The Beiderbecke Affair, The Beiderbecke Tapes, and The Beiderbecke Connection (network DVD, 2007)
When Alan Plater passed away last year, England lost one of its finest ever TV-writing talents. Plater was born in Jarrow, raised in Hull, went to university in Newcastle and wrote some of Z-Cars, set in Liverpool. He also scripted the television adaptation of Fortunes of War, the amusing portrayal of a group of English expats attached to the British Council in wartime Romania. His most famous achievement is probably The Beiderbecke Trilogy, made up of The Beiderbecke Affair (1985), The Beiderbecke Tapes (1987) and The Beiderbecke Connection (1988), which feature the adventures of two schoolteachers, the transplanted Geordie Trevor Chaplin (James Bolam) and Jill Swinburne (Barbara Flynn), who are drawn into various large-scale intrigues against their will. (The two represent the two halves of Plater's personality: Jill is his political side, and Trevor his emotional and affective side.) All three serials can be described as comedy thrillers—Plater was a master of the red herring and the absurd anticlimax—though this fails to capture their unique meandering and eccentric quality. They manage to be both quintessentially Northern, a combination of wry humour, sentiment and subtly political commentary, and an affectionate homage to American screwball comedy and film noir, referencing the Thin Man and other Hollywood classics. This lends itself to amusing incongruity: "We checked out all the fish and chip shops on Bridlingon's Lower West Side," a character growls in an atrocious American accent in Get Lost!, the television play that was the prototype for Beiderbecke.
Set in Leeds, a city depicted as both depressed and enchanted, the serials are extraordinarily atmospheric, capturing the everyday humdrum and the realities of working in a comprehensive school. The rain, grey skies and interminable terraced streets snaking down precipitately towards the city centre, and the disenchantment and thwarted gossip of the staff room, form a leaden weight on the end of a helium balloon which continually threatens to break free and sail away. This opposition between the quotidian and the excitement of the storyline provides a substantial part of the tension in Plater's unconventional narratives, and the incongruous gap between them is also the locus of both the humour and the carefully-modulated anger and sadness at the frustration of Northern potential, detected by Paul Allen in a Guardian article of 2009. Plater's work shares the device of the ironic gulf with the oeuvre of Dennis Potter, which, though infinitely darker, expresses the characters' hopeless fantasies through mimed song-and-dance routines to American jazz standards. Similarly, Trevor in The Beiderbecke Trilogy is passionate about jazz, particularly Bix Beiderbecke, "whose playing sounded like bullets shot from a bell." (The psychological significance of English enthusiasm for jazz music has yet to be properly analysed—Philip Larkin, that ruthless exponent of bleakness, was a jazz enthusiast). The music is itself a character in Beiderbecke, the Frank Ricotti All Stars providing a soundtrack that, both plangent and buoyant, twines throughout the series, mirroring their melancholy and wit perfectly, with occasional soothing echoes of Northern brass band music. The Northern English setting is key to the success of the series: the weakest of the three, The Beiderbecke Tapes, runs out of steam when the action is moved to Holland. Plater has more than a nodding acquaintance with the Priestley of The Good Companions, especially the magical Yorkshire mill town and moor panorama which opens that novel—not surprisingly, he adapted The Good Companions for television. There is a hint of the Variety stage in the quick banter ("I've been looked at but I haven't been seen to," says Trevor in apologetic self-explanation to a visitor), and occasionally also of Clement and La Frenais' Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, though Plater's humour is subtler.
Fabulist elements occur throughout: for example, the lonely old man with his dog is both an instantly recognisable Northern type and (initially) a mysterious sage, looming up out of the mist to impart his views on life to Trevor. Indeed, while Plater's protagonists are engaging, it is his minor characters who really grip the viewer's attention, such as the hidebound but essentially well-meaning headmaster, and the enthusiastic students who shoplift copies of set texts when the eighties education cuts prevent the school from ordering them. Terence Rigby's Big Al is a laid-off construction worker, an eccentric and philosophical visionary whose grey market dealership is entirely moral according to his own particular lights as a latter-day freeborn Englishman and opponent of the System, and he is supported by his small and uncommunicative assistant, Little Norm. There is also Mr Pitt, the mousy planning officer in Leeds Town Hall whose inner life is bound up, again, with jazz music. "Local government is the last refuge of the timid and poor in spirit," he explains placatingly to the young Southern graduate policeman, Sergeant Hobson. The latter is played by Dominic Jephcott, who provides a masterclass in comic character acting, with incredibly sharp timing. Hobson's suspicion of Trevor initially seems sinister, but by imperceptible degrees the character is revealed to combine winning innocence with endearingly vulnerable self-importance and overweening seriousness. Hobson has an ever-present air of faint worry, and when he decides to shop his cheerfully corrupt superintendent, the viewer senses his inner conflict, his moral rectitude struggling with guilt at his own disloyalty. Even his clothes express worlds of meaning about his character's naivety and insecurity -his policeman's trench coat hangs off his shoulders as if he were meant to grow into it—while two profoundly ineffective detectives provide a foil for his achievement-oriented personality. Although highly intelligent, ultimately adorning himself with a PhD, he eventually confesses to Jill that Yorkshire psychology will always be an impenetrable mystery to him.
For all its wit, what ultimately makes The Beiderbecke Trilogy powerful is its evocation of community, of a motley collection of people continually crossing each other's paths and rubbing along equably together. In a poignant talk on Gracie Fields, Plater once commented that the function of all art is "to remind us of some music we once knew and thought we'd forgotten." That particular bittersweet melody is audible throughout the trilogy, in counterpoint with the mellifluous jazz score.--Isabel Taylor