You remember that 1970s movie, ‘Network’ – it was mainly famous for the catchphrase above, which seemed to strike a chord in disgruntled post-Watergate America. Peter Finch gave a great performance as Howard Beale, a newsreader who threatens to kill himself on air because he’s ‘run out of bullshit’.
Well, last Saturday a pair of friends staged a reading of a new stage adaptation of the film. The project was produced by actor and science-y TV presenter (and nephew of Peter Finch) Dallas Campbell; and the script was written by Christopher Brand – also a very fine actor – whose previous project (alas, as yet unproduced) was a bio-screenplay about the shady sixties character John Bindon.
The reading was held in an amazing hidden gem of a 1690s oak-panelled room in Clerkenwell, in what used to be the Water Board building in Rosebery Avenue. It transpires that the building and the site have an interesting history; so interesting that I’ve written a sister blog post about that, which you can read on The London Column.
So there we were, on chairs ranged around the walls of this amazing, dark, old room, with glasses of wine or gin & tonics. A giant giant black oval table in the middle was littered with scripts, plates of biscuits, the actors’ wine or g&t glasses, and many large, white candles. Behind it, a big marble fireplace stood flanked by bookshelves holding bound annual reports and works on (I imagine) hydraulic engineering. The cast were:
Christopher Brand as Jenson
Alan Cox as Howard Beale
Russell Layton as Bill Herron
Caroline Lennon as Louise
Eliot Levy as Max
Liam McKenna as Ruddy
Saffron Sprackling as Lorraine Hobbs
Jack Tarlton as Hackett
Fliss Walton as Diana
And so the reading began…
I do remember seeing the film when it came out, but not too much about it. I liked the scene where all the viewers follow Beale’s exhortation to throw their windows open and shot into the night: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!’ But aside from that? WE actually watched it again on Sunday, after the reading, and found it talky – shouty – repetitive, overlong, self-conscious (politics, working women, black people, and all that, you know), but strangely compelling.
This play version, however, is crisp and zippy. The dialogue has been spruced up a bit for contemporary ears, and lots of tedious explication cut out. It felt, in reading, much funnier than the movie, too.
The story goes that Howard Beale – a 60-something, recently widowed newscaster – is being sacked because of poor ratings, and has a meltdown on air. This sends the ratings skyrocketing, and the ballbreaking woman programmer (Fliss Walton, & in the movie a diabolically unconvincing Faye Dunaway) insists on making over his news programme into an entertainment show where he rants and raves: ‘the mad prophet of the airwaves’. She hires an astrologer called Sibyl the Soothsayer to fill part of the slot.
At the same time, in a move that nowadays feels only slightly exaggerated, she is commissioning weekly footage from a shambolic terrorist group (modelled on the Symbionese Liberation Army, who kidnapped Patty Hearst) who like to film their crimes.
Ultimately the film – and now the play – asks questions about the line between news and entertainment, about the human cost of television, about money, politics, and personhood, even about keeping our capacity to love; that is, to keep one’s priorities straight – and about what can morally, or usefully, be done with the public’s rage.
In some ways, it feels daring even for now. We aren’t really asking ourselves these questions. We’re asking other questions, mostly based on some presupposed affront . That’s our disease. We’ve decided we like being outraged; and this of course is the passive-aggressive response to the final question above.
The story is set in the mid-1970s, and this adaptation keeps it there; there are no mobiles and no internet. But just last week I read a piece somewhere about the ignorance of the American masses – based on minutes-per-week of news watched – that demonstrated statistically how TV is still the number one conduit for current affairs information. (Not for me, obvs; we’re talking culturally.) The play achieves one remarkable thing by keeping it in the seventies. It shows us how we haven’t solved the problems.
We’re still threatened by every one of the threats in the play, only more so. It prefigures reality TV, for example, with its preposterously ironically titled ‘Big Brother’. (Who nowadays even remembers where that title came from?) The ‘Network’ story features two buy-outs: first by the ‘Communications Corporation of America (CCA)’ and then one by the ‘Western World Funding Corporation’. This last turns out to be a secret conglomerate that’s buying the network on behalf of the ‘Investment Corporation of Saudi Arabia’.
