MERCER, DAVID

British Writer

David Mercer, an innovative and controversial writer for television, stage and film, was a key figure in the development of television drama in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s. Although he often said he got into television by accident, his television plays first established his reputation and offered a powerful and personal exploration of the possibilities of the medium. Most were published soon after transmission, and they sparked lively critical and political debates.

Mercer came from a northern working-class family, but his interest in the arts and in politics began after World War II when he was able to take advantage of the extension of new educational opportunities. This experience was central to his first television play, Where the Difference Begins (1961), originally written for the stage but accepted for broadcast by the BBC. The "difference" in the title referred to the younger generation's break with traditional socialist values, and Mercer followed up with two more plays, A Climate of Fear (1962) and The Birth of a Private Man (1963), which dealt with characters struggling to sustain a left-wing political vision in the new "affluent" society.

Although Mercer's early work showed the influence of the "kitchen sink" realism that had swept through British theater, literature and cinema in the late 1950s, he soon became joined other BBC writers and producers to challenge what Troy Kennedy-Martin called the prevailing "naturalism" of television drama. In Mercer's case, the result was a new verbal and visual freedom: instead of talking heads and colloquial speech patterns, the plays combined condensed, witty and articulate dialogue with striking, often subjective or allegorical, images. At the end of The Birth of a Private Man, for example, Colin Waring, whose private life had disintegrated in the face of his political uncertainties, dies at the Berlin Wall in a hail of bullets from both sides.

This anti-naturalist style was recognized as an imaginative use of the medium, but disturbed critics of all political persuasions. Conservatives objected to Mercer's self-professed Marxist position, liberals found the plays too explicit and lacking in subtlety, while orthodox left-wing critics questioned the emphasis on the problems of Socialism: the compromises of the British post-war Labour governments, the revelations about Stalin's atrocities, and the failures of communism in Eastern Europe. The plays may be Marxist in their stress on the need for a political revolution, but the revolutionary impulse is usually blocked and becomes internalized as psychological breakdown. However, it also emerges in Mercer's pleasure in breaking the rules of television drama, as he did emphatically in A Suitable Case for Treatment, (1962), a broad farce in which the main character indulged in "mad" visions of a retreat to the jungle away from the complexities of his political and personal life. Mercer later wrote the screenplay for the successful film version of this play, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), directed by Karel Reisz.

The motif of "madness" in Mercer's plays had much in common with the anti-psychiatry of R.D. Laing, whose claim that schizophrenia is an essentially sane response to a mad society was extremely influential in the 1960s. Laing expressed great interest in Mercer's work and acted as consultant on one of his most powerful television plays, In Two Minds (1967), a documentary-style drama which traced the causes of a young woman's schizophrenia to her oppressive family life. The play was directed by Ken Loach who later directed a film version Family Life (Wednesday's Child in the United States), based on Mercer's screenplay.

Mercer himself likened his plays to rituals exploring the tensions and contradictions of fragmented personalities and ambiguous truths. They explore the relationships of the political and the personal in a society which encourages conformity, inhibiting individual expression. He felt that television gave him greater freedom of expression than was possible in the commercial theater or cinema, but he did continue to work in other media. His influence can be seen in the work of a younger generation of writers like Trevor Griffiths, David Hare, and Stephen Poliakoff who have also drawn on the resources of television, theater, and film to produce a powerful body of work dealing with the intersection of personal and political pressures in contemporary Britain.

-Jim Leach

DAVID MERCER. Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, England, 27 June 1928. Educated at King's College, Newcastle upon Tyne; B.A. with honors, Durham University, 1953. Married twice; children: 1 daughter. Served in Royal Navy 1945-48. Laboratory technician, 1942-45; lived in Paris, 1953-54; supply teacher, 1955-59; teacher, Barrett Street Technical College, 1959-61; television dramatist from 1961; screenwriter from 1965. Recipient: Writers Guild Award for Television Play, 1962; 1967; 1968; Evening Standard Award, 1965; BAFTA Award, 1966; French Film Academy CÚsar Award, for screenplay, 1977; Emmy Award, 1980. Died 8 August 1980.

TELEVISION PLAYS

1961 Where the Difference Begins
1962 A Climate of Fear
1962 A Suitable Case for Treatment
1963 The Buried Man
1963 The Birth of a Private Man
1963 For Tea on Sunday
1963 A Way of Living
1965 And Did Those Feet?
1967 In Two Minds
1968 The Parachute
1968 Let's Murder Vivaldi
1968 On the Eve of Publication
1970 The Cellar and the Almond Tree
1970 Emma's Time
1972 The Bankrupt
1973 You and Me and Him
1973 An Afternoon at the Festival
1973 Barbara of the House of Grebe
1974 The Arcata Promise
1974 Find Me
1976 Huggy Bear
1977 A Superstition
1977 Shooting the Chandelier
1978 The Ragazza
1980 A Rod of Iron

FILMS

90 Degrees in the Shade (English dialogue), 1965; Morgan (film version of In Two Minds), 1966; A Suitable Case for Treatment, 1966; Family Life (film version of In Two Minds), 1972; A Doll's House (with Michael Meyer), 1973; Providence, 1978.

RADIO

The Governor's Lady, 1960; Folie a Deux, 1974.

STAGE

The Governor's Lady, 1960; The Buried Man, 1962; Ride a Cock Horse, 1965; Belcher's Luck, 1966; White Poem, 1970; Flint, 1970; After Haggerty, 1970; Blood On the Table, 1971; Let's Murder Vivaldi, 1972; In Two Minds, 1973; Duck Song, 1974; The Arcata Promise, 1974; Cousin Vladimir, 1978; Then and Now, 1979; No Limits to Love, 1980.

