mind you, I think all ten of the above books are wonderful. (Well, minus the Danielewski, which I think is garbage.) Note that none of the 95 comments on that post mention the fact that every single author is a white male. This kind of racist, sexist privileging is so normal, it passes unobserved.

            I love many forms of mass media, and I love canons, lists, etc. And I love white male literature! (I’m a white male myself!) I even love “potmodernist fiction.” But there’s a real blindness in academia to what’s really out there—the true diversity of the arts. And how interesting so much of it is.

            I was speaking with a poet just the other day, and she was surprised that I wasn’t caught up in the latest brouhaha between some academic poet at one university and some other academic poet at another university. I said I find myself mostly uninterested in academic poetry these days. And she stared at me aghast, unable to even imagine what poetry outside the academy would even look like. (Or that it even existed! Like—down on the street!)

            Just as many people are unaware that the BBC exists… Or who think that’s all the British media is…

            Anyway, to bring this back to your original post—thank you for pointing out this man’s passing.

            1. So, let’s see, you’re following Jameson in thinking of Postmodernism as a period rather than a mode? I confess that any list of top postmodernist works I drew up would probably start with Tristram Shandy, but then I’m not a great fan of periods and dominants and the like.

              And despite the quality of the list you quote (unlike you, I’m a fan of the Danielewski, though I thought his second novel was garbage), I would be reluctant to think of it as in any way definitively postmodern. Not just, as you say, because it is white and male and anglocentric (is Borges in there because of the translation or because of the original ficciones?) Even the Americans are suspiciously European, where are the native Americans, the Asian Americans, the hispanics – and that’s before we get to the question of where is the rest of the world?

              It’s the comfort factor isn’t it, people sticking to the same small circle of authors and styles and subject matter that they are familiar with. And I’m as guilty as anyone, over the years I’ve developed a list of favourite authors, and I’ll read a new book by them before something by a new author. But at least as a reviewer I tend to get occasional books from outside my comfort zone, which is good for me. (Also as a contributor to Big Other, I find; a couple of authors sent me copies of their books that I would probably never have encountered any other way, and I hope to write about both of them here in the not too distant future.)

  3. R.I.P. alan plater. yes, the beiderbecke trilogy was shown in the states and is one of my favorite tv shows of any kind…where to begin…jill the activist’s unapologetic marxism, trevor the passivist’s – just stay cool and listen to the music – attitude ( i’m more the trevor type), the whole gaggle of engagingly humane characters – especially in an era when (american) tv seems to have been taken over by androids. the whole gently subversive, anti-establishment tone of this series is increasingly welcome in this post-orwellian age of creeping corporate totalitarianism and humorless political correctness. for some reason my favorite scene takes place in the ersatz beer garden of the limping whippet culminating in ben saying: ” mrs. swinburn, we are the pumpkins” and erstwhile bureaucrat mr. pitt dancing beneath colored lights to the sounds of falling rain and frank ricotti’s music. thank goodness the series, as well as oliver’s travels is out on dvd.

  4. Not come across this before, it was only because I’d just been reminded about the death of the actor Keith Marsh a few weeks ago and I idly typed “man with a dog called Jason” into Google. This was the only hit.

    So I know I’m nearly three years late, but that’s a fine tribute to Alan and to the Beiderbecke series.

  5. “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. ”

    Me too. And still true today. My all time favourite tv series.

    “we are on the brink of a new era” indeed! Would it be more than 54 votes today? “What was that all about?” (looks back at 8th May 2015) “… Chickens”

    Kevin

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