There’s something simultaneously delightful and maddening about investigating old TV programmes you’ve never seen. Finding copious evidence that there’s so much more to TV’s past than the well-trodden path of the retrospective clip shows will dare to admit is a thrill. Slowly piecing together the details of the weird and wonderful products of an industry in its pomp is slow but infinitely rewarding work. Becoming increasingly resigned to the fact that you’re unlikely to ever actually see the damn thing in question is close to heartbreaking.
The death of Shelagh Delaney got me thinking again about just such a buried nugget. In early 1976 the Beeb, as was their wonderfully instinctive wont back then, commissioned Delaney to write… well, something. Whatever she fancied. She came back with The House That Jack Built, a series of six half-hour plays showing the progress of a marriage through thick and thin, from 1967 to the present day ten years later.
Delaney described the couple as a “cowboy and a Madonna”. Jack is the cowboy, an engineer with big ideas, in particular the dream of owning a castle with “grounds big enough to ride a horse for two hours before breakfast.” He’s played by comedian-turned-actor Duggie Brown, who was doing some grand stuff in various Plays for Today about this time. The Madonna, Lu, a former shorthand typist who just wants happiness for the pair of them, was played by Sharon Duce, latterly most famous as Ray Brooks’s long-suffering wife in Big Deal. No-one else is ever seen throughout the series.
It all sounds a lot like Scenes from a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman’s internationally-garlanded slice of Swedish marital angst from a few years previously. But by all accounts it was a lot more fun than that. Nancy Banks-Smith compared it to The Likely Lads, with one of the lads transformed into a lass. The opening scene, on the wedding night, set the tone, with Duce pissed as a newt, after having been carried out of the reception by Brown, who mollifyingly reassures her: “You danced every dance, you told a couple of jokes and, when you’d had enough, you fell down.” As he tries in vain for a spot of consummation, the chat ranges from quotes from John Donne to a scramble for the Andrew’s Liver Salts.
The critics all seem to have loved it from the off, save for the Guardian‘s Peter Fiddick, who hated it at first but changed his mind completely as the series went on. The Beeb, sadly, didn’t do too much to promote it, bunging it out on BBC-1 in that uncherished and insecure post-Horse of the Year Show slot which was the bane of early series of Monty Python.
If the programme still exists, the BBC have a neglected work by a major British dramatist on their hands. Will the sad news of Delaney’s passing be enough to provoke an archival rummage? A screening on BBC Four is unlikely after the recent Singing Detective farrago, but what chance a DVD release? It seems ideal, and a much more satisfying tribute than another repeat of the brilliant-yet-over-familiar A Taste of Honey and a string of skeletal obits that seem indecently keen to talk about Morrissey instead.
Maybe the idea of such a thing happening in these careless days could be called a fairy story. Then again, as Delaney herself said, “Everything I write could begin with ‘Once upon a time…’ They’re fairy stories. Or lies.”