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Old Crowd, The (1979)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Old Crowd, The (1979)
For Six Plays by Alan Bennett, LWT for ITV, tx. 27/1/1979, 61 mins
DirectorLindsay Anderson
ProducerStephen Frears
Written byAlan Bennett

Cast: John Moffat (George); Isabel Dean (Betty); Philip Stone (Harold); Frank Grimes (Glyn); Peter Jeffrey (Rufus); Rachel Roberts (Pauline)

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George and Betty plan a house warming party for a few friends.

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Third in a series of six Alan Bennett television plays for LWT, The Old Crowd was savaged upon its broadcast, its outwardly simplistic plot and offbeat humour only serving to alienate the critics. However, these surface qualities were underpinned by a darkly satirical core, and director Lindsay Anderson dismissed the criticism as a knee-jerk response to the drama's politically-charged themes.

The Old Crowd establishes its primary theme in its opening shot: a crack appears in a ceiling, informing the viewer that fault-lines are appearing in the fabric of society. Throughout the drama, the dinner party guests who make up the 'old crowd' (a term interchangeable with 'bourgeois' or 'middle class') discuss a world outside beset by riots, rampant crime and disease, leading to a collapse of public services. This bleak portrait would resonate for viewers enduring the ongoing 'winter of discontent' that prefigured the demise of the Callaghan government. For Bennett, the election of Margaret Thatcher some three months later would only intensify his gloom, while similar themes of social collapse would dominate Anderson's challenging feature film, Britannia Hospital (1982).

But if the cracks in the ceiling reflect the outer world, then they also represent the crumbling inner world of the old crowd's members. Depicted as boorish, self-centred and laughably constrained by outdated social mores, they appear to be the main barrier to a progressive future, and the film seems to demand their deletion. It even predicts that 'thinning blood' will be the manner of their eventual demise. This is the ailment suffered by the old crowd's matriarch, Totty, while the sexual encounters between the glamorous Stella and the lower-class Glyn imply a future generation of children whose middle-class blood has been 'thinned' by working-class stock. Their liaisons may even signal the onset of a classless future society.

If the drama's message is provocative, then its method is equally so. Anderson recaptures those accidental moments in live television when, say, a boom microphone or the edge of a set creeps into the picture, by occasionally revealing The Old Crowd's crew filming the proceedings. These shots are not intended to be comforting to the viewer - that is, a reminder that it's 'only a fiction' - but are meant to highlight how the violent reality of The Old Crowd might easily merge with our own. For Anderson, the real and the fictional worlds are separated by nothing more than a camera pan.

Peter Hoskin

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Video Clips
1. This cockeyed world (4:21)
2. Conducted tour (3:06)
3. Youth (0:40)
4. The slide show (3:50)
Alan Bennett: The Guardian Interview (1984)
Anderson, Lindsay (1923-1994)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)
Fenton, George (1950-)
Jeffrey, Peter (1929-1999)
Roberts, Rachel (1927-1980)