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Mad Jack (1970)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Mad Jack (1970)
For The Wednesday Play, BBC1, 4/2/1970
70 minutes, colour
DirectorJack Gold
ProducerGraeme McDonald
ScriptTom Clarke
PhotographyNat Crosby
MusicCarl Davis

Cast: Michael Jayston (Siegfried Sassoon); Michael Pennington (Geoffrey Cromlech); Clive Swift (the adjutant); David Wood (Ormand); Charles Lewsen (Bertrand Russell)

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Second Lieutenant Siegried Sassoon, on convalescence leave during World War One, begins a strident protest about the progress of the war, in the face of objections from his superior officers and the advice of his friends.

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Since it found its feet with its second season in 1965, The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-1970) was unashamedly contemporary in both its attitude and in the settings it employed. This makes 'Mad Jack', with its First World War subject, something of an oddity.

Perhaps recognising this, Tom Clarke, the play's writer, was quoted in The Radio Times attempting to link Sassoon's anti-war protest and the then-current spirit of protest, as manifested in popular demonstrations. This tenuous coupling of the play with a contemporary mood is wholly unnecessary, despite The Wednesday Play's stated remit for contemporaneity. Sassoon was not a pacifist, and the play is less about his protest against the Great War than it is about his difficulty in maintaining his principled position against almost complete opposition. The story is essentially one of a man struggling with his conscience, and is therefore timeless.

It is possible to read contemporary relevance into such a story at any time. Modern viewers will note that Sassoon's protest is against the politically obscured reasons for the war and that one of his comrades insists that, despite what their leaders may tell them, they are not fighting for freedom but for "Mesopotamian oil wells".

As was becoming increasingly common on The Wednesday Play by 1970, the drama was captured entirely on film outside of the more traditional electronic studio. This would normally enable the director not only to utilise a variety of locations but also to include action sequences and impressive visuals. However, director Jack Gold spurns these opportunities for a very gentle, sedentary production that concentrates on closely studied performance and dialogue.

Although there are numerous flashbacks, we see little of the actual war. Its nightmarish world, however, is well evoked by the scene in which Sassoon ventures out into No Man's Land to retrieve greatcoats from the dead. Under Gold's direction, the stars of the production are Sassoon's own poetry, often heard in voiceover, and Michael Jayston's performance as Sassoon.

Jayston's Sassoon has a quiet dignity and grim determination, just occasionally enlivened by brief but gleeful activity. Henry Raynor, The Times's television critic, found it "a performance attractive for gentleness and self-mockery". It was undoubtedly Jayston's performance - also giving the measured readings of Sassoon's often haunting poetry - in conjunction with Clarke's sensitive script, that so impressed the judges of 1971's International Television Festival in Monte Carlo, who awarded the play their major prize.

Oliver Wake

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Video Clips
1. No Man's Land (3:26)
2. Officers off-duty (5:42)
3. Tolstoy's Whore (1:21)
Monocled Mutineer, The (1986)
Davis, Carl (1936-)
Gold, Jack (1930-)
Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)