The Gravy Train with Alexei Sayle, and David Mercer's new collection of television plays.
LISTINGS: WEEK ONE 71 WEEK TWO 72
‘The gravy man
‘ Alexei Sayle stars in the sharp new satire of EC life written by Malcolm Bradbury. No campus was ever the same after The History Man, Tom Lappin looks at the chances of the bureaucracy surviving similar treatment.
It had to come. What with German reuniﬁcation, 1992 and mad cow disease, someone had to make the first comedy set in the European Commission headquarters in Brussels.
That it was Malcolm Bradbury who was responsible for writing The Gravy Train, the new Channel 4 series, comes as no surprise. Still best known for the ’sex ‘n‘ sociology’ campus novel The History Man, Bradbury‘s fascination for institutional bureaucracy demonstrated in that book, and his delight at the absurdities of the British abroad that he depicted in the more recent Rates Of Exchange. are both revisited in the Gravy Train.
‘lt was originally intended to be a novel,’ explains Bradbury. ‘I saw Brussels as my perfect subject matter. I was fascinated with how the decisions were made. and the whole nature of this unelected bureaucracy. On top ofthat was the sheer comedy ofthe British behaviour in Europe; the ways in which they are trying to discover their Europeanness after centuries of ignoring it.’
The central hero of The Gravy Train is Hans-Joachim Dorfmann, a clumsy and naive idealist turned loose amongst the cynical ; bureaucracy and intrigue of Brussels. His British
indoctrinates him into the vital process of ’bum-licking‘, but matters are complicated by the presence of Milcic. a kind of East European Arthur Daley played with a typical intimidating bonhomie by Alexei Sayle. The plot verges on the ’spy-thriller caper‘ genre but Bradbury is essentially concerned with the potential for satire. There's certainly plenty of material. but one possible problem is the fact that events in Europe are moving so fast that the series could be dated before it is even shown.
'That‘s one of the reasons i was happy to give up the idea of a novel in favour of a TV series.‘
boss Spearpoint (played by Ian Richardson) soon
says Bradbury. ‘The advantage with television is that you can do it much more quickly. A novel would have been very historical. but the TV series has much more immediacy. It‘s a story that is perfectly up to date to around November last year when we finished filming, but obviously there have been radical changes in Europe since then, not only in the East, but also in British attitudes to Europe. We're coping with that quite nicely by doing a second series, which looks at how Brussels c0pes with an Eastern European revolution.’
A particularly noteworthy aspect of The Gravy Train is the international cast. From the beginning the producers wanted to avoid the 'Allo,Allo’ aspect of British actors playing Europeans, and Bradbury is very satisfied with how the casting has worked out. ‘It is normally very difficult to get European actors to play British comedy, because they‘re not used to that kind of direction, so we were very fortunate to get actors like Christoph Waltz who is wonderful as Dorfmann, and Jacques Sereys who is a veteran of the Comedic Franeaise.’
Even with European actors, avoiding national stereotypes is not always easy, and it is a temptation that The Gravy Train does not completely escape. ‘Sometimes national stereotypes reinforce people‘s understanding of the story, however unfortunate they may be,‘ says the writer. ‘Undoubtedly those who are treated the worst in this respect are the British. They are definitely very much the fall guys.‘
Bradbury’s previous works have been similarly anti-institution, but with The Gravy Train. there is a slightly softer approach. Bradbury seems to have a sneaking affection for his bureaucrats. and certainly admits to being strongly pro-European. In the end though, it is the figure of Dorfmann, a sort ofcrusading Norman Wisdom. that has most of his sympathy. ‘l‘m really with Dorfmann. In the world of bureaucracy and practicality I see dreams die. I believe in the dream.‘ Stirring stuff. The Gravy Train Chamzel4 Wednesday271une.
Perhaps it is the ephemerality at
3 television, the constant and
j unpredictable mix oi content, genre
l and theme, that has encouraged a style 5 oi reviewing in the daily press that all
: but celebrates the superiicial. Despite j being a medium seen by many millions t more than a stage play or live concert,
television is treated with a ilipancy
i unknownin othermedia. The job oithe 60s.
same way with work that is considered and thoughtful is short-sighted and unproductive. This is one oi the lines oi thought in Don Taylor’s new book. Days 5 cl Vision, an autobiographical account é oi his lirst years in television ! production. Coming irom a ! working-class background via an t Oxiord education, Taylor is one oi a ! generation oi ‘angry young men’ who i iniiltrated our most elitist establishments in the 50s and early l
‘3.“ 4’ 1“ "g ‘ ‘
,M" 1 "l i,
way irom indulgence. Opinionated
contemporaries and concludes with a radical and passionate maniieslo to reinstate the value oi language and the potential ior TV drama to be a ‘National Theatre at the air’.
And while we’re on the subject, one at the most powerful, touching and gently subversive oi recent TV drama series, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, has just been published in script iorm. Jeanette Winterson’s original novel makes a better read, but this is much closer to the television version and its
TV critic seems to be to entertain the
reader with a witty resume oi the
3 previous night's viewing and not to disturb us with anything like analysis.
True enough there is no shortage of
3 TV pap that deserves nothing more than
3 a dismissive send-up, but to deal in the
|,_.,_- , __ _..---__.“____,-.,____ 70'l‘he List 15 - 28June 1990
Surprisingly iresh alter three decades in the business, Taylor gives a clear, enthusiastic and compulsively readable picture at lite behind the scenes in the heyday oi television drama. It's a happily subjective tale, but the author always pulls himseli
and genuine, he details his work with several writers and in particular David Mercer, a selection at whose plays has also just been published by Methuen.
Throughout the volume, Taylor takes side-wipes at the complacency and political apathy at many oi his
publication is a recognition oi the programme's quality. (Mark Fisher) Mercer Plays: One (Methuen £6.99); Days at Vision (Methuen H/B £16.99). Both books published on 14 June. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (Pandora £4.99).