‘How, in the name of all that is haughty and holy ….. ?’
The first of the five short plays within the annual ‘A Play, A Pie and A Pint’ series that runs through April. Edinburgh49 is reviewing all five.
Loved it. And I’m not just talking about the Scotch pie and the pint before or afterwards. [Hot tip: the venison pies go quickly.]
Writer Tony Cox’s first stage play, directed by Hamish Pirie, is top-drawer work. A cross-examination of (i) rectitude on air and of (ii) the sneaky premise that all marriages are like potted plants – terminally pot bound – Love With a Capital ‘L’ is Radio4’s Thought for the Day with attitude.
It is ethically spiky. John Reith, the BBC’s first Director General, challenges Hilda Matheson, the Corporation’s ‘Head of Talks’. She, in straight-backed, imperturbable, manner, challenges him back and … a nice yucca plant is smashed to the floor.
This well-researched script is right in there at the beginning of public service broadcasting. We are in Reith’s office in Savoy Hill in June 1929. The BBC employs around 400 people at that time. Matheson has invited H G Wells to go on the radio to talk about world peace. George Bernard Shaw is due ‘on’ the election. Reith, son o’ the Free manse, regards both as ‘Reds’ and Bolshevik apologists but what really riles him is the air time being given to the Bloomsbury set and in particular to Vita Sackville-West and to her husband Harold Nicholson. Their views on marriage, open affairs, ‘free’ love, and the rest of it – most of it gay – appal him. How, in the name of all that is haughty and holy can ‘the keeper of the nation’s conscience’, allow it? Answer, if you would, Miss Matheson, please.
Easy: in brief, “Will that be all, Director General? I have work to do.”
Actually, that is far from all, as Reith has Matheson read his diary. Personal history will out and both characters are drawn sympathetically, if briefly, together.
Benny Young plays John Reith. It is the driven self-control, self-censorship, and the tight smile that gets you and the force of the interrogatory “Why?” Reith, momentarily wobbling, quotes Puck who will ‘put a girdle round about the earth / In forty minutes’ and you acknowledge that what Reith created at the BBC was unique and valuable. What Young gives us, also in forty minutes or so, is a more compassionate man than the unsparing biographies would suggest.
Lesley Hart is Hilda Matheson, who would have been forty-one in 1929; one year older than John Reith. Hart does not flinch once and plays Matheson as the extraordinary and successful woman she must have been. The script provides wit and intelligence enough but the confident bearing and sense of self-worth is Hart’s doing.
It is not on the wireless but you will want to listen in to Love With a Capital ‘L’. Its subject and its acting reward that kind of close attention.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 1 April)
Visit PPP Love With a Capital L homepage here.