Remembering The Beiderbecke Affair

An impromptu tradition

PICTURE the scene. The Greenock Bookpoint, a small bookstore at the corner of the main shopping drag in that town on a late Monday afternoon in 1985. It’s a small tidy establishment and hardly conforms to the popular image of the rambling, dusty labyrinthian trove. It is compact and neat and brightly lit and while its stock is limited, it is surprisingly eclectic and you’ll easily find Acker rubbing shoulders with Taylor Bradford, Burroughs with Deighton. It’s hardly City Lights but nonetheless it’s an important part of the Greenock landscape and it’ll be missed when it eventually goes.

An impromptu tradition has developed of late. A dweebish teenager (yes, it’s me) makes his way to the shop after school, his uniform slightly askew, sizable but terminally uncool satchel slung over his shoulder. This isn’t the usual idle browsing trip but has a specific purpose; to engage in conversation with the shop’s owner, a dapper suit-and-tied gent of the kind that you seldom get in retail these days, even in the independent book retail trade. I never did get his name but research suggests it was in all likelihood that late Gregor Roy. I owe Gregor (if it was he) a debt for his urbane good humour and I’d say he must take, at least in part, the blame for a lifetime of chronic bibliophobia. Certainly, those Monday afternoons saw a quite a few purchases (pocket money permitting), often, if not always, made under the Gregor’s urbane guidance. And if nothing else, I’m grateful to Gregor for, week after week, indulging a rather nerdy teenager.

But mostly what we talked about was the previous evening’s episode of The Beiderbecke Affair. We were both fans and enjoyed dissecting the show’s progress. Every Monday, Gregor and I would discuss the latest episode, although not always seeing eye to eye — he disliked the ending a lot more than I did, for example, but our discussions were always good-natured and, for me anyway, quite thought-provoking. These days there would be lots of outlets for this enthusiasm. Now, you could pop onto Twitter or a WhatsApp group or even make YouTube reaction vid but back in the 80s, sharing enthusiasms was a lot harder. Especially, if you’re teenage into a show like this, which is essentially Sunday night comedy-drama about a couple of schoolteachers. Bringing that up in the common room is really going to get you nothing but scorn.

But The Beiderbecke Affair wasn’t Sunday night generic dramedy (you could, in fact, argue that it was the show that created the demand for this perennial genre). It was certainly a popular show, garnering decent ratings and prompting two sequels to form what has become known as The Beiderbecke Trilogy. But I don’t think it was ever what you’d now call watercooler TV, save perhaps for one nerdish schoolboy and a bored bookseller. Most of my classmates would probably have been more interested in Blackadder at the time and would have found Beiderbecke terribly unglamorous. But the lack of glamour was the point. The intention, at least initially, was to celebrate the ordinary, to import the tropes of the film noir into the West Yorkshire of the 1980s, perhaps poking a bit of good-natured fun at their absurdity. Thus we had ‘beautiful platinum blondes’ who were in fact salesmen for door-to-door catalogues, ‘supergrasses’ who were retired dog-walkers and ‘gangsters’ who were benign council estate philosophers operating from their allotments. In this sense, at least, the show was operating from the same vein of Northern humour as Billy Liar and Hobson’s Choice (which even gets a namecheck in the series).

The regionality is another important aspect of the show and watching the show more than 30 years later, the vistas of Leeds and its surrounding area strike one quite forcefully in how unusual they are. Place is, of course, a key part of the setting in any drama and crime dramas especially still tend to (Happy Valley, Endeavour, Broadchurch) but the tradition of the past decade or so at least has been for a greater vagueness in straight drama. Contemporary settings are largely avoided in favour of the historical (Poldark, Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey) or the outright fantastical (Doctor Who, Game of Thrones). Part of the reason for this is, I suspect, a desire to for broadcasters to avoid drama that acts as social commentary. The 1980s were probably the last great flowering of socially aware drama on British television, ranging from the working-class fury of Bleasdale and McGovern to the more sly satire of Andrew Davies and Dennis Potter. And as unlikely as it seems, Beiderbecke is part of that tradition (it’s no coincidence that writer Alan Plater went on to script the celebrated TV adaptation of Chris Mullins’ A Very British Coup a couple of years later). Beiderbecke is about the importance of the individual over the institution (be that Thatcherite economics or a creepy surveillance culture), of a natural suspicion of the ‘state apparatus’. Its genius lies in the fact that it presents these potentially heavy themes in the lightest of ways, within the format of gentle Sunday evening dramedy.

