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Angels Are So Few (1970)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Angels Are So Few (1970)
For Play for Today, BBC1, tx. 5/11/1970
65 minutes, colour
DirectorGareth Davies
ProducerGraeme McDonald
ByDennis Potter

Cast: Tom Bell (Michael Biddle); Christine Hargreaves (Cynthia Nicholls); Susan Richards (Mrs Cawser); Erik Chitty (Mr Cawser); Barry Cookson (Richard Nicholls)

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A young man visits a suburban housewife, claiming to be an angel.

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'Angels Are So Few' was Dennis Potter's first of eight plays in the BBC's then new Play for Today (1970-84) strand. Thematically, it followed on closely from his most recent work for the BBC, 'Son of Man' (The Wednesday Play, tx. 16/04/1969), which featured a distinctly earthly and human version of Christ suddenly making himself known to Judean society before being executed by the state. In 'Angels Are So Few', the visitor is Michael (Tom Bell), a young man who's convinced that he is an angel, and who enters the lives of the inhabitants of a quiet suburban street and turns them upside down.

Michael entreats the people he encounters not to "despise the ordinary, everyday things that are really beautiful", but despite this positive message he is a deeply threatening figure. Although Potter makes it clear that Michael is not really an angel, there are moments of ambiguity concerning his ability to influence events. In this sense, Michael is not the watered-down version of an angel as seen in popular culture, but a biblical angel of great power and influence.

Where the play differs starkly from 'Son of Man' is in Potter's more direct treatment of sexual neuroses. Michael's wish to be an angel is closely linked to his distaste for sex and his view of it as a dirty and unwholesome part of life, whereas for housewife Cynthia (Christine Hargreaves) her frustration with her husband leads her to coax Michael back into the house and seduce him, thus "removing his wings" and robbing him of his faith.

These sexual themes were not to the taste of director and long-time collaborator Gareth Davies, who thought them "sleazy" and "a self-indulgence". This was to be the last time the two worked together. Potter however, was compelled to return to the 'visitation' concept in such plays as 'Schmoedipus' (Play for Today, tx. 20/06/1974) and 'Brimstone and Treacle' (Play for Today, tx. 25/8/1987), with the latter inverting the premise 'Angels Are So Few' by having a demon, rather than an angel, come knocking on the door. More directly, Potter incorporated sections of 'Angels Are So Few' into 'Only Make Believe' (Play for Today, tx. 12/2/1973), as a script written by a long-suffering playwright very much in the Potter mould.

John Williams

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Video Clips
1. A visitor (3:51)
2. Behaving like animals (5:42)
3. 'Show me your wings' (3:57)
Brimstone and Treacle (1987)
Bell, Tom (1932-2006)
Potter, Dennis (1935-1994)
Play for Today (1970-84)