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Knowledge, The (1979)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Knowledge, The (1979)
ITV, tx. 27/12/1979
89 mins, colour
Directed byBob Brooks
Production CompanyEuston Films
Produced byChristopher Neame
ScreenplayJack Rosenthal
Original ideaBob Brooks
MusicJeff Wayne

Cast: Nigel Hawthorne ('Vampire' Mr Burgess); Mick Ford (Chris Matthews); Kim Taylforth (Janet); Jonathan Lynn (Ted Margolies); David Ryall (Titanic Walters); Michael Elphick (Gordon Weller)

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Four would-be London cabbies attempt to memorise the city's streets as part of a fearsome test known as 'the Knowledge'.

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Early in Jack Rosenthal's poignant comic drama, chief examiner Mr Burgess (played with delicious sadism by Nigel Hawthorne), having set his new intake of would-be cabbies the supremely daunting task of memorising the 15,842 streets that comprise Central London, attempts to rationalise the scale of the Knowledge: "no taxi driver in no other city in no other country in the world has to know a fraction of what you have to know. And not many brain surgeons neither. But there you are. That's how we built an Empire. And, no doubt, how we knocked the bleeder down again." The Knowledge explores the effect of this superhuman challenge on the lives of four men.

The screenplay was commissioned for Euston Films, the Thames Television subsidiary best known for tough filmed drama such as The Sweeney (ITV, 1974-78), and based on an idea by Bob Brooks, an American advertising director living in London. The decision to make the often maligned London cabbie a metropolitan hero may have tested Rosenthal's predisposition to side with the underdog, but his well-chosen quartet manage to evoke the necessary combination of amusement and empathy. A subtly ironic coda suggests that it is the most mild-mannered of the four who morphs into the stock ranting taxi driver.

Rosenthal's mastery of the comically embarrassing scene is evident throughout - indeed his villain, Burgess (based on a real-life examiner), positively revels in embarrassment. The image of Hawthorne performing jumping jacks with an inhaler stuck up his nose in an attempt to distract our hero is particularly memorable. In a less obtrusive touch, Rosenthal deftly underlines the progression of the aspirants with a series of slogans on a church notice board, from "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge", via "He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow", to "Knowledge is Power".

The Knowledge is also a paean to London. Burgess delights in emphasising the myriad roads, streets and lanes that must be committed to memory, and a real sense of the city's beautifully complex geography is provided by our shadowing of the four candidates biking their way through the labyrinth. Much of the landscape has changed in the intervening decades, and, like its near-contemporary The Long Good Friday (d. John Mackenzie, 1979), The Knowledge offers an enticing glimpse of the capital just prior to the Thatcher revolution, and a reminder of the time when a taxi driver's badge cost 15p.

Fintan McDonagh

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Video Clips
1. The first run (3:22)
2. Distractions (1:56)
3. Gunnersbury high tea (3:24)
4. Off the Knowledge (3:07)
Elphick, Michael (1946-2002)
Hawthorne, Sir Nigel (1929-2001)
Rosenthal, Jack (1931-2004)
Euston Films