There was a time when, at least in England, theatre mattered, and by theatre one must also include television drama and plays written for radio; in those days a director could draw from the same stable of actors and often directors: stage, screen, radio. There was really no shortage of opportunity for original plays, which led to many novelists also writing scripts. Money is money, exposure is always good, and learning how to do more than one thing with your craft is a kind of gift. Finished your book? Great—write a script. Quality was usually high back in the late 70s and early 80s, and sometimes the plays chosen, cast and taped were either banned outright from broadcast, such as Roy Minton’s Scum, written in 1977 and only seen fourteen years later, or Dennis Potter’s 1976 BBC play, Brimstone and Treacle, which had to wait eleven years before it could be shown, or so controversial that they made the editorial pages of the stately broadsheets of the day. Many of the actors who appeared in them are still box-office draws: Dench, Mirren, Nighy, McKellen, Irons, among others. The late 70s and 80s were, at least in the UK, thought of as the Golden Age of Television. Then there were only three channels: BBC1, BBC2, and ITV, this last one an independent station that drew programming from both regional and London sources. Channel 4 was still in the future. The major TV slot for original plays was BBC’s Play for Today, which meant that what you wrote for these weekly 50-minute slots uninterrupted by commercials (one paid, and still does pay, for a television license simply to operate a set in the home) should reflect what was happening now in Britain. Unlike in the great big United States, where the effects of anything short of a Supreme Court decision or a government shutdown often takes time to roll out and be felt, in Britain the fan would get very messy the moment the shit hit it. Back in 1977 there were several different labor-related slowdowns and strikes that would result in piling garbage on London streets, striking fire brigades being replaced by soldiers on army equipment, and electrical outages often preannounced by time and location in the London Evening Standard. These had an immediate effect, and the public was polarized between those who supported Labour and the trades unions and those who were vehemently against them, the latter being responsible for electing a Conservative House of Commons and causing the rise of the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher.
The major playwrights at the time, among them Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Caryl Churchill, David Hare, Howard Brenton, David Edgar, Edward Bond, Snoo Wilson, Alan Bennett, Simon Gray, and many others, in varying degrees of success held a mirror up to their times. Stoppard, always something of a Tory, largely eschewed politics, save when he took on the Soviet incarceration system in the harrowing and clever (always an adjective that has been linked to him), Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, and the much later epic, three-part The Coast of Utopia, dealing with Alexander Herzen and his circle. Pinter, who outside his playwriting was far more political (and damning, especially, of America’s policies), wrote dramas which almost always dealt with power, though on a personal level: the family in The Homecoming, for instance, or the threat of an outsider in any number of his other plays. Dennis Potter, perhaps the most interesting and innovative of the television writers, in 1978 came up with Pennies from Heaven, the first “event series” that I can recall, which kept people home and glued to their sets week after week and launched the career of Bob Hoskins. It was a stylistically adventurous series in which characters began lip-synching to music from the 30s, turning into a moving (and ultimately wrenching) story of a sheet-music salesman and his high hopes, a man entangled in the promises of those very songs he’d been peddling from one store to the next all over England. The series had little to do with politics, and much more to do with music and shattered dreams (just as Potter’s later, more adventurous, and equally musical The Singing Detective focused on Potter’s childhood and the crippling disease he suffered from before his death).
The more political writers of the time (whose work was sometimes characterized in the press with the single word agitprop, as though they had nothing else to offer other than three acts of high-volume kvetching) wrote from a leftist point of view, and not always convincingly. Characters could all too easily become mouthpieces in creaky, barely credible plots, and one came away with the feeling that Karl Marx’s end justifying the means hung as a slogan over their writing desk. But politics also mattered a great deal, especially to playwrights, who could use the stage or the medium of television as a way of propagating ideas and debating partisan policies through character and situation. In a country where, especially back then, the newspapers you read each day reflected your politics—left-leaning readers often relied on The Guardian, while right-wingers depended on The Times and The Daily Telegraph (the tabloids operated in a similar way)—and where campaigns for general elections are measured in weeks and not, as in the United States, years, the party in power had an impact on people’s lives that was immediate. Politics in this nation of divided classes was always in the air then, and when a leader such as Mrs. Thatcher came along—this great well-coiffed hope after the strike-weary years of Jim Callaghan, for whom even many well-known left-leaning union-weary writers voted (including, ahem, Harold Pinter)—politics became the game of choice.
