The Nearly Man

The Nearly Man was a 1975 series starring Tony Britton as a Labour MP who "nearly" but not quite made it into Government. Starting out as a 1974 ITV Playhouse production, written by Arthur Hopcroft and directed by John Irvin, the subsequent series followed the MP's final battle for power. There were some parallels with the character of John Wilder, not least in Britton's co-star Ann Firbank, who had understudied the role of Pamela Wilder in the third series of The Plane Makers.

Firbank had the thankless task of covering for Barbara Murray in a much diminished role in the 1964 series of The Plane Makers and it's a pleasure to see her playing a stronger, less brittle character in The Nearly Man . There are some similarities - at one point she makes an observation about her support for her husband which seems to echo Pamela Wilder's'vitamin pills for the ego' speech from The Firing Line episode of The Plane Makers . But Alice Collinson has her own career in publishing and has also raised two teenage sons, while dutifully supporting her husband at constituency events. Firbank provides a subtle support to Britton throughout the original play, holding his metaphorical coat as he ingratiates himself with his local constituency. In one scene we see her patiently and silently appraising the pretentious wife of a local journalist as the woman tries to impress her.

The series starred Tony Britton (the young fugitive Simon Bates in Dr Syn - Alias The Scarecrow) as Christopher Collinson, a charismatic 52 year old Labour MP who had made his name with a book called "Towards a Just Society" but never had the chance to put his ideas into practice. In the original play,we first see him on an Any Questions panel developing his theory that, "There is an entrenched and resourceful resistance to change by the privileged in every aspect of everyday life." The MP is asked to sign a copy of his book by a Labour party member who says it's "been a bible" to him, but at the end of the series Collinson deems his life a failure, "I didn't imagine 20 years ago that I would not have any direct influence on the shaping of the country. It didn't occur to me that I would never have power!"

Although a friend of actor and Labour MP Andrew Faulds ( Jason and the Argonauts), Tony Britton was a Tory voter at heart. Hee told journalist David Nathan that he had considered the basis of Socialist philosophy in preparation for the role but concluded that while there was a lot to be said for its approach, "it is very inward-looking..and class-divisive." (Wilfred Pickles, who played the local Labour party chairman, was more forthright saying that he didn't vote Labour or Tory ("they're all a lot of twisters!").

There are some parallels with the characters and themes in The Power Game . Collinson is a witty and resourceful character, constantly aiming towards ministerial office. He becomes the spokesman for a group of 40 backbench MP's led by Ian McCulloch (Survivors) but does so in the hope that he will be personally rewarded for supporting the Labour leadership. Robert Urquhart from The Plane Makers guest stars in one episode as a boozy former Minister who Collinson once worked with. Although Collinson is serially and openly unfaithful, embarking on an affair with university lecturer Kate Fahey, he is jealous of his wife's relationship with writer Brian Griffin (John Leyton, The Great Escape, Jericho). However, Alice Collinson tells him that this is just paranoia."You have to identify the traitors in your life, even if they don't exist.And that's how Brian Griffin and I get in bed together in one of your squalid little fantasies of persecution."

The relationship between Alice Collinson and Griffin illustrates one aspect in which the series does differ from The Power Game. Although Alice does live apart from Collinson at one point, this seems to be an attempt to recapture family life with Griffin and his children. Where the Wilders' son was edited out of existence after the second series of The Plane Makers, the Collinson's son features heavily throughout the series. Unfortunately, while acutely observed, the scenes dealing with the Collinson's fractured family life tend to slow the story down.

As in The Plane Makers, the livliest scenes are those that show Collinson in conflict. And just as Wilder had a conflict of principles with Arthur Sugden, Christopher Collinson finds his position threatened by a small group of left wing activists led by his constituency agent Ron Hibbert.

