Saturday, February 06, 2021

Stand Up, Nigel Barton

Stand Up, Nigel Barton (GB 1965, SC: Dennis Potter, D: Gareth Davies), starring Jack Woolgar (Mr. Barton), Katherine Parr (Mrs. Barton) and Keith Barron (Nigel Barton). The coalminer's family is appalled to watch a television show in which the son Nigel, a student at Oxford, confesses his agony at living in a class society. My screenshot from YouTube.

Stand Up, Nigel Barton (GB 1965, SC: Dennis Potter, D: Gareth Davies), with Vickery Turner (Jill Blakeney) and Keith Barron (Nigel Barton) as students at the University of Oxford. My screenshot from YouTube.

The Wednesday Play : Stand Up, Nigel Barton.
    GB 1965. PC: BBC. P: James MacTaggart, Graeme MacDonald.
    D: Gareth Davies. SC: Dennis Potter. Story editor: Tony Garnett. B&w. PD: Richard Henry. S: Paddy Wilson.
    C: Keith Barron (Nigel Barton), Jack Woolgar (Mr. Barton), Katherine Parr (Mrs. Barton), Vickery Turner (Jill Blakeney), Robert Mill (Adrian), Janet Henfrey (Miss Tillings, a teacher), P. J. Kavanagh (Reporter), Johnnie Wade (Reporter), Johnnie Wade (Georgie), Godfrey James (Bert).
    Soundtrack selections include: "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" (Thomas Paine Westendorf, 1875), "Sixteen Tons" (Merle Travis, 1947), "The Old Rugged Cross" (Methodist hymn, 1912, George Bennard) and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, 1965) perf. The Animals.
    75 min
    Telepremiere: 8 Dec 1965 on BBC1.
    YouTube link viewed on a 4K tv set at home in Lappeenranta, 6 Feb 2021.

AA: Having discovered a few weeks ago the early Dennis Potter masterpiece Moonlight on the Highway (1969) I delved deeper and viewed his breakthrough telefilms, the Nigel Barton Plays. The producer is James MacTaggart, who directed Moonlight on the Highway. Gareth Davies, the director of the Nigel Barton plays, elicits excellent performances from the cast.

The Nigel Barton plays belong to the currents of the Angry Young Men, Free Cinema and Kitchen Sink Drama. Nigel Barton is an angry young man, the mining town is conveyed with naturalism, and there is a freedom of experimentation. Much is familiar from contemporary British films such as Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life.

But a unique Dennis Potter signature is already prominent. The story is semi-autobiographical, because the agonizing Bildungsroman is very similar with Potter's own trajectory from a mining town to the University of Oxford. Nigel Barton experiences a massive identity crisis and exposes it to the whole nation in a BBC documentary about "Britain, land of barriers": "I don't feel as I belong anywhere".

Already at this point, Potter as a storyteller is far from straightforward. Instead of a linear progress, the narrative is based on a juxtaposition between home and Oxford. The present tense is intercut with flashbacks. In embarrassing school memories, grown-ups play schoolchildren. The actors feel free to address us directly.

Potter has an eye for the expressive detail. In memories of school bullying, when asked to select a passage from the Bible to read, George, a schoolmate, selects the Book of Ezekiel (the one with Oholah and Oholibah), and when Miss Tillings, the teacher, blows her top, Nigel is first held up as the teacher's pet and then inevitably bullied. In the story of retaliation Nigel tears the stem off from the class daffodil and frames George.

The film begins with a long backward tracking shot of Nigel's father walking in the middle of the road, instead of on the sidewalk. Why? It's an old miners' tradition. After Nigel's appearance in the television documentary, confessing his unease about his coal village background, mother and father are deeply shocked. Father goes out, and Nigel finds him coughing painfully. Miner's lungs. In the final long forward tracking shot we are behind Nigel and his father, walking in the middle of the road until they disappear into the darkness. It's night, and they are going to the pub together.

Soundtrack selections do not yet play such a dominant role as in Potter's most famous teleplays, but they are more inventively used than in average shows. "Sixteen Tons" and "The Old Rugged Cross" are among the tunes on display. Like in This Sporting Life, singing at the Working Men's Club is memorable.

