Fear The Reaper

A second harvest for a first-class tale.

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reaperSometimes you blow the dust off something that leaves you breathless with excitement. Nigel Hinton’s 1979 television play The Reaper has done just that. All I knew of it a few days ago came from this excited preview in The Guardian, published a few days before its sole broadcast as part of the ITV Playhouse strand in 1979. Even allowing for the ephemeral nature of television in the pre-video age, how such a vivid drama has managed to fall into such unjust obscurity is baffling.

The play begins with the clanging of a distant, discordant school orchestra. We are with a detention class, and settle on someone drawing a heart with an arrow through it, only to discover the lovesick doodler is not one of the pupils but their teacher, Nicholas

Philip Sayer as Nick
Philip Sayer as Nick

Nash (the late Philip Sayer). This is a play about the slings and arrows of romantic obsession and rejection, a state of mind which society frequently dismisses playfully but which in fact can, as here, lead to mental collapse and violence.

Nick appears to be neat and clean cut; in fact, he is a tightly coiled spring. He scribbles out another day on the calendar, still waiting for something that is never going to happen. Half-term has arrived and he has no plans. “Come on, Nick, don’t slip back”, says his enthusiastic colleague Val (Marty Cruickshank), a cheerful but lonely soul. He agrees to go to dinner with her, before adding “I’ve always been straight with you. You know how I feel”.

“Yes”, she replies with a brave face.img_8218

Nick’s flat is crammed with books, records and posters, but the kitchen is positively squalid. This is a man who once had everything to live for but who stopped caring about life some time ago. An obsession has eclipsed everything. An unsettling montage of eerie images of his ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Judy Monahan) stares blankly back at him, and on the wall are a worrying collection of newspaper cuttings.

The Reaper by Nigel HInton

He has a nasty dream that he and Rachel are together eating breakfast only for the food to turn into a bowl of maggots. Then he’s woken by a telephone call. Twenty-one months since he last saw her, it is Rachel. We learn that she left Nick for a fellow actor, Joe, but now they have split.

Standing up Val unthinkingly, he meets Rachel at the restaurant which was once their favourite haunt, armed with gifts of books and roses. He is euphoric, forgiving her for their break-up, claiming “it was all a test, and we’ve come through it”.

Judy Monahan as Rachel
Judy Monahan as Rachel

“There’s not a week goes by I don’t think of you”, she says, lightly. Unfortunately, it’s obvious there’s not an hour goes by Nick doesn’t think of her.

We learn that Rachel was once a pupil at the school, and Nick, a man who now has no future, once taught her history. They had a five-year affair in secret, at the end of which, now established as an actress, she left him. To Rachel it’s all a cute memory, and him once telling her “you are the other half of what I am” amuses her because in recollection it’s so syrupy.

Even though a medium had assured him that Rachel would one day return to him, Nick’s delusions are permanently derailed when Rachel casually mentions that she has a new lover, Pete. Nick has been under the assumption that her contacting him again was because she was honouring the promise she made two years ago, namely that if it didn’t work out with Joe, she would come back to him. But no, she has no memory of that. She has merely called him up to ask for his help with an audition piece. He explodes with rage and confusion, and she flees. He chases her through the drab back streets of Notting Hill, The Reaper (1979)begging her to love him again. At one point, they are filmed in long shot against a vast, shabby wall decorated only by a few pitiful posters and some once meaningful graffiti. Nick’s pain and desperation mutate into sexual jealousy and menace (Sayer really is alarmingly good), slapping her before she manages to escape him.

Nick now begins a murderous campaign of revenge, on Rachel, on the boyfriend who stole her from him, and on the fraudulent medium who has led him to waste two years of his life on a promise of her returning.

It’s at this point that The Reaper could opt to play itself out as a conventional thriller, its currency being jeopardy, its thrust becoming Rachel in danger and its objective being merely to keep us in suspense about whether or not she will survive until the end credits. But instead it does something else, something much more interesting and unsettling. After one further scene, in which Nick breaks into her flat and trashes it after tricking his way past her neighbour (a just-starting-out Art Malik), Rachel disappears from the play altogether. Instead, The Reaper ploughs on relentlessly, not as a thriller but as a character study of a murderer, and one that gets so close to him as to be almost stifling. In the scene when Nick arrives to kill the ludicrous medium Madame Noire (Rosemary Martin), Sayer’s alarming performance reaches the peak of its intensity as the character reaches the depths of depravity and obsession.

