Written by John Finch
Directed by June Howson
Cast: Colin Douglas (Edwin Ashton), Shelagh Fraser (Jean Ashton), Colin Campbell (David Ashton), Coral Atkins (Sheila Ashton), Lesley Nunnerley (Margaret Ashton ), Ian Thompson (John Porter), Keith Drinkel (Philip Ashton), Barbara Flynn (Freda Ashton), John McKelvey (Sefton Briggs), Trevor Bowen (Tony Briggs),
Liverpool, May 1938.
Synopsis: Schoolteacher Margaret Ashton is planning a surprise anniversary party for her parents Edwin and Jean. Younger sister Freda is helping, along with her older brothers. Philip is an Oxford student, while casual dock worker David arrives only once his wife Sheila has done their share of the work. Margaret has banned Philip from talking about politics or the possibility of war with Germany. Also present is Jean’s nephew Tony Briggs, representing his father Sefton. This spares everyone some longstanding awkwardness because Sefton, a printing magnate, has also been Edwin’s employer for thirty years. By accident rather than design Margaret introduces John Porter, a significant friend (her first?) to the whole family. David and Sheila walk back to their own lodgings where sexual tensions in their relationship soon become apparent. In fact David storms out and spends the night at his parents’ house. The death of printworks manager Reg Clark prompts Edwin to hope he might be in line for promotion. Jean goes behind Edwin’s back and asks Sefton to give David a steady job. In fact Sefton gives the manager’s job to Tony, and Edwin tells David there’ll be no job for him at the printworks. He can’t bear the thought of his eldest son tugging his forelock to Sefton as he has had to for so long. David has already given in his notice at the docks. In desperation he joins the RAF, much to Sheila’s dismay.
Review: The slightly alarming buzz term at the moment for this introduction to the story of the Ashton family is “a soft opening” but the domesticity on show as the series begins is craftily deceptive. Faultlines, tensions and sensitivities are immediately apparent and more are revealed as the episode progresses. In spite of the need to introduce all of the characters the subtlety of the writing is admirable. They are sketched in quickly but with wonderful detail.
Margaret is a shrewd politician as well as a determined peacemaker, a role that has seen her suppress her own life. Until now. Philip is the cautious and thoughtful intellectual. Freda lives for all the fun her older sister couldn’t have. David feels ashamed of his poverty, and inferior to the more ‘successful’ Philip. He’s notably self-pitying as a result. Sheila blames herself for their situation but David feels she blames him. It’s a poverty that’s shown very effectively in Michael Grimes’s set designs for David and Sheila’s threadbare home. They can’t afford contraception so Sheila won’t risk a frisk with David in a scene that seems startlingly frank and leaves us in no doubt about why they married so quickly, so young.
The personal and political contrasts between Edwin and Sefton are also set up quickly and with great deftness. Sefton is such an archetypal minor capitalist that he could easily become a caricature, yet the Johns McKelvey and Finch never quite allow this to happen. Sefton clearly feels that Jean married beneath her and he hasn’t always hidden the fact. Edwin is a Labour man of deeply held convictions but he’s no firebrand. There’s a strong sense that even when he was very young his political fervour was tempered by pragmatism and the need to provide a table as well as the food to go on it. He’s a thinker. What brought him and Jean together? At this early stage it is difficult to tell but they are clearly a strongly bonded couple, if not always a harmonious one. Edwin is more outwardly emotional and affectionate with the children than Jean is. She’s a quiet, watchful woman. Definitely Margaret’s mother!
Two powerful and realistic discussions take place at the printworks office. The first is between Edwin and Tony, who is not his father’s son where politics are concerned. Edwin makes his first allusion to having gone ‘cap in hand’ to Sefton for a job thirty years ago and the erosion his self worth has endured as a result. It’s a beautifully subtle performance by Colin Douglas, an actor in full and confident control of his character. And then there’s another great exchange with David, when Edwin vents his own frustrations on his son. Where the conversation with Tony was restrained and skilfully under-played by Douglas, here he finally allows Edwin’s emotions to erupt. “I’m not the man you thought I was am I son?” he snarls, the longstanding pain fully evident in his eyes and voice.
It’s a strong and immediately involving start to the series and a good indication of the high standards on offer, both in writing and in performance.
Original Tx: 14th April 1970