Monday, February 06, 2023

Freda Jackson and Stratford Johns in Serjeant Musgrave's Dance

When I saw the cast of this 1961 television play included two Liberal England heroes - Freda Jackson and Stratford Johns - I had to have the DVD of it.

Serjeant Musgrave's Dance is a play by John Arden, first performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1959 to a less than ecstatic reception. Arden himself adapted it for television, and the general view after it was broadcast was that he had made the story easier to follow.

As Wikipedia explains:

The work follows three privates in the British Army and their sergeant, all of whom are deserters from a foreign imperialist war. Serjeant Musgrave and his men, Hurst, Sparky and Attercliffe, come to a northern English coal mining town in 1879, posing as a recruiting party. The community is in the grip of a coal strike and cut off by winter snow.

The soldiers have with them a store of arms and the body of Billy Hicks, a soldier from the town they are visiting who died in that imperialist war.

When Musgrave calls a meeting in the town square:

Instead of recruiting townsmen, Musgrave takes out a Gatling gun. The gun is loaded and pointed at the audience. Then the soldiers hoist up the skeleton of Billy Hicks on a lamppost, still dressed in uniform. Musgrave dances below it reciting a rhyme:

... Up he goes, and no-one knows, who it was that raised him. ... He sits on your back and you'll never, never lose him....

Musgrave talks about the atrocities that followed the soldier's death, and explains that since this single death caused five on the other side, five times five townsfolk should be killed to avenge their deaths. 

Whether Musgrave is right or has been seized by religious mania is left open, but his plan fails when his men argue amongst themselves and the dragoons arrive.

First, a word about the look of this television play. Though it originates in the theatre, there is nothing stagey about it. This is television in the round. 

At one point the camera shoulders its way through a crowd for a tight close up of one actor's face and, though you don't see cameras or cables, it's obvious that the production is taking place in a studio. There is a strong sense that its makers were exploring the possibilities of a new medium and had not yet settled for making television dramas as much like cinema films as possible. 

Patrick McGoohan gives a powerful performance as Musgrave, and you can see a little of him in the video below, along with Ian Bannen, who played the role at the Royal Court,

You can also see Stratford Johns in the video, with stick-on whiskers, playing the mayor, who also owns the coal mines. Musgrave has marked him out as the first against wall and he is no leader.

One of Musgrave's men is played by a young John Thaw in what may have been his first screen role, with the result that the two actors who dominated British police dramas for almost 40 years, as Barlow, Regan and Morse, share the screen here.

And Freda Jackson, as she always seems to be, is magnificent. Sympathetic but no pushover, she holds her own with McGoohan's Musgrave.

Someone writing about her brassy Mrs Voray in the 1948 film No Room at the Inn said the performance looked forward to the powerful Northern women of Coronation Street more than a decade later. The soap opera had just started at Granada when Serjeant Musgrave's Dance was filmed at their studios. And again you feel she would have been wonderful in it.

As to John Arden, I can remember that when BBC Radio 4 broadcast his Pearl, a new play written specially for radio, it was treated as a big occasion. But looking it up, I find that was 45 years ago and I can't recall hearing him mentioned since.

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