Monday, 4 February 2013

Monday 4 February 1963

Tonight sees the start of a brand new drama series from ATV:

The opening titles of The Plane Makers are tremendously exciting - scenes of all kinds of complicated machinery whirring away accompanied by a pounding jazz theme (uncredited and almost certainly obtained from a music library, like many of the era's great TV themes), stencilled letters spinning around and eventually resolving themselves into the show's title.  If the show itself isn't quite a thrill a moment, it's at least an intriguing historical artefact.

Set in the Scott Furlong aircraft factory, the programme kicks off with a scene of boisterous workers arriving for the day by foot, bike and car of the sort familiar from many a kitchen sink movie:

In fact the tone of Don't Worry About Me brings to mind a film like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning if its main focus had been on the business of the factory Arthur Seaton worked in rather than his love life and general surliness.  It's not a show about the lives of people who work in a factory, it's actually about people working in a factory.  Any personal lives they may have outside are very much secondary to scenes of people discussing  components in great detail and shots of unattractive men puffing on pipes and working machines.

I'm afraid, as a complete ignoramus of anything technical, I can't really claim to have understood half of what was going on in Don't Worry About Me.  Dialogue like "We're on the SF200 now, and it might mean a seven-year order book" throughout doesn't help.

The closest thing the show has to an Arthur Seaton character is Jack Clement (played by a rather tubby Colin Blakeley) - a maverick Northerner admired for his machine working skills but looked on by many in the factory as a poor team player ("don't worry about me" is his catchphrase).  But he's an older, settled Arthur with a wife and kids, still throwing the odd stone to prove he can but no longer smashing anything up.  The other main character is his apprentice, Sammy Metcalf (a ridiculously fresh-faced young Ronald Lacey), who the factory's old hands are worried is being a bit too influenced by the fiercely individualistic Clement.

Other familiar faces in the cast include Neil Wilson as the factory's gruff Safety Officer and Gordon Rollings as an anxious supervisor concerned about Sammy's future.

Our only glimpse of the world outside the factory walls comes with a brief scene showing us Jack's wife's life at home.  It's centred around that totem of 60s affluence, the washing machine.  The Clement's less well-off next door neighbour (looking like a Monty Python parody of a housewife) takes advantage of theirs, and the bored Mrs Clement lets her as she's glad of the company.

The Plane Makers' exciting theme tune is in fact the only piece of music in the whole episode, bizarrely used to underscore even scenes where it's completely inappropriate, such as someone on the phone discussing the correct way to use a particular machine.  The almost hypnotic tedium of much of the episode is, however, relieved by a rather nasty accident that befalls Sammy's friend Sunshine when he gets his hand caught in some machinery.

Don't Worry About Me now seems a pretty baffling piece of television in some ways, but as a window into a time when a large part of the viewing audience would have been able to identify with its  industrial setting it's fascinating.

The original concept of The Plane Makers was that each episode would be set in a different department of Scott Furlong, showcasing a new cast of characters facing their own unique day to day struggles.  Other actors who turned up on the company's staff included Annette Crosbie, Frazer Hines, Anton Rodgers, Tom Conti, Jeremy Kemp, Alfred Burke, Johnny Briggs, Judy Parfitt, William Hartnell and Alec McCowen.  Unfortunately I'm unable to comment on how the idea worked out as Don't Worry About Me is the only episode of the 16 from the show's first series that still exists.  The Plane Makers returns for a second series later in the year but with the emphasis firmly shifted to the company's more glamorous upper echelons.  Don't Worry About Me is a late example of a kind of working class social realism that had run its course by 1963.  In January '63 Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life (with Colin Blakeley in a supporting role), usually considered the last of the British New Wave films and by some critics the best, was released to public indifference.  From now on the popular fictions of the decade would be far more glamorous and, to use that hideous word inescapable in the 21st century, aspirational.

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