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Museum Attendant, The (1973)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Museum Attendant, The (1973)
For Centre Play, BBC2, tx. 2/8/1973, colour, 32 mins
DirectorDerek Bennett
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerAnn Scott
ScriptMichael Abbensetts

Cast: Joseph Greig (Regan); David Battley (Dennis); Robin Parkinson (Frank); Tony Selby (Flynn); Horace James (Howard); Kwesi Kay (John)

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The other attendants get through the day easily enough with their jokes and arguments, but things are different for Howard.

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Michael Abbensetts came to Britain in the early 1960s as a bright middle-class graduate, but had to spend a decade working in jobs far below his capabilities - including a security officer at the Tower of London and an attendant at Sir John Soane's Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields. As the title reveals, his first television play drew heavily on this background.

In half an hour, Abbensetts sketches a small-minded, petty world, where attendants Dennis and Frank take great delight in ticking visitors off for infringement of the rules but laugh off serious emotional upheavals and refuse to commit themselves to a particular position. Frank's catchphrase is "Makes me smile", while Dennis' reaction to a colleague's suicide is to express concern that this will affect his planned 5pm departure. Flynn is openly racist but, as later conversations reveal, this derives from deep insecurity as to his own status - at one point, without being asked, he shows off his impressive array of chest tattoos, many of which are explicitly patriotic.

All three regard the two black attendants, Howard (West Indian) and John (African) as though they were a strange, exotic species, with John's relentless cheerfulness coming in for particular criticism. Their objections to Howard have as much to do with class as race: of all the attendants, he is the most overqualified for the job, having practiced as an accountant back home. His wife has just left him, but John is the only one of his colleagues who shows any more than token sympathy - and, as the ending makes clear, this turns out to be the final straw for Howard, as her departure breaks the last link with his memories of a happier life.

Significantly, though half the staff apply for the post of Deputy Head Attendant, Howard is not among them: the humiliation of near-certain rejection would be too much. He has ambitions to write but - unlike his creator - never put them into practice. One feels that Abbensetts created Howard as a warning of what he might have become had he not taken steps to change his career: lonely, embittered and as resentful as his English colleagues, who constantly complain about being victimised by government and immigrants. As Frank puts it when he berates a visitor for touching one of the exhibits: "This is a museum. You don't come here to enjoy yourself."

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Meet the staff (3:45)
2. The English mentality (3:14)
3. Questions of identity (4:59)
Abbensetts, Michael (1938-)
Black TV Writers