What, asks the fresh-faced Manchester Guardian reporter, does Mr Bevan make of the content of British television? "In a word, appaling," he replies, "an insult to our national intelligence." It is generally unwise to treat the characters in a play as mere ventriloquists dummies, mouthing the playwright's prejudices - particularly when the playwright is as experienced as Trevor Griffiths. But it seems safe to assume that this splenetic remark from Sunday's Food for Ravens (11.15, BBC2), a play about the dying days of the founder of the National Health Service, wouldn't be entirely at odds with the author's own views. And if he felt that when he wrote the line, what must he think now, after this ambitious and serious piece of work has been hustled out through television's equivalent of the tradesman's entrance?
It's best to get the row over the scheduling of the play into some kind of perspective. It was unrealistic, it seems to me, to expect that it would ever find a place on BBC 1 - because it is a demanding, sometimes opaque drama which deliberately passed up the opportunity to remake the story as popular myth - Nye as a beefy David taking on the Goliath of the medical establishment. Nor should any writer, however distinguished their past record, have an expectation that some equivalent of academic tenure might begin to operate, so that whatever they produce is guaranteed a place in the schedules. What's more, having seen the play I can even understand why a controller might look at it as a problem to be solved, rather than a gift to be gratefully seized - the intensity of its venom about the Tories ("lower than vermin") and its idolatrous regard for the National Health Service are true to Bevan's character but still feel a little out of time now, as if they had not quite caught up with the result of the last election.
But one of the skills of a scheduler is the nerve to create a sense of occasion when one is needed. And this play unquestionably deserved such a service, deserved something better than the grudging treatment it received. It was one of the particular ironies of its placing that it should have been pushed an hour later by a trashy American buy-in called Profit - an almost parodic melodrama about an amoral businessman clawing his way up the corporate ladder. Profit is lethally undemanding - one of those baby-food fictions which is designed to gratify existing prejudices rather than question them. Food for Ravens on the other hand was awkward and elusive - never entirely explicit about its purpose. As Bevan endures the "fiction we both call convalescence" he reflects on his past - engaging in long conversations with a hallucinated companion (himself as a boy), remaking his favourite speeches, walking in the Welsh countryside.
The emotional heart of the piece was the pain of uncompleted work - Bevan's final recognition that he is going to die before he has achieved a fraction of what he wants to. It was an elegy not just for the man but also for a kind of socialism that has all but disappeared - driven by an appetite for the best in life and an apparently unappeasable rage against injustice (though Griffiths was also at pains to remind you that Bevan had his own broad pragmatism, including the famous speech in which he condemned a conference resolution in favour of unilateral disarmament as "an emotional spasm"). Brian Cox's performance as the Welsh wizard was excellent, at first vigorous and mischievous in his self-denial about his illness, but increasingly burdened by the knowledge that he will not return to the political fray, and consoling himself with past sallies against the class enemy (including the youthful guerrilla tactic of defecating in golf holes). Griffiths direction of his own work was full of fine visual grace-notes - most particularly scenes of reminiscence in which a single colour would relieve the monochrome - as if Bevan's mind had hand-tinted his own most precious memories. I am glad I saw it, but I don't think it was to the BBC's credit that I had to wait up so late to do it.Reuse content