Dennis Potter wrote some of the best TV drama of the 20th century. Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective linger in the memory as dark, richly humane stories told through the kind of complex, multi-layered, non-linear narrative which rewards close attention.
By contrast, Blue Remembered Hills is a deceptively simple tale with only one narrative gimmick: the seven West Country seven-year-olds are played by adults. As such we can watch them play, squabble, boast, fight, taunt, hide, plot, fantasise and ultimately – it is suggested – begin the inevitable shedding of childhood innocence; all this without the syrupy indulgence we would bestow on the characters if they were played by real children. In the author’s words, the adult body becomes the magnifying glass through which we can more closely identify with the child’s behaviour and emotions. We are forced as a result to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: children are unbearably cruel to one another.
In this production, director Steve Smith acknowledges the play’s simplicity and humour while skilfully developing the tragic undercurrents. The pacing is good, and Smith makes clever use of recordings of wartime novelty songs to punctuate the action. The children are all recognisable types, and the cast are largely successful at making them distinct individuals while working well together as a company. John Francis as good-hearted Willie is endearingly uncomplicated although he has a frustrating tendency to throw away some of his best lines. Michael Barker as Peter, the bully, hints at a frightened soul under the macho swagger; and Rod Wilkinson as heroic John and Des McCann as thoughtful Raymond also score well (although the latter’s stutter is perhaps not entirely convincing). Plain, resentful Audrey is brought gleefully to life by Chris Ives as she fawns jealously over pretty, selfish Angela, played with wonderful spoilt primness by Julie-Ann Dean. In a generally strong company, though, Pete Gillam impresses most as disturbed, maltreated Donald whose obsession with setting things on fire leads to the play’s tragic denouement. His loneliness and isolation, particularly when taunted by the others as “Donald Duck” and forced, with tearful reluctance, to flap his arms and quack, are heartbreaking.
The set is pleasantly minimalist but could have offered more scope for variety in the playing area. Good use is made of the tree out of which wannabe parachutist Peter drops at the beginning, and the barn segment in which Donald hides, although unavoidably small, effectively creates one corner of the barn, leaving the rest to the imagination; but apart from some good use of the auditorium area, the action is too often constrained by being all on one level. A couple of ramps leading to a raised area or two would have given the opportunity to create more interesting visual compositions and allowed the cast to run up hills, jump off rocks and generally play like country children do instead of constantly milling about on a level floor.
But this is a minor gripe in the face of an intelligent, compassionate production that provides a strong evening’s entertainment with an incredibly moving finale.