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Mercer, David (1928-1980)


Main image of Mercer, David (1928-1980)

David Mercer was born on 27 June 1928 in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. His father was an engine driver and his mother had been 'in service' as a maid. Both of his grandfathers had been coal miners. His mother encouraged her two sons to look beyond the pits and factories of the West Riding for their futures.

Mercer failed the 11-plus exam and left secondary school at 14, starting work in a hospital laboratory. He joined the Royal Navy at 17, but at 20 went to Durham University to study science. Another change of direction saw him studying art in Newcastle, where he also started to write short stories. His political awakening began when he met and married a Czech girl from a wealthy, upper-class family, whose father had been murdered by the Gestapo (some of this history finds its way into Mercer's TV play The Parachute (BBC, tx. 21/01/1968)). They moved to Paris, but Mercer soon realised he would never be a great painter. The marriage collapsed and he returned to England, where he began to write novels, and took a job as a supply teacher. Severe depression followed, leading to a nervous breakdown and a lengthy spell in psychoanalysis, which enabled him to find his voice as a writer. (Much of Mercer's personal experience of mental illness and psychiatric hospitals informs his play In Two Minds).

His first play, Where the Difference Begins, intended for the theatre, was eventually produced on television (BBC, tx. 15/12/1961), directed by 24 year-old Don Taylor, who was to enjoy a fruitful working relationship with Mercer for the next four years. Its themes - father and son relationships, northern working-class values versus southern middle-class culture, alienation in society - were all to recur throughout Mercer's later work.

Throughout the 1960s, Mercer produced a body of superb TV drama, including two very different studies of 'madness'; A Suitable Case for Treatment (BBC, 21/10/1962), subsequently re-worked for the cinema screen as Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment (d. Karel Reisz, 1966), and In Two Minds (BBC, 01/03/1967), filmed as Family Life (d. Ken Loach, 1971). Mercer also wrote for the theatre and cinema, adapting Ibsen's The Doll House (d. Joseph Losey, 1973), and scripting Providence (d. Alain Resnais, 1977). Mercer collaborated with Losey on two major unrealised projects, adaptations of Patrick White's novel Voss, and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. Much of his stage work was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company: Flint, After Haggerty, Cousin Vladimir. Peter O'Toole and Sian Phillips played in Ride a Cock Horse in London's West End.

Mercer was a great innovator in TV drama, although considered more conventional in his stage work. He was part of what critic John Russell Taylor has called 'the second wave' of British dramatists, following on from Pinter, Osborne, Wesker and the other Royal Court Theatre alumni. One of his major themes was that of the working-class northerner who succeeds in the world of middle-class culture, but becomes cut off from his roots. Mercer's gift was to take this theme beyond the personal and emotional and into the wider political scene, unlike, for example, fellow dramatist David Storey. In Mercer, private lives are always seen in relation to public events.

Playwright Christopher Hampton has spoken of his 'perception of the distinctiveness of TV drama, of its ability to use the resources of film while retaining the intimacy and textual density of the theatre'.

A Mercer play is very demanding of its audience. He saw television as a very intense medium, a drama of talking heads, of people in conflict. Director Alan Lovell said "his plays make you think all over again what television drama is for." Don Taylor considered him to be the first major dramatist to emerge from television. Playwright Charles Wood considered that "his whole oeuvre... can be seen as a series of attempts at self-definition, each having its essential truth to the particular moment of Mercer's life at which it was written."

That life was to be cut tragically short. Mercer had always been a heavy drinker, and this contributed to his death at just 52 on 8 August 1980. He had married an Israeli girl, moved to Israel and had a daughter. His plays were no longer so well-received critically and he felt he was writing himself out. He planned to return to England to start over again, but died before he could do so. In 1988, the BBC ran a retrospective of some of his best work from the 1960s and 1970s. A new generation was astonished at its wit, its power and its audacity. Unforgivably, many of the leading critics admitted that they had not seen the plays when they were first transmitted.

Janet Moat

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Family Life (1971)Family Life (1971)

Ken Loach's big-screen remake of the David Mercer TV play 'In Two Minds'

Thumbnail image of Morgan - A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)Morgan - A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)

Seminal Swinging Sixties comedy about an artist and his problems

Thumbnail image of And Did Those Feet? (1965)And Did Those Feet? (1965)

Complex satire on the decline of the upper classes

Thumbnail image of In Two Minds (1967)In Two Minds (1967)

David Mercer and Ken Loach's controversial study of schizophrenia

Thumbnail image of Let's Murder Vivaldi (1968)Let's Murder Vivaldi (1968)

Taut David Mercer play about relationship conflicts

Thumbnail image of Parachute, The (1968)Parachute, The (1968)

David Mercer's imaginative look at Germany between the wars

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)

Long-running, often provocative BBC drama strand

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