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Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance (Granada for ITV, 1961)

If the promotional material on the inside of the Network DVD of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is a guide, the recent release of this play first broadcast on 24 October 1961 can be explained by the central performance by Patrick McGoohan. McGoohan, of course, is the star of both Danger Man (1960-67) and The Prisoner (1967-68), the latter an immensely popular fantasy series and one of Network’s mainstays.

Before these series, however, McGoohan was an admired theatre and television actor, whose small-screen appearances included Ibsen’s Brand (BBC, 1959; thoughtfully discussed by Billy Smart in a blog post here). And he is compelling as the driven and dangerous ‘Black Jack Musgrave’ in John Arden’s drama, which the critic Michael Billington hails as the playwright’s ‘undoubted masterpiece’ (State of the Nation, London: Faber and Faber, 2007, p. 115).

The play was first presented by the English Stage Company at London’s Royal Court Theatre in the autumn of 1959, and one of the more surprising aspects of Granada’s adaptation two years later is that it was made at all. Billington records that the original production

… emptied the Royal Court like a dose of salts, and infuriated critics […] in spite of Lindsay’s Anderson’s brilliant production and Ian Bannen’s demonic performance as Musgrave, the play achieved only twenty-one per cent sales at the Court box office. (State of the Nation, pp. 116, 117)

For Granada, director Stuart Burge took over responsibilities from Lindsay Anderson, but several of the cast came across from the English Stage Company production. Dónal Donnelly (as Private Sparky), Freda Jackson (Mrs Hitchcock), Michael Hunt (Constable) and Jack Smethurst (in the part known as ‘Slow Collier’) all reprised their roles on screen. Critical attitudes to the play also changed rapidly, so that in early 1962 Ian Rodger could write in The Listener that Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance was one of ‘the two most important plays of the nineteen-fifties’ (the other, inevitably, was John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger) (‘Two Milestones’, 15 March 1962, p. 487).

By the time of the Granada production of Musgrave, John Arden had written two original plays for BBC television. Wet Fish: A Professional Reminiscence for Television (broadcast on 3 September 1961) was a comedy of the building trade which was received with little enthusiasm, while the earlier Soldier, Soldier (16 February 1960) was recognised as closely linked to Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance. As Irving Wardle wrote in The Listener:

The affinity, indeed, is so close that one can scarcely discuss Soldier, Soldier as a  self-sufficient piece: it is more a comic counterpart to its grimly claustrophobic predecessor.

Both plays concern the arrival of soldiers in northern colliery towns and make a calculated opposition between harshly virile military qualities and the dull-witted spiritlessness of civilians; the plots of both turn on the device of a local boy who joined the Army and never came home; above all, both inhabit a dark, enclosed world which – despite all talk of Buchner and the German expressionists – is John Arden’s own. (‘Jungle of Arden’, 25 February 1960, p. 362)

Granada’s television production

Stuart Burge’s 78-minute studio production for Granada of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is such a radical adaptation – undertaken by the playwright himself — as to almost constitute a new play. All of the action now takes place in the centre of an anonymous northern town torn apart by a bitter dispute at the colliery. The opening and closing scenes, on a canal wharf and in a prison cell respectively, are folded back into a single studio setting (designed by William Brodie) that effectively encompasses the barroom, a bedroom, the stables and outhouse of an inn, streets and a cemetery, and – for the climactic scene – the town square.

Both the first and second acts are substantially cut and re-ordered, whilst the third, although slimmed down, retains its shape and structure. The anonymous critic for The Times approved of the changes

making the plot development clearer and pruning the slow and careful scene-setting which to some tastes kept the theatre audience too much in the dark for too long about the play’s real subject. (‘Clearer Serjeant Musgrave’, 25 October 1961, p. 13)

The play begins with a shot of a large box being carefully carried through an archway past McGoohan’s tetchy Musgrave. Much of the stage play’s early if oblique exposition is cut, although Musgrave does have words with the Bargee, a somewhat mysterious figure whose part on the screen is pared back from the original. Gone too from the opening of the drama are the first of the fragments of song that punctuate the text and which, according to John Arden ‘should be sung to folk-song airs. There are many available tunes which equally well suit the various songs.’ (Introduction’, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, London: Methuen, 1960, p. 5).

