Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Sadly, it's too late to take an axe to the Billy trilogy

Do you remember the 1980s? Well, if you do, you probably remember the Billy Plays too, Graham Reid's hugely impressive representation of Protestant working class life on the BBC, in the Play for Today slot.

But if you saw the first of those plays repeated last night, you might be wondering why so much of a fuss was made about it.

It may have been shocking and novel to see domestic violence in familiar streets on national TV, surprising enough to distract us from the great flaws in the play.

Viewed from a distance the play just seems clunky and inadequate. It can surely have contributed little to anyone's understanding of Belfast life at the time.

Last night's broadcasting of the first of theBilly plays exposed the weaknesses of a drama reputed to have been a breakthrough in the representation of a loyalist community during the Troubles.

Too Late To Talk To Billy turns out to have been a play governed by the fashions of thought dated at the time with little surviving value. If this was the best dramatic insight available to us in the 1980s of the character of working class people and their lives then it shows what little grasp was available to us at the time of the concerns that governed those communities.

Of course, the script may be better than its outworking.

The play itself doesn't know if it is harsh realism or trite comedy and wavers between the two.

The first Billy play, repeated last night after 30 years, would not have been made today as an intelligible account of life in Belfast.

We surely know now that the 1980s were not like this, that people were not so callow and ridiculous. We should have known that the UDA was not Dad's Army.

The play is too loaded with outmoded values that should never have been taken seriously.

The core problem, suggested in the title, is the withdrawn and surly young man, Billy, whose father is a hardman alcoholic and whose mother is dying of cancer.

Billy has every right to be disgusted by his dad. We are expected to find the thug ultimately endearing. That suggestion amounts to abuse of audience.

That he can bully his daughter into ironing his shirts and polishing his shoes and still be expected to survive in viewers' hearts as a fundamentally decent man tells you this play precedes many current notions about civilisation. One being that women are fully human.

Another is that violence in the home always discredits primarily the person who resorts to it.

I was backing Billy all the way, though I couldn't believe that Branagh (below), playing the part, got that neat haircut in Belfast.

Branagh, like most of the actors, was too old for the role, although one of the children was too young.

And what under heaven was going through Billy's mind when, after deflowering his girlfriend on her living room floor, he found himself unable to look at her? That reaction today would have to be regarded as pathological; apparently in the '80s it was just common post-coital sultriness.

But even then this must have been a bad play, given that the characters were caricatures and that comic lines were leaking into serious dialogue.

Still, it was fascinating to open a window on our past, if not to see what life was really like back then, at least to see how ham-fisted was the grasp of BBC drama on a world a few streets from Broadcasting House.

Aside from old cars, grim terraces and the clothes - Billy wearing a motorbiking jacket but not having a motorbike - the real clunkiness was in the basic principles that these characters were assumed to lived by: chiefly the notion that a son who can't speak to a father who resorts to kicking him round the living room, is the one with the problem.

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