❉ Michael Seely looks back on Alan Plater’s trilogy, 30 years on from the first airing of its last instalment.
“Jazz plays to its own rules. There are only two kinds of people in the world, according to Trevor, those who hear the music and those who don’t, and a surprising number of people do in Leeds in the 1980s.”
Thirty years ago during the late autumn of 1988, Alan Plater’s The Beiderbecke Connection was transmitted on ITV and things weren’t so dark anymore. This was the last of three serials in what could be called The Beiderbecke Trilogy. Back in 1985, The Beiderbecke Affair introduced us to the life and interesting times of Jill Swinburne and Trevor Chaplin, two comprehensive high school teachers living in Leeds. We were delighted to see a second, albeit much briefer follow-up in 1987 called The Beiderbecke Tapes and then one year later we caught up with then again in The Beiderbecke Connection. These were perfect Sunday night viewing, which if you are of a certain age, you may recall how quiet Sunday television could be, with not very much to grab the imagination until the late evenings where there might be some decent comedy on before the inevitable doom of bedtime. Jill and Trevor made the thought of the forthcoming week bearable.
So what was it all about then? On the face of it, it is almost about not very much. Sometimes melancholic, sometimes a bitter-sweet study of the ordinary which could easily turn into excitement as Jill and Trevor’s world collides with authority. The rhythms of life are accompanied by an ever-present jazz soundtrack. Jazz plays to its own rules. There are only two kinds of people in the world, according to Trevor, those who hear the music and those who don’t, and a surprising number of people do in Leeds in the 1980s.
But scratch the surface, keep watching each week (as you had to in them days, young ‘un) and The Beiderbecke Trilogy enchants you, entices you into their world and draws you in. It takes its time to explore characters, and time to enjoy the camera work which is not just hugging the usual Yorkshire countryside which few programmes can resist but the changing cityscapes and suburban zones in which the serials are set. Rarely has a roundabout or a hellish modernistic glass zoo of a modern comprehensive high school been allowed to be as visually important as the bloody Yorkshire Dales. And it is all on film, all twelve glorious episodes of it.
Newcastle born Trevor Chaplin, played by James Bolam, is our co-hero, a simple woodwork tutor who prefers to escape into the world of jazz, and if they haven’t argued, into the arms of Barbara Flynn’s Jill Swinburne. They live in the moonstruck outer limits of Leeds and their liaison scandalises Jill’s curtain-twitching neighbours. Their dialogue is strangely poetic, and pricks pomposity with the same disregard as machine gun bullets has on a tin can. ‘Have you heard about disinformation?’ ‘I’ve heard of disinfectant.’ Jill is a political activist, environmentalist, feminist, humanist, and likes to present a calm certainty when we first meet her, gently trying to pull Trevor into the last half of the twentieth century before we all leave it. Trevor is rather meek, as anti-masculine a hero as the 1980s could possibly allow to exist. Both are survivors from previously bad relationships, and neither try to impose upon the other, although misunderstandings occur.
The plot of The Beiderbecke Affair unfolds at a gentle meander, more amusing than dramatic. We get to meet over the first couple of episodes most of the major characters with whom the teachers become involved with and see another side to life, and the adversary that is officialdom in all its pompous guises. Trevor is trying to track down a dazzlingly beautiful platinum blonde who had, on behalf of the cubs, sold him the wrong jazz records and a faulty hedge trimmer which resulted in four small explosions and burns. The hunt leads to a cubs football match which ends in a riot and is raided by the police, led by one DS Hobson, BA.
Played with perfect diction by the suave Dominic Jephcott, Hobson is university educated with first class honours, and has been parachuted into high rank and without the footfall experience of an ordinary copper, something that does not go unremarked by his colleagues, nor his superior officer, played by Colin Blakely. By the third story he is promoted, still talking to his Dictaphone tape recorder and obsessed with the tiny minutiae of strange behaviour which may lead to serious crime detection.
He is a modern copper because he uses a computer… He who has the most information holds power, and Hobson is the prince of information, storage and retrieval. Yet he found it difficult relating to ordinary people, never mind his own colleagues who generally take the proverbial. By the third serial, when he had earned a PhD, his wise-cracking CID colleagues are sent a videotape from a twitchy curtain neighbour, and being not terribly interested in its contents, presented it to Hobson: ‘This cassette is of your world, not ours. You have a mind that belongs to the 1990s.’
