Saturday 19 November 2022

Jake's Progress

 Lurking unnoticed on one of the digital platforms  (All 4 in fact, which can be viewed free) is a drama series I fondly remember, and which I thought had disappeared for good. Jake's Progress by Alan Bleasdale, first shown in 1995, starred Robert Lindsay and Julie Walters on top form, with a fine support cast and a truly astonishing performance by Barclay Wright as the child around whom the action revolves, the eponymous Jake. Jake is, it's fair to say, troubled and difficult, and only his father, Jamie, has an apparently good relationship with him. Whether that relationship is actually good for Jake, or for anyone else, is another matter. Jamie Diadoni is a feckless manchild, incapable of bearing any responsibility, and living largely in a fantasy world built out of his former, failed career as a rock singer. Like the father in Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, he is in alliance with his child against the adult world and all its demands. Jamie has looks and charm galore, and is able to turn on the latter dazzlingly enough to sustain his marriage to Julie, who is obliged to work all hours as a nurse while he lives the life of a 'house husband' and indulges his musical fantasies. It is all too clear that Jake has grown to hate his mother – all the more so when she gets pregnant and the prospect of a sibling looms – and his maternal grandmother, who is indeed pretty monstrous, as played by Dorothy Tutin. When Jamie and Julie's debts, about which Jamie is of course in total denial, finally become unsustainable, their precarious situation is clearly heading for big trouble. What form it might take is hinted at when a palm reading friend finds something deeply troubling in Jamie's near future...
   Having watched the first couple of hours of Jake's Progress, for the first time since the 1990s, I am hugely impressed, by the acting, the unobtrusively clever direction, and most of all by Bleasdale's brilliant script, with its pinpoint dialogue and complete understanding of the medium. According to Bleasdale, this drama grew out of his shock when, as an only child, he discovered the depths of rivalry and even hatred between his own children – a shock that was only reinforced when he had to rescue a neighbour's child from being burned alive by an elder sibling. The series nearly never happened because no suitable actor could be found for Jake's part. Then, at the last minute, Barclay Wright turned up and, in the event, delivered something that is surely one of the best child performances ever screened. Sadly, and surprisingly, his subsequent acting career never amounted to much. As for Bleasdale, who in my opinion is the equal of any TV dramatist (Dennis Potter included), he tends to be bracketed under 'social realism' and remembered chiefly for Boys from the Blackstuff, rather than Jake's Progress (which doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry) or the great state-of-the-nation drama GBH, or even The Monocled Mutineer. In 1999 he made a controversial adaptation of Oliver Twist (which I loved), with an entirely new backstory for Oliver, and before that a curious misfire, Melissa, inspired by a Francis Durbridge thriller, his last work for Channel 4. Bleasdale, once such a major figure, had nothing on television in the new millennium until, in 2011, he made a fine two-parter, The Sinking of the Laconia, dramatising the Laconia incident of 1942. It seems a shame, to put it mildly, that such a prodigiously gifted dramatist should have spent so much of his later career absent from our screens. If you want a reminder of just how good he was – and how good TV drama can get – seek out Jake's Progress while it's there. Like so much of the best television, it wouldn't get made today.

1 comment:

  1. Also, the music is co-written by Elvis Costello and Richard Harvey.