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Country (1981)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Country (1981)
For Play for Today, BBC, tx. 20/10/1981
85 minutes, colour
DirectorRichard Eyre
ProducerAnn Scott
ScriptTrevor Griffiths
PhotographyNat Crosby

Cast: Leo McKern (Sir Frederick Carlion); James Fox (Philip Carlion); Wendy Hiller (Daisy); Penelope Wilton (Virginia); Jill Bennett (Alice Carlion); Deborah Norton (Faith); Joan Greenwood (Dollie Van Der Biek)

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The great and good of the aristocracy gather to anoint an heir to the Carlion family business, while under the shadow of the 1945 General Election results.

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'Country' (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 20/10/1981) was Trevor Griffiths' first new play for television since 'Through the Night' (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 2/12/1975) and in the intervening period he had turned to the serial format, including original work like Bill Brand (ITV, 1976) and the adaptation of Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (BBC, 1981). Indeed, 'Country' was itself originally planned as the first play in a series named Tory Stories, which would examine the development of Conservative politics up until the 1979 election. This plan proved unworkable, and so Country became a standalone play, but it is partly these origins within a more ambitious framework that make it such a thematically rich and allusive work.

'Country' was made entirely on film, and Richard Eyre's beautiful direction places it squarely in the tradition of 'quality' period drama, with lingering shots of the family mansion and grounds, perfect period costume, and familiar 'name' actors such as Leo McKern and Jill Bennett. Yet the play is politically powerful because its action undercuts the surface beauty and superficially genteel manners, and is the polar opposite of nostalgic work such as Brideshead Revisited (ITV, 1981), the second episode of which was scheduled against 'Country'.

The Carlion family (named after the Corleones in the Godfather films) is emotionally empty, concerned solely with ensuring the future of the family firm and maintaining the exercise of power. Second son Philip (James Fox) is drawn back into the Carlion machine following the death of his elder brother (another Godfather parallel), and swiftly identifies the new enemy that must be defeated if the firm is to continue. The scenes where the Carlions listen to the election results recall those scenes in war films where families gather around the radio listening to Chamberlain announcing the start of World War II, and they serve the same purpose: here, war is being declared on the Carlions by the working classes.

The play was influenced by Griffiths' translation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, the television version of which (BBC, tx. 13/10/1981) was also directed by Richard Eyre and transmitted only a week earlier. Chekhov was traditionally perceived to be offering a lament to the decline of the aristocracy, but Griffiths' rediscovery of the political subtleties of Chekhov's work clearly paved the way for 'Country', a play that remains a chilling analysis of class power and entrenchment, and a remarkable critique of nascent Thatcherism.

John Williams

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Video Clips
1. Virginia returns (4:06)
2. 'My horses have names' (1:21)
3. War has been declared (6:42)
4. A funeral? (1:31)
Griffiths, Trevor (1935- )
Play for Today (1970-84)