NO DOUBT you have never, stuck deep in a PCC or synod meeting, considered how good it would be were the person chairing it able, painlessly, to remove this or that particularly unhelpful speaker. One unexpected result of the lockdown is that, thanks to Zoom, he or she can indeed do precisely that.
It was the ruling schtick of Going Forward, one of BBC4’s Unprecedented: a series of brief dramas screened each night from Tuesday to Friday last week, newly written and performed in response to lockdown and filmed in strict accordance with all the distancing strictures.
The convener, Siobhan, was the perfect chairperson: humourless, utterly non-empathetic, and impatient with anyone else’s contribution. As her colleagues failed to fulfil her expectations, she told them, first, that their line was breaking up, and then — Snap! — switched them off.
Their failure was that, one by one, they refused to promise to supply the company’s goods and services by the required deadline: the lack of raw materials and supply chain made it impossible. But this was not good enough: she needed them to lie, to make undertakings that they, and she, knew could not be met. So it was a political satire for our times — and possibly worth remembering whenever we reach the next round of diocesan-common-fund pledges.
Split screens showed us the characters, in isolation, in marvellous, largely solo performances achieved without the direct personal interaction usually essential to create drama, tension, and romance.
The writers found the widest range of ways to respond to the brief: the 20 tiny plays were sometimes farcical, sometimes tragic, and frequently a mixture of both. One — The Night After — was positively anarchic, surreal. In Central Hill, we were made to feel more than usually helpless as a comic undermining of the pretensions of the actors and director suddenly darkened into tragedy, an appalling assault capsizing the carefully constructed face. Or, in Safer at Home, the dawning realisation that the attentive husband’s care for his pregnant wife is controlling, overwhelming, and worse: why does she no longer come to the phone?
An added piquancy was that, whenever we saw two people in the same shot — usually husband and wife acting out an unravelling relationship — the lockdown rules meant that they were, in real life, partners. How challenging were those rehearsals? The brilliant writing and performance conjured up, in moments, a whole world, a reality that we accept, live with, and believe in — all beneath the impending doom signalled by a cough or a persistent temperature.
The most searing was Fear Fatigue: the actors were medical professionals speaking directly, describing the disease and its progress, trying but failing to hide how their care for us as we die brings them into mortal danger.