Television: the last word

Jack Rosenthal's final script, Ready When You Are, Mr McGill, is aired for the first time next week. But his satire on the parlous state of TV is not on the BBC - it's on Sky. Matthew Sweet reports

Here's the image with which Jack Rosenthal - one of the most important television dramatists of his generation - chose to end his career. The scene is a suburban living-room, and a bunch of teenage boys is lolling on a sofa in front of a widescreen television. They switch on episode 19 of
Police Siren, a hopeless cop show starring Amanda Holden. They're watching only because the thing was filmed on their street, and they're not impressed with the finished product. "Crap, innit?" they conclude, and switch off. One of their number reaches for a videotape: one they've made of themselves larking about on the location with a camcorder. "I mean," he says, "this is what you call telly, innit? Real people. That's what the public likes to see. That's your proper fuckin' drama, innit?" And the television screen explodes in a blast of shattered glass and scorched circuitry.

Here's the image with which Jack Rosenthal - one of the most important television dramatists of his generation - chose to end his career. The scene is a suburban living-room, and a bunch of teenage boys is lolling on a sofa in front of a widescreen television. They switch on episode 19 of Police Siren, a hopeless cop show starring Amanda Holden. They're watching only because the thing was filmed on their street, and they're not impressed with the finished product. "Crap, innit?" they conclude, and switch off. One of their number reaches for a videotape: one they've made of themselves larking about on the location with a camcorder. "I mean," he says, "this is what you call telly, innit? Real people. That's what the public likes to see. That's your proper fuckin' drama, innit?" And the television screen explodes in a blast of shattered glass and scorched circuitry.

Ready When You Are, Mr McGill will get its first airing next Wednesday night. But not on ITV - the channel that first recognised Jack Rosenthal's talent and remained faithful to him for several decades - or on BBC1, with which he also enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship. It's an irony upon which the TV historians of the future will reflect: the final work of Jack Rosenthal - a writer irrevocably associated with the ethos of public service broadcasting - will receive its premiere on a subscription-only satellite channel owned by Rupert Murdoch.

The piece is vintage Rosenthal in quite a literal way. Already diagnosed with the rare species of cancer that took his life in May this year, the author returned to this script - a satire on the mechanics of making a TV drama, directed for the BBC by Mike Newell in 1976 - and transformed it into an exasperated, Timonian farewell to the medium to which he had devoted his professional life. And this, perhaps, is the reason the terrestrial channels passed on the project: it gives a hearty two-finger salute to the current commissioning policies of their drama departments.

Mr McGill stars Tom Courtenay as a hapless extra on the set of Police Siren, which - in some form or another - you can see most nights on BBC1 or ITV1. He has only one line - "I've never seen this young man in my life before, and I've worked here 40 years" - but circumstances conspire to prevent its smooth delivery. And all around him, the idiocies of television drama - and the people who make it - are exposed. Executives look on blankly as a colleague attempts to pitch them an idea that does not feature stethoscopes or handcuffs. Holden - in a role that you could easily imagine her playing in some prime-time series - strides into police interrogation rooms and raps out meaningless Cockney clichés. Network top brass demand a few inches off her regulation-length skirt, to give viewers a bit of an eyeful when her character leaps from her car. A pair of passers-by is puzzled not to see David Jason or Pauline Quirke - surely one of them must be around somewhere? A boy, loitering on the fringe of the shoot, demands, "Could you get us on Big Brother?"

Courtenay found the script entirely reflected his own feelings about the state of the medium. "I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man," he ventures, "but when I was young there used to be plays on TV with interesting actors. Paul Scofield doing Henry IV. Olivier doing Ibsen. Now soaps have bred TV stars and it's frightening how bad some of them are. Everything these days is about doctors, cops and robbers, or autopsies. The dead are very popular."

The actor recently turned down a role in the BBC's crime drama Hustle, and thumbed his nose at a part in ITV's new Miss Marple series. He rolls his eyes as he recounts the story. "There was another thing that came my way with a terrible part for an old granddad," he notes, "but the casting director informed me that I wasn't actually being offered the part. I read it and it was pitiful nonsense, so I told my agent to get in my refusal before the offer arrived." A piece with the wit of Mr McGill, he says, comes along very rarely and he is depressed by the BBC's decision not to acquire the rights to screen it. "It's humiliation upon humiliation," he grumbles. "I felt very dispirited about it all."

Courtenay was one of Rosenthal's contemporaries, making his famous speech from The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (the one about "members of parliament and posh whores") as the writer was adding a similar grit to small-screen drama. But the pair didn't meet until a few years ago. The actor was chatting to Rosenthal's wife [Maureen Lipman] at a party, when he noticed a strange man sitting in the corner of the room. He asked Lipman if she knew him. "Oh yes," she replied. "I sleep with him." "So," Courtenay says, "I assumed he was either her husband, or some other man she had on the side."

