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Sunset Across the Bay (1975)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Sunset Across the Bay (1975)
For Play for Today, BBC, tx. 20/2/1975, 70 mins, colour
DirectorStephen Frears
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerInnes Lloyd
ScriptAlan Bennett
PhotographyBrian Tufano

Cast: Harry Markham (Dad); Gabrielle Daye (Mam); Bob Peck (Bertram); Betty Alberge (Mrs Longstaff); Albert Mooley (Arthur); Madge Hindle (Miss Passmore)

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An elderly couple leave their native Leeds to spend their retirement in Morecambe, only to find that it fails to measure up to their expectations - or their memories.

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Broadcast in the BBC's Play for Today strand, Alan Bennett's second television play was even more elegiac than its predecessor, A Day Out (BBC, tx. 24/12/1972), in its depiction of the post-retirement lives of an elderly couple identified only as 'Mam' (Gabrielle Daye) and 'Dad' (Harry Markham).

This anonymity underlines the fact that Bennett based them quite closely on his own parents, "except that the wife is more querulous than my mother and the husband less gentle than my father. But much of their language is the same, and their attitudes". Bennett's father died unexpectedly between scripting and filming, occasioning much soul-searching, but his mother was more forthright: "They're from Leeds and we're from Leeds, but that's as far as it went. Mind you, it was grand seeing Morecambe."

If it was grand for Mrs Bennett, it was less so for her fictional counterparts. Although Mam and Dad have dreamed of retiring to Morecambe, the prosaic reality turns out to be very different. Their new life is constantly weighed against memories of Leeds, and is usually found wanting. Dad tries to buy a Leeds paper, but the newsagent can only manage Bradford ("it's thereabouts"), while Mam is unsettled by the milkman's offer of yoghurt ("You have to be brought up to stuff like yoghurt").

But they know that returning to Leeds is impossible. Their world has vanished literally as well as metaphorically, their last sight of the street they inhabited for decades being that of the houses starting to be demolished. They don't want to move forward but they can't move back, so they remain in a limbo that's only interrupted by Dad's unexpected but banal death in a gentleman's lavatory that Mam, properly, refuses to enter even when it's clear that something's badly wrong.

This was the first of what would be a long line of Bennett plays about the concerns of the elderly, a field that provided the most fertile ground for his gift for investing the outwardly mundane with immense poignancy. Regular collaborator Stephen Frears' direction is appropriately unshowy, with many of the most powerful moments deriving from passing glances at Leeds landmarks, turning them into signposts along a journey through life that's nearing its end. Bob Peck contributes a brief cameo as the couple's grown-up son Bertram, who drives them to the Lake District and gives them their last truly happy memory.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Dad's retirement (3:04)
2. Farewell to Leeds (3:05)
3. A morning stroll (2:25)
4. Our Bertram (3:33)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)
Frears, Stephen (1941-)
Peck, Bob (1945-1999)
Tufano, Brian (1939-)
Play for Today (1970-84)