Alan Morrison on

To Serve Them All My Days
adapted by Andrew Davies from the novel by RF Delderfield
BBC DVD

I vaguely remembered watching this gently alluring series as a six year old around the time of its original transmission in 1980. It was one of my father’s favourite programmes at the time, stirring his nostalgia for his schooldays in a grammar school in Somerset, though this series is set in a public school in Devon. But its depiction of hallowed scholarly halls, flapping shadbellies, catercapped and gowned school masters and Anglican sanguinity, no doubt reminded him, in the less privileged aspects, of his boyhood.

Bamfylde is a backwater snapshot of English Georgian private education, with its own distinctive reputation for quarrying ‘good characters’ in its pupils. It provides an unlikely sanctuary for the shell-shocked, chip-shouldered Welsh miner’s son David Powlett-Jones, the idealistic but sometimes hot-headed main protagonist of the series which is in effect his story. The part is played by one of the consummate leads of his period, John Duttine, whose career never quite lifted off as much as it should have. After an incidental role as Hindley Earnshaw in the particularly gritty and thorough TV adaptation of Wuthering Heights of 1978, Duttine landed his first starring role in this effortlessly beguiling adaptation of the novel by RF Delderfield. It would act as the springboard to further limelight as the hero of the supremely creepy 1981 serialisation of Day of the Triffids*. Duttine might also have been seen as an obvious contender for the plum role of Sebastian Flyte in ITV’s po-faced adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but clearly the young Yorkshireman was already
typecast in angry young working class roles (or hirsute misanthropic parts*).

Although the actual character of Powlett-Jones does sometimes grate a little during this extensive series (13 50 min episodes in all), this is by no means anything to do with Duttine’s performance, which is exceptionally focused, nuanced and passionate throughout (replete with highly convincing and versatile Welsh accent); this is more down simply to the more irritating aspects to the essentially decent and likeable character of Powlett-Jones, who seems often unrealistically heroic and modest, especially in the midst of the frequent praise heaped on him by all and sundry. The character is indeed seemingly perceived by his teacher peers, and particularly his excruciatingly jolly Headmaster-mentor, Herries, as practically Messianic: the latter clearly sees his young protégé as a rough-edged but malleable saviour of an all-too-precariously cosy school.

‘P-J’ (as he is more affectionately referred to throughout the series by his closer peers) does indeed prove himself to be the near-perfect Headmaster of Bamfylde: utterly committed, morally upstanding, quietly authoritative, unimpeachably trustworthy, open-minded and, well, everything else. His eminent suitability to his ultimate role of Headmaster (finally attained by the end of the penultimate episode) is made particularly ironic in light of his relentless sense of being out of place in the picturesque scenario of a different class to his own. Although the character’s socialism is alluded to throughout, apparently (and I have not read it yet) the actual novel laid more of an emphasis on this than the series; no doubt the toning down of the politics of the story in the television version was tempered by the unfortunate dawning of a new conservative Britain at the time. However, political sparring runs through the series, though often fairly patchily; but gains compelling momentum towards the latter part with the character of Christine Forster (a strong performance by Patricia Lawrence), the slightly frosty Labour campaigner who eventually becomes the second Mrs Powlett-Jones frequently challenging PJ’s politically compromised position at Bamfylde. This conflict perversely brings the two together when they realise they are on the same side essentially. Later, Christine’s self-perceived failure at winning a seat in Parliament, combined with a sense of purposelessness as the redundant wife of a successful headmaster, culminates in a breakdown which she only just recovers from at the conclusion of the series. This episode is particularly well acted and nuanced, and is highly convincing and emotive.

There is also a long-running thread of antagonism between the more privileged and educated PJ, and his resentful coal-mining elder brother, Chetwynd, who sees himself as the true rooted socialist and class-warrior of the two. This conflict makes for truly profound television, with PJ palpably torn between his inherited socialist ideas and a new-found sense of belonging and purpose in the seemingly incompatible scenario of an English public school. PJ justifies his decision to stay at Bamfylde, in spite of his politics, by arguing that he is needed more in such a setting to give the other side of the social story to privileged young men, rather than return to rainy Wales to preach to the converted. Although one does see his point, there are times when similarly-minded viewers may perceive PJ as politically compromised and a little self-centred (or rather, Bamfyld-centred). But the series as a whole, through PJ’s story, compellingly depicts the human conflict between ideas and feelings. It is this essential anomie that PJ represents.

The always reliable Duttine aside, TSTAMD also sports a panoply of superb supporting roles, the most notable of whom is Alan MacNaughtan as the supremely sardonic, chain-smoking, Gandalf-esque Howarth. Here is distilled the quintessence of burgeoning Fabian despondency of the period: a thwarted intellectual and card-carrying atheist, who hollers out an unforgettable – albeit resonantly self-restrained – tirade to Herries’ bumbling, optimistic clergyman headmaster as to life being ‘something to be got through’ when rounded on for failing to prevent a suicidal PJ striding off alone onto the moors following the sudden shock of his wife’s and children’s deaths in a car crash. This is arguably the most powerful and moving scene in the entire series, and believe me, it is up against many other such moments. Atheist or believer, I challenge any viewer to watch this emotive plea for the dignity of human life in its right to decide its own fate, without feeling a shiver of sentiment run down their spine. Beautifully scripted and acted stuff. What also makes the reassuringly staid, sports-hating, philistine-baiting Howarth such a memorable television character, is his inimitable capacity to talk with a perpetual cigarette balanced in his mouth. I can only recall one scene in the entire series when his mouth is briefly fag-free. Hats off to MacNaughtan for such an exceptional portrayal of what is a deeply complex and deceptively sanguine character, whose last vestige of faith in humanity is entirely invested in the sincere, self-deprecating PJ. The shot of Howarth’s vision dimming as he watches a game of cricket (which he hates) while slouched in a canvas chair as his last cigarette tips out from his clutch, is beautifully shot, and poignantly encapsulates the series’ title in its most complex and faithless character.

While Frank Middlemass’s Herries is undoubtedly a lovably dotty and cheerful character, a sort of fluffier version of Michael Horden (voicing Badger in Wind in the Willows, that is), for me the other two stand-out performances are from Neil Stacy (Robert in Duty Free) as the militarily insecure Carter, and Charles Kay (I, Claudius; Edge of Darkness; Sherlock Holmes – The Creeping Man) as Alcock, the pent-up, fastidious successor to Herries. While Carter provides continual light relief throughout in his canting patriotism and amusing narrow-mindedness, Alcock adds a dose of genuine menace in what is a startling performance of repressed sexuality and simmering obsession, as the headmaster who spies on his pupils for signs of homosexual behaviour and finds disgust in all habits other than devout teetotalism.

This is a series I can watch again and again, and one which I could not imagine being made on contemporary television, due to its rectitude, slow pace and reclining nature. It is a profound and sometimes surprising story, and its intrinsic sedateness works in its favour, not against it. I’d recommend purchasing this series to anyone who enjoys the long slow burn of moving and involving storylines and intricate character development. Unforgettably engrossing viewing.

Alan Morrison © 2008