The loss of one of the early songs means that the line ‘The Empire wars are far away’ is omitted from the television version. Other specific references to the colonial context from which the soldiers have come are also lost throughout the drama. Although this shift was almost certainly brought about by the need to focus on the central narrative of the drama, it does have the effect of playing down the broader political context.

In the next scene, the barmaid Annie performs one of the play’s key songs, which is about what a soldier is good for:

From the war and to the war
And every girl can be my whore […]
Because we know he’ll soon be dead
We strap our arms round the scarlet red
Then send him weeping over the sea.

The ellipsis marks the loss from stage to screen of two key lines that may well have been removed to protect the assumed sensitivities of the television audience, just as the occasional use of ‘bloody’ is elsewhere stripped out of the text:

Just watch me lay them squealing down
And that’s what he does and so do we.

Annie speaks rather than sings her song, with the result that the words are drawn back towards the naturalism of parts of the remainder of the text. Yet the heightened quality of certain speeches, most especially Musgrave’s prayers and his related rhetoric, distinguishes this from the norms of television drama. Arden’s poetic wordplay, which draws throughout on dialect rhythms and the demotic of the barrack-room, remains very striking.

The regional voices ensure that the play sounds quite distinct from cut-glass accents that remained the small-screen norm at this point. (Compare the accents here to those on display in Jack Gerson’s Three-Ring Circus, a BBC drama originally broadcast on 2 February 1961 and screened recently at BFI Southbank.) Granada had started its northern soap opera Coronation Street in December 1960 and since 1958 it had also broadcast twelve ‘Manchester’ plays associated with Annie Horniman’s Gaiety Theatre (see my earlier blog here). The raw language of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance can be assumed to have been one of the aspects of the play that attracted a company so concerned with reinforcing its regional identity as ‘From the North’.

Changes from stage to screen

The audience for the television drama are quickly made aware that Musgrave and his three companions have not come to the town for the professed purpose of recruitment. This begins to emerge in the scene set in the cemetery, at the close of which Musgrave’s fervent prayer ends Act One and the first of the television version’s three parts. On the screen Musgrave is alone here, while the stage directions indicate that the Bargee should also be present – although unseen by the Serjeant – and that he is parodying Musgrave’s actions. Simplifying the action in this way to an extent plays down the ambiguity and complexity of the central character and the drama’s attitude towards him.

Visually, the cemetery scene is particularly impressive, with the dark grey coats of the soldiers set off against the studio snow that continues to fall. ‘As a highly visual writer,’ Michael Billington notes, ‘Arden was attracted by the picture of military redcoats seen against a cold, grey, wintry background.’ (State of the Nation, p. 116) Television in 1961 was six years away from being able to replicate the colours, but the austere, high contrast images have a beauty of their own. And throughout the broadcast, director Stuart Burge marshalls the crowds and the cameras with great skill.

The second part of the television version takes in all of the play’s Act Two, set first in the barroom as Musgrave plies the colliers with drink and then in the stable out back. Here Annie comes to offer herself to each of the three soldiers in turn. Musgrave by this point is sleeping in the house – and on stage the audience sees both billets in parallel settings. The conjunction of Musgrave’s nightmare with the accidental killing of Private Sparky plays out on screen through intercutting of the two spaces, and crucial links between the two are minimised.

Part Three on television retains almost all of the action and much of the dialogue of Act Three in the stage text. Musgrave has gathered the townspeople and he harangues them as reveals the weapons – and thus the power – possessed by the soldiers. He has come to revenge the death of a young soldier in a town far away, which led to the killing by his men of five innocent people in an action to try to take the first murderers. Now a crazed numerical logic has led him to the plan that he must bring the war back with him and kill twenty-five of the townspeople in an attempt to stop such atrocities. ‘We’ve fetched the madness home,’ Musgrave says. ‘We’ve brought the madness to England, but we’ve brought the cure too.’

