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Parachute, The (1968)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Parachute, The (1968)
For Play of the Month, BBC, tx. 21/1/1968
80 mins, black & white
DirectorAnthony Page
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerTony Garnett
ScriptDavid Mercer

Cast: Alan Badel (Father); Jill Bennett (Anna); John Osborne (Werner); Isabel Dean (Mother); Lindsay Anderson (Holz)

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As German aristocrat Werner von Reger prepares to test a new parachute in the Luftwaffe in 1940, he recalls key incidents from his earlier life, in an attempt to explain his existence.

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David Mercer constantly sought new and inventive ways of treating well-worn subjects, like adultery or family relationships. The Parachute (BBC, tx. 21/1/1968) employs two time lines, dream sequences, flashbacks and a stylised theatricality to examine Germany between the wars. The play illustrates most of Mercer's main preoccupations: insanity, alienation, violence, mortality, and political and sexual impotence. At its heart is the father-son relationship which features so often in Mercer's work.

Mercer surely had his first wife's upper-class eastern European background in mind when he tackled the theme of the Nazi impact on old aristocratic German families. In trying to make sense of his life, Werner cannot separate his personal circumstances from the gradual destruction of the civilised world around him. His weariness, emptiness of soul, even death wish, is a metaphor for Germany itself.

Philip Purser, reviewing the play during the BBC's 1988 Mercer retrospective, commented on Mercer's use of words "as forces just as potent as pictures and much more personal". Mercer's dialogue required highly accomplished actors with years of theatrical experience. If this sometimes resulted in a mannered and overly-theatrical delivery, it only added to the powerful, larger-than-life effect of a Mercer television play. In The Parachute Mercer had two superb actors to play Werner's warring parents, the glittering Alan Badel and wistful Isabel Dean.

To add to the mix, Werner himself was played, very low-key, by the original Angry Young Man himself, fellow playwright John Osborne (at least a decade too old for the part). Royal Court veterans Jill Bennett and director Lindsay Anderson vividly impersonated Anna and Holz. Anderson's characterisation of the secret policeman, a fussy, common little man in a bow tie, is especially good because surprising - this man cannot believe his luck at the power and status the new regime has given him, a lowly lawyer.

The play is demanding, with constant time shifts and merging of dream and reality, as well as an emotional intensity which shocked many contemporary viewers and critics. The play was rife with symbolism - guns, beds, fur, wolves, the parachute itself. Shot in black and white 35mm film, it is visually ravishing, especially in the dream sequences. If previous Mercer plays - A Suitable Case for Treatment (BBC, tx. 21/10/1962) and In Two Minds (BBC, tx. 1/3/1967) - examined individual mental breakdowns, The Parachute might be seen to examine the breakdown of an entire class - if not an entire country.

Janet Moat

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Video Clips
1. Werner the child (3:34)
2. Shooting lessons (5:57)
3. Confessions (5:19)
Anderson, Lindsay (1923-1994)
Garnett, Tony (1936-)
Knight, Esmond (1906-1987)
Mercer, David (1928-1980)
Osborne, John (1929-1994)