Television’s Dickens

Jack Rosenthal

It was last year when walking down a high street in Dorset when I saw in the window of a charity shop Jack Rosenthal’s autobiography for the bargain price of £3.

Having always liked his plays I could not wait to get home to start reading, but when I opened its first pages what surprised me was to find the text had been written in the format of a play.

The early disappointment quickly dissipated for when I started reading the book Jack just seemed to leap from each page with life’s anecdotes narrated with pathos and humility, with beautiful observations of the inherent caricature in human behaviour.

[H]is death in 2004 led The Guardian to dub him ‘television’s Charles Dickens’, now next week on 7th February marks the bi-centenary of Dickens’s birth and you are going to hear an awful lot about Dickensian London, but nearly eight years after his death not much of our own master Twentieth Century wordsmith who also based many of his stories around London.

So in the interest of balance I have selected a play that defined one of the iconic characters of the Capital from the dozens of scripts that he wrote. For we London’s cabbies he is best known for his 1979 play The Knowledge. It was the last one-off drama ever to be made by Euston Films, filmed around central London (watch out for a prime piece of ‘George Davis is innocent OK’ graffiti), which features outside shots of the old Carriage Office in Penton Street along with some pretty run down parts of London.

Known for his attention to detail and creating credible characters, good research played a large part in writing The Knowledge he spent many hours amongst the cabbie fraternity, and in so doing Jack was granted an honoury taxi driver’s license in the process.

The story charts the trials and tribulations of four men attempting to learn the knowledge to become a London cabbie. Chris played by Mick Ford is the youngest of the four, he is on the dole and given up all hope of finding a job. Dippy and dopey he is encouraged to start the knowledge by his exasperated girlfriend Janet (“Look, I can’t help the word ‘job’ coming up in the conversation, it’s a word!”), eventually he becomes so engrossed in learning the knowledge his girlfriend decides it’s either the knowledge or her in their relationship – she loses. Gordon played by the late Michael Elphick is a cowboy builder and serial womaniser (“Ignorance is bliss. My wife is completely blissful about the whole thing.”), who leaves behind his irate wife (played by Jack Rosenthal wife Maureen Lipman) to spend half of his time learning London’s road routes and use it as an excuse to carry on an extra-marital affair. Jonathan Lynn plays Ted Margolis who comes from a Jewish cabbie dynasty and is the most confident of the quartet and is quickly pages ahead of his fellow Knowledge boys in memorizing the routes but makes the mistake of trying to ingratiate himself with Mr. Burgess, nicknamed The Vampire played with delicious sadistic pleasure by Nigel Hawthorne (“I won’t take offence if anyone here decides to call me ‘Sir’”) and lastly the elderly Walters (David Ryall), is so much one of life’s losers he is nicknamed ‘Titanic’ who views The Knowledge an escape from his uncommunicative wife. He attempts to learn all the runs on a bicycle and farcically wobbles all around London in an effort to do so – frequently falling from his bike.

At intervals they are called in to see Mr. Burgess for an appearance, which involves the student attempting to describe verbally the runs whilst Burgess endeavours to put them off with a series of diversions often involving throwing water or putting Vick nasal inhalers up his nose. Gordon is kicked off the Knowledge for losing his temper while being tested by the Vampire. Ted Margolis of course passes with flying colours only to lose his licence the day he gets it after going to a pub with the rest of the boys to celebrate passing. Chris passes and then is admonish by a passenger when he gets the first route he learnt – Manor House to Gibson Square – for being cheeky and Titanic scrapes through and leaves his wife. He tells the boys she begged him to come back, when truly it can be heard her shouting,”Piss off and don’t come back”.

Jack Rosenthal’s prime interest lay in the way people interacted with each other, much like Charles Dickens, and in the relationship between individuals and institutions. In much of his work he wrote about particular groups of working men, The Knowledge was about trainee taxi drivers, London’s Burning was about firemen, and Dustbinmen was about dustmen. In each he deftly observed the conflict between the aspirations of the protagonists and what others demanded of them.

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