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Love Letters on Blue Paper (1976)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Love Letters on Blue Paper (1976)
BBC1, tx. 2/3/1976, 76 mins, colour
DirectorWaris Hussein
Production CompanyBBC TV
ProducerGraeme McDonald
ScriptArnold Wesker

Cast: Richard Pasco (Maurice Stapleton); Patrick Troughton (Victor Marsden); Elizabeth Spriggs (Sonia Marsden); Brian Capron (young Victor); Wendy Spriggs (young Sonia); Christopher Driscoll (trade union official)

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A retired trade union leader dying of leukaemia starts to receive love letters from his wife in the post, and shares them with his friend Maurice.

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Shortly after Waris Hussein and Arnold Wesker collaborated on the television adaptation of the playwright's classic 'Chips with Everything' (Play of the Month, BBC, tx. 28/9/1975), they reunited for 'Love Letters on Blue Paper', an original script based on Wesker's short story of the same name. Its premise - an elderly man reads with bewilderment his wife's often erotic recollections of their early lives - echoes Somerset Maugham's story 'The Colonel's Lady', previously adapted for the portmanteau film Quartet (d. Ken Annakin / Arthur Crabtree / Harold French / Ralph Smart, 1948) and for ITV's The Somerset Maugham Hour (tx. 4/10/1962). However, unlike so many stories about an early courtship as remembered by a now aged couple, the structure and style of Wesker's piece are quite distinctive.

The play is subdivided into the seven visits made by Maurice (Richard Pasco) to the charming, fiery but ailing former trade union leader Victor (Patrick Troughton). Numbered with on-screen captions, they chart the progress from Maurice's initial discovery of his friend's leukaemia up to his death in hospital months later, as Victor eventually comes to accept his fate. These are loosely structured around Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross' seminal five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) and are handled by Troughton with great sensitivity and without an ounce of sentimentality.

The narrative itself is told on multiple levels, firstly through Maurice's self-admittedly hazy recollections, and then through Sonia's letters, which Elizabeth Spriggs reads in voiceover. She gives an extraordinary performance as a passionate and intuitive working-class woman who only expresses great emotions in undated and unsigned letters, heard while we watch her undertake mundane domestic chores. The letters are then filtered through the impressions of Maurice and Victor, who in a sense respectively 'review' their style and content. Maurice is largely a proxy, an authorial and audience substitute, at one point shot completely out of focus as he (and we) listen to Troughton provide his own reminiscences of married life, occasionally at variance with his wife's. Caught between the infinitely more powerful married couple, Maurice eventually comes to define himself as a "spiritual double agent, in collusion with them both." Hussein directs with his usual tact and seamless discretion, though in one memorable shot he has his camera make a complete 360-degree turn through Victor and Sonia's front room.

Although the initial TV reviews were mixed, in 1978 Wesker adapted the script for the theatre with great success.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Last request (3:01)
2. Going in circles (2:39)
3. Meeting (3:30)
4. Not me (4:12)
Hussein, Waris (1938- )
Troughton, Patrick (1920-1987)
Play for Today (1970-84)