Jack Rosenthal was born in Manchester in 1931. An alumnus of Colne Grammar School, he graduated from the English course at Sheffield University too early to avoid National Service - which taught him how to translate Russian, in addition to how to strip a rifle. After he was demobbed, he took a job in the publicity department of the newly-formed Granada televison - a company to which he returned in 1961 when he was commissioned to write the 13th episode of a new soap opera called Coronation Street. He provided nearly 130 more scripts, including one which ends with Len Fairclough being challenged to a fist fight on the cobbles outside the Rovers Return, where Rosenthal had the actors aping the showdown from High Noon, replacing Eric Spear's wailing theme tune with a tub-thumping rendition of "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling".

He believed that one of television's roles was to put the experiences of working people on the screen - and as accurately as possible. For the Granada sit-com The Dustbin Men (1969), he spent several weeks dodging banana skins and kipper bones. For The Knowledge (1979), he spent so much time with London cabbies, memorising their routes, that they awarded him a certificate and made him an honorary member. He hung out with removal men for Moving Story (1994) and fire crews for London's Burning (1986). He also mined his own background and experience for material. The Evacuees (1975) put his wartime childhood on the screen; Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976) also contained much autobiographical material, and gave television some of its first Jewish characters that failed to fit the customary comic stereotypes.

And unlike some of his contemporaries, Rosenthal worked resolutely in the mainstream. He wasn't Dennis Potter. He had little patience with the sub-Pinterish, semi-intellectual navel-gazing that characterised the editions of Play for Today or The Wednesday Play that nostalgists conveniently forget. He wrote sketches for That Was the Week that Was. He wrote the situation comedy The Lovers (1970-71) for Richard Beckinsale and Paula Wilcox, and documented the progress of permissiveness beyond Carnaby Street. He created and produced Pardon the Expression (1965-6), which took Arthur Lowe's character out of Coronation Street and put him in charge of a department store. He even contributed episodes to Bootsie and Snudge (1961), a spin-off from The Army Game starring Alfie Bass and Bernard Bresslaw. These weren't highfalutin pieces: Rosenthal believed in popular entertainment.

Beyond the small screen, his work was lucrative, but brought far less personal satisfcation. In 1983 Barbra Streisand chose him to help her script the feature film Yentl, based on Isaac Bashevis Singer's story of the girl who wanted to study Talmud. Although the experience was punctuated by frequent and furious slanging matches, he subsequently agreed to supply dialogue to another Streisand picture, Prince of Tides (1991). Years later he described dinner with the actress during their work together on the film. "Halfway through, I bit the thigh bone of a roast duck in a Chinese restaurant, smashing my molar to fragments inside my gum," he said. "That was the least painful part of the three weeks."

His old friend Alan Plater - who began writing for Z Cars in the same year that Rosenthal began to work on Coronation Street - recalls Rosenthal's scepticism about Hollywood and its methods. "Jack had very little time for these American scriptwriting gurus," he reflects, "and all the spurious language they've brought with them. I remember his telling me about a meeting he'd had with some American film executives who sat him down and said: 'So, Jack, whereabouts would you say that the centre of your script was?' He said: 'Somewhere in the middle, I think.' I believe it didn't go down very well."

In the past decade or so, both Plater and Rosenthal found television increasingly drawn to American models, and commissions - other than adaptations - more difficult to obtain. "We lost the public service remit for ITV during the Thatcher government," argues Plater. "The minute the franchises were auctioned off, the public service idea was dead. And once that was removed, the BBC was let off the hook. I sympathise with the BBC's dilemma. If they don't get the ratings people ask why they get the licence fee. If they do get the ratings, they're accused of dumbing down. They're in a no-win situation. Sure, the BBC is an anachronism, but some anachronisms are good." Looking back, the early 1960s - when television was commissioning 200 new plays a year - now seem to him like halcyon days. "We were the first generation grammar school kids," he reflects. "And we were living through a revolution and didn't know it."

Ready When You Are, Mr McGill suggests that some kind of counter-revolution has now occurred. According to Courtenay, Rosenthal took an obsessive interest in the progress of the production, even requesting the actor to come back to the recording studio in post-production to make a tiny alteration to the inflection of a single line. "He was on set every day," he recalls, "apart from when he had to go off for treatment. He was fussing, mainly. Altering the odd line here and there. 'And for pudding' became 'followed by'. But he was passionately keen to redo the script because he believed that television is a lot worse now than it was in the 1970s. And this piece, I suppose, is his last word on the matter."

'Ready When You Are, Mr McGill' is showing at 8pm on 15 September on Sky Movies 1, and at 8pm on 21 September on Sky Movies 9

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