My grandfather was born in 1901, joined the army under age to serve in the trenches of the First World War, then re-enlisted and by the age of 21 was discharged again having served in bloody theatres in both the North-West frontier (modern Pakistan) and Iraq.
He was brought up in grinding poverty in the backstreets of the industrial West Riding, but was a melodious baritone, energetic dancer and a natural comedian. After leaving the army for good, he appeared on the northern music hall circuit with his best friend Billy, but was forced to give it up because my great-grandmother insisted that he find a proper job.
That meant he never got further in his life than being an unskilled labourer. He was unemployed during the Depression, and his last job, when he retired at 65 in 1966, paid less than £5 a week.
But he was a perennial optimist and he loved the idea of success. His heroes and heroines were figures like Charlie Chaplin and Gracie Fields. And so it was that the story of Nymphs and Shepherds, a million-selling record made by a children’s choir in Manchester in 1929 – in the era of the wind-up gramophone – was something that I was aware of from being a tiny tot. He adored the story of people like him making good, of being able to better themselves.
To him, the recording of Nymphs and Shepherds was a shining example of what ordinary folk could aspire to and achieve if they had discipline, decency, application and the right framework provided by teachers and bosses who cared.
So it with eager anticipation – and with my grandfather firmly in mind, especially as it was Christmas – that I decided to watch Victoria Wood’s ‘The Day We Sang’ musical on BBC2. The previews suggested that this was a bells-and-whistles Boxing Day evening treat, the finest that the BBC could offer.
I should have known better. In reality, this was a crude political tract with every BBC prejudice on display. Ms Wood delivered the bullets – the plot and characters, though based on a real event, were concocted in her imagination – but it was the BBC which provided the lavish budget and put her agitprop class polemics at the heart of its Christmas offerings.
Of course, it was funny and even moving in parts, if in a rather sugary way. An essence of the magic of the choir’s performance was captured. Victoria Wood has many talents and knows how to spin a yarn. But within seconds the grating clichés of characterisation began to appear, and with them, a descent into excruciating parody.
Boo! One of the key characters you loved to hate was the callous, abandoning father of the lead boy who nearly didn’t make it to the choir’s performance. This archetypal male drone was, of course, off to Canada without a second thought – all he could give to his son as he broke his heart with news of his departure was a gramophone.
Hurrah! Another key feature of the play was that the lead boy was being brought up by a heroine put-upon single mother, surviving against all the odds in post- Jarrow march Manchester and clearly a beacon for us all. She was a bit dour maybe, and a bit of a killjoy – but that was because she was down-trodden and scared in a world that didn’t care (even thought there was a Labour-led Coalition government in 1929).
Boo –again! The second Mr Nasty, another vital pillar of the plot, was the lead woman’s boss, a callous, brain-free buffoon motivated only by what was in his trousers. He was a Capitalist and therefore devoid of any decent human characteristics at all, and he had led his saintly female employee into personal Armageddon by forcing an affair upon her. Not quite an ‘all males are rapists’ characterisation – but only a whisker away.
Shock Horror! The male lead, played Mr Nice Guy himself, the singer Michael Ball, was a decent caring male. But here, of course, there was a sting in the tale. He was romantic and caring in a bumbling, vacuous sort of way – and that’s because actually, like the Capitalist Boss, he had not much between the ears and therefore was incapable of artifice or scheming.
Hurrah -again! For the saintly and put-upon (also by the nasty Capitalist Boss) secretary who with care, compassion and brilliant human insight ensured that the two leads could continue with their romance despite the male vacuity, domination and unpleasantness all around.
Boo! Too, for the middle class participants in this tale of class warfare. They were boring, self-interested, essentially thick, and their only aspiration was to be able to eat in a Berni Inn.
Nicholas Booth has already on TCW over the Christmas period adroitly made the point that BBC drama, along with most of the output, has gone beyond redemption in its bias. What leapt out from ‘The Day We Sang’ in block capitals was how simplistic, uni-directional and in-your-face this campaign has now become, and how bankrupt the BBC is in not offering any alternative viewpoints.
All in all, less subtle than a pantomime.
My grandfather, I guess, is turning in his grave.