Monday, 7 March 2011

Mrs Capper's Birthday (1968)

Everybody knows that the best Coronation Street were the black and white ones. You watch them now on dvd - grimy, poorly lit and grit specked prints in which everything moves at a glacial pace and the majority of the action consists of half-cut pensioners whispering about brassy looking types and men fighting about pigeons, women and booze. It's like real life except every so often something dramatic will happen or, even better, something plain odd.

'Mrs Capper's Birthday', an Armchair Theatre play from 1968 from a story by Noel Coward, is like watching a year's worth of that sort of Corrie all squeezed into an an hour long special. It's wickedly fast paced for the period, admittedly, which Corrie never was, but the amount of sheer stuff the writer crams into a bare hour is astonishing. And yet you never feel that it's gone daft or ludicrous. It always remains rooted in something akin to real life, even if the situations Hilda Capper finds herself in very often veer towards the implausible.

Because all it is, really, is a single day in the life of fifty year old cleaner Mrs Capper.

At first I thought it was going to be a bittersweet tale of an old lonely lady (Beryl Reid 's age is very hard to pin down after she hits about forty, I find) and her long dead husband, then I thought it might well be a darkish sort of story about marital infidelity, with Hilda taking sides between the couple she cleans for, but it wasn't. Then I wondered if it were about the generation gap and it wasn't. I even wondered if it were a late blooming romance sort of thing, as Arthur Lowe gave another wonderful little man performance as the tobacconist whose proposal of marriage Hilda interrupts.

But it's none of these things, nor is it about the loud, drunken friend who takes over every occasion, or the prissy, sniffy landlady who spoils every occasion. It's not about the camp, gay waiters who serve the family at dinner and who Hilda thinks 'talks all funny', or the unexpectedly appearing pre-op tranny who runs the pub (of whom Hilda asks whether she has many more injections to get), or the singer who belts out two complete old time sing-songs towards the end of the play.

It's not even about the film star (played by George Baker) who just happens to be visiting the pub with his glamorous American co-star, and who remembers Hilda when she was younger.

What it's about, in the end, is the happiness to be found in even the most simple life. Beryl Reid as Hilda has one of the all time great smiles, making her entire face shine as she moves through her fiftieth birthday, surrounded by family and friends, delighted by the gifts she's been given and the life she leads, remembering her husband (dead in the war twenty five years before) but not allowing that memory to sour any part of her life.

Quite wonderful, really. Quite, quite wonderful.

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