“I remember this thing I saw on telly once about a couple that had this old car they didn’t want, and they kept trying to get rid of it. They dump it somewhere and then it starts being seen in different places until eventually…”
My brother recollected this strange story to me once, many, many years ago, as strange a story as anything allowed on television in those less-accountable days of old, when producers could commission on a hunch. Quite by chance, sometime later I found out what it was: The Old Banger, an episode of a 1970 anthology series, Tales of Unease. And despite only being shown once, and only in selected ITV regions, the little oddity clearly left an echo in its wake; in the years since then I’ve noticed quite a few queries on message boards, all asking for help identifying a similarly hazy memory of this quirky tale.
The seven plays in the Tales of Unease series were produced by London Weekend Television, an ITV regional station that, after a difficult birth, went on to become a powerhouse of popular drama, with successes including Budgie, Upstairs, Downstairs and Bouquet of Barbed Wire. Those of us who grew up in the South East will remember the announcer telling us every Friday at 5.15pm that it was now time to hand over to LWT’s South Bank headquarters, Kent House, a building that still stands proudly amid the London skyline, looking down on Waterloo Bridge and overseeing some of those it will be entertaining, those commuters parading out of town to the shires for their well-earned weekends.
The series was the first producer credit for Paul Knight, who had begun his television career in the post room at ATV, become an Assistant Floor Manager on the anthology series Love Story, and as one of Head of Scripted Series Stella Richman’s “boys” at Associated Rediffusion, become Associate Producer on another anthology series, Half-Hour Story. He stayed loyal to the anthology series, rounding off an impressive career that included the ornate The Adventures of Black Beauty and the mighty Robin of Sherwood with the excellent Murder in Mind (BBC, 2001-03), a surprise return of the thriller anthology, and one which should have also been its rebirth.
The Old Banger was written by actor Richardson Morgan, who also has a cough and a spit in the opening moments. The drama was his only writing credit. It was directed by Quentin Lawrence, who at the same time was doing a grand job of what would prove to be a much better-remembered LWT series, the merry Catweazle (1970). The Old Banger starred the lugubrious Terence Rigby, an actor who always played very much his own game, and the delightful Pinkie Johnstone (former flatmate of Judi Dench), who the same year gave birth to future RSC director Rachel Kavanaugh. Watching it now (and I wonder if anyone else has ever watched it in the last 46 years), it is easy to see why, like its titular menace, it has dogged the memories of some of those who saw it. It’s quietly strange and original. Its tone is elusive. In reflection, it’s both amusing and eerie.
John and Susan Partridge are nice people, with a modest house in a west London suburb and a penchant for pigeon racing. But their clapped out Hillman is draining them of money, on this occasion having to be towed home and landing them with a bill for £5 – more than the car itself is worth, in John’s opinion. They decide to buy a scooter instead, but when they find that sending the old banger to a scrapyard will cost them another £10, John decides instead to dump it on the other side of the city, removing the number-plates so that it can’t be traced back to him. Susan is all for the idea, but when their mechanical friend Eric (Neil McCarthy, expertly playing another of his gentle giants) finds out what they’ve done, he’s appalled, especially since “it had a perfectly good speedo on it”. He decides to retrieve it, but when he gets to the Peckham street it was left in, he finds it has gone, and turns out now to be parked in Camberwell.
Then it inexplicably moves again, this time to Pimlico. When Eric attempts to immobilise it, he ends up in hospital after getting trapped under the bonnet.
After visiting him in hospital, the Partridges relax to watch News at Ten, only to see the car in the background of a report. Susan recognises the location as being quite close by. When the pair plot the points of the vehicle’s mysterious journey on a map, they realise that it is on a direct course straight back to their house.
Susan goes upstairs to bed, and screams when she sees from the window that the rusting menace is now parked outside the house.
John decides to sit up all night watching it, but inevitably dozes off. In the morning the couple are delighted to see that the car has gone, and, in celebratory mood, Susan zooms off on the scooter. Alone, John walks into his living room, only to find…
It’s a stupendously bonkers shot. Susan returns home to find him dismantling the old banger piece by piece, but of course, the vengeful vehicle has the last laugh, trapping them both inside it and killing them.
Laced with a jolly brass and woodwind score that cheerfully fanfares each of the tale’s twists, The Old Banger is adorably droll. Blending comedy, the supernatural and ultimately, death, isn’t the easiest of tasks. Television tended to present its horror with a straight-face in those days; today it prefers to deliver it with a knowing wink. In that sense, this is somewhat ahead of its time, and feels like a more subtle ancestor of Inside No.9, more gentle and less grotesque.
Interestingly, along with many small roles on television, Richardson Morgan worked a number of times with Keith Johnstone, a pioneer of improvisational theatre. In his book, Impro, Johnstone recalls Morgan and mime artist Ben Benison playing a scene in which Morgan is an employee being fired by his boss because his cancer is affecting his performance at work. Johnson described it as “about the cruelest scene I’ve ever seen and the audience were hysterical with laughter. I’ve never heard people laugh more. The actors seemed to be dragging all the audience’s greatest fears into the open, laying out all their insecurities, and the actors absolutely knew what they were doing, and just how slowly to turn the screw”.
The Old Banger is, admittedly, quite a few streets away from that sort of work, but it does suggest that Richardson Morgan’s only television credit could have been just the first breath of an interesting and original voice, one that would have gently explored the couplings of those uneasy bedfellows, comedy and tragedy, in an idiosyncratic way.
But it wasn’t to be. I did attempt to contact Morgan to ask him his memories of his sole half-hour as a television writer. I never heard back. Perhaps, unlike many of those who have seen it, to him The Old Banger is long forgotten.