Monday, 4 November 2013

Monday 4 November 1963

Leslie Sands' previous script for The Plane Makers, No Man's Land, was a powerful exploration of Scott-Furlong works manager Arthur Sugden's thankless role as mediator between the working class who'll no longer have him and the executive class he's reluctant to join.  A Matter of Self Respect is even harder-hitting, and this time the lead role's filled by the brawny screen presence of Sands himself.  He plays Tim Carter, a former key designer at Scott-Furlong returning to the company after a two year absence.  But the welcome he receives is conspicuously less than rapturous: when he walks through the gates he's mocked by a gang of youths and a sweeper ostentatiously spits on the floor after him.

Factory girl Gillian (Yvonne Antrobus) is a bit more sympathetic.  "You can tell where he's been," she sighs to her weedy boyfriend David (Peter Funnell), and insists the man deserves a second chance.

Carter's just been released from prison after serving a year and a half for the manslaughter of his wife and a lorry driver whilst driving home drunk from a party.  Arthur Sugden, an old friend, has secured Carter a job (on the factory floor rather than in the heights of the design department), as well as lodgings - where he's at the tender mercies of predatory landlady Angie Morris (generously upholstered June Ellis).

Settling in to his new life isn't easy for Carter, with his ghastly supervisor Fred Collins (Garfield Morgan) making things especially difficult, and provoking the former convict into violence that could potentially be disastrous for him.

Carter finds himself working closely with young David, who has his own battles to fight.  Obsessed with bettering himself by attending evening classes ("But you speak English!" cries Gillian exasperatedly when he tells her which one his going to that evening), David's bookish ways and geeky (as they wouldn't have said in 1963) appearance, he's a regular target of bully Ginger Baines (David Cook), who's trying to get Gillian for himself.  A quick mention in dispatches here for the incredible hairstyle sported by Gillian's friend Brenda (Verity Edmett).

Carter seems to definitively get the better of Collins by beating him at arm wrestling, a feat which inspires David to best Ginger in a fight.  He's won Gillian back to his side, but his older colleague warns him of the importance of using your head rather than your fists (and not the way Ginger used his).

David gets his happy ending, but things prove considerably more complicated for Carter.  When he's offered a better job by Sugden, the works manager is baffled to find it refused.  Despite his training and intellect, Carter sees manual labour as an essential way of keeping his mind off drink.  His explanation to Sugden of his alcoholism as something that can never be cured is remarkably powerful stuff, and it's a much franker treatment of the issue than might be expected from a TV drama of the time.

There's aim in particular that Carter has in view: proving himself capable of looking after his 10 year old daughter, currently living with her wealthy aunt and uncle.  Carter's sister-in-law Susan (Joan Peart), hostile toward Carter for causing the death of her sister, attempts to convince him to leave the child in her care as she and her husband have provided her with a stable home environment.  When this fails, her rather friendlier husband Walter (John Horsley) tries to bring him round.

Carter decides to set the record straight for Walter about what happened the night of his wife's death.  She and he were rowing in the car, as he'd just learned the host of the party was the latest in a long string of men she'd been seeing behind his back.  The accident was caused when she grabbed hold of the steering wheel.  Carter deliberately concealed the truth at his trial to avoid blackening the name of his child's mother.  Stunned by this revelation, Walter agrees that Carter should see young Jennifer as soon as possible.

On the day of the meeting, Sugden surprises Carter by offering him his old job in design back.  Much to Sugden's consternation Carter says he'll need to announce his decision later that evening.  As he sets off to meet the daughter he's been separated from for so long, Carter collides with a drunk outside a pub and the trinket he'd bought for Jennifer is broken.  The moment where a devastated Carter hovers outside the pub door, his will to fight his demons ebbing away, is truly wrenching.

He enters the bar, at first just ordering a pack of cigarettes.  Then he overhears a conversation between a young married couple, the wife (Elizabeth Counsell, later to star in 80s sitcoms Executive Stress and Brush Strokes) insisting on the importance of a proper home to bringing up children.  Wearily, Carter orders a double brandy, then picks up the phone.

Susan and Walter have been waiting an hour for Carter to arrive.  When he does, he's stinking drunk.

Susan refuses to let him see Jennifer but Walter, realising there's a strategy behind Carter's dishevelment, allows him to talk to her briefly (she's played by a young actress peculiarly named Joy Measures).  Like Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas, Carter convinces the child who loves him that he's no good and she'd be far better off without him in her life.  As in the film, it's classic three-hanky stuff.

Carter, having given up the most important thing in his world, takes his leave of a gushingly grateful Susan and Walter and heads out into the night.  The phone call he made was to accept Sugden's job offer.  But what his future will hold remains unknown...

Its notions of what constitutes a stable home may seem antiquated, almost offensive, to some modern viewers, and elements of it seem drawn more from 30s Hollywood melodrama than anywhere else, but A Matter of Self Respect remains a devastating slice of socially conscious 60s drama that shows the flexibility of The Plane Makers' format off to its best advantage.  As both writer and performer, Sands is sensational.

1 comment:

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