Working-class heroes are still making waves

The week in radio

Summer's over, the kids are back at school and Radio 4's has blown the budget on a new drama season. When I first heard about the station's revival of British New Wave I adopted my best excited face. I mean, just look at the people involved – James Purefoy, Emily Watson, Sheridan Smith and John Thomson. But then I remembered that this is Radio 4, for much of the time a repository for the kind of half-arsed, sketchily drawn drama that makes the TV soap Doctors look like Ibsen.

This looked unusually promising, however: a "kitchen sink" season celebrating the fictional works that became iconic films during the late Fifties and Sixties by the likes of Alan Sillitoe, Nell Dunn, David Storey and, of course, John Osborne. And it started well at the weekend with Storey's This Sporting Life, which was a film starring Richard Harris and directed by Lindsay Anderson. It was fêted by critics at the time and seen by pretty much no one. The public didn't take to "gritty realism" back then though now it's all the rage, along with "distressed" furniture and "vintage" clothes.

Here, Johnny Vegas was directing, which was a surprise in itself, and Arthur Machin was played by James Purefoy, which was even more of a shock as I have only ever seen him on screen being smarmy. Here, though, he was unrecognisable, his every word uttered with a defeated sigh. Machin is an ex-miner who, after a punch-up in a pub, is spotted by a rugby league club owner and becomes a star player. He is having an unsatisfactory affair with his widowed landlady (Emily Watson), whose contempt for Machin is matched only by her contempt for herself. Both are, in different ways, hamstrung by their working-class values. The fight like bears but don't know how to talk.

Under Vegas's sympathetic direction, Purefoy revealed the complexities of Machin's predicament, a man of limited intelligence who is celebrated for using physical force on the field struggling not to do the same with his lover. Watson's Mrs Hammond is no pushover, as in the film version. She feels trapped by their relationship and compromised by his ham-fisted displays of generosity – a new TV, a fur coat – so she builds a wall around herself that even Machin, a giant of a man, cannot scale.

People talk a lot nowadays about a "crisis of masculinity", though if you want to see a man flailing like a fish in the face of political inertia, social disillusionment and personal adequacy, then look no further than these New Wave dramas. Such portrayals reveal the turmoil experienced by a generation that had been promised life would be better after the war, and found it wasn't.

Later, in the Radio 4 documentary British New Wave: Beyond the Kitchen Sink, Paul Allen observed "a new generation saying, 'Look at me, listen to me'." A new experience was being presented in books and in theatres, displaying abominable behaviour without necessarily condemning it, along with a gathering sense of alienation.

Allen also demolished a few myths including the terms "angry young man", invented not by the critics but by the Royal Court press office, and "kitchen sink", a label actually coined by the art critic David Sylvester to describe a mode of painting.

David Jacobs, the BBC's longest-serving presenter, has died. His best work was before my time but, like anyone else who ever turned on a radio, his voice was as fixed a part of my early years as hot summers and Sunday lunches. If he came over a little too old-school to younger listeners, it's worth remembering that he was once sacked for giggling while reading the news.

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