RADIO / When crossness is all the rage: Robert Hanks reconsiders the anger of John Osborne and reflects on the underlying indignation of Brian Redhead

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The 'Angry Young Man' label has been so worn by over-use that it's easy to forget just how well it suited John Osborne. Listening to two early plays this weekend, Look Back in Anger (Radio 4, Saturday) and the earlier Epitaph for George Dillon (Radio 3, Sunday), it's the common sense of pure, barely focused rage that stands out.

If the tag doesn't apply any more, it's only because he's not as young as he was: temperamentally, there's been none of the mellowing you might have looked for. Anger runs through everything he does - at times, you wonder if there's anything else there. How would a Reduced Osborne Company work? They'd have to come on stage, say 'God, I'm cross,' and walk off again.

You also notice how heavily autobiographical his writing is (especially George Dillon, about an unemployed actor-playwright being sucked into a despised suburban milieu). Listening to Peter Egan's excellent reading of A Better Class of Person, the first volume of Osborne's autobiography, on A Book at Bedtime (Radio 4, Monday-Friday), you almost feel it's an unnecessary gloss on his work, rather than offering any new information. Still, the detail of how life acts as source material for art is fascinating: there's the horrible death of his father and his mother's apparent callousness, echoed by Jimmy Porter's description of his father's death in Look Back in Anger. There are playground reminiscences of girls humiliating boys that seem to prefigure the humiliation of women in that play and George Dillon. And it's hard not to feel that the bile in his work is the product of his circumstances - childhood illnesses, hatred of mother, lower- middle-class background.

There's not, in the end, any great effort of imagination in Osborne's plays, even the historical ones: his Luther, broadcast a couple of weeks ago, seems like a sketch of Jimmy Porter in old clothes - a man forced into anger by his determination to live his life according to the dictates of his own conscience, rather than any outwardly imposed morality. You could say much the same about Alfred Redl, the treacherous Austrian army officer in A Patriot for Me: Osborne's main leap of imagination is translating the Porter figure into a homosexual; but everything else - the acute sense of class frustration, the desire to humiliate women - is still in place.

All this sounds rather like a catalogue of Osborne's faults; but really, the main effect of the current BBC Radio season - nearly all archive productions - is to make you realise just how good a playwright he is, or has been. His trouble seems to have been, like Jimmy Porter's, being born out of his time. Like a stopped clock, which is bound to be right twice a day, Osborne has banged on in the same key for so long that sooner or later he had to be in harmony with the rest of the world. He had the bad luck to hit paydirt right at the beginning of his career, so that the impression has been of a playwright in decline. If he'd happened to strike the same chord now, towards the end of his career, we would be hailing him as a neglected genius.

What is impressive is not the stagecraft or the way he imagines characters - the only one of his plays that comes close to giving a life to anybody but the central Porter figure is the early Epitaph for George Dillon, and that was written in conjunction with Anthony Creighton. In the end, it's the overwhelming sense of integrity embattled, of indignation that seems unfocused because it's blazing outwards at an encompassing morality that needs to stifle the individual. To say that Osborne isn't in tune with the times isn't to dispraise Osborne, perhaps, as to make you wonder about the rest of us.

Moving from this to the late Brian Redhead is not, perhaps, such a giant leap. The tributes on the news and on Today yesterday emphasised his lovability and charm (reaching a pitch of absurdity when his approval was invoked for the racing tips at 8.30am). I was among those who were immune to that side of him. What I admired was an underlying sense of indignation when people tried to fob him off - the most striking instance of this in Sunday's memorial programme was his growl to Edwina ('Let them knit hats') Currie that what old people really need is money to buy fuel and warm clothes. The ability to show up politicians' cant was what made Redhead worthwhile, and what will make the mornings a duller place.

Comments