A is for Armchair Theatre

Armchair Theatre was one of several anthology series on television during the 1960s and 1970s. Others include The Wednesday PlayPlay for TodayTheatre 625ITV Playhouse and Thirty-Minute Theatre. Upon first hearing about these, I was rather bemused because there is little resembling an anthology series on television today. Also, they are referred to as ‘plays’, which made me imagine them to be rather low-budget and cheap-looking filmed stage performances. It gave me flashbacks to the educational programmes we occasionally had to sit through at school.

I often forget that I’ve seen an episode of Armchair Theatre before – A Magnum for Schneider, which was the 1967 pilot for Callan. The sets may have been few but it certainly didn’t look ‘stagey’ at all. It’s wonderfully written with excellent performances. But as it was written partly with a future series in mind, I wasn’t sure how much the regular episodes of Armchair Theatre would differ.

Say Goodnight to Your Grandma‘ is from the Armchair Theatre: Volume 1 DVD and was broadcast in 1970. Tony (Colin Welland) and Jean (Susan Jameson) live in London now but head back up north to introduce their baby daughter, Chrissie, to her grandmothers. Tony’s mother, Mrs Weston (Madge Ryan), and Jean’s, Mrs Clarke (Mona Bruce), take every chance to pick at one another and there are snide remarks aplenty. It’s amusing and catty with Jean desperate to keep the peace while Tony is more laid back about it. Eventually, arguments among the women reach a peak when the lack of a christening is brought up. The religious Mrs Clarke has taken it particularly badly. “Come on now, love, Tony’ll pour you a nice cup of tea. We musn’t quarrel,” Mrs Weston says. “No thank you, I’m too upset,” replies Mrs Clarke, marking the start of civilisation coming crashing down around them. Mrs Weston is a great character and you can see a smirk when Mrs Clarke decides to leave.

Tony gets a phone call from an old pal asking him to come down the club for a drink. Jean is not thrilled but Tony goes anyway. Later, he and the boys all pile in and the reason for a barrel of beer we saw Mrs Weston hiding earlier becomes apparent. It’s clear she planned this all along. She’s delighted to start making sandwiches for them all, talking about the fantastic old times they used to have with her boys, who loved visiting. We start to get a sense of time for the party, as the lounge becomes increasingly filled with smoke from their cigarettes.

Jean has had enough though and reappears with her hair down, wearing one of Tony’s old rugby jerseys. She drinks and dances with the lads, getting close to several of them. Tony is quietly annoyed while Mrs Weston is deeply upset by Jean’s behaviour, which initially confused me. Mrs Weston says Jean is embarrassing them up and all the boys will think “she’s a right common little piece.” It turns out she is quite right though, with remarks including, “My god, Ken. That shirt’s never seen better days.” One of the boys is even ready to take Jean up on her offer of sex in his car before Jean laughs it off.

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I really love the shots during the party scenes, directed by Jim Goddard, who is on much more sedate turf, having recently directed episodes of Callan, Public Eye and Special Branch, as well as other episodes of Armchair Theatre. The camera often doesn’t cut, instead, it moves between each of the room’s conversations, where the men barely turn to glance at one another as their eyes are glued out of shot, to Jean’s dancing.

I found this a powerful drama and enjoyed all the conflict, from the two grandparents to the couple’s old life impacting on their new, marked completely by the ending when their daughter is woken by the party and Jean brings her downstairs in among everyone. Earlier, Mrs Weston has asked to be called ‘Nana’ as “Granny make me feel elderly,” so Jean telling the baby, “Say goodnight to your Grandma” is a nasty, cruel stab. Jean is telling her: I’ve won – your family is mine now.

Like ‘A Magnum for Schneider‘, there are very few sets; the lounge, the kitchen and the hall, with the majority taking place in the lounge. There is also a location scene in the Weston’s car, which rather impressed me as I hadn’t expected a play to have any location filming. The limited sets do help here, giving the family a sense of claustrophobia. They are bound together, even if none of them is entirely happy about it.

While ‘Say Goodnight to Your Grandma‘ does go for the stereotype of a man stuck between his wife and mother, this is a much more interesting look at it. Both implore him to stop the other; Jean when Mrs Weston is bringing up every uncomfortable subject and Mrs Weston when Jean is dancing provocatively in the lounge. Both women are also called a “bitch“, though not to their faces and it’s Tony who uses the word about Jean. In both instances, Tony refuses to do anything, pleasing no one.

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It’s a depressing ending. Jean is a modern social climber but Tony could move back up north to his old friends tomorrow, even if he does admit nothing is quite the same. In voiceovers of their respective thoughts, Jean muses on Mrs Weston’s scheming ways and her snide comments, while Tony longs for the old days as he’s now stuck down Earl’s Court with “no mates, a howling kid and lousy ale“.

By the end, I find myself siding with no one. Jean shouldn’t rise to the two grandmothers’ complaints as they are exactly what she had expected. Was it really that bad for Tony to spend one night with his old pals? Her response exposes her snobbishness. Yet Tony has to let the past go. It becomes clear they have all grown up by how many of his mates know how to prepare a bottle. His thoughts make his priorities clear and show his immaturity.

I previously looked at a 1967 interview with Philip Mackie, a writer and producer, who argued that ‘too much of television is stuck in a rut of sameness and tameness and mediocrity’. Television plays would appear to be the saviour of this as regular series are by their nature constrained somewhat. One-off dramas are the equivalent today and I do think we have had some marvellous ones in recent years, like A Passionate WomanNational Treasure and A Very English Scandal, though most consist of more than one episode, including all of those examples. Television anthology series do exist now in the form of Inside No. 9 and Black Mirror, with both having a loose theme, which isn’t new. Armchair Theatre had the genre-specific offshoot of Armchair Thriller (1978-80) and there was also Espionage (1963).

Of the two Armchair Theatres I’ve seen now, I felt both had great writing and casting. As well as starring in it, Colin Welland also wrote this episode. He would go on to win BAFTAs for his anthology series scripts and top it all with an Oscar for Chariots of Fire. Meanwhile, I spent ages trying to place Susan Jameson. Both her name and face seemed familiar as she played Esther Lane in New Tricks.

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