It could be connected to the Commonwealth Games being staged in Birmingham or maybe it’s simply part of the BBC’s centenary celebrations; whatever the reason, the rare opportunity to see some episodes of the Corporation’s mid-70s series of single plays, ‘Second City Firsts’, has been a nice surprise for those who mourn BBC4’s descent into a repeat channel for shows that have been seen too many times before. This series, produced at the late lamented Pebble Mill studios in Brum, was a mouthpiece for voices without much in the way of a nationwide platform at the time, and perhaps it’s only the notoriously shabby treatment of the BBC’s archives in the 1970s that has prevented any of the instalments from receiving an outing since. Thankfully, the likes of the Kaleidoscope organisation are renowned for retrieving lost gems from private collections, and viewers this week were treated to a trio of ‘Second City Firsts’ that were an eye-opening breath of fresh air when it comes to vintage television.
Only one of the three screened – 1975’s ‘Club Havana’ – seemed specific to the actual city the plays were produced in. This dealt with the arrival in Britain of a young man from Jamaica whose mother had been given a decade to lay down roots in Handsworth – one of the areas of Birmingham that experienced high immigration from the West Indies during the 50s and 60s. In many respects, Handsworth was a blueprint for the impact of the Windrush generation across Britain’s old industrial towns, being amongst the first to recruit Afro-Caribbean labour to work in munitions factories during the Second World War. By the time of the TV play’s production, a heavy immigrant population from the Indian Subcontinent had become predominant in neighbouring Smethwick, though Birmingham’s black community had seniority, something that was reflected in the play itself. The new arrival walking into a well-established community was played by Don Warrington, already making a mark in ‘Rising Damp’, whilst his mother was played by the familiar face of Mona Hammond, who sadly passed away at the beginning of this month.
‘Club Havana’ was a fascinating dip into a British black experience which was a hidden world from TV viewers in 1975, despite having a vintage of 30 years in Handsworth by then. Warrington’s character was that of an idealistic teacher eager to use education to liberate the future factory fodder from the destiny capitalism had selected for it; his attraction to the white barmaid (played by Julie Walters in her first TV appearance) at the ‘speakeasy’ run by his mother sparked tensions due to his father’s desertion into the arms of white women years before. Her prejudicial response to how only the lowest-grade ‘white trash’ females were deemed the best that even the most ‘middle-class’ West Indian immigrant could hope for highlighted an aspect of multiracial Britain that probably wouldn’t be touched upon today.
In 1975, it would be another three years before the debut of the BBC2 drama series ‘Empire Road’ (also set in Birmingham), which was described during its too-short run as ‘the black Coronation Street’, probably because Granada’s evergreen soap didn’t have any black characters back then. Unlike now, when the presence of any non-white character in a BBC drama often feels like box-ticking tokenism, the 70s view was to present immigrant stories as intriguing windows to a parallel universe Britain that the rest of the population was largely ignorant of rather than pretend we all reside in some fantasy rainbow nation where colour only registers when the guilt-stricken white middle-classes release their latest list of the most oppressed minorities to be patronised. But it wasn’t only colour that ‘Second City Firsts’ dealt with in its exploration of tales from the country’s invisible fringes. Perhaps the most well-known play in the series’ canon was 1974’s ‘Girl’, starring a pre-‘Abigail’s Party’ Alison Steadman as a young woman fresh from a relationship with another woman.
It’s interesting how the genuine female experience has been downgraded in the brave new, non-binary 21st century world of Identity Politics so that the word ‘lesbian’ is now deemed to have transphobic connotations. The BBC4 continuity announcer claimed the play contained the first ‘same-sex’ kiss on British television, which isn’t actually true; that had come four years earlier in a production of Marlowe’s ‘Edward II’ starring Ian McKellern. What ‘Girl’ featured was the first lesbian kiss on British television, but lesbian now appears to have been reclassified as an offensive word, buried in the ubiquitous LGBTXYZ acronym; some progress, eh? The play itself contained ye olde slang term ‘dyke’, uttered by the dykes themselves just as the black characters in ‘Club Havana’ were the only ones who said the N word; yes, it was a full six years on from ‘The Killing of Sister George’, but cinema as the 60s turned into the 70s was always one step ahead of the small-screen. What viewers would pay to see at their local fleapit was different to what the masses were served up on the box; the likelihood that the Mary Whitehouses of this world would blow a fuse and besiege the Beeb was paramount in broadcasters’ minds, but perhaps a series of plays hidden away on the nation’s only ‘minority’ channel was the perfect compromise in 1974.
Nevertheless, at the time, the programme apparently attracted a flurry of outraged letters to the Radio Times, describing it as ‘repugnant’ and ‘nauseating’. 48 years on, what struck me more than anything was how unusual it was to see such damaged stock being transmitted in the Hi-Definition digital era; the off-air recording of the programme is the only version that exists and will no doubt have been subjected to meticulous restoration prior to broadcast. It still looked like an old bootleg tape, though as someone accustomed to viewing recovered vintage TV, it didn’t really bother me. At times, the picture quality reminded me of the Duran Duran VHS I had in the 80s; whenever I leant it out to a friend it would always come back with the segment featuring the full-length ‘Girls on Film’ promo strangely damaged. I could never work out why. Oh, well…
Ropy visuals aside, ‘Girl’ came across as a surprisingly candid portrayal of butch lady soldiers for the time. Alison Steadman’s character is being discharged from the Army due to becoming pregnant via a close encounter with a man, one that she describes as rape in all-but name; her determination to have the baby baffles the superior female officer she’d had an affair with, though it eventually transpires the officer in question is something of a predator and will evidently find another ‘lamb’ to seduce come the next intake of recruits.
The third play dusted down and given its first airing since its initial broadcast was called ‘Glitter’. This starred two teenage ones-to-watch, Phil Daniels and Toyah Willcox, cast three years before being reunited in ‘Quadrophenia’. The latter played a hopeful pop star half-a-decade ahead of becoming a bona-fide Top 10 regular, whereas the former would have to wait a further 18 years before his one moment of pop glory via his guest vocals on Blur’s ‘Park Life’. This one was a rather surreal affair, even featuring a cameo from Noel Edmonds, though the nicest surprise was being alerted as to how Toyah looked before the extensive plastic surgery that has rendered her weekly YT outing with hubby Robert Fripp such an embarrassing freak-show. In retrospect, it was probably the weakest of the three, though what all of them evoked was a sense of sadness that the single play – a genre that uniquely combined both critical acclaim and large viewing figures in its lengthy heyday – is now a notable absentee from mainstream TV schedules. As ‘Second City Firsts’ reminded us, that’s a crying shame.
© The Editor