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Newcomer to the congregation  

22 July 2016

Stephen Brown sees a Play for Today again


Outsider: Tony Calvin as Henry Jones in The Hallelujah Handshake, a BBC Play for Today by Colin Welland, directed by Alan Clarke

Outsider: Tony Calvin as Henry Jones in The Hallelujah Handshake, a BBC Play for Today by Colin Welland, directed by Alan Clarke

CHURCH officials should be able to spot a mile off the newly arrived compulsive volunteer who rapidly becomes Lord High Everything Else unless adroitly handled. Easier said than done, though. The process is quite seductive. Nobody wants to squash eager, seemingly able, individuals, especially if the harvest is great and labourers are so few in a congregation.

The Hallelujah Handshake (Cert. 15) deals with such an issue. Scripted by Colin Welland (Cha­riots of Fire), this BBC television Play for Today was first transmitted on 17 December 1970. It has now been released as part of a DVD box set, Alan Clarke at the BBC, volume 1: Dissent (1969-1977)*, which also includes the Borstal-based Scum (1974), which the BBC deemed too upsetting to screen.

The Hallelujah Handshake hasn’t essentially dated. Admittedly, there weren’t today’s safeguarding issues to deal with then, but how charit­able organisations manage their members remains a contemporary concern — not that there appears initially to be anything to worry about regarding Henry Jones (played by Tony Calvin).

No sooner does he turn up at a Methodist church than unsus­pecting worshippers swiftly take up his offers of help. We viewers, already given a privileged point of view, see him unsuccessfully trying to fit into a crowd of macho men at the pub. Church people are much kinder. They recognise that Jones is lonely, and even that he lies a bit about his past.

When he claims to be a travel writer and gives the youth club a talk about the Bahamas, one of its members recognises that this has been learned verbatim from a holiday brochure. They are entirely forgiving. After all, Jones isn’t dangerous, and, by golly, he’s en­­thusiastic, energetic, and generous to a fault, running the football team and showering new-found friends with an embarrassment of gifts.

Welland based his story on a Methodist minister-friend’s real-life experiences of someone like Jones. When the fibs turn into whoppers, the minister, Geoff (Jeremy Wilkin), has to balance pastoral care with protecting a congregation divided over how to manage the situation. Jones defects to an Anglo-Catholic parish, which, to my eyes, resembles Holy Trinity, Sloane Square. Geoff tries to alert the priest (John Phillips) to Williams’s tendencies, but to no avail. We, of course, can see it will end in tears all round.

What’s so skilful about Clarke’s Play for Today is that Jones, in a heightened way, is a reflection of other characters’ loneliness. During intercessions near the film’s begin­ning, we hear the interior monologues of various worshippers distracting themselves with distractions, or perpetually anxious about some­thing often inconse­quential to our ears.

This epitomises the film’s central premise: our difficulty relating to one another, let alone to God. Judicious editing, juxtaposing shots and voiceovers, does the job for us. Only connect, indeed. We’re also drawn into the story by Clarke’s trademark framing of his players. He tracks their movements in a manner that visually expresses their sense of spiritual confinement. We are presented with individuals who never quite break free of self-imposed restraints, misfits in the world that God has created for them. Hallelujahs tend to elude them, whereas for Jones this is exactly what he yearns for and instigates, misguided though his methods may be.


*And on the Blu-ray compilation Dissent and Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC 1969-1989.

Both are available at the BFI Shop. Phone 020 7815 1350.


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