Rosemary Martin as Madame Noire
Rosemary Martin as Madame Noire

The Reaper is a ruthless play not only in its dropping of Rachel when it no longer needs her, but in its picking up of Val again. The reintroduction of the tweedy spinster, stood up but still patiently waiting for Nick to fall in love with her, completes the picture disturbingly. “Whatever’s happened, I’ll be with you,” she claims after seeing his blood-drenched overcoat. She is sick of being “a nice, kind daughter” to an elderly mother she has never spent a night away from until now.

Without giving away the specific details of the final half of the play or its eerie, diminuendo ending, suffice to say there is no dramatic chase and no crowd-pleasing resolution. Nick Lowe’s mournful Endless Sleep plays over the closing credits. The evil that a man has done will never be washed away, from his own mind or from the world around him.

Philip Sayer in The Reaper (1979)

I spoke to Nigel Hinton after watching The Reaper. Despite not having seen the play for 38 years, he recalled that it was an unsolicited script, sent to producer Rob Buckler on the suggestion of mutual friend Peter Prince (at the time giving a good account of himself as a television playwright in works such as the impressively honest single-dad story Early Struggles for Play for Today in 1976.) “The Reaper was partly inspired by my time as an actor”, he told me. “I’d been in a summer rep on the Isle of Wight, and in the company was a lady who was very into astrology and Tarot. I was trying to work out what life was about I suppose, and sat down with her for a reading, but she was so clearly a charlatan, asking leading questions and all that. It got me fiddling around with the idea of someone being given an important prediction by a medium and staking their life on it.

“But it also drew on my memories of being jilted during my teenage years and simultaneously finding myself studying Jacobean revenge plays at school and university. It got me thinking about pain that leads to obsessive behaviour and wild, unreasoning desires to hit out. Unless it becomes pathological, as in the case of someone like Nick, I guess it’s a kind of paradigm of adolescent self-absorption. I remember my hurt teenage-self fantasised about scratching the car that my ex-girlfriend had recently been given by her doting parents. I was kind of shocked by such feelings and, fortunately, I was able to observe them and put them in their place and store them up for creative use later. So certainly, it was the darkness of the psychology of the piece that interested me”.Philip Sayer in The Reaper (1979)

I too once wrote a play about rejection and obsession leading to violence and psychological collapse, Rainbow Kiss (Royal Court Theatre, 2006). It was inspired by two different people I knew at University, both of whom were driven to dreadful lengths by relationships ending. One attempted violence against their ex-partner, the other committed suicide. Perhaps it was the distant echo in this play of my own take on that familiar yet strangely under-explored theme that has made The Reaper haunt me in the days since I watched it. Nigel continues:

“The director, Marek Kanievska, wanted it toughened up a little; in fact, we did have one blazing row, which he won, insisting that Nick would slap Rachel’s face. I wasn’t convinced Nick would be so wildly violent at that point; I was much more interested in the slow burn, in the psychological”.

Judy Monahan as RachelRegarding the quiet, bleak ending, he says: “Interestingly, one of the books I wrote for children, Collision Course, which was sort of Crime and Punishment for teenagers, had a similar ending, just fading out, everything internalised, which didn’t satisfy some people; again, there was no real resolution”.

It’s this commendable lack of reassurance that disorientates the viewer. We are used to having everything neatly sewn up on television and film, a world where crimes are cracked in an hour. That tradition can mistakenly fool us into believing that a crime being solved is a crime being resolved. But it never can be so simple. Rehabilitation, restitution, forgiveness, none of those things can change the past. A crime committed against one person may have many victims, all of whom, like the perpetrator, may survive the crime but will probably never forget it.The Reaper (1979)

The Reaper is a skillful, troubling play that I suspect will never quite leave me now, precisely because it ends with a sense that there can be no atonement, no hope, after the awful consequences of a senseless obsession. An arrow through the heart, unlike in that playful, frivolous drawing at the start, can in truth be a lethal wound.

