Tony Parker and his Plays

Tony Parker, a skilful interviewer and author, was also a talented playwright: he wrote several plays for radio, stage, and television, and episodes of series such as Juliet Bravo, The Gentle Touch, Within These Walls, and Crown Court, which are police, court, and prison television dramas. Parker also wrote the Walrus Plays for Children’s TV—published by Harlow: Longman, 1984, by arrangement with the BBC—a series which seem to be now largely forgotten. Many of Parker’s plays were based on his books, all of which were based on his interviews. In his Obituary to Parker in The Guardian, Roger Graef writes:

It was a measure of Tony’s success in encouraging frank disclosures that the programme [Parker’s first radio interview with a violent criminal, and which led to him writing his first book, titled The Courage of His Convictions,] was broadcast just before midnight, in case the prisoner’s words would be a bad influence on the audience. […]
Thus began a stream of work mining the richness of forgotten lives, amplifying unheard voices, and always remembering that the truth is in the details. His skill lay in his sense of the drama of everyday lives, no matter how unusual the settings.
At a time when most feature-length interviews are based on nothing more than the clipping files and a long lunch, Tony would spend up to 15 hours with his subjects – spread over weeks and months. […]
Using this material Tony also wrote a number of powerful television plays, many in the neo-realist heyday of the BBC’s “Play for Today”; among them Five Women, about women prisoners describing their lives, and A Chariot of Fire about a child molester, based on his book A Twisting Lane.
His legacy lives on in the work of all of us who try to be what is laughably called in television “a fly on the wall”, keeping the impact of our presence to a minimum. (The Guardian, 5 Oct. 1996, p. 18, and 24 Jan. 2012)

David Rolinson’s essay, “Tony Parker: Play For Today. Biography,” well deserves a full read. Rolinson’s blog site is www.britishtelevisiondarama.org.uk The link to his Parker piece is http://www.britishtelevsiondrama.org.uk/?p=869 It is not my intention here to reproduce Rolinson’s essay on Parker in full, but I will nevertheless quote substantial amounts of the material. Rolinson, in discussing Parker’s achievements as a playwright and in relation to Play for Today—the British television anthology drama series produced by the BBC and transmitted on BBC1 from 1970 to 1984, and which broadcast over three hundred programmes featuring original television plays and adaptations of stage plays and novels, in individual episodes of between fifty and a hundred minutes in duration (Play for Today Wikipedia)—is implicitly revealing of aspects of Parker’s character, as well as aspects of his unique way of presenting lives, and that have implications for his literary works generally, and also show Parker to be altruistic by nature:

Tony Parker’s […] work for Play for Today fulfils two of its central aims: to reflect contemporary society (as its title implied) and to give a hearing to otherwise neglected voices. Working in a similar manner to Jeremy Sandford, but developing his techniques even further, Parker’s dramas employed journalistic research and meticulous observation to give a voice to society’s most marginalized figures. Although the writer of a handful of superb plays, Parker was primarily a hugely respected oral historian [….] His published studies and television drama were underpinned by a selfless desire to act as a witness, and to resist imposing editorial devices or contrived narratives, as he sought to ‘record without comment or judgement’ the stories he was told. Though his work was wide-ranging – he moved between unmarried mothers in No Man’s Land (1972) and lighthouse keepers in Lighthouse (1975) – he was most associated with studies of convicted criminals, both in and out of prison. Anthony Storr described him in 1970 as ‘Britain’s most expert interviewer, mouthpiece of the inarticulate and counsel for the defence of those whom society has shunned and abandoned’. (Rolinson 4 Nov. 2010)

In talking about the problems Parker faced in getting his plays to air, Rolinson gives an insight into the excited reaction against Parker’s style as a playwright, and which also has importance for his books:

If Chariot of Fire [Parker’s play on sex offenders] moved away from documentary visuals to a studio treatment of an individual character’s revelations, another piece – Five Women, drawn from his 1965 book of interviews with women who’d been in prison – became embroiled in the continuing hysteria over the fusion of drama and documentary. An unattributed piece in the Radio Times in January 1969 addressed ‘the viewer’, who has ‘learned to distinguish between those programmes which he knows to be fact and those he knows to be fiction by means of a series of conventions which he has come to respect’. However, this ‘simple situation has been complicated’ by plays like Cathy Come Home and Parker’s  Mrs Lawrence Will Look After It, ‘well-acted dramas’ making ‘a deliberate comment’ on social problems through use of ‘actual real-life material’. Drawing attention to the danger that ‘these new programme techniques [might] be taken too far’, the BBC reassures the reader that ‘it seeks to keep faith with the viewers’, as they ‘have a right to know what they are looking at’. In response, eight practitioners headed by Tony Garnett interpreted this as a warning: ‘if you refuse to take our gentlemanly hints, we shall censor or ban any of your programmes which deal in social and political attitudes not acceptable to us. The odd rebel may be allowed to kick over the traces, occasionally. Provided this is an isolated event, and not part of a general movement, it only helps us to preserve our liberal and independent image’. Whilst it was okay [by the BBC] for Alf Garnett to appear in a real football crowd without the masses being duped, the key was ‘this is an argument about content, not about form.’ [….] To illustrate this point, they [the BBC] draw attention to Parker’s Five Women, produced by Tony Garnett and directed by Roy Battersby, completed ‘over eighteen months ago’ but not yet shown’. (Rolinson 4 Nov. 2010)

