INTERVIEW / Stone walls do not a prison make: Edward Bond has written his first play for television, which begins on BBC 2 tonight. W Stephen Gilbert reports

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The Independent Culture
THE CRY 'a play for television' is heard rarely in the land. Go back two or three decades and one-off drama could expect network representation about twice a week.

That was a time when ideas were flourished and questions asked in mainstream television. The playwright could thrive without submitting to a series format processed through a battalion of executive producers, or to collaboration in the gutting of a novel whose author had reasons for telling its tale in prose, or to the rendering down of a singular notion into market-place pabulum consumable by Americo-Antipodean dollars and convertible into the new kid's LA calling-card.

It's years since playwrights were crossed off producers' Christmas card lists, yet here's none other than Edward Bond - author of Bingo, Saved and The Sea - brandishing two teleplays, each to be transmitted in three parts, one of them directed by the author himself. And just when the BBC seemed finally to have assumed the functions of the native cinema, Bond's new works burgeon from that most unfavoured environment, the multi-camera studio.

Not only unexpected, these developments are bracingly exciting. Though a little of his stage work has been mounted for camera, Bond has never written in the medium before. 'I wasn't going to write a script,' he says, simultaneously merry and blunt, 'and then have somebody say 'well actually we don't like it, it's not good enough'. Because frankly I wouldn't accept that judgement. Nobody seemed to be prepared to accept this position.' His chortle is disarming.

'If I could write trash, I'd love to,' he says in apparent earnest. 'But that presupposes I'd be happy, and I couldn't be. I've got to be able to say what my characters need me to say, what is urgent and important to them. I have to be true to them, otherwise they won't co-operate.' Obviously.

He did find an accommodation with Richard Langridge, who produced both Olly's Prison as part of the BBC's drama output and Tuesday for English File, the schools slot. Langridge and the director Roy Battersby both speak strongly for the value of the studio, and slightingly of the easy options too often taken in film-making for television.

'BBC drama is not Columbia Pictures,' says Langridge. 'We got caught in the contradictory no man's land of soft films for television while we all but destroyed the tradition of the television play. There's been a lack of clarity of vision.' Battersby suggests that in film 'you lose all the advantages of imagination', an ingredient Bond often cites. These stark works demand and repay attentive viewing. Not for Bond the seductive generalities of your average Screen Two. For starters he is avowedly political. 'For me,' he says, 'political drama is a powerhouse of questions. Not answers; questions. It's not the playwright's job to solve the world's problems, but to make them urgent, enjoyable, interesting rather than the cause of mental collapse or state barbarism, to make problems practical and exciting.'

Olly's Prison begins with a man (Bernard Hill) relentlessly berating his taciturn daughter (Charlotte Coleman). Tony Coult, who wrote the first study of The Plays of Edward Bond (Methuen 1977), explains that 'why it's so profoundly political - and so brilliant and disturbing - is that he paints a portrait of an everyday, small 'F' fascist and he finds the fascist in everybody.

'There can't be a parent or anyone in a relationship who has not found those patterns happening to them when they're trying to get a response. Underlying it is the repressive and fascistic culture that the man's trapped in. That pattern of perfectly ordinary people committing desperate acts echoes throughout the whole of Bond. It's not because they're monsters. It's because the culture they live in gives them no other way of being.'

Bond talks readily about the culture. He argues that in our own time - and for the first time - 'there is no Utopian vision'. As a result, 'we have no culture because we have no Utopia'. He calls ours 'a pseudo-democracy'.

'Olly's Prison was the first play I wrote after the end of the Cold War. This event was a great relief for me because, if you're a socialist, people say 'go to Russia' and you have to take them through the argument that Stalinism is not your idea of socialism. I realised that we had been basing a lot of our drama on the idea that a socialist society existed. I found that what I needed to ask in talking about our pseudo-democracy was 'where are the prisons in our society?' We don't have the gulags but I needed to find some way of making the prisons declare themselves. That was the strategy of the play, to make repression expose itself.'

Olly's Prison is dense and concentrated. At a glance, it can be daunting: easy enough to characterise it so. The director Roy Battersby found it 'the hardest thing I've ever done. It was inexhaustible. It was like granite and, as granite has, it's got this incredible history behind it. It doesn't get to be granite without the history'. Battersby laughs delightedly - as Bond does - at the contradictions of work that is 'thrilling and exciting and awful to do'.

To go with the play, though, is to be gripped in a painful but enlightening experience. Tony Coult puts it this way: 'At a very basic level of story-telling, it's continual surprise. There's always another dimension to it. Because of that, it takes you right away from the conventional saga of working-class crime. You keep being wrong-footed and unsettled in a way that makes you work at it. It has that educational thrust, that you are made to work with the material and not just accept it as a presentation of life. In some respects it embodies a kind of cliche about who is really in prison, who is really free. It ceases to be a cliche because it's worked through with such thoroughness and truth.'

The three parts go out late at night, carefully bracketed in BBC2's 'Crime and Punishment' season. Bond suspects he's been marginalised because of the violent acts he's depicted. 'I would like someone to add up the number of woundings and killings in this week's television. You will see that the least violent programme has been put last.' He draws a wry contrast with the staple fare of teledrama. 'Detective series are not drama. They're games. It's like watching people being killed in the arena in Rome. It's a sport. The difference between a sport and a drama is that you don't break the rules in sport. Drama is always about changing and breaking the rules. Always.'

For Bond, the crime genre, like art on food-packaging and music in supermarkets, is all symptomatic of institutional repression of the imagination. 'You turn on the telly and the imagination is being seduced and excited all the time but in games, in banal detective stories. It's trivialising and imprisoning the imagination. So I didn't call my play Her Majesty's Prison. It's Olly's Prison. You know how I came to the name Olly? He's matchstick man, an O for the head, two L's for arms, an inverted Y for legs. It means Everyman. It's everybody's prison. That for me is a pseudo-democracy.'

He has been called a tragic writer and a violent writer. 'I wouldn't know about that,' says Bond 'but I do know I'm the funniest writer. On that I do insist.' The prosaic would call it a characteristically contrary claim but Tony Coult begged me to urge others to watch right to the end of Olly's Prison for, as in Saved, the stage play that brought him public notoriety, Bond concludes on a glimmer of conciliation through the possibility of change.

'Olly's Prison' begins tonight, 11.15pm BBC2, and continues on Saturday and Sunday. 'Tuesday' begins on Friday 4 June, 12 noon BBC2, and continues weekly.

(Photographs omitted)