Socialist Worker

Jack Rosenthal at the BBC

by Gareth Jenkins
Issue No. 2243

Jack Rosenthal, who became one of the great original writers working in television, started his career writing episodes for Coronation Street in the 1960s.

He went on to contribute scripts to comedy series and the satirical programme That Was the Week that Was.

The 1960s and 1970s were probably the golden age of television.

Both the BBC and ITV attracted talented young writers who saw the potential in a medium that was beamed into millions of working class homes.

They started to explore issues much closer to the audience’s lives.

Rosenthal’s own background was northern, Jewish and working class. He wrote a range of one-off plays for TV, and continued to write comedy-drama series as well as produce screenplays almost up until his death in 2004.

He even co-wrote Nick Park’s animation Chicken Run, though he was not credited.

The first two plays in this collection, The Evacuees (1975) and Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976) reflect his own experience of growing up.

In The Evacuees, two Jewish brothers find themselves unhappily quartered on a childless couple in Blackpool. The understated tension in the relationship has to do with ethnicity, culture and class.

The young Jewish boy at the centre of Bar Mitzvah Boy rebels against his family’s expectations. Rosenthal’s humour—particularly in the depiction of the Jewish mother—is brilliant, but never resorts to caricature.

Spend Spend Spend (1977) is not autobiographical. It tells the true story of Viv Nicholson, who won the pools in 1961, and the catastrophic consequences it had for her and her husband.

The last two plays, Eskimo Day (1996) and its sequel Cold Enough for Snow (1997), focus on the nervous concerns of two sets of parents, one middle class, the other working class, for their children’s application to Cambridge university and subsequent student life at a different university.

The humour stems from sharp observation of middle class pretensions and the pathos from sympathetic observation of how the working class parents deal with “the empty nest”.

All these plays deal, in some sense, with rites of passage—social and cultural. Individuals find themselves facing barriers or experiencing changes that alter, or even threaten, old ways of living or doing things.

This produces a bitter-sweet, humane comedy which more than makes up for any weaknesses in plotting and characterisation.

Each play has a short introduction from Maureen Lipman, who stars in three of them, and was Rosenthal’s wife.

If you like these don’t miss the collection of his plays for ITV which has already been released.

5-DVD collection

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Tue 15 Mar 2011, 18:46 GMT
Issue No. 2243
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