As Rolinson points out, it appears to have been the case with the BBC that, with shows like Till Death Do Us Part, it was alright to have actors appear in real crowds and situations as does Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell), even though shows like Till Death Do Us Part dealt with aspects of working class life comparatively realistically and addressed racial and political issues at a difficult time in British society.  It would also seem that the attitude of the BBC was that Alf’s views were so clearly unacceptable that they were risible, even though some viewers considered the Till Death Do Us Part series rather disturbing to say the least. That some viewers were not comfortable with the show and Alf Garnett, may have been, in part, due to the way the characters were portrayed, and in part to the way that working class views were portrayed, and in part to the unacceptable language and derogatory expressions used by Alf in the show at various times.

In drawing attention to Parker’s Five Women to illustrate their point that in not airing plays like Parker’s, that “this is an argument about content, not about form,” the BBC implicitly make another point that is important to Sam’s ears—that the methods used by writers such as Parker, a writer who had invented a new way of writing and showing lives, were regarded by main-stream producers as suspicious. The question here is, why did they take this stance?

Rolinson refers to the anonymous letter in the Radio Times:

‘The BBC has never given a clear reason for banning this show’ [….] After more than twelve months of conversations and correspondence with the BBC, the writer, the director and the producer are still mystified’. They can only speculate that its use of actresses was so convincing that ‘despite the end credits, and front titles identifying it as a Wednesday Play by an author and a Radio Times billing doing both, the BBC decided that viewers might be misled into thinking it was real!’ Paul Fox, Controller of BBC1, replies that Five Women was ‘rejected as a play and turned down as a documentary because it is neither one thing nor the other’.

John Hill has recently uncovered more of the background to the production and context for the dispute quoted above. Director Roy Battersby was seconded from Science and Features to work on this ‘documentary-style project that Garnett appears to have rescued […] from the Drama Department’s reject file.’ Shot entirely on location on 16mm film, the production uses interviews that Parker recorded over two years, but the interviewees were – as Hill notes – unlikely either to appear on-screen or be as candid as they were in private. Therefore,

while Parker does appear in front of camera, the women he interviews are not the original interviewees but rather actresses who have previously immersed themselves in the published material. As a result, the production possesses a peculiar status. While it is in part a-selective-recreation of the original interviews, it also [… employs improvisation, which might…] invest the drama with added “authenticity”, [but] it also imports an element of overt performativity […] that positions the production somewhere between a simulated documentary and a dramatic experiment. (Rolinson  4 Nov. 2010)

Rolinson further reveals that Parker’s situation with the BBC over his play Five Women, finally achieved resolution—of a sort:

The edited version of [Parker’s] play [Five Women] was broadcast as Some Women, after the removal of a whole section – the most straightforward way to reduce the running time – that happened to mean removing ‘the play’s potentially most controversial character’, the “lesbian drug-addict” played by Bella Emberg. The debate obscured Parker’s status as a ‘proponent of social reform’ as revealed in ‘the play’s emphasis upon the social and psychological factors underlying the women’s criminal behaviour (including, in the case of the programme’s most “hardened” criminal, parental sexual abuse)’ which demonstrated ‘criticism’ of the way in which the legal and penal system dealt with recurrent offenders. (Rolinson 4 Nov. 2010)

Despite these set-backs and annoyances, Parker’s work generally was well-received, gained good reviews, and was fairly popular, and also gained a following amongst criminologists and the like, and oral historians, and others:

Tony Parker died […] shortly after completing a study of Studs Terkel, an American oral historian he greatly admired, though with a different style. As Colin Ward wrote in the Independent, Parker’s ‘own triumphs were the result of his gentleness and modesty, which led the most taciturn or suspicious of people to open up with confidences they would not dream of revealing to more self-assertive questioners’. Speculating on whether a successor could emerge as Parker did in the early 1960s, Keith Soothill has observed that ‘publishing has changed, the media generally have changed, the various institutions who opened their doors to Parker have changed and certainly criminology has changed’. To this, inevitably, can be added the single play. Though his contribution to television drama […] has been somewhat neglected, his three contributions to Play for Today epitomise some of its most impressive characteristics. Speaking about A Life is For Ever, Irene Shubik concluded that Parker’s plays were generally well reviewed and, most strikingly, tended to attract large audiences. Never a ‘propagandist’, Parker ‘showed all sides of the story and left the audience to think and draw their own conclusions’. (Rolinson 4 Nov. 2010)

Works cited

Play for Today-
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Play_for_Today Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

Rolinson, David. “Tony Parker: Play For Today Biography.” By David Rolinson.  Article. 4 Nov. 2010. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. http://www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/?p=869
www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk

The Guardian. “Obituaries for Tony Parker, October 1996. The Guardian, Roger Graef: The Guardian 5/10/1996, Obituary, p18. Roger Graef: Courage and Convictions.” Tuesday, 24 January 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.
Homage to Tony Parker: Obituaries for Tony Parker, October …
http://homagetotonyparker.blogspot.com/2012/01/obituaries-for-tony-parker…
 

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