Neville Smith in Retrospect: curator Andy Willis talks to Northern Soul
If the name Neville Smith doesn’t ring a bell, you’re entirely forgiven.
Today he’s a figure whose output is largely unknown outside of a core group of enthusiasts. But that in itself is surprising: as a prolific TV dramatist of the 60s and 70s, his work was seen by millions of viewers at a time. His career also manages to link up a whole swathe of major names in British popular culture, from Alan Bennett and Stephen Frears to Alan Bleasdale and Ken Loach, taking in Doctor Who, The Long Good Friday, The Comic Strip Presents… and ITV newsreader Gordon Honeycombe along the way.
This month, Liverpool-born Smith’s work is being celebrated with a retrospective at HOME in Manchester. It has been masterminded by Andy Willis, a reader in film studies at Salford University. Last year, Willis was responsible for a similar season which put the spotlight on the Mancunian scriptwriter Jim Allen.
Speaking to Northern Soul, Willis says: “One of the main things after doing the Jim Allen season was to try and put something together that was properly off the radar and that was hopefully a bit more of a rediscovery for people. Something like [Smith’s 1971 play] After a Lifetime is such a great piece of television drama, but it’s one that not many people know. It’s shot by [legendary cinematographer] Chris Menges, it’s directed by Ken Loach, it’s produced by Tony Garnett. It’s got everything you expect from top social realist drama of that era. It’s just no one remembers it, but then when you watch it, it’s just really, really good.”
One of the most striking aspects of Smith’s working life was that he maintained twin careers as a writer and an actor. Often, he’d take a leading role in dramas he had written himself, but just as often he’d star in other writers’ work, such as Alan Bennett’s 1978 TV play Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Nor did he abandon acting once he’d got a break as a writer. That’s Smith as the shirty cinema manager in David Leland’s hit 1987 film Wish You Were Here; that’s him attempting to manage hopeless metal band Bad News in The Comic Strip Presents… He even popped up in a 1964 episode of Doctor Who playing a French counter-revolutionary. Indeed, Smith was regularly cast by Ken Loach, not least in two pieces by the aforementioned Jim Allen. It was a fruitful relationship. Loach would go on to direct the first TV play that Smith wrote, 1968’s The Golden Vision, on the subject of obsessive football fans.
“The Golden Vision is interesting because it’s a combination of drama and documentary,” Willis says. “It’s actually got footage of Everton training, interviews with the manager, the coach and the players. Then it’s also got the drama, which is about a bunch of Everton fans, all their banter, them going to the pub and going to London to the match. It stands up very well. It’s really funny. Smith’s quite a witty writer. He’s very good at capturing that kind of working class banter.”
As a rookie scriptwriter, Smith was teamed for the project with Gordon Honeycombe – then best known as an ITV newsreader, but who also worked as a writer and actor. Before long, though, Smith was flying solo, and in 1971 he garnered two major scripting credits. The first was the ITV drama After a Lifetime, about the aftermath of the death of a working-class political activist, again directed by Loach. The other was the celebrated feature film Gumshoe, starring Albert Finney as a Scouse bingo caller who dreams of becoming a private eye – and whose wishes, against all odds, appear to come true. Alongside Finney, the cast featured a host of other big British names including Billie Whitelaw, Frank Finlay and Fulton Mackay. The film also marked the directorial debut of Stephen Frears, who became another regular Smith collaborator.
Willis says: “Smith’s work is very much rooted in working class Liverpool and a lot of the humour and a lot of the politics comes from that. Gumshoe is almost an extension of that because it’s got that kind of Scouse wit but it’s also got this obsession that port cities like Liverpool had with America. Lots of people there would have had relatives who’d been on the ships and come back with tales of America. There was a real interest in American popular culture and films and I think that’s very much behind Gumshoe. That’s why it works so well on so many levels. It has that social realist setting but also this absolutely fantasy based private-eye speak. The incongruousness of the two things works really well and for me that’s one of the things that stops it being really dated. Everything’s familiar but it’s connected in a way that you don’t normally get those things connected, so it’s all quite refreshing.”
It’s likely that another upcoming Liverpool writer, namely Alan Bleasdale, was paying close attention to Smith’s work. For one thing, a couple of key Smith regulars turned up later in similar roles in Bleasdale’s acclaimed Boys from the Blackstuff.
“I would say undoubtedly that Bleasdale was aware and was a fan,” reflects Willis. “I think Smith is a kind of precursor to Alan Bleasdale who doesn’t get talked about. Maybe to Willy Russell as well, but I think to Bleasdale particularly. That overlap of the interest in class and the kind of humour is certainly there.”
All of the aforementioned Neville Smith pieces, and more – in fact, everything that still exists in a fit state to be screened – are part of the HOME retrospective. So too are some notable examples of his acting work. Willis highlights a favourite hidden gem, a double-bill pairing called Apaches and Long Shot. Apaches is a remarkable short Public Information Film for children from 1977, for which Smith wrote the script.
“It’s about six kids messing around on a farm. They’re playing ‘Cowboys and Indians’, hence Apaches. It ends up becoming almost like a Public Information Film Last of the Mohicans, because one by one they all get killed.”
The children meet their assorted fates by various means, for instance under the wheels of a tractor or in a slurry pit.
“After each one dies, there’s a really cold moment where you see a mum taking all the kid’s socks out of the sock drawer, and then at school removing their name from the hook where they put their clothes. It’s just so out there and it’s directed by John Mackenzie who directed The Long Good Friday so it’s got that kind of toughness that you associate with him as well. It’s a bit like, how did these two get together to make a Public Information Film?”
On the other hand, Long Shot is a 1978 film which showcases Smith as an actor. It’s a biting comedy about a writer and a producer trying to get their latest script made, which was actually filmed guerrilla-style at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Neville Smith plays the writer, called – obviously – ‘Neville’.
Willis says: “I remember seeing it years ago and being quite transfixed by this kind of image of the British film industry at the time and how kind of hand to mouth it was. It’s a really interesting period piece.”
Smith himself is now in his late 70s and won’t be making an appearance at the HOME season, but he’s very happy to give it his blessing. Willis explains: “When we contacted him, he sent us an email back saying ‘I hope all the folks enjoy it’.”
Sure enough, there’s a great deal to admire in Smith’s work. It’s fine stuff, and this retrospective could help bring it to a whole new audience.
By Andy Murray, Film Editor
Neville Smith: A Retrospective is at Manchester’s HOME until January 29, 2017
Northen Soul Awards 2017
The Northern Soul Awards 2017, hosted by Lemn Sissay MBE, will celebrate and reward cultural and artistic excellence in the North of England.