Books: Visions Before Midnight — Standing at the window |
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Standing at the window

‘In an hour’s time,’ said the ITV linkman, ‘we’ve got some professional wrestling. But let’s meet some people now who are wrestling ... with life.’ Breakdown (Granada), an interesting play by Julian Bond, went out in the ‘Wednesday Special’ slot, which is hardly peak time, but could have meant that a good proportion of the News at Ten audience who had been slow to go to bed during the subsequent commercials might have stuck around to watch the start of it. Watching the start was practically a guarantee of staying hooked till the end, since the course of the action was inexorable.

Jack Hedley played Ralph, an insurance broker forced to the edge of breakdown by the pressures of second mortgage, second woman, second mess. Sylvia (the second woman, ably played by Wanda Ventham) woke up in the middle of the night to discover Ralph standing at the window of their high-rise flat, talking of suicide. The following scene was mainly an extraordinarily well-sustained speech delivered by Hedley with the skill the writing deserved. You needn’t have gone all the way to the brink yourself to see that this was just the way someone on the point of a crack-up would talk, if he could talk at all.

Needless to say, Sylvia didn’t quite realise the magnitude of the problem. Nobody ever does, which is why you have to have the breakdown, to tell everyone that it’s not a matter of being reasonable or seeing things in proportion — it’s a matter of getting all the pressures off, now. ‘My poor, poor love. Come to bed,’ cooed Sylvia, but it wasn’t enough. A pair of friends were called in to offer reasonable advice, but that wasn’t enough either. In fact it was that while the friends were talking that Ralph flipped his wig. For Hedley this was the last big scene, since later on he was required to do no more than look dazed. He went spare wonderfully, his mouth going all rectangular like a crying baby’s. Watching him was a rough ride.

Sylvia reluctantly committed Ralph into the care of a blunt but simpatico medico who didn’t talk down either to her or to us, which made him almost unique in screen history. But the pressure of seeing Ralph make no apparent progress soon started telling on Sylvia in her turn, so that she was in a bad way herself by the time he was finally allowed out, with her job in jeopardy and no assurance that the same thing wouldn’t happen all over again. In the last scene she was standing at the window — thus completing a neatly circular construction, without allowing us to think that anything had been resolved.

Bond captured with praiseworthy accuracy the way someone who abruptly finds everything too much retreats to simple decisions and then can’t even manage those. It’s the near-vertical steepness of the gradient that makes the decline so memorable. Unfortunately (and this the play didn’t touch on) letting go is also kind of fun, which is why some unscrupulous people fake it, spoiling the market for the rest of us.

22 February, 1976

[ The original unedited version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]