Written by John Finch
Directed by Tim Jones
Cast: Colin Douglas (Edwin Ashton), Shelagh Fraser (Jean Ashton), Lesley Nunnerley (Margaret Porter), Ian Thompson (John Porter), Keith Drinkel (Philip Ashton), Tenniel Evans (Norton), John Ronane (Parker), Trevor Bowen (Tony Briggs), Tony Calvin (Tommy Rust), Robert Garrett (Podmore), Carlos Douglas (Paco)
Synopsis: The Ashtons are horrified when Philip decides to put his studies in Oxford on hold so he can return to fighting fascism in Spain’s civil war. He rejoins his brigade in the Pyrenees and while there learns a bitter lesson in how human nature can often fall short of noble idealism. Wars are fought not by sides and philosophies but by people; fallible individuals. He returns home with a wounded leg and a terrible realisation of what a war across Europe might really mean for the people of the countries involved.
Review: It seems extraordinarily counter-intuitive, having introduced the characters and situations so successfully in the opening episode, to abandon them immediately and shift the action to the Spanish Pyrenees in Winter, with Philip the only character we know. How audiences in 1970 must have felt is hard to imagine now but it displays an admirable confidence from John Finch, Richard Doubleday and Granada that they went ahead and did it anyway. As a breakaway episode of A Family At War it feels as though it has come along far too early in the run. As a standalone morality play about the difficulties facing British anti-fascists fighting in the Spanish Civil War, it’s an admirable success. Yet it’s not a standalone play. With the modern advantage of knowing that the series ran for three years, however, and that baffled audiences didn’t desert it in their hundreds of thousands, it fits surprisingly well into the run after all.
The class divisions among the volunteering Britons echoes what we’ll see a lot more of once Britain goes to war with The Third Reich. The ethical questions and arguments that will define the series’ scenes of battle and manoeuvre begin here. It paints a bluntly pessimistic view of human nature in extremis but emphasises the unsaintly goodness of individuals – something that will become a hallmark of a series determined to eschew the mildly jingoistic jollity which has plagued so many subsequent WWII dramas.
The scenes inside the Ashton home are few in number and short in duration but they keep reminding us that we’re watching A Family At War. And they’re utterly compelling, even if the ever-increasing number of people awake in the Ashton household on the night Philip decides to leave threatens to reach comic proportions. A later scene in which Edwin and Margaret are reconciled (after she blames him for ‘allowing’ Philip to leave) is breathtaking in its tender truthfulness. It’s a shame that their ‘tiff’ has been slightly nonexistent to the viewer, though: the intervening scenes have all been set in Spain.
It was quite a rare ability in series television then (and rarer now) for one writer to produce equally good dialogue for both women and men. John Finch’s skill in this respect is very noticeable here and Margaret is a curious but wholly believable character. She’s full of book learning as well as natural intelligence yet she’s still stubbornly determined to deny the possibility of war, both to herself and to anyone else who happens to be nearby. That she’d rather go to bed without a book than read about the miners’ struggle is telling. It makes her seem insensitive at times but this is a consequence of the somewhat reserved manner she’s inherited from her mother. The truth is that she has her father’s sensitivity and empathy too, and this is demonstrated perfectly in a scene towards the episode’s end.
Jean expresses surprise that Margaret is undoing alterations she recently made to John’s Territorial Army uniform. When Margaret explains that this is to spare the feelings of John’s mother Celia, Jean seems genuinely baffled. For all her own perceptiveness she is almost incapable of empathy; of imagining how other people might feel or experience the world. In this respect she is similar to David and Freda but as different from Margaret and Philip as can be.
It’s noticeable across the whole series that Jean is given a great deal less to say than her husband or her brother but this isn’t chauvinism or sexism on the part of the writers. This quietness is a part of her character and Shelagh Fraser never just ‘stands quietly’ when playing her. She uses her eyes, her posture and the tiniest gestures in a physically expressive performance that’s quite extraordinary. It’s one of many aspects of performances from the regular cast which make me suspect that John Finch must have been present at many of the rehearsals. The truth in these performances continues to be astonishing almost half a century after the episodes were made.
Original Tx 21st April 1970