The Spongers

Tony Garnett is perhaps one of Britain’s most prolific and respected producers that has worked in British television.  In the 1960s he produced ground-breaking Wednesday Plays such as Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home, as well as producing one of Ken Loach’s best known films, Kes.  In the 1990s and 2000s, after a brief stint in Hollywood, he returned to Britain as a reinvented producer and executive producer of popular series such as This LifeCardiac Arrest and The Cops. Given the fervently political and social nature of his work, it’s fair to say that Garnett has produced some of the most influential and important British television drama and film, and his lesser known work is about to be celebrated in a two month season at London’s BFI: Tony Garnett: Seeing Red.

One of Garnett’s TV plays showing as part of this season is The Spongers, written by Jim Allen. Broadcast in the late 1970s, it is the most single important drama I have ever seen.  It was introduced to me and 60 other students during a lecture about British TV drama when I attended Salford University a few years ago.  It’s an overwhelming piece of polemic about the disintegration of a family, beautifully acted by an ensemble whose improvised stutters and interruptions give it a raw documentary-feel that might be overused today, but is totally convincing here.  The essay we had to write about asked us to look at the formal strategies used by the makers of The Spongers to create the illusion of reality on screen.

By chance, I came across Garnett’s website whilst doing some research for my essay.  Through his website, I was able to email him asking if he could shed some light on what these ‘formal strategies’ were.  The following day I got a reply that said he’d be more than happy to help, and he gave me his phone number so we could ‘have a little chat.’  I was overcome with a mixture of excitement and dread.  I received a postcard off Jimmy McGovern once where he said he had an opportunity to meet his hero, Jim Allen.  ‘I had the chance to meet Jim Allen once’ he said, ‘but I didn’t go through with it because I was frightened he might not like me. I regret it now.’  Not only was I frightened that Garnett might not like me, I was also frightened I’d embarrass myself by asking the wrong things.  But if I didn’t phone him, I knew I’d regret it.  Just like Jimmy McGovern regrets not meeting Jim Allen.

The conversation got off to a slow start.  Meeting strangers for the first time is always awkward, especially on the telephone where they seem even more anonymous.  I asked him where the idea of The Spongers came from.  ‘In the news, in about 1977, there was a withdrawal of mentally-handicapped children from a home in Salford.  I spoke to Jim about it and we decided to look into the relationship between the care system and local government, against the backdrop of the Silver Jubilee.’

I piped up, ‘the Jubilee setting feels quite topical and relevant.’

‘In what way?’

I felt like I pricked his kindly, charming temperament. ‘W-well’ I stuttered, ‘the Diamond Jubilee’s coming up, and I can recognise characters like Pauline on the estate where I live.  The play is a very honest portrayal of life.’

‘Yeah, I suppose it is topical in that sense.’

Jim Allen was born in East Manchester, where I grew up and currently live.  It’s easy to see why Jimmy McGovern and Christopher Eccleston are fanatical over the likes of Allen.  Eccleston once said that Allen ‘wrote beautifully about real people’s lives.’  Ken Loach, in Allen’s obituary, wrote ‘at its best, Jim Allen’s writing had a visceral power unmatched by his contemporaries.  He caught the rhythms, the vivid use of imagery, the jokes and phrasing of everyday speech.  He could turn a political argument into a full-blooded passionate struggle.  He had a great sense of humour and would write scenes of visual power and wit.’

Allen had previously worked with Loach and Garnett on a number of TV plays, as well as the four-part BBC series Days of Hope.  It was Loach’s first historical drama, charting the early history of the Labour movement.

Christine Hargreaves

Christine Hargreaves as Pauline, The Spongers, BBC Play for Today, 1978.

But for The Spongers, Garnett had someone else in mind to direct it.  Roland Joffé was already an experienced theatre director, and he directed a few episodes of Coronation Street.  This was to be his first feature-length project.  ‘I gave him a very good, very experienced director of photography, and a very good, very experienced editor.  Whenever you work with a new director, you must surround them with very experienced people.  I was very pleased with Roland, I threw him in the deep end and he swam.’

