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Let's Murder Vivaldi (1968)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Let's Murder Vivaldi (1968)
For The Wednesday Play, BBC, tx. 10/4/1968
65 mins, black & white
DirectorAlan Bridges
ProducerGraeme Mcdonald
Story EditorKenith Trodd
ScreenplayDavid Mercer

Cast: Denholm Elliott (Gerald); Gwen Watford (Monica); Glenda Jackson (Julie); David Sumner (Ben)

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The lives of two contrasting couples collide over one fateful weekend.

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Ian Penman, writing in The Sunday Correspondent ten years after David Mercer's early death in 1980, recalled the era of "monochrome anger, intense beards, poloneck politics" which Mercer represented in the British TV drama of the 1960s and '70s. In Let's Murder Vivaldi (BBC, tx. 10/4/1968), Ben (David Sumner) is a version of Mercer himself - heavily bearded, often drunk, disillusioned, paranoid, prone to violent outbursts. As so often in Mercer's work, the characters are intelligent people tearing each other to shreds - but in a sophisticated way, using wit and sarcasm as weapons just as effective as the knives that eventually come into play. The result is powerful, adult drama, which is also bitingly funny.

Both couples are trapped in failing relationships. Gerald (Denholm Elliott) and Monica (Gwen Watford) hide behind a thin veneer of civilised behaviour, hilariously represented by the ritual of food preparation and consumption. Ben rages incoherently at the world, while Julie (Glenda Jackson) struggles to understand both him and her own feelings for Gerald. All four are relentlessly self-analytical. The play is formally structured as follows:

Ben and Julie
Monica and Gerald
Gerald and Julie
Monica and Gerald
Ben and Julie

Ben and Julie's first scene is one of physical and verbal violence, but their last finds them reaching some kind of accord and harmony, symbolised by the Vivaldi piece they practice together. Monica and Gerald's first scene is, on the surface, a model of civilised restraint, but in their last scene Monica goads and humiliates Gerald to the point where he explodes into sudden - and lethal - violence.

Gerald and Julie's scene is central, not just in its actual placing within the drama, but in its significance to the way the drama will develop and resolve itself in the final two scenes.

The acting is superb, especially from Denholm Elliott and Gwen Watford as the middle-class couple. Watford was one of television's most underrated actresses, a mistress of the barbed or outrageous phrase, delivered with utter serenity. Elliott conveys oceans of pain with the twitch of an eyebrow. The play's themes - class and sexual infighting - resonate through so much of 1960s drama and echo Mercer's own stage work at this time, notably Ride a Cock Horse which also features a character as a version of the dramatist. The BBC imposed a number of cuts - including a reference to the menopause - and rescheduled the play more than once.

Janet Moat

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Video Clips
1. Ben and Julie (2:38)
2. Monica and Gerald (2:52)
3. Gerald and Julie (2:28)
4. Gerald and Monica (2:36)
Elliott, Denholm (1922-1992)
Jackson, Glenda (1936-)
Mercer, David (1928-1980)
Trodd, Kenith (1936-)
The Television Play
Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)