Hobson sees Trevor and Jill as symptoms of some underlying menace to the community. He is on the right track but for the wrong reasons. Jill and Trevor are just as bemused by the way events unfold, especially when an ex-flame of Trevor’s – Helen of Tadcaster – walks back into his life determined to seize control again. She is far more conventional than Jill, whose efforts to get elected as an independent councillor is creating hostility, resulting in sabotage and a dead cat.
Slowly, oh so slowly, they discover a web of intrigue at City Hall who seem quite determined to prevent a sort of private enterprise and individualism of a type incumbent prime minister Margaret Thatcher may not have approved. This leads us to one of the most memorable of all characters, Big Al, played by Terence Rigby, a tall, lugubrious and laid-back man who in his own words had been made redundant by monetarists who ravaged the country at the time for good or ill.
Big Al and his pals (all of whom are described as his brothers) retaliate and run a black economy by selling goods and offering services to the community without involving businesses. This, he describes as being more of a white economy. They use an under-used church as a warehouse. No one turns up for choir practise. Yet there are still little pockets of local power clinging on, with friends inside the police force who don’t very much like the anti-establishment leanings of Big Al and our Jill Swinburne, and things turn a little unpleasant.
A self-appointed commentator on life and the staffroom cynic was played by the late Dudley Sutton. Often to be seen staring out of the window, commenting on Jill and Trevor’s relationships he enjoys the foibles of others and takes a glee when his jaundiced world view is confirmed: “My nostrils are already quivering with the scent of imminent catastrophe.” Yet, as he explained in the last episode, after hearing Chaplin’s impassioned plea to the headmaster that if necessary he would steal to give these kids a decent education, it reminded him of himself as a young teacher, with an evangelical zeal, a wisdom to impart and a blazing torch to pass on.
It is the characters who make the six hours of the first serial fly by, some of whom pop back into the later ones such as Mr Pitt, the softly spoken and hyper-cautious town planning officer, who helps blows the whistle on local corruption and later runs his own loss-making jazz club in The Beiderbecke Connection. “We must all find our fantasies the best way we can, Miss Swinburne”, he says when he is caught dancing outside in a strange manner, enraptured by the music coming out from within.
We also meet once again in Connection the newly promoted Hobson, and his two subordinate plain clothes coppers, a sarcastic double act called Ben and Joe, although decent realists at heart. Jill’s first husband Pete pops up, as does an alleged polish immigrant designed to trigger her anti-establishment feelings. There is also a former pupil turned baby-sitter who is also a Robin Hood shop-lifter – she steals books from the shops to give to the impoverished school. Finally, but not least, there is the First Born of Jill and Trevor!
These serials engender a warm glowing feeling in the viewer. There are serious themes but presented in such a way that they were almost incidental to their everyday life. They still went to work, had evenings in, argued, rowed, and went to the pub. Life continues around them, occasionally making things a little unpleasant, such as strange official men stalking them on Amsterdam bridges, a noose in the classroom, surreal arrests and a vandalised home. Yet, there is still innocence in the world. There is still the music, pleasant even to the tone deaf such as myself.
I have often held the suspicion that the ITV regional production centres like Yorkshire TV frequently made the best drama series. They certainly made the more unusual. I think The Beiderbecke Trilogy is strong ammunition in favour of my view. After all, on BBC1, Howards’ Way was coming…
❉ ‘The Beiderbecke Affair’ (Yorkshire TV) aired from 6 January – 10 February 1985. Produced by Anne W. Gibbons, directed by David Reynolds and Frank W. Smith. ‘The Beiderbecke Tapes’ (Yorkshire TV) aired from 13 – 20 December 1987. Produced by Michael Glynn, directed by Brian Parker. ‘The Beiderbecke Connection’ (Yorkshire TV) aired from 27 November – 18 December 1988. Produced by Michael Glynn, directed by Alan J.W. Bell. Series Music by Frank Ricotti. Written by Alan Plater.
❉ ‘The Beiderbecke Trilogy’ was released by Network Distributing in 2007 as a DVD/CD box set containing all three serials, ‘Let’s Get Lost’ (the precursor to The Beiderbecke series) and the soundtrack album on CD. RRP £17.99.
❉ Michael Seely is a regular contributor to We Are Cult and is the author of books on BBC TV director Douglas Camfield (Doctor Who, The Sweeney, Shoestring), scientist and writer Kit Pedler (creator of the Cybermen) and the TV series Doomwatch, available from Miwk Publishing.