Nonetheless, Leeds and indeed Yorkshire are very much characters in at least the first Beiderbecke series — it’s no coincidence that the series ends with Jill and Trevor escaping from the machinations of the various subsets of the ‘state apparatus’ to recharge themselves in the Dales. This is the ending that Gregor disliked and I didn’t mind so much. After the (relatively) high drama of a series of arrests and the vengeful ransacking of Jill’s house, the teachers escape to the countryside ‘to run down a hill in slow motion’. It’s an obvious final subversion of a trope/cliché that the show has been revelling in for the previous five episodes but it’s also tonally necessary in order not to end on too bleak a note. For all the machinations, all the corruption, of ordinary decent lives thwarted, there is still a sense of victory. In the end, Yorkshire wins.

Beyond mere personal nostalgia, Beiderbecke is an important TV show, a significant artefact in the cultural landscape of Britain in the late 20th century. The Broadcasting Act of 1980 and the Peacock Committee report of a few years later were in the process of changing the country’s TV landscape. The two key outcomes of these were the creation of Channel 4 and the steadily increasing forcing of broadcasters to outsource their programme-making. Thus we saw the end of the BBC as ‘Auntie’, as the largely benevolent provider of the nation’s entertainment, the knowing butt of Eric Morecambe jokes about ‘small checks’ or Doctor Who’s amateurishly wobbly sets. Now, it was merely a ‘publisher of programmes’, as were, increasingly, all the other major broadcasters.

It’s quite possible that this was all the result of ideology, of a Thatcherite zeal to impose market forces on a broadcasting industry that was perhaps considered a little collegiate and cosy to that point. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Government of the day was smarting from the way dramatic characters like Bleasdale’s Yosser Hughes had entered the public imagination, offering a stinging rebuke to policy and in a way that had a longevity far beyond your average bruising news headline. And it’s surely notable that one of the key effects of that legislation is that the last 30 or so years have failed to produce a new generation of Bleasdales, Potters or Platers.

Another, I suspect more unintentional, side effect seems to have been the apparent de-regionalisation of British drama and comedy. When I was growing up, the idents of a number of regional broadcasters — Yorkshire TV, Anglia, Thames, Granada, STV — were a familiar site but one that had become all but instinct by the end of the 1990s. Part of the reason for this was probably the erosion of the authority and influence of the IBA (finally abolished by the Broadcasting Act of 1990) but part was undoubtedly the inexorable gravity of market forces towards monopolies and corporate behemoths (a lesson that the Tories also failed to learn in the privatisation of the railways and other public utilities. The ultimate effect is not a widening of choice but actually a ruthless curtailing of it). With regional broadcasters, under licence by the IBA, there were opportunities for regionally based actors, writers, directors and so on, as well as programming made locally, reflecting local concerns but, more importantly, just giving visibility to regional faces and accents, and often getting a national airing. The effect was for a kind of cultural patchwork quilt where the national identity was made up of a multiplicity of regional voices, albeit still with something of an inevitable London bias. This changed as the independent production companies with the most resources and the best contacts began to sweep up all the contracts that the national broadcasters were forced to outsource. The regionals withered, reduced to news delivery obligations and the occasional magazine show or soap. Culturally, it meant that regional (and often therefore working class) voices were removed from the nation’s broadcasting tapestry. A common modern complaint, usually with regards to Brexit, is that there were large parts of the country that felt ignored and second tier compared to the ‘London elite’ and I can’t help but wonder whether this was at least part in consequence because of these changes.

Get Lost

Great television rarely emerges fully formed right out of the gate. Often the best of it benefits from dummy runs. Sometimes this can be straightforward pilots episodes that can be tweaked behind the scenes before the series proper (think the ‘The Cage’ pilot of Star Trek, which differs markedly from the show that ultimately emerged, although that didn’t stop the makers from cannibalising it for a budget-saving episode. Sometimes it’s a more organic process over the course of the show — look how, for example, just how different the first series of The Avengers is compared to its generally recognised highpoint of the Emma Peel years. And sometimes it’s the result of a happy (or unhappy) accident. The (debatable) misfire of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie perhaps offered Joss Whedon a chance to refine his conception of the narrative for the TV version.

Get Lost might be considered another one of these happy accidents, although this is not to suggest that it wasn’t a success in its own right. Broadcast in 1981, this four-part serial contained all the elements that would a few years later find their way into The Beiderbecke Affair. A couple of sleuthing teachers, a borrowing and debunking of the tropes of hardboiled detective noir, a collection of eccentrics, a plot that is actually a non-plot.

