by Allan Fish
(UK 1966 365m) DVD2
p Michael Bakewell d Christopher Morahan w John Hopkins ph Mark McDonald ed Howard Billingham m Wilfred Josephs art Richard Wilmot
Judi Dench (Terry), Michael Bryant (Alan), Margery Mason (Sarah), Maurice Denham (Ted), Pinkie Johnstone (Jess), Emrys James (Gordon), Windsor Davies (D.S.Wilson), Calvin Lockhart (Leonard), Maryann Turner (Mrs Hayter),
It’s nearly half a century now since John Hopkins’ trailblazing small screen drama first burst onto our screens. For many years it went unseen and when it finally came to DVD it was as part of an eight drama Judi Dench Collection. There’s some other very fine stuff included in that set, from a 1987 version of Ibsen’s Ghosts with Kenneth Branagh, Natasha Richardson and Michael Gambon to the famous play Going Gently, where Dench played nurse to Norman Wisdom and Fulton Mackay as too old dying cancer patients, but this is the great work among them.
She’s always been a big draw in the theatre, but it’s fair to say that Judi only really seemed to command the big screen when in her early sixties. Oh she had her moments, but she never quite seemed in command as Maggie Smith did. That’s not a unique phenomenon, of course; Vanessa Redgrave and Helen Mirren likewise never really commanded the screen – or at least took it seriously – until later in their lives. For Judi the turning point came with Mrs Brown and Shakespeare in Love, after which Hollywood finally, as if communicating by a distant satellite off Jupiter, embraced her.
If the big screen was never really hers to command, the small screen was her second home. The more intimate – dare one say theatrical? – medium was perfect for her rare gifts. And of her roles on the small screen, forgive me while I dismiss the popular sitcoms with much-missed husband Michael Williams and later Geoffrey Palmer, and go back to this 1966 monument.
Dench plays Terry, the 30 year old daughter of Ted and Sarah Stevens, who has not been home for some time and has moved through one disastrous marriage to numerous flings and now finds herself pregnant to she knows not who. She returns home to tell her parents on the same day her elder brother Alan comes round to tell his parents that he’s been offered a promotion but one which will require him relocating with his family to Australia. Ted, the father, is distant, doesn’t register what’s going on half the time and dotes on Terry. Sarah, who’s around 10 years younger than Ted, finds herself unable to communicate with her daughter at all.
So begins a weekend whose ramifications with be explosive and tragic for them all. This is a family in name only. As Alan says, “as a family we don’t exist. We don’t know each other.” Father is haunted by guilt about the friend he got killed in the trenches in World War I and only hears what he wants to hear, sticking his head in the sand at the first sight of confrontation. Terry is highly strung and lives in a fantasy world where lies come out as easily as truth and talks at ten to the dozen in a way to make anyone lose patience. Each of the four ninety minute plays concentrates on events as seen from one of the four principals – titled ‘Anytime You’re Ready I’ll Sparkle’, ‘No Skill or Special Knowledge Required’, ‘Gladly, my Cross-Eyed Bear’ and ‘The Innocent Must Suffer’ – and the cumulative impact is as harrowing as an evening spent at an Ingmar Bergman retrospective. It’s rather like watching four people whipping each other until one of them drops to the floor. The performances, as one might expect, are like raw nerves exposed to the air. Denham and Bryant have never been better then as father and son, but it’s the women who you remember most. Dench is a maelstrom of jitters and insecurities and ranges from the pitiful to the almost insufferable; a flat-out masterclass. Most poignant, however, is Mason, whose very soul we see drained out of her, staggering around on the floor with three croaked but piercing words uttered before being swallowed by the eternal void; “someone…hold…me.”