As for his efforts to achieve authenticity, Garnett found this in his approach to casting.  ‘I spent months and months on casting. You’ve got to get that absolutely right. If you want to be lazy nowadays, you get your actors off Spotlight.  What I did, and I would recommend this to anyone, is to go out there and find your actors.  I must have spent… two or three months on casting.’  The decision to cast Northern actors to play Northern roles was deliberate.  ‘It had veracity but also had its logical implications.’  Garnett drew on his past experience as an actor before he became a story editor on The Wednesday Play.  ‘How can you get a Southern Tory actor to play a Northerner who spends his life down the pits? Or a Southern actress to play a shop girl?’

Once cast, it was strongly suggested that actors research their roles.  ‘With actors like Bernard [Atha, who plays Councillor Conway], casting him as the councillor when he is, in fact, a real councillor in Leeds, seemed very logical to me. His job as councillor comes as second nature to him, so he wasn’t particularly bogged down with his character’s actions,’ which allowed him to give a very natural, realistic performance.  Christine Hargreaves, who plays Pauline, spent some time living with her on-screen children to develop a bond that ‘would appear second-nature’ on screen. ‘Christine was brilliant; a lovely, very honest woman. She was great with the kids. She would go out into the community where we filmed, making herself known to the locals, and integrate as much as possible.’

Improvisation played an important part in casting, and in the final takes of scenes in the play. Garnett would encourage actors to improvise more and more during each take of the scene.  He felt that actors would often hide behind their scripts, and their deliverance would often be too constructed.  ‘I wanted to expose the actors instead. I wanted them to feel in the moment of the scene and to give realistic beats and responses.’   Such improvisation was often disapproved of by the play’s author.

‘Jim felt very insecure about improvisation.  I would often have to take him on long walks on location to calm him down, as actors weren’t saying his lines word-for-word. He didn’t understand the filming process very much, so he found it very difficult.’  This viewpoint was also expressed by Allen in a letter he wrote to Jimmy McGovern in the late 1980s.

McGovern had written to Allen, requesting he appear on a proposed Channel 4 documentary about working class writers.  Sadly, the programme was never made.  Nevertheless, Allen replied with a brief outline of how he works as a writer:  ‘Just for the record, it isn’t true that I only write down ideas then allow actors to ad lib.  It’s the director who – with my consent – lets actors improvise. Some like Roland Joffé with The Spongers and United Kingdom perhaps go a bit to [sic] far, but Ken Loach, with whom I’ve made six films, first allows the actor to speak the lines – and then ad lib. But every line, every cough and every spit is written down first – I’m not making a song and dance about this, Jimmy, but it’s as well to get it right.’

For Christopher Eccleston, speaking to The Guardian’s Vicky Frost in 2011, everything in his career is ‘about the writing.’  He said, ‘The Spongers is beautifully directed by Roland Joffé and excellently acted, but none of that could have happened without Allen.  Watching his stuff led me to have strong relationships with writers; it made me realise the importance of the writing.’

For Tony Garnett, the medium of television and film is an important way to challenge the way we think about our lives.  But in an industry where the producer is effectively a production manager, how can this be achieved creatively?  ‘I would hope the senior managers of the BBC reconsider, quietly redress the balance,’ he said to the Guardian’s Maggie Brown.  ‘I think TV should be a bloody great circus with lots and lots of acts.  The difficult task, the only one worth trying, is how to do serious work and make it available to the maximum number of people.’  However, Maggie Brown makes a very interesting point: ‘Garnett notes that US subscription-funded television, particularly HBO, has produced some very high quality drama, thanks to the combination of a lack of pressure to achieve high ratings and creative freedom, and the resulting ability to attract top acting talent. So it’s no accident, he points out, that in the UK single plays now appear on Sky…’

Thanks to Tony’s help, I got a very good mark for my essay.  When I got my result, I sent him a short email to say thanks, and to say that Jim’s scripts are a huge influence for me, as someone who wishes to be a scriptwriter.  It’s just a shame that I was introduced to Jim’s work through a university degree rather than off the telly today.

Tony sent a very inspirational reply:

‘Jim had his problems as well as his virtues as a writer, but he had two great strengths; he only wrote what he knew about, and his politics gave him an edge in understanding the forces at work underneath the obvious surface.  He also preserved his integrity and never sold out.   Keep to those standards and you will do very well.’

The Spongers was showing as part of the Tony Garnett: Seeing Red season at London’s BFI.  For more information, please visit their website.

Jacob Mason, April 2013.