Gwen Taylor and Michael Elphick as Dorothy and Ron Hibbert

The agent was played by Michael Elphick (who had earlier acted with Patrick Wymark both in London and on Broadway in Tony Richardson's production of Hamlet). Hibbert is one of the best roles in Elphick's career. A schoolteacher, who coaches underachieving remedial readers in his spare time, he is married to Dorothy (Gwen Taylor) who also teaches two nights a week and manages their household on a tight income (at one point she says without complaining that she needs a hairdryer). Hibbert describes his background as, "11-Plus.Grammar School.Teachers training college. Back to school. Married. 2 kids. Council house. Do me own gardening. Let the wife buy me clothes. Just a simple working class lad.". He experienced the common alienation of working class boys catapulted to Grammar School by the 11-Plus system, resenting the attempts to "nurture class pretensions" and make the children think like home counties gentlemen. Hibbert says he wants to make politics more effective, but he doesn't want to be a professional agent doing it for a living. "I'm working for my class. What I want is more power for us, so we can have a Government that runs the country for us first and foremost!"

In contrast to Hibbert's resentment, Collinson is an unapologetic middle class intellectual. Tony Britton brought the glamour of his former career as a leading man in movies like The Birthday Present (1957) to the role of an MP who is is said to have had "a strong women's vote" and warns Hibbert that, "I can hold this seat on a personal vote, rather than a party one." He's not quite a John Wilder figure - it's questionable whether Collinson has the drive and ruthlessness to take him to the top. Where Wilder has a sociopathic disregard for others, Collinson's selfishness is more passive. His wife thinks he's lost his excitement and "response to people." Despite his disillusionment, Britton certainly makes Collinson a superfically attractive figure. He delivers the rhetorical speeches which Arthur Hopcroft gives Collinson with theatrical flourish.

Where The Nearly Man differs from The Plane Makers and The Power Game is that each episode is set within a specific month in 1975, and names (although does not show)the actual leaders of the Labour Government.

The early episodes are set in the months of April to June 1975 when the Labour Government was committed to holding a referendum on whether the UK should stay in the European Community.At the time, the Labour Party was divided with right wingers arguing that Britain should remain in the Common Market, while left wingers such as Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle campaigned to leave. While Conservative and Liberal party conferences supported EU membership, the Labour Conference had a strong "Leave" vote. Prime Minister Harold Wilson decreed that Cabinet ministers should support membership within the Commons, but were free to state their own views outside Parliament.

In one scene, Britton displays the newspaper headlines announcing Eric Heffer's self-inflicted sacking from the Cabinet on 9th April 1975 after he broke this rule and made an anti-EU speech in the Commons. The EU referendum is used to illustrate the diversity of opinion within the Labour party.Either from conviction, or an attempt to gain favour with the Government, Collinson argues Britain should stay in the EC. Hibbert and his cronies ( Ian East and Steven Grives) argue tactics. Hibbert says they should be canvassing systematically ("it's not as if the Common Market was the burning issue in every pub!"). But his associate Maurice Wrigley (Ian East) says, "There's no danger. This town's going to vote No.It's the women. The price's have all gone up. We don't have to tell them it's because of the Common market."

Ian East as Maurice Wrigley, Steven Grives (The Sandbaggers) as Len and Michael Elphick as Ron Hibbert discuss tactics

In a subsequent episode, Reshuffle (June 1975) Maurice admits that he got it wrong."I thought people would say Europe's put our price's up so piss off Europe!But if we'd canvassed the way you'd wanted all over the country, it'd have made no difference. It was more complex than we thought! We misread the public's minds.It might have been wishful thinking. it might have been arrogance. but we got the voters wrong!"

Hopcroft's script explores the opposing factions within the local Labour Party. Where Hibbert is passionately opposed to Collinson, Maurice Wrigley is amused by his articles and his performance as an MP."Oh, I want him out because I think he's a danger. He's one of the obstructions. We'll never get things right in this country while we've got people like Collinson thinking up some lovely distant future for us while carefully making sure we stop exactly as we are. But I quite like him."