During the closing credits, Barry Mann and Claudia Weil's topical hit, "We Gotta Get Out of This Place", released by The Animals in July 1965, is playing, a more obvious song selection than usually in Potter's plays, but it must have irresistible because it so directly articulates the British "angry young man" attitude, although written by Brill Building professionals.

Like in Moonlight on the Highway, there is an impressive "atlas of faces". In the mining town, there are no indifferent extras. Every face tells a story.




"Nigel Barton accompanies his father Harry to work. Harry insists on walking in the middle of the road, while Nigel stays on the pavement. When Harry realises that he has forgotten to take a clean work towel with him, he lies about it to a neighbour as it would be considered bad luck to go back and get it. Nigel realises that he lied and the two quarrel."

"At a University party, Nigel is taken aback by the 'loose' behaviour of the other students. He meets Jill, who mocks his severity and patronises him. He leaves in disgust. Nigel remembers an incident when at school the class comic, George, was chosen to read from the bible. He picked a suggestive passage and was punished by the stern teacher. She then picked her best pupil, Nigel, to read a more appropriate section. In the playground, Nigel was bullied by Bert and George for being a 'teacher's pet'."

"Jill goes to see Nigel in his rooms as he prepares for his debate at the Student Union. He reveals his desire to succeed, even though he thinks the University environment is artificial. She offers to go to bed with him and then makes fun of him. He slaps her."

"Nigel's mother chides Harry for not being proud of their son anymore and accuses him being jealous of his success. At the Working Men's Club, Nigel watches Bert and George tell jokes and amuse the audience from the stage. Harry's friend Bill criticises Nigel, claiming that he has forgotten his roots. At University Nigel is fined £10 by the Proctors for singing one of the songs from the Working Men's Club while drunk. Nigel remembers an incident at school in which he cut a flower from the teacher's flowerpot and let George get blamed for it."

"At the Union, Nigel debates the importance of class in British society. He later agrees to appear on a television programme on the same topic. His parents watch the broadcast with Nigel and are horrified when he admits on air to feeling that he belongs neither at University nor at home, where even his parents are suspicious of the changes in him. Harry storms out. Nigel talks to his mother and then goes out to find Harry. The two go to the Club together, walking side by side in the middle of the road.


"Stand Up, Nigel Barton (The Wednesday Play, BBC, tx. 8/12/1965), in some ways the most nakedly autobiographical of Dennis Potter's works, is also, of his four plays televised in 1965, the one that gives the strongest indication of the way his talent would develop. This is particularly evident in its complex narrative structure and in Potter's apparent willingness to be identified within his own works and to use this to generate controversy, mystification and confusion, something still evident late in his career in Blackeyes (BBC, 1989) and Karaoke (BBC, 1996)."

"Keith Barron brings an angry and manic quality to his playing of the title role, a young man who is, like Potter, a coalminer's son who gains a scholarship to Oxford University and who comes to prominence by appearing on a television documentary espousing his opinions on class in British society. In 1958 Potter was interviewed at Oxford for a programme entitled Does Class Matter? (BBC, tx. 25/8/1958), which when previewed by the Reynolds News bore the headline 'Miner's Son at Oxford Felt Ashamed of Home', an event which Potter re-creates at the climax of the play."

"Stand Up, Nigel Barton, however, can hardly be classed as a naturalistic work, containing Brechtian alienation effects such as asides to the camera, while the cross-cutting between Barton's home town, his adopted student city and highly subjective childhood recollections of playground frustrations and humiliations imaginatively present his sense of dislocation. The school scenes are presented in an impressionistic manner, with adult actors playing the schoolchildren, an idea Potter would later return to in Blue Remembered Hills (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 30/1/1979)."

"It also introduces Potter's fascination with popular music, creatively using songs beyond their mere power to evoke a mood or period: 'The Old Rugged Cross', which we hear sung in the Working Men's Club, is the same song that Nigel is singing when fined £10 by the University proctors for warbling while drunk."

"Director Gareth Davies concludes with some bravura filmmaking, the end credits appearing over a nearly two-minute unbroken tracking shot following Nigel and his father walking "in the middle of the road", so bracketing the play with its opening sequence, which also showed the two men walking. Then, however, Nigel stayed on the pavement, while now, with The Animals' 'We've Gotta Get Out of This Place' playing on the soundtrack, he stands next to his father.

Sergio Angelini (BFI Screenonline)

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