It’s inevitable that at various times over the past five years, a particular story has generated enough twists and turns to dominate discourse; I’m currently trying to avoid the Telegram being renamed ‘Identity Politics News’, but it could just as easily have been renamed ‘The Pandemic Post’ immediately before that, in the same way ‘The Daily Brexit’ would’ve been an apt moniker last year and the year before or ‘The False Allegations Courier’ prior to that. I myself routinely take a break from all MSM outlets when overexposure kills my interest in a story, however much I might regard it as the story more relevant than any other to the moment, so I think it only right that – as much as the Woke wars continue to provoke my most animated responses – interludes of a specific nature provide necessary breathers between the latest developments.
With my own off-line unwinding regularly involving television time travel that serves as a welcome escape from the here and now, reviewing the destination once I get there in the manner of a pop cultural TripAdvisor has become a regular feature on the Telegram. From what I can gather, it seems to be a welcome periodical diversion; so, after such an intense sequence of recent events, I think it apt to resume the pattern once again by unearthing another slice of buried treasure from the archives and losing myself – and hopefully the readership – in a necessary detour from an alien century. And back we go to familiar territory, i.e. early 70s Britain – to be specific, London’s naughty square mile.
For a man known primarily as a pre-Beatles British pop star, Adam Faith was a brave choice for the lead in a new drama series set in sleazy Soho and made by London Weekend Television in 1971, but the pedigree of those behind the scenes was impeccable. Produced by Verity Lambert, who had been at the helm for the launch of ‘Doctor Who’ in 1963, and penned by the renowned writing partnership of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, ‘Budgie’ was very much rooted in time and place whilst simultaneously years ahead of the likes of ‘Minder’ in portraying the capital’s tawdry underworld and its equally tawdry characters with the kind of rich, black humour that highlighted its grim absurdities.
Adam Faith’s title character, Ronald ‘Budgie’ Bird, is a petty thief, career criminal and incurable chancer straight out of the open nick when we join him. Despite having a hilariously neurotic estranged wife in Watford – played with comic-bordering-on-tragic brilliance by the feisty Georgina Hale – Budgie also has a girlfriend in Fulham, the hapless albeit whiny Hazel (played by Lynn Dalby), lumbering her with an unplanned son and heir as a going-away present before his most recent spell behind bars. Budgie is an endearing optimist, a self-assured wide-boy whose cocky Cockney charm masks an awareness he will never make it to the big league occupied by Scottish porn baron Charlie Endell, the wealthy owner of a string of ‘adult book stores’ and strip-clubs who sees through Budgie’s front and exploits his craving to make a fast buck by using him as a perennial gopher; Endell’s intimidating physical presence and network of contacts on either side of the law usually override Budgie’s opposition.
Charlie Endell is one of the era’s great TV creations, played with the right mixture of urbane sophistication and gangland thuggery by Iain Cuthbertson. I’ve no doubt Waterhouse and Hall probably met and spoke to several real-life Charlie Endell figures, for Cuthbertson’s portrayal feels too real not to have been rooted in fact. The way in which Endell transmits an eminently respectable businessman facade, revelling in material luxury and sermonising on the decline and fall of old-fashioned decency whilst simultaneously flogging smut to the dirty mac brigade, is a sublime portrait of Great British hypocrisy. Outwardly, he stands in opposition to the loose morals of Swinging London, yet profits from the relaxation of standards that fuelled its sordid underbelly. Crafty and cunning, Endell is viewed with both admiration and fear by Budgie whilst Endell openly admits he tolerates Budgie, despite the regular testing of his patience, because he ‘amuses him’. Occasionally, the veil slips and we witness the scary reality of the kind of psychopath who would never curse in front of his wife yet thinks nothing of dispatching his henchmen to beat the shit out of someone lower down Soho’s food-chain – and Cuthbertson is genuinely frightening.
The difference between today’s formulaic television dramas and the era that produced ‘Budgie’ is evident in the way in which Waterhouse and Hall imbue even the most minor of characters – who may only appear in one scene – with a depth of almost-Dickensian characterisation that really breathes life into them and makes the viewer yearn for more. All are so well-drawn that each could have been at the centre of their own spin-off series, yet in most cases we never see them again. Some form the core of an entire episode, relegating the regulars to an effective supporting cast. There’s an episode set in a dreary out-of-town hotel that dovetails between the guests – including an early sighting of Peter Sallis – and the staff, led by a seedy Anthony Valentine as a lowly hotelier permanently thwarted in his career ambitions. Like the best plays, one comes away from it wanting to know what became of the characters after the credits rolled; and we never find out.
Some episodes work as stand-alone plays in their own right that could be watched and enjoyed in isolation without needing to see another instalment in the series. An example is one in which Budgie is hit by a bullet intended for Charlie Endell as the pair stroll back to Endell’s motor after attending a football match together; they evade a second shot and gatecrash an ordinary suburban house, spending virtually the whole of the episode under siege, much to the outrage and consternation of the middle-aged couple who live there. The husband’s protests are subdued both by Endell’s menacing presence and the eventual entrance of the couple’s spunky twenty-something daughter. The intrusion of the two uninvited visitors serves as a trigger for a dark family secret to be belatedly brought into the open for the first time, a secret that involved underage abuse of the daughter by a family friend and was then hushed up with a handsome payment. The shocking revelation is handled with an absolute absence of melodrama and works all the better for it.
Another affecting episode comes when Budgie recognises one of his former schoolteachers loitering in the Soho ‘bookshop’ he’s minding for Charlie Endell. Sensing a potential blackmail scam, Budgie returns to his old alma mater armed with a carrier bag of Swedish porn; invited home by the teacher, Budgie receives a compassionate lecture from a sad and lonely individual disgusted by his own moral lapses, one that beautifully strips away Budgie’s social armour and leaves him humbled rather than humiliated. We see what the teacher saw during Budgie’s schooldays – a scared little kid who uses the gift of the gab to claw his way above the factory-fodder obscurity awaiting him. The quality of both the writing and the acting is worthy of the best theatre dramas being produced at the time.
Adam Faith is superb as Budgie because he makes the character likeable even when his behaviour is often reprehensible. It was possible for people to be portrayed as inhabiting shades of grey back then; characters in TV dramas weren’t so black & white or designed solely as ciphers for agendas that fulfilled quotas. As with all the other vintage alternatives to contemporary schedules that make me wonder why I pay the licence fee, ‘Budgie’ stands up to repeated viewing every few years and seems to improve with the passing of them.
© The Editor