Raising a glass of chilled red to Abigail’s Party

Thirty years after its TV premiere, Mike Leigh's dark comedy about frustrated aspirations in suburbia feels fresher than ever.

Neil Davenport

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Tonight marks 30 years since the BBC first broadcast Mike Leigh’s seminally bleak play, Abigail’s Party. An aspiring British suburban couple, Beverley and Lawrence, throw a get-together for their new neighbours, Tony and Angie, and quietly spoken Sue ‘from number seven’ whose daughter, the titular Abigail, is having her first teenage party on the same evening. Five years ago, the British Film Institute voted Abigail’s Party one of the all-time greats of British television; it was one of those rare moments when a low-key TV programme becomes an era-defining event.

And yet, Abigail’s Party is not altogether remembered fondly. For 30 years now it has been shrouded in bitter controversy, with critics of Leigh angrily arguing that he was laying into the aspirational, suburban masses. Some claim that Leigh’s later work exuded a similar tut-tutting disapproval of the working classes who want to get on in life. In 2007, though, the thirtieth anniversary of the first screening of Abigail’s Party provides an opportunity to explore other aspects of this TV classic.

Last Sunday, as part of the Abigail’s Party celebrations, BBC4 broadcast an insightful documentary on the play’s enduring appeal and the long-standing criticisms levelled against it. In previous interviews, Leigh has laughed off suggestions that he seems to be sneering at the working masses’ desire to improve their standing. One scene in Abigail’s Party that is frequently discussed shows Beverly putting a bottle of red wine in the fridge, much to the amusement of middle-class theatregoers when it was first performed in Hampstead, London. Leigh points out that Sue’s Beaujolais is meant to be chilled and therefore the shoulder-padded, cleavage thrustin’, Demis Roussos-listening Bev was right all along.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why so many see Abigail’s Party as one long snort of derision at the suburban masses. Aspirational Lawrence is keen to ingratiate himself to the posh (and dull) Sue, while frequently implying that Tony is a bit uncouth. Yet Lawrence comes off worse. His attempts to impress with his bluffers’ guide to art, literature and classical music appear cringeingly inept. Such scenes can be interpreted as an attack on suburbanites who get ideas above their semi-detached status, but it’s richly comical all the same. Surely the whole point of a ‘comedy of manners’ play is to tease out humour from foot-chewing gaffs and gaucheness? What’s a playwright supposed to do? Think twice about chronicling certain social set-ups in case it offends someone?

There’s no doubt that Abigail’s Party is almost relentlessly cruel to the protagonists, too – but so what? Complaining about this is the equivalent of your nan saying ‘that’s not very nice’ upon hearing a few barbed words. What really matters is that Leigh’s controlled tension here is a masterclass of pace, timing and deadly effect. Who doesn’t feel as if there’s a noose tightening around their necks by the play’s final scenes? Or that their blood is draining away as the play becomes ever more grim and unbearable? Few plays match Abigail’s Party‘s claustrophobic spell, and that’s what ultimately matters.

I was nine years old when Abigail’s Party was first broadcast in 1977 and it left an indelible impression. The humour was easily digestible for a nine-year-old, though the dark underbelly was something I sensed rather than fully understood. What was particularly mesmerising was the unusual rhythm of the dialogue, the clipped, shrill repetition of Beverly’s ‘Ange? Gin’n’tonic? Ice? Lemon? Tone? Light ale?’ at regular intervals that sounded like a barked, menacing command. Not for nothing did Alan Bennett memorably dub Beverly the ‘Brute host’. And then there was Tony’s diffident ‘Yes!’ ‘No!’ replies to every encouraging question his wife thrust upon him. Unlike other plays at the time, Abigail’s Party‘s spartan dialogue immediately created a not-quite-right atmosphere that was both queasy and utterly compelling.

Leigh manages to crank this tone up a notch when the couple’s marriages seem to collapse in front of us. In Sunday’s documentary, Leigh said he always envisaged Abigail’s Party as a battle-of-the-sexes setpiece. Indeed, mocking the social pretensions of the newly moneyed suburbanites was only a quarter of the story. The real black heart here is watching one marriage begin to break down and the other go beyond repair. Lawrence hates Bev’s tacky tastes and mannerisms. Tony hates Ange’s stupendously banal attempts at conversation. Bev gets slowly drunk, flirts and mauls Tony while they’re dancing. Lawrence first becomes embarrassed and then humiliated in the process. All his frustrations at the evening, and in his life in general, spill out in a splenetic rant about fine art to a mortified Sue – with tragic consequences.

What’s never acknowledged about Abigail’s Party is that it’s also very compassionate. It is an understanding portrayal of that generation’s hopes and dreams, ambitions and frustrations. Sure, they’re more than happy with the new car, new home and holidays abroad, and they are relieved that they are not suffering from the same grinding poverty as their parents. And yet, both Lawrence and Tony also exude a growling discontent with their lot in life. Tony had ambitions and the potential to be a professional football player, but it ‘didn’t work out’. Lawrence movingly bemoans not having the opportunity to become a writer, a musician, an artist of some sort. The spectre of unfulfilling jobs is never far away. Lawrence works long, unsociable hours for an estate agent (at one point, he tells a client on the phone: ‘I’m at your service, Mrs Cushing, he who pays the piper calls the tune. You name the hour, and I shall appear!’). Tony does shift-work for a computer firm he clearly finds even more boring than his wife.

Far from being content with fondue sets and Formica work surfaces alone, their ambitions and aspirations extend far beyond the narrowly private. Ironically, that private sphere is about the only place where they can give full vent to their social frustrations – as Angie darkly suggests during the course of the play.

Watching Abigail’s Party again last Sunday, it was striking just how confident adult Britain was back then. At a guess, the two couples would have been in their mid-twenties; today many people of the same age still live with their parents. And even on a Saturday night, it was clearly de rigeur for men to wear a suit and tie for a friend’s dinner party. And what about 15-year-old Abigail? Not only is she hosting her own party, she seems to date 20-year-old men, too. Beverly sees Abigail as being on the cusp of being a grown-up; today, Abigail’s behaviour might earn her a place on the council’s ‘at risk’ register and her boyfriend would probably end up on the Sex Offenders’ Register. While Lawrence is an estate agent, he is not remotely interested in discussing property prices all night. Yes, he’s gauche when bluffing about Bach, but at least he’s aware that there are better things to discuss around the dinner table than interest rates.

Perhaps the most notable change is that, in 2007, there isn’t a British drama or play that holds a dining table candle to Abigail’s Party. In a sewer-like ocean of reality makeover bilge, at least the BBC 30 years ago believed that the mainstream masses were worthy of a modern play that was on a par with Harold Pinter or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Today, a play like Abigail’s Party probably wouldn’t make it from the Hampstead theatre to the small screen. It seems Mike Leigh isn’t really the one who thinks the masses should know their place.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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