Among all the political writers, it was David Hare who always put heart and soul ahead of ideology; character before propaganda. In a recent, brilliant, Tony-award-winning revival of his 1995 play Skylight, Carey Mulligan plays Kyra Hollis, who’d worked for, and had an affair with, the successful and very wealthy Edward Sergeant, the owner of several upmarket restaurants in London, a character loosely based on Terence Conran. Now living in a drab council flat, Kyra is an inner-city schoolteacher, whose challenges and rare successes are far more fulfilling for her than her work for Edward had been; while Edward, now a widower, shows up at her flat to ask why she’d left him, of all people. Rich, influential, generous: why turn that down?
The play presents a clear dichotomy: the wealthy man who believes money can buy you happiness, and Kyra, who finds her work more genuine, more rewarding, and which Tom can’t seem to fathom. He could give her the world; but she’s content with the tiny apartment, her inner-city students, and the easy, end-of-the-day spaghetti Bolognese she cooks in the first act. But the dichotomy isn’t, as it might have been in a more polemical play, clear cut: Kyra says to Tom: “We had six years of happiness. And it was you who had to spoil it. With you, when something is right, it’s never enough. You don’t value happiness. You don’t even realize. Because you always want more. It’s part of the restlessness, it’s part of your boyishness. You say you knew that I loved and valued your family. You knew how much you were loved. But that can’t be true. Well, can it? Because if you’d realized why would you have thrown it away? I love you, for God’s sake. I still love you. I loved you more than anyone on earth. But I’ll never trust you, after what happened.”
Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight
In a purely political play the idea of love might have been quickly discarded. But Skylight isn’t about love, per se: it’s about choices, it’s about freedom, and Hare gives us people who aren’t mere mouthpieces but rounded characters we can easily imagine outside the proscenium, going about their lives: he opening restaurants and spending money like it was water, and she, the school teacher working long hours with kids living in poverty with no hope for much of a future.
“You only have to say the words ‘social worker’…probation officer’…‘counsellor’…for everyone in this country to sneer,” she tells Tom in a speech that’s become an audition piece for actresses. “Do you know what social workers do? Every day? They try and clear out society’s drains. They clear out the rubbish. They do what no one else is doing, what no one else is willing to do. And for that, oh Christ, do we thank them? No, we take our own rotten consciences, wipe them all over the social worker’s face, and say ‘if …’ FUCK! ‘if I did the job, then of course if I did it…oh no, excuse me, I wouldn’t do it like that… Well I say: ‘OK, then, fucking do it, journalist. Politician, talk to the addicts. Hold families together. Stop the kids from stealing the streets. Deal with couples who beat each other up. You fucking try it, why not? Since you’re so full of advice. Sure, come and join us. This work is one casino. By all means. Anyone can play. But there’s only one rule. You can’t play for nothing. You have to buy some chips to sit at the table. And if you won’t play with your own time…with your own effort … then I’m sorry. Fuck off!”
Although Bill Nighy is a big star—Hare has so far worked with him ten times—and one might have thought that he would walk away with the evening, it’s Carey Mulligan’s character who dictates the discourse. Hare has always been good in creating female characters. He writes, “For my preference for putting women’s lives at the center of my writing, I would later receive an amount of attention which often embarrassed me—attention, after all, for doing what came naturally. My first full-length play had an all-female cast, and most of the best-known leading roles I have written have been for women….at a time when the role of women in the developed world, at home and at work, changed decisively. Not to reflect that would have been unthinkable.”
Running throughout much of The Blue Touch Paper (the title refers to a fuse for explosives and, in more common parlance, means doing something that sparks an immediate reaction) is Hare’s relationship with the Canadian actress Kate Nelligan, who, having moved to the UK to pursue an acting career, appeared in several of his TV dramas (including the BAFTA-award-winning Licking Hitler, about a wartime black ops broadcasting unit), and went on to star in Plenty at the National Theatre. Never really comfortable being part of the English acting tradition, Nelligan had an edge on her that made her an ideal muse to Hare. Though the affair had ended, Kate had never really left his life, and Hare’s marriage came to an end a few years later. He moved to Notting Hill with a leaking skylight where, in the flat above his, lived a prostitute who one day came down to his apartment with her pimp’s knife embedded between her shoulder blades.
The Blue Touch Paper is notable in not being political; it is, rather, a deeply honest memoir by an influential and very talented playwright who as screenwriter has been nominated twice for an Academy Award, for The Reader and The Hours, though this is never mentioned in this modest, warm and clear-eyed book. His agent, the redoubtable Peggy Ramsay, once wrote to him in a letter: “David, you have to face the firing squad if you want to change the world.” Excellent advice for anyone in the arts. Never, ever, play it safe. But do it with heart, and plenty of soul.