PUBLICATIONS

"Huggy Bear" (short story). Stand (Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.), Summer 1960.

"Positivist" (short story). Stand (Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.), Autumn 1960.

"Folie a Deux" (short story). Stand (Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.), Winter 1960.

The Governor's Lady. Stand (Newcastle upon Tyne), Spring 1962. Also published in Best Short Plays of the World Theatre 1958-1967. Richards, Stanley, editor. New York: Crown, 1968.

"What Television Has Meant in the Development of Drama in Britain," With Lewis Greifer, and Arthur Swinson. Journal of the Society of Film and Television Arts (London), Autumn 1963.

The Generations: A Trilogy of Plays. (includes Where the Difference Begins, A Climate of Fear, The Birth of a Private Man). London: Calder, and New York: Fernhill, 1964; as Collected TV Plays I, 1981.

"Style in Drama: Playwright's Postscript." Contrast Spring 1964.

"The Long Crawl Through Time." In New Writers III. London: Calder and Boyars, 1965.

"An Open Letter to Harold Wilson." Peace News (London), February 1965.

"David Mercer on Why He Writes the Plays He Does." The Times (London), 27 July 1966.

Three TV Comedies (includes A Suitable Case for Treatment, For Tea On Sunday, And Did Those Feet). London: Calder and Boyars, 1966.

"The Meaning of Censorship: A Discussion." With Roger Manvell. Journal of the Society of Film and Television Arts (London), Autumn 1966.

Ride a Cock Horse. London: Calder and Boyars, and New York: Hill and Wang, 1966.

The Parachute with Two More TV Plays: Let's Murder Vivaldi, In Two Minds. London: Calder and Boyars, 1967.

Belcher's Luck. London: Calder and Boyars, and New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.

Search, Gay. "Portrait of a Playwright" (interview). Radio Times (London), 4 April 1968.

Copeland, Sonia. "Interview." The Sunday Times (London) 20 April 1969.

After Haggerty. London: Methuen, 1970.

Flint. London: Methuen, 1970.

On the Eve of Publication and Other Plays. (television plays; includes The Cellar and the Almond Tree and Emma's Time). London: Methuen, 1970.

Bakewell, Joan. "Interview." In Bakewell, Joan, and Nicholas Garnham. The New Priesthood. London: Penguin Press, 1970.

Gordon, Giles. "Interview." In, McCrindle, Joseph, editor. Behind the Scenes: Theatre and Film Interviews from the Transatlantic Review. London: Pitman, 1971.

On the Eve of Publication. Scripts 8 (New York), June 1972.

Sandilands, John. "Mercer and the Slag Heap Myth." (interview). Radio Times 23 November 1972.

Hayman, Ronald. "Interview." Playback 2. London: Davis-Poynter, 1973.

Jarman, Francis, with the editors of Theatre Quarterly. "Birth of a Playwriting Man" (interview). Theatre Quarterly (London), January-March 1973.

Let's Murder Vivaldi. In, Richards, Stanley, editor. The Best Short Plays 1974. Radnor, Pennsylvania: Chilton, 1974.

The Bankrupt and Other Plays (includes You and Me and Him, An Afternoon at the Festival, Find Me). London: Eyre Methuen, 1974.

Duck Song. London: Eyre Methuen, 1974.

Madden, Paul. "Interview." Complete Programme Notes for a Season of British Television Drama 1959-73, Held at the National Film Theatre 11th-24th October 1976. London: British Film Institute, 1976.

Huggy Bear and Other Plays (includes The Arcata Promise and A Superstition). London: Eyre Methuen, 1977.

Cousin Vladimir. With Shooting the Chandelier. London: Eyre Methuen, 1978.

Then and Now. With The Monster of Karlovy Vary. London: Eyre Methuen, 1979.

Collected TV Plays 1-2 (includes Where the Difference Begins, A Climate of Fear, The Birth of a Private Man, A Suitable Case for Treatment, For Tea on Sunday, And Did Those Feet, The Parachute, Let's Murder Vivaldi, In Two Minds). London: Calder, 2 vols., 1981.

No Limits to Love. London: Eyre Methuen, 1981.

FURTHER READING

Hayman, Ronald. British Theatre Since 1955: A Reassessment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Itzin, Catherine. Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968. London: Eyre Methuen, 1980.

Jarman, Francis, with John Noyce, and Malcolm Page. The Quality of Mercer: A Bibliography of Writings by and about the Playwright David Mercer. Brighton: Smoothie, 1974.

Jones, D.A.N. "Mercer Unmarxed." Listener (London), 14 May 1970.

Madden, Paul, editor. David Mercer: Where the Difference Begins. London: British Film Institute, 1981.

McCrindle, Joseph F., editor. Behind the Scenes: Theater and Film Interviews. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

McGrath, John. "TV Drama: The Case Against Naturalism." Sight and Sound (London), Spring, 1977.

Mustafa, Khalid El Mubarek. "David Mercer." In Brandt, George W., editor. British Television Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Taylor, Don. "David Mercer and Television Drama." Appendix to Mercer's Generations. London: Calder, 1964.

Taylor, John Russell. Second Wave British Drama for the Seventies. London: Methuen, 1971.

_______________. 1981. "David Mercer and the Mixed Blessings of Television." Modern Drama (Toronto, Canada), December 1981.

Worseley, T.C. Television: The Ephemeral Art. London: Alan Ross, 1970.

 

See also British Programming