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A Photograph

****
1977

‘…genuinely takes the viewer by surprise…’

Expect the unexpected would be a good maxim for the best of the BBC’s fabled Play for Today offerings; this effort, from playwright John Bowen and director John Glenister, is a twisty-turny story that ends in quite a different idiom from the opening. It’s always a challenge to review a narrative which genuinely takes the viewer by surprise, but that’s what a great one-off drama can do. A Photograph’s sleight of hand leads to more than a couple of refreshing, revitalising moments, reaching the kind of places that other dramas can only dream of.

BBC tv drama loved to see a middle-aged man in crisis, and John Stride made a career of troubled middle-management figures, this particular one goes by the name Michael Otway. He’s matched here by Stephanie Turner, best known for playing the first female incarnation of top cop Juliet Bravo, and a master of the baleful stare as his frowsy wife Gillian. The couple are in bed one morning when a photograph arrives in the post, of two girls sitting outside a caravan. Michael dismisses it, but Gillian fixates on the picture, even blowing it up and hanging it above their bed. In order to prove her wrong, Michael embarks on a search of the area for the actual caravan, but is there some truth in her accusation, or does her obsession reflect on her own personal mental health issues?

What’s wrong with this picture? A Photograph starts with a lengthy set of Pinter-esque domestic arguments; ‘I married you because you were pregnant, and then you lost the child!’ Michael bellows at point blank range, and we’re not even ten minutes in. But then the mood slips; could Gillian have sent the photograph herself to uncover her husband’s secrets? And are these actually two girls in the picture? Questions pile up, and a brief, throwaway scene of an old woman and a young man muttering in a caravan begins to assume a different meaning; there’s a sadistic game going on that’s not revealed until the final, breathless seconds of the conclusion.

This is a great little British drama with an utterly chilling conclusion that you simply cannot imagine from the start. There’s a dash of on-the-nose pretention through Michael’s job, broadcasting his thoughts on BBC radio about HG Wells’ The Time Machine and philosophising about the Morlocks who prey on the unwary. But there’s also deft word-play, like Michael mentioning that his ex-girlfriend was ‘in sewage’; with a high re-watch value, this is a great place to start if you want to persuade a friend that these old, dated but super-original plays can still outsmart most of today’s televisual feasts.

The BFI have released A Photograph as part of the Play for Today Vol 1 4-disc Blu-ray box set in November 2020 as part of the Play for Today at 50 celebrations.

Thanks to the BFI for advance access to these titles.

https://www.bfi.org.uk/play-today-50

 

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  1. Well….I’m quite intrigued by this one to be honest. I like things that you can’t imagine from the start! (As in unpredictability!) So this really sounds good! 😊 That, combined with your enthusiasm has me adding this one to the list, despite it probably being something that I would have trouble with finding it here 😊

    • This does have a great twist which I didn’t see coming, and like you, I love to be wrong-footed. Not all Plays for Today had this kind of maind-blowing effect, so if you ever get a chance, this one is the place to start!

  2. wow, for a man to say that to his wife, that seems to be about the lowest blow possible. Even if he hated her I’d think he’d hold back on that.

    It always makes me sad when marriage is portrayed as something bad. I know that a lot of people have, and do, experience bad marriages, but it isn’t supposed to be that way.

    • And that line is only ten minutes in, things get much worse very quickly. But by the time you get to the end of this one, bad marriages are the least of the problems involved….I’m sure your wife sings the praises of marriage to someone like you! She’s a lucky gal!

      • Actually, she does 😀 Her coworkers are jealous.. But in my defense, she’s pretty good about putting up with me and dealing with my moodiness.

        I do have to admit, this doesn’t sound like a movie I could handle. How do you do it? Without shredding your psyche?

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