Some American TV viewers look to British TV as a creative bastion, constantly breaking new ground and willing to take bold, imaginative risks. Laboring under tighter financial and technical constraints, British studios have managed to put out some truly remarkable stuff with the sort of Backyard Boffin mentality that typifies understated British genius.
Occasionally, as with Monty Python, the experiment meets stellar success. Other times, well, not so. The Beiderbecke Connection, the last installment of an eponymous trilogy, falls somewhere in between: at times brilliant, consistently witty and improbably crazy in equal measure, and yet falling short of what can truly be called “good TV”, Beiderbecke frustrates and delights in wandering fits.
The premise is, admittedly, brilliant. Screenwriter Alan Plater is one of television’s (on both sides of the Atlantic) more enigmatic geniuses having written himself a successful career with Selwyn Froggitt and, to amazing success, A Very British Coup. His fascination with the English spirit, especially of that of Yorkshire and the Northeast – to which he is a loyal son – has brought some of the most compelling and realistic characters to British screens.
Drawing inspiration from the hardboiled thrillers of his youth, Beiderbecke draws the elements of ’30s and ’40s noir into the mundane streets of suburban Yorkshire, introducing international intrigue into an unlikely setting. In what he called “non-violent thriller”, Plater’s scripts brought strong depictions of Northeastern characters into fantastic situations. Such a juxtaposition has brought a television rarity to English audiences: an exotic portrayal of none-too-glamorous Yorkshire. Pair with a jazz soundtrack inspired by American legend Bix Beiderbecke? Insanity.
All three Beiderbecke films center on the unlikely adventures of schoolteachers Trevor Chaplin and Jill Swinburne, played with able courage and capacity by James Bolam and Barbara Flynn respectively. Jumping into the third and final installment of the trilogy, I probably missed out on some of the nuance and subtlety that comes with recognition and character identification. Nonetheless, the breezy dialogue and quick wit allowed a novice like me to feel welcome in their modest suburban splitlevel.
Spurred on, one cannot help but be charmed by their eccentricities – motivated in part by their strident political views, but also, one suspects, their previously chronicled hi-jinks. Naming their son “Firstborn” in lieu of a “democratic compromise” is one example of how an opaque and seemingly cruel joke can later get broken down by their on-screen charisma. Their foibles urge you to keep watching; the quick exchanges between the couple slide under your skin, leaving you happily helpless before their candor.
The Biederbecke Connection sees our pair of educators take in a vaguely Eastern European-accented refugee named Ivan at the instigation of Yorkshire wheeler-and-dealers Big Al (Terence Rigby) and Little Norm (Danny Schiller). Living in unmarried bliss, the intrusion of Ivan marks the first fork in the road when the lives of these ordinary folk take a turn for the surreal. Adventures ensue in a complex, interlocking way, full of subtle jibes at society, bringing in, so I’m told, allusions to the previous Beiderbecke installments, wrapped up in a thoroughly agreeable package. Plater’s wry humor, his introduction of whimsy into, of all places, Yorkshire, makes this a very good, very unmistakable Yorkshire romp.
Viewers unfamiliar with Plater’s writing style and the vagaries of late ’80s English society might find the whole experience unfortunately dull. He has written a very specific piece of television peculiar, in fact, to late-Thatcher Britain, and perhaps very specifically, late-Thatcher Northeast England. This is not a typical crime thriller or comedy. The pacing is kept nearly deliberately slow – very little tends to happen and when it does, it is neither spectacular or dramatic. In many ways, despite its obvious appeal as esoterica outside the UK, Beiderbecke can and will almost always lose something in translation when it travels. While the narrative is strong and the writing and dialogue generally top-notch, the experience still feels a little alien.
The very specific humor causes an untrained viewer to drift, and the references and spoofing of particular Englishisms can confuse. Equally though, these instances could just wash over an audience and I would be highly skeptical if a contemporary English audience would find it as watchable today. Still, some scenes will consistently resonate with any audience – witness the red telephone box in a Leeds suburb, a gray sky looming over a depressed city.
The Beiderbecke Connection and the trilogy as a whole captured a unique time in British and English history. This was the post-Falklands Thatcher era, of strikes, factory closures, and race riots, before the dull methodical John Major and the resurrection of Cool Britannia. It was a period of unusual change in British society with dissolving social boundaries and a tenuous embrace of new trends and technologies (for extra nostalgia points, watch the likable police dismiss a video tape as not embracing the spirit of Sir Robert Peel).
Amidst the preternaturally gray skies of Yorkshire, dramatic tragedy could be found. That Plater managed to weave a complex and garrulous tale of adventure and mischief in a Leeds suburb is a testament to him as a great writer. That the cast and director managed to create comedy of unusual gentleness is testament to their brilliant interplay.
Unfortunately, the greatest tragedy is the acknowledgment that such television programming will probably never be seen again. Yorkshire Television, that produced and aired it, was subsequently folded into ITV and the state of British television since the early’ 90s has gradually been forced to ply a middle road of populism – not an objectively bad thing in itself. Alas, Beiderbecke remains culturally relevant for being not only a fine portrayal of England’s rugged Yorkshire, but also as magnificently produced regional television drama made for an appreciative regional audience.