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Absolute Beginners (1974)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Absolute Beginners (1974)
For Fall of Eagles, BBC, tx. 19/4/1974
52 minutes, colour
DirectorGareth Davies
ProducerStuart Burge
ScriptTrevor Griffiths

Cast: Patrick Stewart (V. I. Lenin); Michael Kitchen (Leon Trotsky); Charles Kay (Nicholas II); Bruce Purchase (Von Plehve); Lynn Farleigh (Krupskaya); Edward Wilson (Martov); Paul Eddington (Plekhanov)

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In Edwardian London, Lenin struggles to build the future Communist Party during the 1903 congress that will lead to the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.

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'Absolute Beginners' (BBC, tx. 19/04/1974) was dismissed by some critics of the time as being inferior to Trevor Griffiths' other works simply because it was part of Fall of Eagles (BBC, 1974), a somewhat nostalgic and traditional series concerning the decline of the European dynasties in the late 19th and early 20th century. But in fact it is probably the best example of Griffiths' tactic of 'strategic penetration', wherein radical political themes (in this case featuring the origin of the Bolshevik/Menshevik split) are presented within a naturalistic form to a large unsuspecting population.

As Griffiths' commented, "I have to work within the popular imagination which has been shaped by naturalism", and whatever one may think of this tactic (and many, most notably writer and director John McGrath, have been sceptical), it is certainly the case that Fall of Eagles was one of the most successful and widely distributed BBC series of its type, and certainly this episode was Griffiths' most widely seen play. This was particularly satisfactory for Griffiths, who in 1971 had been commissioned to write a script for a similar series, The Edwardians (BBC, 1972), but on that occasion the script (about the union leader Tom Mann) was eventually rejected because of its political content.

'Absolute Beginners' was subject to a number of cuts because of the constraints of the series, and it could be argued that this telescoping of events makes the machinations of Lenin and Martov difficult to follow. In fact, this gives the play great pace, and showcases a number of Griffiths' dazzling scenes of political dialogue. The strength in his writing, as is typified in this play, is his refusal to tell the viewer that one argument is more correct than the other. Lenin's perceptive but brutal understanding that weakness in the party is the main enemy of successful revolution, and Martov's noble but ineffective appeal for a wider political movement are not neatly tied up for viewer at the climax.

This problem of means and ends certainly preoccupied Griffiths in many of his plays, including the 1971 RSC production of Occupations, set in Turin in 1920, which also featured Patrick Stewart as a hard and pragmatic Soviet representative. And it's Stewart's performance in 'Absolute Beginners' that is at the forefront of the play. He portrays Lenin in the same way that Lenin visualises the party: "Built like a fist, like a brain balled".

John Williams

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Video Clips
1. 'Metaphysics, Julius' (4:53)
2. 'Robespierre!' (3:31)
3. 'History will have no use for you' (2:49)
Griffiths, Trevor (1935- )