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And Did Those Feet? (1965)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of And Did Those Feet? (1965)
For The Wednesday Play, BBC1, tx. 2/6/1965
106 minutes, black & white
DirectorDon Taylor
ProducerJames MacTaggart
ScriptDavid Mercer
MusicHerbert Chappell

Cast: Kenneth Haigh (narrator); Patrick Troughton (Lord Fountain); David Markham (Timothy); Willoughby Goddard (Bernard); Anna Wing (Nannie)

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The aristocratic Lord Fountain, unable to produce any legitimate heirs, grows to detest his twin illegitimate sons, particularly when they doggedly refuse to accept their allotted roles.

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'And Did Those Feet?' was David Mercer's most non-naturalistic play. It used all the gimmicks of his earlier 'A Suitable Case for Treatment' (The Sunday-Night Play, BBC, tx. 21/10/1962) and more: freeze-frames, newsreel montages, surreal dream sequences, and a sardonic voice-over. Its larger-than-life characters, poetic dialogue and farcical situations make for a stylistically unique drama. The play was directed by Mercer's regular collaborator Don Taylor, who found the script "extraordinarily, daringly, suicidally original".

Mercer's story touches upon a number of the writer's preoccupations, notably father-son relationships and the position of the aristocracy in the radically shifting social landscape of the twentieth century. Mercer examines the stagnation of England's upper-classes with savage comedy. The title itself is drawn ironically from Blake's Jerusalem, an anthem of traditional England, and the character of Lord Fountain embodies all that is ridiculous about the ruling class. His inability to produce a legitimate heir and the impotence of his bastard sons suggest the failing power of hereditary privilege.

The twins Bernard and Timothy also represent the beginnings of a new social movement, opting-out of their father's decadent world. They fail in the established career route from Oxford to the forces, to a merchant bank, and they later refuse positions in the Foreign Office ("My family's put its idiots into the Foreign Office for generations", says Fountain). They abdicate the responsibilities of their class, preferring life alone or with animals, as they had lived while lost in the jungle during the war. They work in a zoo, but set the animals free, and end the play paddling up the Amazon. They are proto-hippies, dropping-out before the phrase was coined.

The play's pace is uneven, beginning with rapid comic adventures before slowing to concentrate on the brothers' introspective, existential concerns. Taylor's direction provides evocative sequences of the candlelit swimming baths that the twins take to living in, and imbues the play with an increasing sense of unreality. The Daily Herald called it "a masterpiece", though Taylor would forever believe he had not quite got the production right. The Times wrote that "Mr. Don Taylor's direction created some delightful pictures... but could not impose pace and a sense of direction upon the scenes which Mr. Mercer allowed to stagnate."

Both cartoonish and lyrical, the drama remains a fascinating exploration of the diverse social forces colliding in mid-1960s Britain, as seen by one of the era's most perceptive playwrights.

Oliver Wake

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Video Clips
1. Formative Years (5:12)
2. Every morning when I open my eyes (2:54)
3. I came across a tiger (1:20)
4. Russian roulette (1:45)
Mercer, David (1928-1980)
Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)