The Unloved, in retrospect

After 55 years, and in a much more fluid media environment, this remarkable programme - now so appropriately archived with other Red Hill material at PETT archive - needs a new record. Shown to a private audience for the first time in half a century, it did not seem to impress a number of old (but younger) Red Hill boys at the 2010 reunion - for whom these comments have more relevance than for others merely curious.

The two central role-players, Rupert Davies and a young Melvyn Hayes unknown enough for one paper to misspell his name, subsequently became very familiar television faces; and it earned its writer, Colin Morris; and director, Gilchrist Calder several prizes when there were fewer such Oscaresque pots around. It is easy to scoff at what preceded the British "kitchen sink" cinema of the following decade, that earned long queues outside the Odeons and ABCs - and one must overlook the differential dialects of staff and boys, reflecting the acting traditions of the time. Less artificial regional accents came later in such as Saturday night and Sunday morning; A Taste of Honey; This Sporting Life and Billy Liar. The boys, bar one, spoke pure 'ackney; with that exception struggling with mouthfuls of "Merseytyne" from Manchester-on-Tees - and all the staff were RADA trained, in London's West End. There was an essential point missed by Calder. A few extra boys given short lines in geordie, janner, mummerset, scouse or Norfolk dumpling would have given a snapshot of Red Hill. Not until National Service did I hear such a range of the real voice of England. That was television, only a year or so after post-war services had resumed; when BBC was the only one channel, its monochrome hours limited to evenings - or around five hours a day - and in darkened rooms. Thus, The Unloved occupied an intense 20% of the day's home entertainment, and watched by everyone with a television set - possession of which had been vastly expanded by the 1953 Coronation. I estimate that the one and only performance was avidly seen by over 30 million viewers - but, as revealed below, by very, very few Red Hill boys.

Made in 1954 for the 1955 showing, it would have been broadcast live, with "canned" interspersions - and after all this time I found completely acceptable the marriage between real remembered Red Hill furniture and fittings and studio settings - even to the point of there being included David Bragg's plaster statue of "The three P's" (from The history of Mr Polly). Listed in the 1954 Cooling Galleries catalogue, that detail shows how far Calder went for the right atmosphere - with Morris and cast members staying at the school, meeting the boys and following Shaw around to capture his foibles - which he did very evocatively. Actually, the story was about neither Shaw nor Red Hill School, but the circumstances of Rolfe, played by Melvyn Hayes - so the verisimilitude was unnecessary.

The News Chronicle review was right on the button:

"Only a very artificial climax marred what as a fine example of feature writing."

That artifice may have been the unlikely relationship between Rolfe and the daughter of the Headmaster, Manley - Shaw's thespian doppelgänger - and may have been why Shaw banned it from the eyes and ears of the boys. That was a simple injunction with the only TV set in school premises in PD's room - but could it have been the sole reason, as at that point it was yet to be seen by anyone? I sense a misunderstanding, brought about by the title - probably not up for change. The eponymous "unloved", an epithet unliked by Shaw, were not the plural colony of boys of Red Hill but the single fictitious character Rolfe. Had Shaw recognised that, then perhaps he would not have been so autarchic, denying the boys at the time a reasonable right to see the result of something their presence had created. Perhaps in some BBC archive lies a hint of a disagreement between him and Morris or Calder. Who knows? But, having granted unconstrained hospitality at East Sutton for crew and cast, that ultimate embargo is yet another example of the paradox that was Otto Shaw.

Ralph Gee
September, 2010