Monday, 23 September 2013

Monday 23 September 1963

Reginald Marsh, surely one of British TV's most familiar character actors, had a small part in last week's Plane Makers as Arthur Sugden, works manager at the plant assembling the Scott Furlong Sovereign.  This week, Arthur's squarely in the spotlight.  Since the Sovereign's maiden flight nearly ended in disaster and loss of lives, Scott Furlong MD John Wilder's out for blood, determined the culprit be found and sacked - and it looks like one of the men from Sugden's works will get the blame.  Meanwhile, Arthur's one of three candidates for the newly created role of Scott Furlong's general works manager.  A worker who's risen through the ranks to get where he is now, Arthur doesn't think much of his chances - he's convinced the job will go to a younger, better educated man.  His loyal secretary Margie (Elizabeth Begley) knows he's the best man for the job, and tells him so in her plain-speaking way.  Although due to the fag permanently hanging out of her mouth most of her dialogue is only partly intelligible.  The comfy working relationship between Arthur and Margie is encapsulated in the way they both puff away in the office as they're working together.

Fag Ash Lil Margie makes a stark contrast to Wilder's poised, plummy, glamorous secretary Miss Lingard (Norma Ronald, who'd later play Ed Bishop's secretary in UFO).

No Man's Land is essentially a companion piece to last week's episode - introducing us to Arthur's life as Too Much to Lose did to Wilder's.  Their wives contrast just as starkly as their secretaries.  While Mrs Wilder is an icy trophy wife who essentially holds him in contempt, Arthur's wife Mary (Sheila Raynor) is a warm, loving companion who genuinely cares about his career and his happiness.  When they argue, they end up apologising to each other.  And what's more, we even get to see them in bed together (Arthur's bedtime reading looks interesting: "Wish he'd make up his mind, the chap in this book, he's been trying to decide whether to murder his wife for 57 pages now.")

Mary's excited about the benefits a promotion could bring ("We might think again about that central heating!"), but if Wilder has his way there'll be no further advancement for Arthur.  He has his own favourite for the new post, Bob Ferguson - he thinks Arthur sympathises too much with the workers: "Grow up man, you're not in the union now.  This is 1963, and you're a works manager!"  Wilder clearly wants to lay the blame for the Sovereign's faulty undercarriage at Arthur's door - but Arthur points out the inconvenient fact that if Wilder hadn't insisted on bypassing safety checks in order to get the Sovereign in the air the defect would have been apparent on the ground.

Arthur feels that lately he hasn't been identifying with the workers enough, so he invites an old pal, the recently widowed Ernie Lucas (Frank Crawshaw) round for a drink.  Ernie was a friend of Arthur's father, and marched with him during the great depression.  He also sponsored Arthur's entry into Scott Furlong, and the works manager feels a lingering discomfort that his career's so far outdistanced that of the old man, a works foreman.  Also present for drinks is Arthur's bolshy younger brother Frank (a young Jerome Willis, looking remarkably like Christopher Eccleston): a devoted union member deeply suspicious of his brother's move up to management.  In fact, he blatantly accuses Arthur of being a sell-out - which unsurprisingly leads to a massive row.

Wise old Ernie gets the key dialogue that provides the episode's title: "What's the matter with you, young Frank? Traded all your brains in part exchange when they gave you that little tin badge? We need men like Arthur on top, men that speak our language.  Men that can talk for us... (to Arthur) Think on if you get it son.  Nobody'll cheer, up or down.  No Man's Land, that's what you'll feel like.  Out there alone, nobody trusting you on either side.  Just waiting to be shot down... you want the job, we need you there, but by God, if you get it son, I pity you."

The next day Sugden goes for his interview - making awkward small talk with Ferguson, who talks about his posh continental holidays (Arthur finds looking after his two dogs makes it difficult to get away).  Margie's been deliberately waiting until after the interview to reveal the results of the investigation into who was responsible for the faulty undercarriage.  It was a fitter who's since been fired.  But his direct superior was Ernie.  Arthur's plunged into a horrible dilemma: to please the board and Wilder he needs to provide Ernie's scalp - but the old man means a lot to him, and what's more he's only just lost his wife.

With a heavy heart, Arthur heads to the working men's club, where Ernie acts as compere to such acts as the musical comedy stylings of Maudi and Mack (Patricia Sweet and veteran bit-parter Walter Sparrow).  The wall poster advertising "Mavis and Joe" implies that the entertainment at the club is all pretty much interchangeable.

Arthur takes the distraught Ernie backstage for a chat, which isn't made any easier by the present of Frank, who taunts his brother about his willingness to throw workers on the fire.

As he leaves the club, Arthur suffers the horrible indignity of receiving a slow handclap from its patrons.

Called before the board, Arthur is compelled to give Ernie's name, but insists that he knew nothing of the deliberate sabotage carried out by the dismissed fitter - and embarrasses Wilder by pointing out that the fault would've become apparent without endangering lives had the MD not brought the test flight forward.  This manages to save Ernie, and the board deliberates over who should get the job.  They're evenly split over Arthur and Ferguson, and chairman Sir Charles decides to give it to Arthur on a six-month trial period - later confessing to the other board members that he did it solely to employ someone who would give Wilder a hard time.

Wilder himself, clearly not happy, nevertheless offers Arthur a cigar to welcome him into the job.  Pipe smoker Arthur declines, but has the cigar pressed on him as a souvenir - "You never know, you might get to like them, given time."  "You'll be lucky," Arthur snorts after Wilder's left, leaving the cigar behind as a symbolic gesture that he's not ready to roll over just yet.

No Man's Land is an incredibly powerful piece of TV drama, with a magnificent central performance from Reginald Marsh as the painfully conflicted Arthur.  There's a hell of a lot more to him as an actor than the stern sitcom bosses he became associated with in his later career.  The central conflict now set up between The Plane Makers' two lead characters, we'll just have to wait and see what happens next...