Hopcroft shows the hard slog of a constituency MP, interacting with local constituents in the streets, or in cold school halls and meeting rooms. In one scene Collinson is berated by a local activist (Tim Barlow) for being part of a Government that betrays the working class. Britton responds that,"Your conversation is remarkable for being even more abusive than your letters. But invective is not argument" and then calmly sets out his position. Ian East as Maurice Wrigley expresses contemptuous amusement with Collinson's performance saying, lauding, "The adaptable mind.He's good to watch!" In the same episode (Confrontation), local organiser Jane Lowe shines a light on the make-up of the local party by saying, "I might have been Chairman of the party if hard work and ability were enough. I can't tell you how many people have said to me - I'm sorry, but I couldn't bring myself to vote for a woman against a man!"

Labour's old guard is represented by, Wilfred Pickles who plays the long-standing party Chairman Alderman King. He tries to explain to Hibbert why the middle class Collinson was chosen to represent their town. The previous MP was the son of a cotton worker: "Solid union man.Good party man.Member of the lower paid masses." Even after two post-war Labour Governments, the town was still full of slums and low wage jobs. "Them who didn't try to make it better were your working class MP's. They were frightened by Westminister because they couldn't understand it. When you're picking your allies, go for those with brains and the right kind of arrogance. Those who expect to get things changed."

Pickles tries to get Collinson and Hibbert to work together, telling them, "This party needs both of you. Intellect! Rage! Imagination and Slog! You could never do each others work but together... Is that too much to ask? Has one of you got to break?"

Surprisingly, Hibbert resigns as party agent telling his wife that, "I don't think there is a party that I'm suited to.I thought at one stage that I'd join the Commies (but)they're not what I want. They discount people. The kind of people I care about. They drop 'em when it suits them, just like Collinson's sort do!"

He's succeeded by Maurice Wrigley (Ian East), who describes himself to Collinson as the son of a"working class bookworm" and proposes a working compromise."Whenever you and I sit down to discuss Politics with a capital P, philosophy or the way the world should be ordered, I'm sure we'll always be vastly at variance.But we ought to be able to accommodate that. If we keep ourselves busy with practical matters,we might not have too much time to grapple over the theory."

From the viewpoint of history - especially the approach of Thatcherism and the orthodoxy of Neoclassical economics - Hopcraft presents a telling scene in the third episode where Collinson is cornered by a drunken businessman Steve (David Valla) who describes himself as "basically working class. I run a Rover 3800 with a 'Vote Labour' sticker permanantly in the back window." But as an employer he tells Collinson, "the working man needs to be told and led. We've got to encourage the labour force to take the long-term view."

Collinson later says that, "Drunk or sober he was talking what a lot of people would call decent common sense.Steve (is a member of) the harvest of our post-War social mobility. The new breed of Labour voting middle class. The smart and monied present us with a certain wry irony. We preached change, encouraged dissatisfaction and higher expectations. And now we have a whole new breed of beneficiaries like our friend Steve who tell us enough! Stop the others from being so dissatisfied and demanding! Crudely though they may express it, they confront me with a worrying question.Do I really want the upheaval, the conflict that was always bound to follow if the working class acted to bring change?"

Nigel Havers (with John Flanagan as TV journalists trying to break the news of the attempt to unseat Collinson) would later co-star with Tony Britton in the comedy series Don't Wait Up

The Nearly Man comes from a tradition of British television where the writer is the dominant element. Each episode is packed with eloquent speeches and three-dimensional characters brought to life by strong actors. Hopcraft explores the 1970's Labour movement wth journalistic flair and also delivers a convincing portrait of a man who refuses to accept that he is one of the many (also-rans), rather than one of the few (successes). But perhaps the series is undermined by the respect for the authorial voice. In comparison to The Power Game there is little sense of pace. No ticking clock. No sense that there is someone at the back urging them to get on with it. The series was originally shown opposite the 9 O clock News on BBC1 followed by Play For Today (and Vince Hill in The Musical Time Machine on BBC2). I can personally remember the Gerald Scarfe title sequence with its Giles Swayn music (sounding like The Fast Show's Jazz Club parody) but I have no memory of the series itself. Admittedly, I was probably too young to appreciate it, but I also suspect the series failed to engage the mass audience - ironically the very audience whose future was being discussed in the series. Happily, Arthur Hopcroft and John Irvin went on to collaborate on the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which made a much more lasting impression.

Return to The Television main page