The Week In Radio: A flying success from the stiff upper lips
Thursday 09 June 2011
Like most stereotypes, the British stiff upper lip is way past its use-by date. The reticence in the drama of Terence Rattigan, whose centenary it now is, might as well be coming from another planet compared to the emotional incontinence of today. At a time when every passing thought becomes a tweet and marital differences are arbitrated by Jeremy Kyle and a couple of bouncers, we look back at Rattigan's repressed English characters with a kind of astonishment. Compared with the shouting and weeping we're used to in radio drama, where even the Archers moan endlessly about "coping", Rattigan's conflicts are played out with exquisite understatement and restraint. But then, when the emotion finally seeps through the cracks in those upper-middle voices, how potent it sounds!
Fittingly, the BBC has exercised a certain amount of restraint with its Rattigan season, unlike its recent Bob Dylan extravaganza. Yet it's perfect for radio and Drama on 3 has done him proud. Still to come is a very impressive performance of The Browning Version with Michael York, followed by In Praise of Love and Cause Célèbre. But first off the blocks was Flare Path, his sombre drama about fighter pilots, starring Rory Kinnear as the hapless pilot Teddy, whose wife, Pat, finds her actor ex Peter Kyle, turn up on the night of a bombing raid.
How hard it is to say what you mean – an idea that has exercised great minds from Wittgenstein onwards – lies at the heart of this drama. The actor lover, played by Rupert Penry-Jones, represents the difficulty of being sincere. "Actors are funny blokes," someone comments. "Never seem to be themselves, do or say anything naturally". A Polish airman can't speak proper English, yet his devastating last letter is the play's most haunting declaration of love. Especially poignant, given Rattigan's RAF past, is the jokey argot bomber pilots use to mask the horror of conflict. Aircraft go into "the drink", and a raid is a "do". Pat, played beautifully by Ruth Wilson, says, "How I hate all this polite airforce understatement. Isn't there a better word for it than a do?" But then if people actually said what they meant, where would we be? Certainly lacking in the drama department.
David Hare has suggested our current Rattigan jag is all about recessionary conservatism. "In right-wing times, right-wing art flourishes," he said, and it's all of a piece with Downton Abbey. This seems odd to me. Since when has balancing self-expression with restraint been right-wing? And as for not saying what you mean – ask David Mamet. It's not that Rattigan advocates compromise, failed relationships, or putting up with things. But his skill as a dramatist means you're as likely to have your heart shredded by what his characters don't say, as what they do.
At first glance, Little Platoons, featuring a bunch of west Londoners having screaming matches about secondary education, couldn't be further from Terence Rattigan. And yet (though on reflection this might apply to all Radio 4 plays) this was also a drama of the emotional middle class. And given that it tackled modern politics head on, would presumably meet with David Hare's approval. Rachel is a teacher at the local Mandela school, but her estranged partner wants their son to go to a grammar school. "You fear the kids at Mandela are just a little bit too brown," she rages, yet she still checks out the new free school, run by a group of the local "squeezed middle". Steve Waters' writing is witty and totally recognisable – right-on Lara describes Steiner education as "a bit iron-your-own-muesli"– and he does well to turn agendas into real characters. Co-incidentally, the horrors of school were explored by Rattigan in 1946 in The Winslow Boy, which is proof, if it were needed, that tearing your hair out about secondary education is nothing new.
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