Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Radio Review: The Good Companions

Radio Review: The Good Companions

BBC Radio 4 Extra: The Good Companions

John Retallack's dramatisation of J B Priestley's classic story of a 1929 Concert Party tour charts new adventures for factory worker Jess Oakroyd and newly independent Miss Trant. Music composed by Neil Brand Musicians Neil Brand, Michael Hammond & Alex Hammond. Director: David Hunter.

Jess Oakroyd - Ralph Ineson
Miss Trant - Fenella Woolgar 
Jimmy Nunn - Roy Hudd 
Inigo Jollifant - Oliver Gomm 
Susie Dean - Isabella Inchbald 
Mr Ridvers - Gerard McDermott 
Mrs Joe - Ellie Darvill 
Monte Mortimer - Clive Hayward 
Leonard Oakroyd - Gary Duncan 
Mr Joe - Philip Bretherton 
Morton Mitcham - Tayla Kovacevic-Ebong 
Jerry Jerningham - Adam Fitzgerald 
Agent  - Rupert Holliday Evans 
Inspector  - David Reakes 
Box Office - Lady Katherine Weare 
Director David Hunter
Author JB Priestley
Adaptor John Retallack

The J.B. Priestley society gives this summary of the novel:

“It’s long and discursive narrative tells how a stranded concert party, the ‘Dinky Doos’, re-invents itself as ‘The Good Companions’ and eventually achieves success with the help of three itinerant travellers searching for a more fulfilling life : Elizabeth Trant, a personable, young-to-middle-aged spinster with some money to spare; Inigo Jollifant, a likeable young schoolmaster with a talent for writing catchy tunes, who has fled from his stifling, second-rate prep school; and Jess Oakroyd, a joiner from the West Riding of Yorkshire, whose unsympathetic wife and son have made his home life unbearable. Also featured in the story is one of the author’s most loveable characters, the soubrette Susie Dean, with whom Inigo falls in love.”

This is a superb adaptation of the J.B. Priestly play, which really captures the period extremely well. Of course, Roy Hudd is totally suited to the ever optimistic Jimmy Nunn, but all members of the cast bring the story to life.

I’m hoping to see the 1957 film version and the Alan Plater version some time. The 1957 movie suffered from being contrary to the zeitgeist of that time, namely the time of the “angry young men” and the so-called “kitchen sink drama”. This meant that it was out of fashion at the time, but fashions change, and it is the voice of the “angry young men” which seems very dated now, very much a reflection of the 1950s and 1960s.

Priestley’s play in this radio adaptation is set in a particular time and place, but it can also be seen as a metaphor for England coming together. As Gil Toffell observes:

"The travelling troupe of performers in The Good Companions is read as metaphor for a nation on the move. Thus as "Oakroyd" the factory worker from the industrial North, "Jollifant" the public-school teacher, and "Miss Trant" the rural landowner journey across Britain together, an analogy of contemporary socio-cultural movement and mixing. "

But for Priestley himself, this novel was also a kind of holiday from the war years, a story with a cosy fairy-tale atmosphere – despite the ups and downs of the Good Companions on your, they always remain optimistic, full of infectious high spirits, and there is a happy ending for every member of the troupe.

As he notes,” I understand now but was not even conscious of at the time. I had had the War, in which almost every man I had known and liked had been killed. Then, just as life was opening out, there came a period of anxiety, overwork, constant strain, ending tragically. Later, when that time was further away, I would be able to face it, not only in memory but in my work, where it can all be found in one place or another. But first I had to find some release, give myself a holiday of the spirit while writing this novel of 250,000 words”

Priestley comments that while other writers would mine experience and autobiography and find healing in a portrayal of the dark legacy of war, he by temperament was extravert, and he always felt it would have been false to himself do so. So instead, in contrast to the deaths of the war, and the darkness of the post war years, here is a taste of paradise, the opposite of that, a bubbling story that celebrates all that is good in people.

As he says:

“In The Good Companions I gave myself a holiday from anxiety and strain and tragic circumstance, shaping and colouring a long happy daydream. And because a lot of other people then must have felt in need of such a holiday, so long a daydream, the elephant suddenly turned into a balloon.”

It is easy to see why the 1957 movie sunk so rapidly, as it has an optimism which defies the working class angst of the early post-war decades, but sometimes optimism can shine a light and bring hope, where a more gritty working class realism, 1960s style, would not.

C.P. Snow recalls how the realist position in the Second World War was to see the situation around Dunkirk as desperate, and the least bad option was to negotiate some kind of peace settlement with Germany. Churchill, he notes, defied realism, and in his speeches called forth heroism and hope.

The Good Companions does something very similar, in an age when the Great Depression was spreading across the land, the big bad wolf of economic collapse coming nearer. Just as Disney’s most popular short was the “Three Little Pigs” with its song of defiance, “Whose afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”, Priestley gives us a nomadic band of travellers, bound together in a common cause against adversity, who delight in being able to bring hope and laughter and music to others.

And as Charles Barr noted, the characters are taken "to their bewilderment, from their everyday lives into a new space where they are forced to interact, in a sort of workshop for constructing a good society".


British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years, Gil Toffell, Gil, The Space Between. Volume: 9. Issue: 1, 2013

Margin Released, JB Priestley

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