Going Gently

Thomas Ellice, based on the novel by Robert C. S. Downs
Part of The Judi Dench Collection

This Playhouse production from 1981 contains a double casting oddity in that a serious drama features two actors legendary for comedic roles, Norman Wisdom and Fulton Mackay.

It is also distinguished by its director Stephen Frears who went on to make it big in movies with such features as The Queen, Mrs Henderson Presents and, much further back, My Beautiful Launderette to his credit.

Wisdom and Mackay played two ageing and terminally ill cancer patients, Bernard Flood and Austin Miller, in a hospital where they are nursed by Judi Dench's Nurse Scarli.

Frears employs a very low key style of directing, happy to allow silences to make their own, often powerful, impressions which complement a very moving script addressing an issue that most people would prefer to ignore.

In what should be a tragedy but at times comes close to black comedy, both men rage against the dying of the light but in contrasting ways. The incredibly tough Miller laughs at his adversity and not only drinks copious quantities of smuggled whisky but shares it out with his fellow patients late at night.

Flood, who is visited by his hopeless, unloved wife played by Stephanie Cole, feels much more sorry to himself but, on occasions, explodes with anger directed as often as not towards nothing in particular.

As a record of social history, Going Gently is also remarkable. The hospital that we see features not only the gentle Nurse Scarli but also an out and out sadist, Sister Marvin played by Margaret Whiting. Things may not have changed so much in that regard, but to observe a hospital where communal TVs were black and white; the walls are patently dirty; and cigar smoking is permitted and practically encouraged by the nursing staff; will amaze those who cannot remember life a mere quarter of a century ago.

Going Gently is a marvellous demonstration of the fine straight acting abilities than Norman Wisdom and Fulton Mackay hid beneath comedy for much of their careers. They fully deserved to win awards for these performances but the BAFTAs went to Stephen Frears, Judi Dench in what is until the latter stages a comparatively minor role, albeit very well acted, as well as the cameraman and composer.

Why can't the BBC make dramas like this any more? If ever there was a justification for the licence fee, it is work like this.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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