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Young men

Young men
02 September 2011 posted by John Wyver

Only three episodes survive from the original six of the 1964 BBC drama serial Diary of a Young Man. Two of these (programmes one and five) will be screened at BFI Southbank on Monday afternoon, an event to which I'm contributing an introduction (sorry, it's sold out). This has been programmed as part of the BFI's very welcome Ken Loach season (he directed the two episodes to be shown), but Diary... also features early on the CVs of three other distinguished creators of television drama: John McGrath and Troy Kennedy Martin (who jointly authored all six episodes) and producer James MacTaggart. Unsurprisingly, given these credits, Diary... is immensely interesting historically as well as provocative in relation to television drama now. Yet viewing it from today's perspective, I'm not actually sure whether or not it's any good.

Diary... relates the adventures of two young men, Joe (Victor Henry) and Ginger (Richard Moore, above), who come south to London looking for work and women. Their tale is recounted by Joe with an extensive use of voice-over written in formal, stylised language (the effect is a bit like the Damon Runyan tales adapted for Guys and Dolls). Our naive heroes are eaten up by the city but rescued, sort of, by Nerys Hughes' Rosie, who works as the executive secretary for a successful businessman the lads might once have known. 

The picaresque structure offers a satirical portrait of the nation much like Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! (1973) a decade later. The style, however, is a long way from the masterpieces of naturalism, like Up the Junction (1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966) which Ken Loach would direct soon after Diary.... This has the feel of fantasy (in episode five Joe sets out to find 'the meaning of life' by 6.30 that evening) and a wonderful 'pop' sensibility (look at the use of magazine advertisements at the start of that same episode). The programmes also make free-wheeling use of a director's box of tricks: montages of stills, film freeze-frames and a fluid mix of studio and film that was rare for the time.

The series was broadcast in primetime on Saturday nights in August and September 1964, and the critical reaction was mixed. The adventurous style was praised by some, but writing in The Listener John Russell Taylor was not convinced:

I think its failure even on its own terms is basically the result of an error common in revolutionaries, especially the instigators of linguistic revolution: that they become more interested in the language itself than in what they are saying with it. The language here, briefly, breaks away from the set scene, the more or less naturalistic sort of dramatic construction which television has inherited from the stage, and substitutes a story-telling style in which the visuals often work as a counterpoint to the narration, sketching a complex action in a series of stills or taking off on their own by free association.

Earlier in 1964 Troy Kennedy Martin had published in the theatre magazine Encore a much-discussed article titled 'Nats go home'. Like the serial, this is the work of a young man, here concerned to address the problem that 'television drama at the moment is going nowhere fast'. 'Nats go home' is one of the few truly radical manifestos written by a television drama practitioner (in fact, perhaps it's the only one), but it's also a sometimes confused and clumsy piece of writing.

Kennedy Martin is reacting to what he sees as the dominance of television drama by both the theatre and by the forms of naturalism. He wants to outlaw both, or at least to consign them to their subsidiary places in the schedule, and to replace them with... well, that's a bit trickier. Although whatever emerges will definitely look a lot like Diary of a Young Man, since the article features a substantial extract from the script of one of the episodes (frustratingly, it's from programme four which no longer exists). As for the principles, Kennedy Martin writes:

The primary concern of the new drama must be therefore:

  • to free the camera from photographing dialogue
  • to free the structure from natural time and
  • to exploit the total and absolute objectivity of the television camera.


Diary... is the clearest, and once again perhaps the only, full expression on screen of Kennedy Martin's ideas, although their influence in one form or another can be traced through much significant later television drama, including the plays of Dennis Potter and John McGrath's thrilling The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, made for the BBC in 1974 with the 7:84 theatre company.

All of which ensures that Diary... is constantly interesting, even if to viewers today it falls short in other ways. Perhaps the most problematic aspect now is the roles of the women who are silly, flighty, indecisive and either sexual objects or hysterics -- and often both (Nerys Hughes' character fits this description throughout, and Jean Marsh appears in a similar role in episode five). But there's also a sense at times that the realisation as television can't keep up with the script's ideas (particularly acute in the scenes with rally drivers, cows, Sicilian shepherds, a pilgrimage to India and more in episode six). The overall effect is sometimes simply silly, without being disruptive or fantastical or satirical or even engagingly quirky.

For all that, Diary of a Young Man is a bold experiement, an attempt to do something completely different with television drama of its time. And when's the last time you could have described a recent offering as such? Channel 4's recent Random might qualify, and so too would BBC2's underrated The Shadow Line, but not too much else. Troy Kennedy Martin's 'Nats' are still very much with us, and his essay and Diary of a Young Man are vital reminders that television drama could be so much more than it too often is.



12 September 2011 15:18

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