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Permissive Society, The (1975)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Permissive Society, The (1975)
For Second City Firsts, BBC2, tx. 10/04/1975
30 min, colour
DirectorMike Leigh
Production CompanyBBC Birmingham
ProducerTara Prem
DesignerMargaret Peacock

Cast: Les (Bob Mason); Yvonne (Rachel Davies); Carol (Veronica Roberts)

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The difficulties of relationships as seen through two troubled dates.

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One of Mike Leigh's most tender and sympathetically-observed plays, 'The Permissive Society' is often neglected even by Leigh's admirers, arguably because it is a short piece videotaped entirely in the studio. This early in his career, Leigh's use of improvisation in developing the script was used as a marker of honesty and originality: upon transmission, BBC2's announcer misleadingly described it as an unscripted play.

Even within such a short production, Leigh shifts audience empathy through developments in characterisation. Les comes across at first as a loutish slob; his girlfriend Carol is disgusted by his eating habits and some of his coarse, childish behaviour. Their date starts at his family's flat, with forced conversation and awkward silences which are interrupted by Les's sister Yvonne - who is preparing for a date of her own. Les's behaviour is paralleled with animal characteristics, bodily functions and physicality: there are references to pigs, frogs and their spawn, false pregnancy which Les jokingly attributes to wind, ugliness, death, eating and swallowing, which is described - through a discussion of parestalsis - as a muscular reflex. This interrogation of the human dichotomy between emotion and physicality also mirrors the issue of sex, which is constantly present even though it is rarely discussed directly.

We gradually learn that Les's behaviour masks his genuine nervousness because he has never previously had a girlfriend. As in much of Leigh's work, Les's awkwardness, and Yvonne's troubled attempts at relationships, demonstrate the struggles people have to articulate their feelings and their needs. Les's inarticulacy and the extent to which his childishness has become a marker of innocence are encapsulated in a tender moment in which he sings 'Leaning on a Lamp Post'. Only in someone else's words can Les tell Carol that he is nervously waiting for this certain little lady to pass by. That these words come from an earlier era of filmmaking - Noel Gay's words, made famous by George Formby - emphasises the point that inarticulacy is often exacerbated by the modern media, in which 'sex is everywhere' and through which commodified images displace and debase language and feeling.

'The Permissive Society' is just one of the highlights from the strand Second City Firsts (1973-78), a logical extension of BBC Birmingham's output within Play for Today (1970-84) and a direct off-shoot from Thirty Minute Theatre (1965-73) which was intended to provide a dedicated national outlet for regional talent, settings and ideas.

Dave Rolinson

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