And yet, tonally it’s a million miles away from the Beiderbecke series. It seems bleaker, more downbeat. Despite being filmed in the early 1980s, it seems to have that downbeat, greyness of the 1970s to it. And this extends to the characterisation. This is a world peopled by the lonely and the quietly desperate. Neville seems more of an inarticulate loner, Judy lonely and bitter. And Meagan, who we mostly see in The Garden Gate pub in Hunslet, a sneering, unpleasant presence, bordering at times on the rather sleazy. It’s not, it should be emphasised, that these performances are in any way inferior to the ones that came after but they are somehow grittier and more ‘real’ than the ones that came after. It’s left to us to wonder if the tonal correction was a deliberate one or whether they’re a result of different acting, directorial and production choices later on, or perhaps even a change in the zeitgeist from the barely begun 80s of Get Lost to what the preoccupations emerging by the middle of the decade.

The Beiderbecke Affair

Whatever the reason, the nascent formula of Get Lost was refined for The Beiderbecke Affair. It’s difficult to know just what to call this series in comparison to its predecessor. It’s not quite a sequel, not quite a reboot. Andrew Pixley’s excellent notes that accompany the DVD boxset detail the complications and tribulations of getting the show to screen, the primary one of these being the loss of both leads actors. And so what we get is a soft reboot of sorts (before such a thing really existed), with Neville Keaton becoming Trevor Chaplin and Judy Threadgold becoming Jill Swinburne. They’re both still schoolteachers at a Leeds comprehensive (still woodwork and English respectively) but the subsidiary characters that surround them have also changed. Mr Meaghan the history teacher has become Mr Carter. The buffoonish police officer who is the teachers’ nemesis becomes the rather more formidable Det Sgt Hobson (BA).

It’s perhaps a happy accident of casting or the fact that Plater has essentially been given the opportunity to revisit and refine previous work that TBA seems to flow much more than GL. Again, much of this can be down to the difference in performance. James Bolam and Barbara Flynn bring a lightness and wit to Trevor and Jill that Neville and Judy did not possess, although this is also perhaps due to the canny decision by Plater to avoid the awkward business of getting the two teachers together and for their relationship to be already established. (Although this is, of course, a consequence of the rewrites. Trevor and Jill were once upon a time Neville and Judy so you could argue that the latter had done all the hard work of establishing that relationship with Trevor and Jill reaping the narrative benefits. But we are perhaps given a useful case study in just how much actors can bring to the interpretation of a script in the extent that Trevor and Jill just feel like entirely different characters to Neville and Judy.) But this can also be seen in the secondary characters. Meaghan, while an interesting character, always had an edge of depressive menace to him. The always excellent Dudley Sutton imbues Mr Carter with a nicely lugubrious middle-aged misery that perhaps offsets the potential inappropriateness of his occasional sexual innuendo. And the ultimate villain of the Chief Superintendent of police — a broad-stroke Pythonesque Blimp in GL — is given greater nuance and character by the great Colin Blakely as Forrest. ‘I told you to catch some thieves, Hobson,’ he bemoans in the final episode. ‘I never expected you to do it. First time you get anything right and I’m the one that’s nicked.’

But part of the appeal of TBA is that, like all classics, it creates its own world. GL is a quirky comedy-drama that happens to be set in Yorkshire. Yorkshire is a more than a setting to TBA; it’s a character in itself. Sense of place is a strong element of the show. Constant allusion is made to Trevor being a Geordie (‘What’s wrong with Geordies? Nothing, except they’re not Yorkshire.’) And no individuals are more suspect than Londoners. But rather like the Lancashire of Coronation Street, this is a Yorkshire that defines itself, is more than just a region, is a kingdom populated by a unique people — of brilliant eccentrics like Harry the Supergrass, Mr Pitt of the peripatetic career and the inept social activists Dave the Wimp and John the Barman. The reason why Hobson finds this Yorkshire so incomprehensible is not strictly a class barrier; it’s the fact that his terms of reference are ours, that he is a stranger in a strange land.

Class is, of course, a factor in this world though. For a large part of TBA, Hobson is very clearly Jill and Trevor’s main antagonist. The villain of The Beiderbecke Tapes is an oily old Etonian, a sinister member of Whitehall materialised to interfere in the lives of the two teachers. Men in suits, in fact, are the ultimate evil in the Beiderbecke universe. Often they are an invisible force, only occasionally becoming a physical threat, as in the civil servant of TBT, or Councillor McAllister of TBA. Class, ultimately, is not the issue. ‘It’s just personal,’ Forrest tells Hobson, ‘I don’t like you and I think you’re useless at the job. Resentment about your degree doesn’t come into it.’ Hobson is a man in a suit but he’s ultimately not the enemy, is in fact in the end an ally. The true enemy are Systems. State Apparatus. The mechanisms of Thatcherite government. Jill and Trevor in their unassuming way oppose these forces but their true nemesis is Big Al.

