The Lavender List

Wednesday, March 1, 2006 by

As they are trumpeting the fact so loudly, it would be rude not to acknowledge the happy event that is the fourth birthday of BBC4. Sitting down to watch their anniversary week, an unhappy thought was nagging away at my consciousness. Considering the channel’s output is, by far, the most intelligent, eclectic and individual of all the BBC’s networks, it’s a wonder drama on BBC4 is such a rum affair. Worse than that, it’s so damn predictable.

With the exception of Life for Daniel and The Lives of Animals in 2002, and Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky and A View from a Hill last year, the whole of their drama output can be grouped in three categories: televised stage plays, often relayed from an actual theatre (which is superb, and a much ignored genre of the last couple of decades); remakes of old television scripts for which no production exists, such as The Quatermass Experiment and The Falklands Play (equally laudable, thank you very much); and dramatisations of narrow sections of modern history as told through reference to someone’s diaries.

I don’t know where the bent for this latter type of reconstruction comes from, but it seems to be prolific on the channel. Maybe it stems from BBC Fictionlab, which is the department that seems to provide most of BBC4′s drama, and enjoyed early success in 2000 with Justice in Wonderland. Or it may be that, because the channel can only afford to make very few of these productions, each one has to be able to immediately sell itself as an event by having a convenient peg for the public to hang it on. For whatever reason, it seemed remarkably fitting that having shared in all the various joys of Ewen Bremner being Salvador Dali, Ian McDiarmid and Sarah Parish being mass-observed (I presume that’s what one should call it) in Our Hidden Lives, John Hurt being Alan Clark, and Rob Brydon being Kenneth Tynan, I should be celebrating their birthday by watching Kenneth Cranham being Harold Wilson. And, may I say, being Harold Wilson very, very well indeed.

The Lavender List, a new drama by Francis Wheen, purports to show the true reasons behind Wilson’s controversial final Honours List before he resigned as Prime Minister in 1976. Although the screenplay is credited solely to Wheen, it takes its place in the BBC4 drama “diary genre” by showing events that are only drawn clearly in two recent memoirs, Bernard Donoughue’s Downing Street Diary and Joe Haines’ Glimmers of Twilight: Harold Wilson in Decline. Wheen appears to follows the theory that this list was written for the PM by his adviser Marcia Williams (later Lady Falkender), to reward the various industrialists who had previously assisted her financially, including Joe “Gannex Mac” Kagan, Lew Grade (although he wasn’t represented in this script) and James Goldsmith. I say that it appears to, rather than actually does, by the simple expediency of only showing the eponymous list in extreme close up – we can see the names and honours being written on the lavender paper, but whether it really is Marcia’s hand doing the writing is left to our imagination. This also saves anyone at BBC4 from a libel writ, as both Lady Falkender and Lady Wilson, the former PM’s widow, are still very much alive.

The drama opens curiously, with Cranham reading, in voiceover, selected memorable quotes from Wilson’s first tenure. Why this is here I don’t know, except to remind us how eminently quotable the 1960s Harold Wilson was, or how the 1970s Harold Wilson wasn’t. After showing his resignation in 1976, the programme then rewinds two years to the moment of his re-election and reveals how he reached that point. During the course of this we’re treated to very artful dialogue which gets across valuable information without sounding too stilted. When Wilson helpfully lists everything he’s achieved since he came to power, Marcia explains what he still has to do: “Remember Rhodesia. Ian Smith”.

Less believable chat comes in the exchanges between the Daily Mail journos who are in the process of evicting Marcia’s skeletons from their various cupboards: “Marcia Williams?” questions one. When the other, looking like Lunchtime O’Booze and speaking in his best housing-estate-London voice says, “No less”, the script’s credibility flies out of the window. “No less”? Do journalists really talk like that? Wheen should know, I suppose, but it doesn’t ring true. Or perhaps it’s just right-wing Daily Mail types who speak fluent Convoluted English.

Having a core cast of only five, The Lavender List takes the opportunity of showing its characters in different combinations, allowing us to get to know them prismatically – the “Good lord, they get on really well outside the office” approach. If a writer only has an hour, and their choices of featured personalities are restricted, this technique works remarkably well. It leads to some lovely scenes of Wilson relaxing at home with his wife, played by Celia Imrie. The interplay between the two is a joy to behold, a world away from the man who scuttles around 10 Downing Street. Similarly, seeing the advisers, Haines and Donoghue, without the aggravating presence of Marcia suddenly reveals sides of the characters which humanises them, grounding the story in something more real. Joe Haines, by the way, is played by Neil Dudgeon, which is another way of saying “superb”. Incisive, exasperated, and just a little bit creepy, Dudgeon conveys the right amount of suppressed exhaustedness that you would expect any spin-doctor worth their salt to have.

There is also much excellent work behind the camera. Selected set pieces, such as a shot in which Wilson is sitting at his desk, barely visible through the clouds of tobacco smoke, cleverly evoking the famous portrait of him by Ruskin Spear, which gladden your heart at just how much care has been taken over the whole thing. Similarly, the remarkably jaunty music score from Ray Russell fits the drama perfectly.

However, with a running time of just under one hour, and the inability to show any speculation or exposition of character that could even vaguely be deemed libellous, the piece is unsatisfying, even despite the talent being applied. It’s inconclusive, and therefore annoyingly incomplete – the sort of drama-doc you can eat between plays without ruining your appetite.

Right then, BBC4, this time next year I’d like to watch a remake of Dennis Potter’s The Confidence Course, a new drama by Mark Lawson about the events leading up to the opening of Tate Modern, and a dramatisation of the diaries of “Chips” Channon (or if you can’t run to that, I suppose Eric Morecambe would do). And d’you know what? I bet if my BBC4 genie doesn’t grant me those particular three wishes, I’ll still end up with something pretty darn similar. Ah, well …

Happy fourth birthday, BBC4!


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