For decades, Jack Rosenthal was the leading investigator of the English working class soul, showing as much insight into Cockneys as his own native Mancunian environment. Afflicted all his life by an unusually intense sense of empathy, he put it to good use in his television plays, which (in addition to numerous episodes of Coronation Street, Z-Cars and other staples) included the classic scripts Bar Mitzvah Boy, The Knowledge, and Eskimo Day.
Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976) focuses on the protagonist Elliot's cold feet when faced with the passage to manhood, a rite which unhappily coincides with a period of intense thirteen-year-old disaffection. It is perhaps Rosenthal's most famous play and indeed deserves credit for its ground-breaking representation of English Jewish life on television (as, to a lesser extent, does his painfully autobiographical wartime drama, The Evacuees from 1975, a study of the religious intolerance and unintentional abuse that the Rosenthal boys suffered at the hands of a narrow-minded foster mother). The result is a trifle self-conscious, however, and does not withstand a second viewing as well as the other two landmarks reviewed here. While the humour is rich and multi-layered throughout, the difficulty is (unusually for Rosenthal) the reliance on ethnic stereotypes rather than fully developed characters. Yet there are moments of genius which transcend it: the tension that builds up during the Bar Mitzvah service itself as it becomes increasingly clear that something untoward is going to happen, the mother's exhausted speech at the end of the film, and, most of all, Grandad's bird-happy optimism and enjoyment of family life, made the more poignant by his Central European accent: "Listen," he explains urgently to his son, "If the kids are happy, you're happy. If you're happy, I'm happy. If you're all happy, thank God, I'm the happiest man in the world! It's my happiness, what should I do, cry?" The film's genius lies in its evocation of that universal, Grandad's fundamental article of faith, discovered by Elliot in the course of the play as the real meaning of his Bar Mitzvah: family as a warm rock in a cold grey sea.
If Bar Mitzvah Boy occasionally seems a little over-awed by its own stated ambition, The Knowledge (1979) suffers no such doubts. It is that rare thing, a perfect television film, fashioned out of an extremely unlikely idea -the attempts of a very assorted group of Cockneys to pass the titular, terrifying examination of London cab-routes necessary to receive the green badge. Rosenthal startles with an uncanny ear for local speech as well as mentality, and the characterisation is sharp and true throughout. (Notably, the Jewish character, the only non-cabby in a family of taxi drivers, is better-drawn than those of Bar Mitzvah Boy. He is played by the superb Jonathan Lynn, who also co-scripted Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister). The acting is so naturalistic as to make the viewer blink on the film's end, with Nigel Hawthorne particularly impressive as the increasingly deranged examiner. Rosenthal plumbs sadder waters than usual (or, rather, does so in a more obvious way) in his sketch of the middle-aged man with the tired face who is never missed from the group of friends, sitting alone in a caff at closing time, monologuing to the oblivious owner in a manner that out-Pinters Pinter. Yet all the characters, in the end, receive their various blessings: on passing the Knowledge, he develops the self-respect to finally assert himself. In its depiction of the hopes and tragedies of working-class life, and the quietly heroic resonance that it gives them, the film is one of the great plays of the twentieth century.
Nearly two decades later, Rosenthal's voice remained unmistakable. Eskimo Day (1996) is a harrowing portrait of parental heartbreak, as two very different families --a working-class Northern family and a posh Southern one-- accompany their progeny to the dreaded Cambridge interview. Neil is the scion of the first, Pippa the only daughter of the second. Expected clichés about middle-class repression and working-class attachment are interrogated and made fresh in Rosenthal's deeply compassionate treatment: never have laughter and tears been more indistinguishably combined in the same thought as they are in this play. He deserves particular credit for the subplot about the slightly scattered interviewer who is trying to consign his old father --an acidic Alec Guinness-- to a hideously infantilising old folks' home. Again, the cast are exceptional, with Maureen Lipmann (Rosenthal's wife) as Neil's mother, a tour-de-force performance of masterful comic timing and understated grief.
No appreciation of Rosenthal's work would be complete without mentioning his unique gift for writing boys without idealisation of any kind. This makes his child-focussed dramas perhaps less than appealing to an adult audience, but they have an arresting reality usually absent from the genre. The class portraits in The Evacuees are amusing and touching, and foster empathy with the harassed schoolmaster who is attempting to organise the placement of his urban charges in the countryside, while the insect discussions of P'tang, Yang, Kipperbang and Elliot's linguistic showoffery in Bar Mitzvah Boy are authentically irritating. As a dramatist, Rosenthal never compromised, whether portraying the young, awkward and inarticulate, or evoking the fraught verbosity of London cabbies. His death in 2004 marked the loss of a unique perspective and one of the few dramatists capable of writing working class characters as multi-dimensional personalities.--Isabel Taylor