Monday, 18 November 2013
Monday 18 November 1963
Scott-Furlong's managing director John Wilder's only been seen in cameo appearances in recent episodes of The Plane Makers, but this week he's centre stage once more, with Patrick Wymark giving his most frightening performance yet as a man in single-minded pursuit of power.
Yet, perversely, Wilder's at his most admirable this week as well. At least he's honest about what he wants, unlike those who sugarcoat similar desires under a veneer of public service. Men like Labour MP Sir Gerald Merle (William Devlin), a director of Scott-Furlong who Wilder despises as a pious humbug. Merle's paying a visit to the works, his primary purpose to see not Wilder but chief test pilot Henry Forbes, who he subjects to an oblique interrogation.
Merle has his own reasons for wanting Forbes replaced, and an ideal opportunity seems to have arisen in the form of a salacious rumour concerning the pilot that's flying around the factory. Sales Manager Don Henderson expresses his astonishment that Merle would take the rumour seriously. Wilder replies that as "a self-appointed keeper of the national conscience", "Merle has taken any rumour about Forbes seriously ever since he learned that the men call him Auntie."
At home, preparing to attend a birthday party for Scott-Furlong chairman Sir Charles, Wilder expands upon the nature of the rumour to his wife Pamela. Viewers of a sensitive nature may wish to avert their eyes from the next image.
Pamela's vastly amused when Wilder implies that it's the possible reasons behind Forbes' nickname that might have inspired Merle's campaign against him. In fact, she quite literally throws her head back and laughs.
The ensuing conversation between the Wilders is fascinating as a snapshot of early 60s attitudes and assumptions (it goes without saying that the word "homosexual" or any alternatives for it aren't mentioned once), so I crave your indulgence as I quote it here in full.
Pamela: But what if it were true? He might just as well expect you to sack half the country.
Wilder: Really? I thought it was a minority deviation.
Pamela: But it's so ordinary!
Wilder: I beg your pardon?
Pamela: Well, that sort of gossip. I mean, you can't mention a man nowadays without someone saying he is, or he was, or he's the sort of man that will be. Do you know, I even ran into hints about you before I married you?
Wilder: Why not afterwards? Oscar Wilde was married.
Pamela: I mean, it's too ridiculous!
Wilder: Thank you.
Pamela: I mean about Auntie! I mean, he flies all day, and he goes home to his statistics [Barbara Murray has a fair bit of trouble with the word "statistics" here] at night. His housekeeper happens to be his old nanny, and she'd be the first to leave if he got up to any tricks. I mean, he's an old maid, all right, but that's all. I think I'm the only person he sees outside his work, and you will notice I'm a woman.
Wilder: I thought women were supposed to like that sort of man. They don't bother them.
Pamela: Well we've got a sure eye for picking them, and I'm telling you, Auntie isn't one.
But it turns out all of this is a mere diversion: the rumour Merle's on the scent of is that Auntie is in fact a red-blooded heterosexual who's carrying on with Pamela herself ("First of all Auntie's supposed to be odd, then I'm supposed to be on the frolic with him. What does that make me?"). The gossipmongers have a wealth of circumstantial evidence: Pamela, who's never before been taken a test flight, has recently been on two piloted by Auntie, and has been regularly seen coming and going from his cottage after Nanny fell downstairs. It took her a week to find a substitute housekeeper ("It wasn't a mothering instinct, it was a plain pleasure to meet someone in your business who wasn't working corners"), and she's been looking happier and more fulfilled than she has in ages ("He has a fine selection of Bach" "The cultural revels were heard all over the village, sometimes after midnight").
Pamela is not best pleased to realise that her husband's using her as a pawn in a power game he's playing with Merle. His trump card is that, unlike Merle, he's not especially bothered about any smears on his private life. Pamela questions how Wilder would feel if she were having an affair, and raises the spectre of his own mistress. He calmly explains that his infidelity conforms to established rules that ensure his mistress can have no effect on his working life (questionable, since he has a habit of taking her on business trips as his "secretary"). Pamela's not especially reassured by the notion that if she played by the same rules he'd be completely indifferent to anything she might do.
Both Wilder and Merle are late to Sir Charles' party, and on arrival Wilder's informed by Don Henderson that the chairman is dead of a stroke. Mourning's the last thing on Wilder's mind, his thoughts fully occupied with the question of securing his succession.
Sir Gerald is the major obstacle standing between Wilder and the chairmanship, but the managing director has a cunning plot to deal with his rival. The scene of Sir Gerald's visit to Wilder is unexpected hilarious, with the MP repeating the same set of corny platitudes about Sir Charles's death verbatim to Henderson and then Wilder: "The sound of the man is in those engines: that's his voice." Jack Watling as Henderson responds with some brilliantly sardonic face acting, while Wilder impatiently cuts Merle's waffling off: "His only talent was to keep us from each other's throats."
The highlight of the episode comes with Wilder's meaningful clattering of his coffee cup when Merle holds forth on "What insight God has given us into self-knowledge", summing up Wilder's attitude to the place of religion in business better than any dialogue could have.
The dialogue writer Raymond Bowers does contribute is terrific throughout the episode, with Wymark and Murray in particular clearly relishing every word. Perhaps best of all is Wilder's ultimate threat to a clearly gobsmacked Merle: "I shall see that she sues you for slander as a common gossip. It won't get me the chairmanship, but it'll make damn sure you don't get it. And thousands of electors in your constituency might change their minds about you before the next general election. I too can think of the welfare of the nation."
It turns out Merle has no plans to become the next chairman, as it would conflict with the position he hopes to achieve as Aviation Minister in the Labour government almost certain to be elected shortly. Pamela Wilder's horrified at the way Wilder's secured his support for his bid: he's implied that the rumours about her affair with Auntie are true, he just needs her now to demonstrate in front of Merle that the affair is over and she's utterly repentant. He's invited Merle to an impromptu dinner party that evening, where Pamela is to pointedly refuse to accompany Auntie on a test flight, even though Wilder will encourage her to do so.
It's the last straw for Pamela, who instead flirts outrageously with Auntie and makes it plain she wants to go on the flight with him.
Merle's full righteous anger is incurred, and Pamela blithely announces to him that she and Wilder have an open arrangement where they allow each other to have their own fun on the side.
Scorning Sir Gerald's veiled threats, Pamela makes it plain to him that she doesn't want John to get the chairmanship if it means he'll be beholden to him for the rest of his career. Whether her husband will thank her for this intervention time will tell, but the signs aren't good...
The Thing About Auntie is The Plane Makers at its best, and its especially great to see Pamela Wilder developed into a three-dimensional character after a series of brief appearances doing little more than roll her eyes at her husband. Barbara Murray's utterly brilliant, and the ending, with a scandalised Sir Gerald taking his leave of Wilder (caught on the back foot for once), leaves us desperately wanting to know what's going to happen next.