This famous scene is backed by the hoisting of the skeleton, still clothed in his uniform, of the young soldier who died – and who was from this town, one of Annie’s lovers and the father of her now-dead malformed child. On stage it gains part (much?) of its power from the threat of the Gatling gun revealed by the soldiers, which is trained on both the people in the square and on the audience in the auditorium. Just as Shakespeare does in the Forum scene in Julius Caesar, Arden unites the crowd on stage with the spectators of the play – and both are compelled to hear out Musgrave. This is a theatrical effect that is impossible to replicate for television

As the skeleton is raised, Musgrave – so the stage directions have it – ‘begins to dance, waving his rifle, his face contorted with demoniac fury’. On screen Patrick McGoohan’s Musgrave speaks the words of the song, backed by an insistent drumbeat. He lurches across the improvised ‘stage’ on which the soldiers are standing and flings himself into the crowd. But television downplays the ‘dancing’, restricting it to a moment or two (see the first image) as Musgrave rises after falling to the floor.

The complex action that precedes the deus ex machina arrival of a troop of dragoons to rescue townsfolk (and audience) is also simplified, and eventually Private Attercliffe – who emerges as the voice of reason, and of pacifism – puts himself in front of the gun’s barrel to prevent Musgrave shooting. ‘Nobody ever cured the pox by going on whoring’, Attercliffe proclaims, and this is unquestionably one strand of what Arden is concerned to express.

Musgrave is arrested and hand-cuffed to a cart. Annie cradles the skeleton and it is the townsfolk who now dance to the nonsensical tune of ‘Michael Finnegan’. Mrs Hitchcock offers Musgrave a drink before he is taken away, and she too – it would seem – speaks for the playwright:

Those men are hungry, so they’ve got no time for you. One day they’ll be full, and then they’ll remember – let’s hope so anyway.’

Political theatre – and political television?

While recognising that Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance came from multiple sources, Michael Billington writes that John Arden was prompted to compose the play by

a particularly horrifying incident in Cyprus […] A British soldier’s wife had been shot by terrorists in Famagusta [in Cyprus] in October 1958. In retaliation some of the military went wild and five innocent people, including a little girl, were shot in the resultant round-up. (State of the Nation, p. 116)

The play was driven by a political response to this, but Arden was keen from the start to stress the ambivalence of the play’s attitude towards Musgrave:

I think that many of us must at some time have felt an overpowering urge to match some particularly outrageous piece of violence with an ever greater and more outrageous retaliation. Musgrave tries to do this: and the fact that the sympathies of the play are clearly with him in his original horror, and then turn against him and his intended remedy, seems to have bewildered people. (Introduction, p. 7)

For David Ian Rabey in his book English Drama since 1940 it is this understanding that makes the play so significant:

If the play’s story demonstrates the inefficacy of ending war by its own rules, it also offers a disturbing glimpse of the irrational drive to do so […] Musgrave represents and remains (distinctly and unusually) English theatre at its most profoundly radical: it cuts all ways, and through physical, linguistic and spatial poetry, rather than by striving to privilege a single argument in the standard patterns of identification and acceptance. (London: Pearson Education, 2003, pp. 65-66)

Elements of this radical quality and of the refusal of ‘ the standard patterns of identification and acceptance’ unquestionably remain in the impressive Granada production, even if key aspects, including the poetic language and the background of Empire, are minimised. But as so often, at a distance of fifty years, it is impossible to understand how a television audience might have understood the drama then. Certainly the short review in The Times (which is the only critical response to the television production that I have so far been able to find) fails to engage in any way with the politics of the play, and it concentrates instead on McGoohan’s contribution – and expresses a view with which we can most certainly agree today:

Mr Patrick McGoohan gave perhaps his best performance yet – certainly his best on television – in the terribly difficult part of Musgrave […] not only was his nightmare vision of massacre properly chilling, but his (somewhat shortened) climactic “dance” came off without ever once verging on the ridiculous. (‘Clearer Serjeant Musgrave’, The Times, 25 October 1961, p. 13)


2 thoughts on “Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance (Granada for ITV, 1961)

  1. On 25 November the Royal Court presented a staged reading of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance to honour the memory of the late John Arden. Michael Billington wrote a typically fine piece about the occasion for the Guardian

    Posted by John Wyver | 26 November 2012, 10:04 pm
  2. Alas, far too little television drama of such quality today. Perhaps not so much ‘courage’ either, in respect of the general rather tame output.

    Posted by Toni | 13 June 2013, 2:38 pm

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