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Chariot of Fire (1970)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Chariot of Fire (1970)
For The Wednesday Play, BBC1, tx. 20/5/1970
75 minutes, colour
DirectorJames Ferman
ProducerIrene Shubik
ScriptTony Parker

Cast: Rosemary Leach (Shelley Mitchell); Jimmy Gardner (Stanley Wood); Charles Tingwell (John Mitchell)

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Shelley is a Volunteer Associate, who helps released prisoners to adapt to life outside. But in Stanley, who has a history of interfering with young boys, she may have taken on more than she can handle.

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'Chariot of Fire' began life as a drama about the 'Voluntary Associates' who assist prisoners to re-integrate into society upon release. The volunteer, housewife Shelley Mitchell, was a character based on a real Associate that writer Tony Parker had known. Parker had been studying sex offenders for his book The Twisting Lane, and chose to model the play's convict after one such offender.

Although the play still concerned the impact of being an Associate on Shelley's home life, it became as much a study of the offender. Stanley Woods, as he is named for the play, is a man in his late-middle-age who has spent half of his life in prison - "serving a life sentence in instalments", as Shelley puts it - for repeated offences against young boys.

Taking the character's personal history from the real 'Stanley', Parker uses psychoanalysis to explain the possible roots of his behaviour. A largely absent father and a cosseting mother, whose influence Stanley only escaped late in life, left him in a state of emotional immaturity which, Parker argues, confused his sexuality with a young child's physical curiosity. While never condoning or excusing his crimes, the play presents Stanley in a sympathetic light. He is ashamed of his actions and seeks treatment in an attempt to 'cure' him of his perversion.

Parker is also keen to expose the failings of the British justice system in its dealings with sex offenders. Stanley is afforded no rehabilitative treatment in prison, and the psychiatric care he receives outside is inadequate. Parker would continue to challenge the penal system in later works, like 'A Life is Forever' (tx. 16/10/1972) and 'The Sin Bin' (tx. 17/3/1981), both for the BBC's Play for Today (1970-84).

'Chariot of Fire' benefits enormously from the excellent performances of its leads. Rosemary Leech is perfectly cast as Shelley, a woman whose desire to help Stanley comes into conflict with the demands of her family. Jimmy Gardner's performance as Stanley is particularly impressive, making him pathetic and human when he could so easily have been plainly detestable.

Ultimately, Parker's play is a plea for an attempt at understanding those we might otherwise too easily label and decry as monsters. Arguably, such a sentiment is even more important now than in 1970, as the tabloid press regularly whips up violent outrage against sex offenders, particularly paedophiles, while paying scant attention to what shapes them.

Oliver Wake

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Video Clips
1. Prison visit (3:50)
2. Police (2:46)
3. Mother (4:04)
Ferman, James (1930-2002)
Shubik, Irene (1935-)
Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)