Howard Beale goes into a massive rant on air:
‘Did you know that the Arabs control over $16billion worth of American assets. Yes, $16billion… they own half of Fifth Avenue, a huge chunk of Boston, a majority of the port of New Orleans… They control ARAMCO, which means they pretty much control Exxon, Texaco and Mobil. They’re everywhere! New Jersey, Missouri, St Louis, everywhere!’
Now, just to interject, last week even the annoying rightwing elderly rich journalist Taki wrote in the Spectator that in ten years London and New York won’t be livable. He wrote in typically objectionable style:
The Gulf Arabs have descended and there are no tables available anywhere, anytime. Property prices, needless to say, are at nosebleed levels, and even the upper middle classes are moving out… The solution to all this is easy: move to Vienna or Warsaw or Krakow.
But the thrust of what he says is highly indicative. One of the main themes lately – of everything from news stories to dinner table chat to insomnia – is how London is being hollowed out by foreign oligarch investors. On a scale that was simply unimaginable in the 1970s. Back then, the top tax band in America was still about 75%; the infrastructure was still funded and accepted as a part of civilisation. The day before this play reading I heard a story, said to be a scandal in the London estate agency world, about a Malaysian man who visited the show flat of a new, very ordinary, housing development – looked around – and said, ‘We’ll take them’. Bought the lot. They’re not going to sell them or rent them out or use them in any way. The whole residential development will sit empty, accruing capital value.
They’re parking their money on us. They’re using us as a money-holder. So Howard Beale keeps going –
They’re gonna buy us all! They’re gonna buy our land, our companies, our press, our whole economy. A handful of medieval lunatics are gonna control every aspect of your lives. What you do, what you buy, what you eat, who you fornicate with, where you live, where you go to school. Because they will own it all. Your jobs, your libraries, your mortgages, your kids, your lives! And there’s not a single law in place to stop it.
And even as we agree and even as we know that it’s a bad idea to hollow a place out by selling it off to people who have nothing to do with it, it suddenly felt a bit scary on Saturday night, sitting in a beautiful and very English room surrounded by my friends and their friends, when Alan Cox suddenly started shouting, ‘Those Arabs! They’ve screwed Americans…’
Last year I was reading about a book – Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge - that demonstrates how the Reagan years – the period of Reagan’s influence – actually began during the Ford administration. As Slate puts it, ‘Ronald Reagan only made sense when the rest of America didn’t’. And that is exactly how UKIP is making sense now – not that they are, any more than Reagan did. It’s scary because unless the rhetoric is nuanced, and it rarely is, it’s so easy to go over the edge…
I mean, I don’t need to list the news stories that make this play topical and urgent, right this minute, two weeks before this election. Instead of drawing on our ever-ready passive-aggressive outrage, this play asks questions. It draws us along and then BANG – suddenly – we’re complicit.
But in what?
Jensen says to Max:
You spoke in terms of nations. Well, there are no nations, Mr Beale. There are no tribes, no peoples! There are no Americans, there is no America! There are no Arabs!… There is no West, there is no East. There is just one system. Vast, integral. The skeleton of this world, other worlds, and the next world too… Money, Mr Beale! Dollars! All is dollars!
There seems, since Reagan and Thatcher, to have been a sort of shrivelling. We’ve curled into ourselves. It’s all identity politics now, religion and gender and race and instant outrage, and the infrastructure has gone out the window. They’re taking our dollars while we argue about the acceptable terminology for discussing feminism..
In this play, as adapted by Christopher Brand, it’s necessary to think. Every allegiance, every position taken by anyone, is uncomfortable. There are sub-plots to do with leftwing dissent, with terrorism, with desire and loyalty, with age…
Also, it struck me forcibly halfway through that, if an old building were being dismantled nowadays to build a new one, a 17th-century room would possibly not be lovingly preserved and reinstated in its original form.
The cast was brilliant. It is a play of rants. Chris gave a towering thundering show as Jensen, and Fliss was more than up to a full-on sex scene (read out only!) where she had to keep babbling about current affairs all through. Caroline as the production assistant actually brought a slight tear to my eye when she stood up at one point all by herself and said it in a brave little voice: ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!’
Alan Cox was magnificent as Howard Beale; it was a privilege to see, in such a setting, frankly. His big moment came just before the break, and he controlled the whole room, jumping out of his chair and ordering us on the sides to stand up – the room was ringing with it – ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!’
I REALLY hope Chris and Dallas manage to get something going with this project.