Big Al is an agent of anarchy, a Lord of Misrule and he forms the centre of the plot of TBA. Formerly employed in the building trade, he’s now been made redundant and has decided to spend (some of) his time ordering a mail order catalogue business in aid of the cubs’ football team, one that operates apparently on a not-for-profit basis and this is his Al’s true crime. He refuses Capitalism. ‘The system told me I was redundant,’ he says. ‘Of no further use to society. This is me saying “bollocks” to the system.’

The actual villainy of TBA is actually very low-key and amounts to small-scale local corruption, infringements of planning regulations and so on. It is perhaps one of the things that dates the show (in a good way), the sheer absence of violence in the entire show. The only physical casualties of the entire series are Big Al’s greenhouse and Trevor’s shin (twice). And yet, this is not low stakes. The show is a gentle but not unserious critique of Thatcherism. Not, it should be noted, of free-market capitalism as a whole; it is highly elegiacal about trades and skilled labour. What it objects to is the naked self-interest of the McAllisters and the Forrests of this world. It is a direct rebuttal to Thatcher’s ‘there is no such thing as society’ speech.

A secondary, and prescient, theme is the rise of an information & technology culture. This can take the form of Harry’s lament for extinct trades or the suspicion of Hobson’s use of the police computer (the quaintness of its dot-matrix printouts notwithstanding). But it does express concern for its future effect on the social fabric. ‘I am on the computer therefore I am,’ declares Al. And on the other side of the coin, Forrest laments, ‘We shall all be lost in a great sea of Information.’

But this might be to suggest that the Beiderbecke series are reactionary or mired in nostalgia, that they might be the sort of series where, say, a Brexit enthusiast might find like-minded solace. But I don’t think this is the case. In many ways, they are forward thinking in their outlook. Certainly in terms of eco-issues they were ahead of their time. Jill is involved in local politics as ‘your local conservation candidate’. She is almost entirely unsuccessful but it does serve to illustrate her championing of environment causes that were far more fringe than they are even now. Nor are the series in any way insular, with the two sequels especially looking out to Europe and to the plight of refugees (even if they do prove to be bogus ones). This is not an insular view of England but rather one which looks positively upon its place in a wider Europe, even if it does poke mild fun at, say, the funny names of Dutch hotel owners.

But this is not to say that TBA gets everything right. Particularly problematic is Jill’s using a false accusation of rape against Mr Pitt as a means to gaining information. This is not a good look and sullies Jill’s character somewhat as an ethical campaigner on the side of the angels, particularly as Pitt is revealed to be very much an ally and would seem to have been inclined to give her information anyway. And it wouldn’t have taken much rewriting to fix either.

Another, less egregious, but nonetheless bizarre moment is Trevor’s ogling of Jill’s bikini-clad next-door neighbour. It seems an inexplicable scene, undermining, as it does, Trevor’s loyalty to Jill. The only justification for it being there is, I think, an awkward desire to reaffirm Trevor’s red-blooded-maleness in the wake of all the feminist emancipation that he spends much of the series allying himself with. It is, of course, not necessary and perhaps speaks to the discomfort with which the then vogue concept of the ‘new man’ was presenting within 80s UK culture.

It’s also perhaps worth pointing out that West Yorkshire in the mid-80s was still reeling from a series of race riots and that this portrayal of Leeds and its people is still an overwhelmingly white one. Not that you could accuse the Beiderbecke series of racism (beyond a few moments of ‘eh, don’t foreigners talk funny’ broad humour) but it is perhaps telling that the nostalgic world view it presents is an overwhelmingly white one.

The Beiderbecke sequels

The success of TBA meant that another sequel was inevitable but it is here that we see the issues that would dog the rest of the series’ life – budget cuts and quibbling over finances. TBA works to an extent because its six hour-long episodes allowed the show to breathe, gave room for a cast of eccentrics like Big Al, Mr Pitt, Harry the Supergrass and even the determinedly idle detectives Joe and Ben to flourish. The Beiderbecke Tapes was reduced to two 80-minute episodes and spent limited time in Yorkshire, as Jill and Trevor are pursued across Europe (well, Amsterdam) by sinister, grey Government forces. Anyone who read the prior novel will know that the denouement was meant to take place in Athens but that budget cuts meant this was changed to Edinburgh. But while the chase narrative allows for some lovely moments, it does rob the show of much of its texture. The absence of characters like Big Al and Hobson are also noticeable, with new characters like Beryl Reid’s ‘Oldest Suffragette in Town’ and the American Ancient Order of Elks never really working in their stead.

