Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Bill Brand and The Nearly Man: When ITV screened drama series about British politics

The death of the dramatist and screenwriter Trevor Griffiths has reminded me of the Seventies, when British television companies showed political dramas in primetime. 

Griffiths's contribution was Bill Brand, about which the BFI's Screenonline site is positively rhapsodic:

Bill Brand (ITV, 1976) was an epic attempt to lay bare the nature of political power in the UK, and more specifically to analyse if, and how, the socialist struggle could be furthered by the parliamentary Labour movement. Its origins can be seen in Trevor Griffiths' early Play for Today, 'All Good Men' (BBC, tx. 31/01/1974), where the tension between the social democratic and revolutionary positions were embodied in an argument between father and son.

In Bill Brand, the scope is much broader, and focuses on newly elected left-wing MP Brand (Jack Shepherd), a former Trotskyist, and his attempts to negotiate a path between the demands of his family, the local party, the whips and his conscience, while still trying to make a difference politically. During the course of the series he is vilified by the press for his controversial views, and through his acquaintance with the eventual leadership candidate David Last (Alan Badel), he is witness to the power struggles that occur at the highest level of government. ...

The PM (Arthur Lowe) has to retire because of ill-health, and after the series was written (although before transmission) the same thing happened to Harold Wilson. More importantly, Griffiths examines the political rifts within the Labour party, and, with uncanny foresight, dramatises the ideological conflicts that would eventually lead to the formation of the SDP.

Bill Brand is a breathtaking series. Transmitted during the boiling summer of 1976, at peak-time between World in Action and News at Ten, it engaged with contemporary politics in a dramatic way, but remained consistently intelligent, and far from talking down to its viewers, assumed that they were a vital part of the political processes described, and as committed to understanding how things might therefore improve. There has been nothing like it since, and that's more the pity.

I must have watched it, because I remember being impressed by Jack Shepherd, but I can't have seen that much of it, because I have no memory of Arthur Lowe as the PM.

Play the video above to see both of them in action. The good news is that the whole series appears to be on YouTube.

Bill Brand was made by Thames Television. The year before it was shown, ITV had screened another drama about the Labour Party.

The Nearly Man was made by Granada and written by Arthur Hopcraft, who was to go on to adapt John le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It's hero, played by Tony Britton, was a moderate Labour MP who had written an important book on the future of socialism some 20 years before. 

Despite this, he had never been made a minister, but there were still those who see him as cabinet material or even a possible leader.

The Spinning Image site says of the series:

Here there was no less attention to detail about what drives a politician - or more specifically, what drives a politician to aim for the top, and whether it is essential to be so ambitious to be good at your job; indeed, are you a failure as a politician if you do not do so, however successful you may or may not be? 

But the public's perception of what makes you leadership material was important as well: in the first episode Collinson's younger son dies in a road accident which generates a lot of sympathy for him across the country, and makes up his mind and that of his backers that he has it in him to stake a claim for the Cabinet, and possibly further. However, Alice turns out to be rather more sceptical, and the title of the series may provide an inkling as to his overall triumph.

Alice's lack of faith is a prime reason for the couple splitting up in episode two, whereupon Collinson meets a lecturer, Millie (Kate Fahy) at a university talk and they get along famously, to the extent that they become a couple themselves. 

Meanwhile, they try to keep this arrangement away from the ever-prying media as he makes an enemy of teacher and party activist Michael Elphick, who resents Collinson's middle class background when his constituency is working class, and he doesn't even live there, as a salt of the earth councillor, Wilfred Pickles, tries to bridge the gap between the left and right of the Labour party in a development that mirrored the increasingly fractured nature of socialist politics in Britain for years, even decades to come. All the while the big opportunity Collinson needs remains frustratingly just out of his grasp.

I imagine that Collinson held on to his seat at the 1979 election and was one of the last Labour MPs to jump ship to the SDP. After waiting some years, he was given a peerage by the Liberal Democrats, and I hope he made our front bench in the Lords before he died.

There's doesn't seem to anything of The Nearly Man on YouTube, but you can buy it on DVD. I don't remember enough of it to be able to recommend it, but again I do recall watching some of it.

The only scrap I can find online is a Facebook page that has the opening and closing titles. The Gerald Scarfe cartoons look forward to Yes Minister, but the jazz theme tune is execrable.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reminding me about Bill Brand - I didn't know that Trevor Griffiths wrote it, but I do remember the magnificent performance by Jack Shepherd.