Sunday, 4 August 2013

Sunday 4 August 1963

It's been many months since I last featured one of ABC's Sunday Night Dramatic Entertainments here, so it's splendid to have another one to feast our eyes on. Donal Giltinan's broadly comic The Snag starts off as a familiar story of a determined individual holding out against the developers determined to crush their little business, but ends up having something a bit more interesting (if no less 1963) to say.

Derek Francis plays architect Goggin, as bristly of manner as he is of eyebrow and moustache.  His plans to build a shining, modernist civic centre are stymied by corsetry shop owner Madame Emma (Gwen Nelson), who stubbornly refuses even the most exaggeratedly generous offers for her premises.  Goggin, a bulldozer in human form, decides a more subtle form of persuasion may be needed, and assigns his public relations expert, ladies' man Ed Crayshaw (Barrie Ingham) to smooth talk "the old A-Bag".

Madame Emma's shop is a survival of a more genteel, and so is its softly-spoken, lace-bedecked proprietor.  She's being egged on in her battle against Goggin by her most prestigious customer, the draconian Lady Wittering (megalithic Judith Furse), who insists on "The defence of this little oasis of history and culture against the encroaching desert of vulgarity which threatens to engulf us all".  Both women are shocked by the announcement from Emma's niece Agatha (the great Patsy Rowlands) that, of all things, there's a man in the shop.  Played to perfection by Rowlands as the kind of lovelorn mooncalf that would become the actress's metier in the Carry On films, Agatha has a surprising core of steel and gets most of Giltinan's best lines.

"He wants to see you, Auntie."
"Hardly, Auntie.  He's quite flat."

Agatha, who's never encountered much excitement in fitting old ladies for foundation garments, is instantly susceptible to Crayshaw's charms.  "What's so sacred about the past?" he asks her.  "Well I suppose one would have to have had one," she sighs wistfully.

Crayshaw finds Madame Emma far less easy to sway: beneath the ruffles the little old lady's a formidable adversary who laughs away his pitiable attempts to gain sympathy for his poor old mum, who'll suffer terribly if Goggin gives him the sack.  She cheerily admits that the reason she's refusing to sell up is nothing other than sheer bloodymindedness.

Realising Agatha's his only avenue of attack, Crayshaw takes her out to the Cosy Corner CafĂ© for a coffee, a date that culminates in Agatha misinterpreting his overtures as a proposal of marriage.  To make things worse, the conversation's overheard by Crayshaw's girlfriend Jill (June Barry, last seen around these parts having an affair with Ian Bannen in The Human Jungle)- also Goggin's daughter.

The romantic tete-a-tete is interrupted by the waitress bringing news that Madame Emma's collapsed.  I must mention the waitress's fantastic outfit here - I'd give anything to see it in colour.

Convinced that a defamatory piece about her which Crayshaw planted in the local piece was responsible for the old lady's collapse, Goggin fires his PR man and decides to handle the issue in his own way.  The remainder of the episode is a war between the Goggins and Crayshaw to get their hands on Madame Emma's shop - before it collapses, at any rate.

Deciding the direct approach might be the best thing after all, Goggin brings an enormous display of flowers to Emma's bedside.  From the outset the architect, with his tweed suit and pipe, has seemed as incongrouous in his space-age office where everything happens at the touch of a button as The Firm Foundation would in a brutalist shopping precinct.  When they finally get together, the pair get on fantastically well and decide incongruity might not be such a bad thing after all: "Imagine my little salon squashed between huge buildings like the oldest house in England!" This conclusion that incongruity can be an attraction in itself anticipates the mix of antiquated and ultra-modern that would characterise the style of the later 60s.

Eventually the old lady dies, and Crayshaw, who's rapidly married Agatha, imagines he's won the battle - telling Goggin he'll sell the shop for a price even more inflated than that offered.  But it's the architect, having learned that reasonable people don't need the shifty devices of PR men to thrash things out, who has the last laugh: just before her death Emma sold him the shop at its market value, and he's also been made a trustee for the money, which Agatha will only get a small portion of each year.

Giltinan's script for The Snag is a bit heavy-handed in places (particularly the over-elaborate malapropisms designed to reveal Goggin's uneducated background), but it's fun, breezy and fascinating in its conclusions nonetheless.  Blind resistance to change (as embodied by Lady Wittering - who we're left in no doubt would sell up if she was the one profiting) isn't a virtue in itself, and it's not agents of change like Goggin, who left to their own devices could reach a compromise with their adversaries, who are the problem.  It's slimy, morally bankrupt fixers like Crayshaw, stirring up antagonism where there doesn't need to be any.  As Agatha looks forward to years of happiness ahead, the play ends with the image of the fixer well and truly fixed.

Oddly, The Snag's best-known performer, both then and now, has only a tiny role in the play.  Arthur Lowe, familiar to millions in 1963 as Coronation Street's Leonard Swindley, pops up for a couple of scenes as the tailor struggling with Goggin's increasing girth.

 At one point Madame Emma presciently suggests there could be a new market in foundation garments to hide the tummies of comfortably-off men, and eventually makes Lowe's task easier by leaving Goggin a specially-made corset.

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