Just Between Ourselves: The Television AdaptationIt is one of the unfortunate facts when researching Ayckbourn’s plays, that there will always be a gap when it comes to the adaptations of the plays into other media. Considering how many of the playwright’s works have been adapted for television, film and radio, very little of it is available to judge. Whilst there is no doubt that some of these adaptations do little justice to their source material (such as the film A Chorus Of Disapproval) or are flawed successes (the television adaptation of The Norman Conquests), there are several which were largely successful in their intentions and it is unfortunate that these are no longer available for a wider audience to appreciate.
One of the latter successes is Just Between Ourselves, adapted for television in 1978, and broadcast approximately a year after the play had closed in the West End.
Interest in adapting the play for television was first raised in June 1977 by Peter Willes, a producer for Yorkshire Television. He had been an enthusiastic advocate of the play and for adapting it for the small screen since its premiere, according to Alan’s agent Margaret ‘Peggy’ Ramsay who believed he would produce a sympathetic piece that might help spark interest in a play which had only just become available to the repertory theatres, following its London run.
Alan, keen to make links between the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in Scarborough and the regional commercial television company, agreed this was a good idea and felt the play was suitable to adapt for television.
The process was not a smooth one though. An innocuous letter from Peter Willes to Peggy laid the groundwork for all sorts of problems when it was casually mentioned the piece would have to be cut to 52 minutes. Alan described this as “disastrous” for the play and would not agree to it; fresh in his mind being the prolonged battle with the producer Verity Lambert over the length of The Norman Conquests television adaptations with Alan having fought tooth and claw for them to be filmed at something at least approximating their original length and given a slot where they would be able to be shown uncut. Alan insisted it was impossible to cut Just Between Ourselves so substantially and he would not support such an idea.
What happened in the interim between July 1977 and January 1978 is not recorded, but contracts were signed for a 90 minute slot. Quite how this slipped by Alan is unclear as he soon later realised that including adverts, this would mean the play had a running time of approximately 80 minutes, compared to its original running time of 105 minutes. With contracts signed, Alan despaired at what had been agreed and even offered to try and buy the rights back. Fortunately, Peter Wiles had become aware of the problem and was able to argue for a 100 minute slot for the adaptation, which despite involving some cuts of the material, did appease Alan.
The casting process began with a suggestion of Leonard Rossiter, of Rising Damp and The Rise And Fall of Reginald Perrin fame, playing Dennis. In his stead, the West End Ayckbourn stalwart Richard Briers was cast. Christopher Strauli was initially suggested for Neil but the role was taken by Stephen Moore, who had been part of the award-winning National Theatre production of Bedroom Farce. For the women, Rosemary Leach and Constance Chapman reprised their West End roles of Vera and Marjorie with Rosemary McHale coming in as Pam.
The first read-through was held on 24 April 1978 with two weeks of rehearsals beginning on 26 April before filming commenced. Alan visited rehearsals just before filming was due to begin and, according to Richard Briers, was helpful in explaining the character of Dennis to the actor, suggesting the actor not go overboard with the character; the one fear Alan had initially expressed concerning casting the actor. As a result, Briers’ performance of Dennis received much acclaim and it stands as one of the definitive on-screen performances of an Ayckbourn character.
The play was awarded a good deal more prominence in the schedules than even Alan might have expected; Just Between Ourselves had already received much exposure after winning the prestigious Evening Standard Play of The Year award and there was much anticipation for the next Ayckbourn television adaptation following the huge success of The Norman Conquests the year before. On top of this, 1978 marked the 10th anniversary of the creation of the regional companies which ran the country’s first commercial television channel (now consolidated as ITV). The play was commissioned by Yorkshire Television as the culmination of a week of special programmes and repeats highlighting the achievements of the channel in the past decade. As such, Just Between Ourselves was built up as a major event for Yorkshire Television.
The play was broadcast on Sunday 23 July 1978 at 9.30pm on Yorkshire Television and received a largely positive critical response. Alan himself has said he believes it is one of the stronger filmed adaptations of his plays with the proviso that all the hard work behind the piece was almost ruined on the night of transmission when the play finished and the credits rolled with the camera focussed on Vera’s face; having achieved the necessary sombre and ending, the continuity announcer cut in on top of this to cheerfully announce the rest of the evening’s schedule!
Given the strength of the piece, it is unfortunate that it has rarely if ever been repeated on British television and has never been made available commercially.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.
