these are the abstracts of my time
The trilogy of ‘Billy’ plays by Graham Reid were first shown thirty years ago as a part of the Play for Today series. This marked Kenneth Branagh’s professional screen debut: he was still at RADA when the first part of the trilogy was filmed.
The opening play is set in Belfast (where Branagh spent the first nine years of his life) and features the working class Martin family: mother dying of cancer; father, Norman, a labourer in the shipyard who, when not at work, is a violent drunk; and the teenagers Billy and Lorna, trying to do their own growing up whilst also raising their two younger sisters. Norman is a study in repression, his violent rages stemming in part from his wife’s infidelity, but even more from his own inability to express his emotions. James Ellis gives a powerful performance, switching from anger to a terrifyingly threatening sentimentality in a heartbeat. In this environment of dysfunctional masculinity, Billy’s own pain at witnessing his mother’s decline and death has little outlet and is eventually expressed through a violent confrontation with his father.
There is a tendency, I think, for this kind of situation to be turned into soap, thriller, or melodrama by contemporary television filmmakers, for whom pace and action have become overwhelming priorities. It is fascinating, therefore, to see the comparatively languid way in which the emotional intensity of this play could be built up by programme makers thirty years ago. The result is a tense, subtle and moving piece of work. James Ellis, Kenneth Branagh and Brid Brennan all give strong performances as Norman, Billy and Lorna. The little sisters act with an unspoilt naturalness. This is a part of television history that is too good to miss.
The second play in the trilogy lacks the brooding presence of Norman, who has migrated to England; he only appears briefly, in a flashback scene of the day of his wife’s funeral. This scene acts as a reminder of the fear in which the family had previously lived and the constant vigilance with which Lorna protected her younger sisters from Norman’s rages. It also reminds us of the model of masculinity with which Billy is trying to come to terms.
A year has now passed. Billy has a job and a catholic girlfriend; Anne is getting into trouble at school; Lorna continues to be the glue that holds the family together; and their maternal uncle, Andy, joins them as a complaining but largely benevolent presence in the family home.
Brid Brennan gives another strong performance in this play. It is not only Billy who has choices to make: Lorna also is beginning to feel that she has some agency in her own life, now that she is free from the constant fear of her father’s violence. It is notable that the women in this part of the trilogy come through much more strongly than in the previous one. While Lorna still represents the older generation of women (who put margarine on their bread and save the butter for the man of the house), Billy’s friend Ian is about to marry a girl who expresses casual contempt for such notions.
The men, however, are still stuck in a world where petty frustrations lead to violence and Billy struggles with his dread of becoming like his father. While he tries to avoid the type of violent confrontation to which he had previously resorted, he also sidesteps emotional intimacy and commitment. His sense of family duty and loyalty seem to be simultaneously enriching and imprisoning for him.
The Troubles remain in the background environment of this play, but the main focus is on social and family relationships. Lorna and Billy have, to some extent, been successful in keeping their family together in the absence of both of their parents, but it remains to be seen whether they are able to build their own independent adult lives.
The strength of this drama is that it portrays a family coming to terms with the damage of the past. The characters develop and change as their lives move forward.
Another six months have passed and the two younger sisters, Maureen and Anne, have grown more independent and strong-willed; Lorna has adapted to the responsibility of parenting her sisters and Billy has settled down to living with his girlfriend, Pauline. Norman’s return from England with a new wife, Mavis, is received with mixed feelings.
The arrogant manner in which Norman re-asserts himself as head of his family is at odds with his rather softer behaviour in the presence of Mavis. He seems to have developed a more human side, yet his old rage and aggression still simmers just below the surface. When he states his intention to take Maureen and Anne back to England with him, a storm of emotions is provoked. Both Billy and his father are forced to hear some home truths, especially from Mavis, the Englishwoman who can bring an objective outside viewpoint to bear on the dysfunctional relationships of the Martin household.
The central pathos of this play lies in Lorna’s dilemma: in order to have greater freedom and a sense of her own independent life, she must accept having her two sisters torn away from her. As ever, it is her ability to adapt to new circumstances that eventually enables a peaceful resolution to the story.
In all three of these plays, the women emerge as strong, mature and pragmatic. It is their ability to change and evolve that holds the family and the society together. The men, in contrast, are treated like spoilt little princes in their own homes, but they respond with petulance and violence whenever they encounter a setback.
In the end, this is a hopeful play, insofar as it suggests that there is a new future for women to look forward to and that, against their will, men will also be dragged a few steps further along the evolutionary road, if the women are strong enough to force them.
My title refers to Kenneth Branagh, the eponymous hero, as ‘boy wonder’, but in fact it is James Ellis and Brid Brennan who give the towering performances in these plays. A fourth play, also by Graham Reid, entitled Lorna was written at the time of the Billy Plays and I sincerely hope that this will also be re-shown by the BBC.
The first of the plays has been posted on YouTube, here:
The second play is also on YouTube, here: