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Fable (1965)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Fable (1965)
For The Wednesday Play, BBC, tx. 20/1/1965
75 minutes, black & white
DirectorChristopher Morahan
ProducerJames MacTaggart
Story EditorRoger Smith
ScriptJohn Hopkins

Cast: Ronald Lacey (Len); Eileen Atkins (Joan); Thomas Baptiste (Mark); Barbara Assoon (Francesca); Carmen Munroe (Lala); Keith Barron (Narrator)

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In a black-run, totalitarian Britain, a white couple are separated from their children and each other following new legislation. The wife attempts to enlist the help of her husband's former employer, a liberal black writer.

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Inspired by events in South Africa, then at the height of Apartheid, John Hopkins' powerful and controversial Fable (BBC, tx. 20/1/1965), attempted to examine race relations in Britain by imagining the country under a brutal, Black-dominated authoritarian regime.

'Fable''s transmission was delayed for several weeks because of fears that it would raise racial tensions in a forthcoming by-election in Leyton, East London, involving a candidate who had previously lost his seat following a notoriously racist campaign in Smethwick, Birmingham.

The play contrasts the experiences of an oppressed white couple, Joan and Len, with the middle-class, black, liberal writer Mark Fellowes, living under house arrest with his attentive wife, Francesca. Although Fellowes initially appears a figure of hope, his revolutionary talk is, finally, exposed as empty and futile.

While Fellowes believes Francesca is taking his radical tracts to be published, she is actually destroying them. But when he finally learns of Francesca's betrayal, Mark's response is merely to continue as if nothing has changed, colluding with his wife in maintaining the illusion that he is taking genuine action. As a comment on the ultimately ineffectual nature of white liberal opposition in South Africa or elsewhere, this is an extremely challenging and radical position.

Hopkins' intention was to use the play's black-white power reversal to challenge views on relationships between the races, interspersing stills and documentary footage of conflicts in South Africa, Vietnam and elsewhere. It became clear, however, that the play drew a rather different response from much of its audience. As Hopkins admitted, "I got a letter from a viewer which said 'I really enjoyed that play. Boy, you showed them what would happen if they came to power, if they had the authority.' He didn't even need to specify who 'they' were."

Directed by Christopher Morahan - who later directed Hopkins' acclaimed series Talking to a Stranger (BBC, 1966) - 'Fable' remains a fascinating drama, despite dialogue which can sound mannered to modern ears. Particularly interesting is Hopkins' willingness to criticise not just white liberal complacency, but broadcasting itself: several scenes witness the distortion of news in a black-run newsroom.

Another achievement was the opportunity 'Fable' gave to black actors - notably Thomas Baptiste, Barbara Assoon and Carmen Munroe - at a time when TV roles were scarce.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Compulsory movements (4:53)
2. The individual injustice (3:58)
3. Banned books (3:47)
Assoon, Barbara
Atkins, Eileen (1934-)
Baptiste, Thomas (1936-)
Hopkins, John (1931-98)
Munroe, Carmen (1932-)
Walker, Rudolph (1939-)
The Television Play
Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)