Reaction To The Television Adaptation Of Just Between Ourselves
“Ayckbourn peoples a bleak landscape, but it is a very convincing scenario of a lifestyle that by its nature is destructive because it is purposeless. In a consumer society the object is not to explore life and seek enriching experience. It is simply to survive surrounded by things people are brainwashed into believing they cannot live without. By piling trivia upon trivia, Ayckbourn captures the decaying dry rot of people who have lost sight of the meaning of life.”
“Where I think television is less successful is in slavishly imitating the opposition. Alan Ayckbourn’s Just Between Ourselves was simply a televised play. Nothing wrong with that. But one's responses to Ayckbourn's blistering black domestic comedy were too cosy; laugh at the jokes, make a cuppa and ignore the crueller implications of the plot. It needed the distance of the theatre or the cinema to separate the funny hang-ups of the assorted characters from the desperate central reality of a wife driven to the point of a nervous breakdown. That said, I must add the acting was impeccable; Richard Briers, Stephen Moore, Rosemary McHale, Constance Chapman, and, particularly, that marvellous lady Rosemary Leach. Marc Miller's direction, within the given framework, was fine. And certainly it introduces an audience that may never see a live Ayckbourn play to one of Britain's major playwrights.”
“Ayckbourn Man will persist long after his creator has perished. He is one of the great achievements of the theatre today. In years to come anthropologists will investigate his hunched and baggy body. Ayckbourn Man comes into his own at committee meetings or an elaborate dinner table. He tiptoes heartily through delicate situations. Inept and confident he brings domestic tragedy in his wake like an angry god. Television presents no challenge to Ayckbourn Man. He translates happily from stage to screen as Yorkshire television proved last night with Just Between Ourselves, a play which opened last year to tremendous acclaim and a critical consensus that it was Alan Ayckbourn's best work so far. It is certainly his most sinister play and consequently was heightened by the intimacy of TV drama. Deep in his gadget ridden garage, Dennis emerges only to regale his depressive, panicky wife with life and soul of the party clichés. "She is a bit tensed up," he explains to neighbours over perilously jolting tea cups as his wife attempts to pour: "Don't laugh if she drops anything"
As the domestic mesh of confusion and non-understanding slowly tightened on Vera, driven into catatonic madness by family life, the camera hung fascinated on Rosemary Leach's puffy, terrified face until it seemed an intrusion.
Television goes too far for Ayckbourn's subtler jokes, the shifting feet, jollity and constraint, which are all physical expressions of confusion. But Stephen Moore's slow-witted amiability was a triumph, as was Rosemary McHale's drunken despair in the garage. Rubbing knuckles as shiny as marbles, Richard Briers gave one of his best performances as Dennis, asking politely for light bulbs as quarrelling neighbours rocked his step ladder or observing that "a smile costs nothing" as his wife attacks her mother-in-law with a Black and Decker. When I saw Rosemary Leach on stage I thought her performance impeccable, but last night she was better than ever. Marc Miller's direction successfully kept the delicate balance between farce and bleakest tragedy which is the essence of the play. Ayckbourn never leaves suburbia in search of his material. And if the conclusion of Just Between Ourselves came as a jolt to thousands sitting back in their armchairs, with the Ovaltine, he must be well satisfied.”
“There’s much more than the usual Ayckbourn froth this time but you’ll still ache from laughing.”
“The superb acting and Marc Miller’s direction make the play a subtle and sombre display of what happens to people when they fail to acknowledge the responsibility of being with other people. It is also very funny.”
Yorkshire Evening Post
“Laughter is the best medicine... a smile costs nothing... laugh and the world laughs with you. There are three statements that have all the docility of a drum of dynamite. So says Yorkshire-based playwright Alan Ayckbourn in his double-edged drama Just Between Ourselves, a flagship production in Yorkshire Television's tenth anniversary celebrations and being screened tomorrow night.
Richard Briers crosses the channels, exchanging The Good Life hero Tom's self-supporting garden for Dennis's do-it-yourself dungeon - a cluttered garage which Ayckbourn chooses as his battleground on which to wage war against the "smile-darn-you-smile" brigade. Dennis metaphorically barricades himself inside a garage whose doors don't open too easily and submerges himself in pottering. He guffaws, chuckles, chivvies and quips while around him the souls of relatives and friends scream out for him to notice their agonies. "Cheer up, it may never happen," he says. Alas, Nemesis has already begun her run up. Right from square one to the awesome conclusion though, the viewer is exposed to oceans of mirth. When, at the close, he is confronted with what he has been laughing at, the point of the parable is rammed home. Between start and finish are some of the best moments TV drama has offered for a long time... not only from Richard Briers, but from Rosemary Leach and Rosemary McHale, too.”
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