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Comedians (1979)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Comedians (1979)
For Play for Today, BBC, tx. 25/10/1979
95 minutes, colour
DirectorRichard Eyre
Producer (uncredited)Richard Eyre
Screenplay and original playTrevor Griffiths

Cast: Bill Fraser (Eddie Waters); Jonathan Pryce (Gethin Price); David Burke (Mick Connor); Linal Haft (Sammy Samuels); Derrick O'Connor (George McBrain)

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Six budding comedians gather in a classroom for a final lesson from comic Eddie Waters, the Lancashire Lad.

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'Comedians' (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 25/10/1979) was an adaptation of a 1975 Nottingham Playhouse production which later transferred to Broadway. Frequently described as one of the plays of the 1970s, it is regularly revived to this day. Despite the play's growing reputation at the time, the television production was dogged by controversy, as had been Griffiths' earlier Play for Today entries 'All Good Men' (tx. 31/01/1974) and 'Through the Night' (tx. 2/12/1975), albeit for different reasons. In this instance the BBC took exception to the few swearwords in the play, and, close to transmission, moved it from the usual 9.25pm slot to 10.10pm, with the effect of diminishing its audience by millions. This was particularly galling to Griffiths, as it is probably (at least initially) one of his more accessible plays, concentrating as it does on the badinage between would-be comedians, who are like a real-life mix of characters from the 'There was an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman' school of jokes.

The genesis of the play was a meeting Griffiths had with some of the stars of the then-popular show The Comedians (ITV, 1971-1992), but as Griffiths has commented: "It's basically about two traditions - the social-democratic and the revolutionary... The play has been read as being about humour, as a play about comedians. At another level, it is probably that too." The play hinges around the moment when the comedians do their 'turns' at the local pub, as one by one the performers jettison their material, thereby betraying their teacher, Waters (Bill Fraser).

Price's (Jonathan Pryce) act, while not a betrayal, is a direct challenge to Waters' social-democratic humanism. Price's weird harnessing of football violence, politics, mime and skinhead culture is summed up by the agent Challenor (Ralph Nossek) as "aggressively unfunny", but as Price later says, it is not being funny that is important, but being 'truthful'. Waters despairs of the hate in Price's performance, but his view of the world, fuelled by his wartime experiences, is not grounded in the political reality that Price is expressing in his act.

'Comedians' is an intellectually and emotionally powerful play, but it works particularly well because it has the kind of roles that actors love. Certainly it launched Jonathan Pryce onto a dazzling career, and despite many successes he can rarely have matched his performance as Gethin Price, a seminal character in modern political drama.

John Williams

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Video Clips
1. Getting warmed up (2:24)
2. Piercing a vein (3:33)
3. The truth (5:32)
Entertainer, The (1960)
Comedians, The (1971-93)
Talent (1979)
Griffiths, Trevor (1935- )
Pryce, Jonathan (1947-)