A Light Touch And A Good Ear

“… a forgotten story about forgotten things, and about a woman refusing to allow progress to obliterate her past”.

When I wrote an obituary of the enchanting writer Julia Jones for The Independent, I said that she “quietly and assuredly told bewitching, humane stories of simple lives in crisis, always blessed with a warm, unsentimental, maternal touch”. I compared her to another of the great television playwrights of her day, coincidentally another actor-writer, Colin Welland, and said that “both were at their best writing simple, sincere and unpretentious domestic dramas set in the parlour or the pantry, and both preferred to place women centre stage”. Her typically sincere and unpretentious play The Piano was shown on BBC1 as a Play for Today in January 1971, and is a wonderful example of her work. It is a forgotten story about forgotten things, and about a woman refusing to allow “progress” to obliterate her past.

julia-jones-009
Julia Jones (1923-2015)

Julia had originally been an actress with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, before scoring a huge success with her first television play The Navigators in 1965. Just before The Piano, she had worked with Play for Today script editor Ann Scott on the series Take Three Girls, her contribution winning her first prize in the drama section at the Prague Television Festival. She was delighted when Scott rescued a play that had been written three years earlier but which had been indefinitely postponed because of budgetary problems, despite its modest demands.

The Piano came about because it was an era when a lot of little streets were being torn down and some wonderful communities were being destroyed,” Julia explained to me when I interviewed her in 2003. “The instrument was a good symbol, filling the whole room and dominating this family. I usually start with a tiny thing like that, a little idea. In those days you were simply asked if you had any ideas, and if you did you went in and discussed them briefly and then were left alone and trusted to deliver the goods.

Hilda Barry as Ada
Hilda Barry as Ada

“My first question was always ‘how much filming do we have?’ and that would influence how I plotted the play. Ann was a wonderful script editor and it was an important role, making suggestions to the producer in your interests. A good director would go through the script line by line with you too to make sure he understood it. Once it was finalised, they never changed a line without consulting you”.

Like everyone on their estate, Ada and Edgar (Hilda Barry and Leo Franklyn) are content to vacate their terraced house for a modern bungalow, to allow their nephew Willie (Glyn Owen) to build on the site what he and the local council he works for believe will be “the best town in Lancashire”. Willie has dreams of high-rises and geometrical estates, and is comforted by the convenient belief that he is improving the lives of the community.

The only area of his life Willie can’t bulldoze away is his wife’s ex-boyfriend, fellow member of the local band Jeremy Plunkett (James Cossins), a decent and drippy antique shop owner who is still melancholic at losing his beloved Mabel (Janet Munro) to Willie, a grudge which is taking its toll on both his waistline and his good nature. But although Jeremy may be a fuddy-duddy he’s a man of decency and dependability, devoted to his community, and while the townsfolk admit that “Willie’s got things moving” in the area, in Jeremy’s opinion “he moves too fast for some”.

James Cossins as Plunkett
James Cossins as Plunkett, at home alone around old things.

However, when the penny drops for Ada that there isn’t room for her late father’s piano in the new bungalow, she announces that she won’t move, scuppering Willie’s plans for his redevelopment and Edgar’s hopes of a garden. “Your father’s had his day and so’s that piano” he pleads, but Ada is firm. Her father “paid for it in sweat and taught the whole family. All except Willie. There were great grief when he took up with cornet.”

It’s delightful exchanges like this that exemplify Jones’ mastery of warm-hearted wittiness. Ultimately the piano creates discord between everyone in the family, Willie even having to face a choice between his bride and his pride. Ada’s house is at the very centre of his housing scheme, and he is aware that if he doesn’t solve the problem he’ll be a laughing stock.

The Sunday lunch lies uneaten at an empty table as Edgar packs and Willie and Mabel storm off. Ada resorts to staring at her father’s photograph, “such a peaceable man”, that, in a lovely moment, crossfades into a shot of Willie standing outside Plunkett’s door. He knows there is only one solution: since Edgar would choke on charity, Willie must swallow his pride and ask Plunkett for help.