However, there is still much to love here. Bolam and Flynn are once again on top form and the Plater script sparkles with wit and warmth. And characters like Mr Wheeler, the Pooterish headmaster and Sutton’s Mr Carter are also given a chance to shine. And the story, which again centres around surprisingly prescient issues of disinformation and ‘fake news’ is engaging. Nonetheless, it fails to hit the heights of TBA and perhaps at least part of the reason for this is that over the course of the story the defiant bohemianism of the central characters but especially Jill is gradually eroded. By the end of the TBT, Jill and Trevor are no longer Hobson’s ‘dangerous subversives’ (analogous to Thatcher’s ‘enemy within’) but just another nascent TV family. This is, if anything, exacerbated in The Beiderbecke Connection, the final serial in the trilogy.

Despite efforts to correct the shortcomings of the TBT, The Beiderbecke Connection remains the weakest of the trilogy. True, it returns to its roots somewhat by being largely based in Leeds and its environs and sees the return of Big Al, Little Norm, Hobson etc. and has a slightly longer running time (although still two episodes short of TBA’s six). But by now everything seems different. If not necessarily tired, then just a little off. Take Big Al, for instance. He and Little Norm are back and yet he doesn’t seem like quite the same character. In TBA, Al was a dynamo, an ever-active figure of anarchy. Even when he’s just watering his tomatoes on the allotment, he felt like a figure of action. To have him and Norm spending their days on the bowling green just doesn’t seem quite right to me. He was also a figure of honesty but now he seems to behave in a somewhat shifty manner. Then there’s Hobson, another welcome return, still somewhat isolated by his class and education, still a figure of mockery to the likes of Joe and Ben. But without a strong Forrest figure to define himself against, he too feels diminished.

There are two fundamental problems with Connection. The first is that while Jill and Trevor are both written and acted with the same wit and verve as the previous series, a significant part of their dynamic has changed and, it could be argued, become fatally flawed. It’s true that characters have to grow and evolve but it’s just a shame that the progression of Jill and Trevor became somewhat pedestrian. In TBA, Jill lambasts Trevor for ‘being weird’ to which he defends himself: ‘Me? I’m dead ordinary.’ But Jill is right. Trevor is weird but then so is she. Harry the Supergrass observes that they are a ‘nutcase and a crank’ respectively. The Trevor and Jill of TBA are bohemian rebels, if of a gently benign and slightly sixth-form smartarse variety. By the time we get to TBC, that has been ironed away and they are basically the ‘sensible mum and dad’ of the show, around which the subsidiary characters are given too much freedom to run riot. They are overly static, confined to their house to minister to their ‘first born’ — the refusal to name their child is the one concession the show makes to their previous nonconformity. Really the only time that either of them get to escape to is when they’re trying to get Ivan the refugee over the border, with the one exception to this being their visit to Mr Pitt’s jazz club and here what we’re getting is a secondary character from the first series being shown to be much more interesting and active than either of the leads.

The second and just as important problem is that TBC doesn’t seem to have the courage of its convictions. Both TBA and TBT had an undercurrent of commentary, a point behind the quips and the absurdity. TBC thinks it might want to say something about refugees and the dispossessed but it can’t seem to come to any conclusions about what that might be and that entire plot fades away in favour of the domestic threat of the return of Jill’s husband. This is a similar ploy, some might say a retread, of the subplot with Trevor’s ex-fiancee Helen in TBA but here it is given too much priority — and effectively becomes the plot for a large part of the second half of the series. In TBC, Jill and Trevor have become lost in their own domestic dramas and become mere spectators to the wider, more political, forces outside their door. If they have not become necessarily apathetic, then they have certainly become a lot more passive and impotent than the Jill and Trevor of the earlier series. The end result is that the show has become has lost all sense of the sly subversion of the first series and it had become, a few lovely moments and great lines aside, it had ceased to grow as drama and become the inoffensive but pointless drama it sometimes superficially resembled. If nothing else, I feel certain that Gregor and my teenage self would have struggled to find anything of substance to say about it at all.