And Priestley Begat Beiderbecke

I’m going to write a bit of something about the background to Alan Plater’s great 1985 comedy-drama The Beiderbecke Affair. If you’re a big fan of Plater and of the series, you may know most of what I’m going to say, but even if that’s the case, there’s a little bit at the end that you probably don’t already know. You might not be interested in it, but you won’t have known about it.

James Bolam, Terence Rigby and Barbara Flynn: The Beiderbecke Affair

The tale of how the series came to the screen is a shaggy-dog story worthy of Plater himself. A thoroughly professional screen-writer, as well as a droll and witty one, Alan Plater had been commissioned at the end of the 1970s to adapt J.B. Priestley’s The Good Companions for television. He was asked to do it in 13 hour-long episodes, but he said he could do it in nine. When asked about the other four weeks, he said: “Easy. I’ll write you a four-part original. I fancy doing a non-violent thriller.” And so the deal was done.

What he came up with was a little thing called Get Lost! starring Alun Armstrong and Bridget Turner as two schoolteachers from Leeds caught up in a low-key thriller plot about… well, this, as explained by Alan Plater himself in his autobiography Doggin’ Around:

“The idea came from a newspaper item. It said that according to official records, twenty thousand people disappeared every year. I think that was the number. It might have been more, but whichever way you looked at it, it was a lot of people and a lot of unexplained disappearances.”

Alun Armstrong in Get Lost!

Get Lost! concerns the disappearance of the husband of Judy Threadgold (Bridget Turner) and her investigations, alongside fellow-teacher Neville Keaton (Alun Armstrong), to find out what happened to him. There’s a bit with a gun, but no one dies, and no one gets significantly hurt. It’s all about small events, little niggles, and droll dialogue. The series was broadcast in 1981.

What has all this to do with The Beiderbecke Affair? Well, Get Lost! didn’t set the world on fire, but it did well enough for Plater to suggest a sequel, provisionally entitled Get Lost! Revisited. (I think he should have called it Get Stuffed! or possibly Get Knotted!, but that’s another story.) He wrote the scripts but then discovered that Alun Armstrong wasn’t available for the filming. So, waste not, want not, he revised the scripts with different character names, the production team brought together an entirely new cast, and Beiderbecke was born. Without Get Lost!, The Beiderbecke Affair would quite simply never have happened.

All straight so far? Good.

But there’s more, and here we’re venturing into deep waters, because what I’m going to say is pure speculation. It could be nonsense, explained by that old jester, coincidence. All the same, though, let’s just imagine something.

Back in 1979 or thereabouts, when Plater was turning his attention to adapting Priestley, let’s suppose he was reading some of Priestley’s other stuff as well. Let’s also suppose that one day he was turning the pages of Priestley’s 1949 volume of essays called Delight, which lists and describes some of the things that most delighted Priestley, including “Reading Detective Stories in Bed”:

“We enthusiasts are not fascinated by violence or the crime element in these narratives. Often, like myself, we deplore the blood-and-bones atmosphere and wish the detective novelists were not so conventional about offering us murder all the time. (A superb detective story could be written – and I have half a mind to write it – about people who were not involved in any form of crime. About disappearance or a double life, for example.)”

J.B. Priestley by Yousuf Karsh (1949)

Those words could almost have been written by Alan Plater in his pitch for Get Lost! A mystery, without violence, without a crime, possibly about a disappearance? Now, there’s a thought….

As I say, this could just be coincidence. (And to keep the record straight, Priestley did write something like what he had outlined, in his 1967 novel It’s An Old Country.) But doesn’t it make sense to suppose that Alan Plater designed his little four-part thriller as an addendum to the Priestley: a deliberate tip of the hat to the Yorkshire sage, elaborating on one of his own ideas?

Alan Plater

Note: in this blog I have referred to: Doggin’ Around by Alan Plater (2006), The Beiderbecke Affair by William Gallagher (2012), and Delight by J.B. Priestley (1949).

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