It’s an adorable scene. Plunkett agrees to consider babysitting the instrument, after gloating momentarily, though not gratuitously, at the pickle Willie is in. But when they arrive at the house, Ada sitting mournfully at the piano, tells them “I’m beaten. First time in me life. Not by you and the council. But by Edgar. A man must have his pride.” Edgar’s pride reminds her of her father’s. His love for her and the piano means no money can buy it and no stranger should sell it. “It can die with the house” is her resolve.

Glyn Owen as Willie and Janet Munro as Mabel
Glyn Owen as Willie and Janet Munro as Mabel

Willie returns home to hear Mabel trying to make restitution and accept the piano, but it’s too late. Everyone has played their hand and the past which the piano represents has been given a final hearing. The rest is silence.

Julia was delighted with the production. “Hilda Barry was a brilliant actress, she was well into her seventies by then and that was a lovely performance she gave us. I remember being at a writers’ party some years ago and a writer telling me he still remembered that play, which was wonderful.”

Tragically, this was Janet Munro’s last role before he death at the age of thirty-eight. Once married to Ian Hendry, she had enjoyed great success in her twenties in Disney films including Swiss Family Robinson (US 1960).

Janet Munro as Mabel
Janet Munro as Mabel

Julia was by now a very recognisable and welcome voice to the critics, who universally found her writing charming and endearing. “Good old Julia Jones never let’s you down” wrote Peter Black in the Daily Mail. “What she gave us was a neatly constructed and amusing North country comedy in which the piano effectively but modestly symbolised the queer feminine dread of change that holds some women in thrall.” Nancy Banks-Smith noted that Julia Jones “can handle a very authentic family row, as what woman cannot”.

Jessie Palmer in The Scotsman remarked how “sometimes a play can be even more telling than a documentary in its presentation of a social problem. Julia Jones gave us such a play…a very human, very real story…and put the case of the old people with genuine sympathy. A quite beautiful performance by Hilda Barry”.

Julia remembered that “one of the nicest things someone told me after watching The Piano was ‘I always know if it’s you when I am watching a play on television, because I recognise the dialogue.” Peter Knight in The Daily Telegraph summed this skill up well: “Miss Jones has a true ear for dialogue and a sensitive touch. If the action seemed at times trivial, it is because she writes of ordinary people whose lives for the most part are trivial… The Wednesday Play used to be one of the most controversial drama spots on television. Now, as Play for Today, it has slipped into a rather cosy, comfortable rut, like some precocious youth coming late to maturity and quickly developing a middle-aged spread.” It was a left-handed compliment that had no idea what the right hand had up its sleeve, as the following week’s drama was the tough-as-old-boots Billy’s Last Stand by Barry Hines.

The Piano still survives in the BBC Archives, although the first minute was accidentally wiped, which is probably why it was never repeated. As well as its merits as a piece of honest entertainment, the play can also be seen as a homely companion piece to the work of photographer Shirley Baker, whom I wrote about here, a photographer whose work chronicled “the erosion of people by progress”.

Play for Today: The Piano by Julia JonesTwo equally beautiful television plays by Julia Jones were still to come: Still Waters (1972) was a warm and witty drama set one sunny Saturday in the Brecon Beacons, about a group of lost souls each finding someone to talk to. Back Of Beyond (1974) boasted a magnificent, near silent performance from Rachel Roberts as a mysterious recluse who lives in a tumbledown farm up in the hills.

When I told Julia that her dramatisations of children’s books for the BBC, most especially the eerie The Enchanted Castle, still held powerful memories for my generation, and that her fantastically eerie dramatisation of Antonia Fraser’s Quiet As A Nun for Thames Television’s Armchair Thriller in 1978 had recently won a place in Channel 4’s 100 Scariest Moments poll, she was delighted. “One sometimes thinks one’s work has been all but forgotten. It’s so nice to know that isn’t the case”.

Julia Jones died in October 2015. When preparing to write her obituary, I found a letter she had sent me after reading the essay I’d written on The Piano for a planned book on Play for Today, which this post is drawn from. At eighty, she was enjoying writing her first musical. She asked if she could give me lunch to say thank you for caring about The Piano.

I wish I’d gone.