❉ An appreciation of Malcolm Bradbury’s magnificent adaption of Tom Sharpe’s bawdy satire.
I was once a student at a former polytechnic that thought it was a university. It was often pointed out to me that Syd Barret from Pink Floyd lived around the corner. I was more interested that the university used to be the technical college in which comic satirist Tom Sharpe based his numerous Wilt books. I often wondered if a blow-up doll was buried in the foundations of the modern block, just as I wondered if he had any stately home in mind for his 1975 book Blott on the Landscape, whose adaptation on BBC2 in early 1985 was my entry point into his world. And I have loved it ever since.
The trailers at the time showed a naked Simon Cadell clutching his privates to escape in terror from a gun-wielding Blott and the rampaging advances of – look, this is the eighties we’re talking about – a frustrated middle-aged (stately house) wife who wasn’t getting attention from her husband, who in turn much preferred his mistress and her skill with whips and costumes. As far as trailers went, and a tasteful Radio Times cover, it seemed too weird to miss. I was hooked from Episode 1, which was repeated later in the week. I watched that too.
It is not a perfect production, but the screenplay is. Malcolm Bradbury provided a magnificent adaption of the book, effortlessly expanding it into six episodes. Nothing is forced or appears out of place. He later performed a similar miracle for Channel Four’s excellent Porterhouse Blue in 1987. The titles emulate the chaotic illustrations of a Tom Sharpe book cover, although the TV tie-in edition simply had a photo of Blott in his greenhouse.
Blott on the Landscape is a bawdy tale of landed gentry versus modern developers, manipulated by a rich, scheming politician, trying to drive a motorway through his own not so stately pile for the compensation. As usual with Tom Sharpe, you are never quite sure whom the satirist is aiming for. With his two storming South African satires Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure you know we are not meant to find favour with the psychotic apartheid enforcing thugs he presents as the South African police. However, the mysterious Blott, like Skullion from Porterhouse Blue, is the ordinary working man, staunch supporters of the status quo and the aristocracy, the bedrocks to their contented lives. Progress, either in the form of a new college master or the motorway, are to be resisted at all costs – even if the cost counts in lives.
Tom Sharpe’s books are also remembered for their portrayal of that Great British hang-up – or hang down – sex, and, in particular, the good old-fashioned British ‘deviant’, so defined as one who prefers anything other than three pumps and a squirt in the proscribed position. Tom Sharpe was never happy unless one of his characters had some secret desire and the Sunday tabloid-reading public preferred their fetishes exposed in the pages of the News of the World (remember that?)..
I imagine one of the reasons it took a while for one of his books to reach the screen (other than cost) was that old fashioned bug bear ‘taste’. This is the BBC, not ITV! Frustrated men are the backbone of seventies comedy from Reggie Perrin to George Roper, but most of the men in Blott are sexually satisfied – Sir Giles has his mistress, who indulges his taste for role play and beatings, (and she once left him tied up to go to the ballet because she has an appalling short-term memory). Blott has the landlady of the local pub for company. Others, like Bainbridge, the unwitting pawn whose job it was to find a suitable path for this motorway to appease violent local objections, finds sex repellent and suffocating. He is later drugged and photographed in compromising positions by a local pornographer for blackmail. He suspects Lady Maud to be at the bottom of this and is determined to destroy her house. Lady Maud just wants her husband to ‘do his duty’ and provide an heir to an estate he wants to destroy for profit. Since he has no intention of doing so, she plots her divorce to make sure she retains the estate, and has no regrets when he is – well, watch the DVD!
The books boasted expensive set pieces and locations to realise. So, it was hardly surprising that television did not immediately pick up a Tom Sharpe novel and think this would make a good six-part serial. But some brave soul at the BBC finally decided that Blott on the Landscape was fit for adaptation. This may be controversial but I sometimes regret that the roles of Sir Giles Lynchwood (George Cole) and the repressed civil servant Bainbridge (Simon Cadell), had not been swapped. Imagine Cadell as the prim Sir Giles secretly enjoying being tied up and whipped by his mistress Mrs Forthby played by Julia McKensie. Both Cadell and Cole were enjoying successes in Hi-De-Hi (repressed manager of a holiday camp) and Minder (modern day spiv). You can see how the casting mind was working here…
Blott is David Suchet, delivering an accent we are not supposed to ascertain as we never do identify his country of origin. He may be Italian or German, a survivor of the war in the book, but he is harmless, if a little sinister, and staunchly proud to be among the British who saved him from whatever horrors he was facing. He is only lethal should you threaten his secret love Lady Maud, or his home, Handyman Hall. Geraldine James is the force of nature Lady Maud. No wobbles about casting there.
The other quibble with director Roger Bamford’s production was it never quite knew whether it was a comedy or a drama or a comic drama or a dramatic comedy, and some of the cast don’t know either as they instinctively look for a laugh. That was the thing about Tom Sharpe; he did not write jokes. He wrote absurdist situations for his heroes or anti-heroes either longing to escape from their life trap or remain lovingly entrenched within. We get the odd shot of false teeth on a tray, a glimpse of Blott admiring Lady Maud bending over, and so forth. But the humour comes from the absurdity – of the riotous public meeting about the proposed motorway headed by a vengeful retired judge, played by John ‘The law will not be mocked’ Welsh, who mistakes the enquiry for a trial, the frustrations of a dingy rural hotel for the modern organised Bainbridge and its constantly on the phone receptionist which is CP Grogan at her most 1980s.
Where the production really scores is its visual flair. It was shot on OB videotape in Herefordshire and Shropshire and looks the more real for it. Oh sure, BBC drama was happy to go to Greece for a month and shoot some lovely beauty shots for a Michael Bird drama, but its dramas were so restrained by budget, especially in a series where you long for a bit of spectacle which you could from a sci-fi. But here, we have a riot in a town square resulting in some arson, a succession of zoo animals wandering around a country estate (thanks Longleat), a drunk Jimmy Nail demolishing a couple of houses and a village green in spectacular fashion, the SAS failing to storm the Arch shaped Lodge thanks to Blott’s training and knowledge of a secret arms cache left in the grounds of the hall by a former Lynchwood.
David Mackay’s music performed by Viv Fisher is memorable. Fisher is an exponent of a mouth orchestra, simulating a brass band multi tracked many times. He gave a demonstration of his technique on ITV’s Saturday morning show No 73 and suggested recording your voice on one tape play it back, and then accompany yourself and record that. Oh, analogue. It gave Blott on the Landscape a unique soundtrack and is explained in the series as something Blott himself did.
There is no anniversary for this article to celebrate. It’s just a love letter to Blott on the Landscape and ugly stately homes everywhere.
❉ ‘Blott On The Landscape’ was originally broadcast on BBC Two in six parts of 55 mins length each, 6 February – 13 March 1985. Cast: Stars George Cole, Geraldine James, David Suchet, Julia McKenzie and Simon Cadell. The production received a repeat on BBC One from 19 July – 23 August 1993. The series was released on DVD by 2 Entertain, 6 June 2005 and is available from Amazon UK and other retailers, RRP £6.99.
❉ A longstanding contributor to We Are Cult, writer Michael Seely’s biography of Douglas Camfield, ‘Directed by Douglas Camfield’, is available from Fantom Publishing and he has also contributed a chapter to a new edition of Barry Letts’ autobiography ‘Who and I’ also available from Fantom Publishing