Chips With Everything by the playwright Arnold Wesker, who died recently, opened at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1962, and the following year there was a production in Wimbledon which a gang of us went to see.
This was an outing arranged by the more culturally and politically aware members of our group, and which those of us still paddling in the shallows of cultural activity was approached with more anxiety about theatre etiquette than anticipation of seeing what we didn’t realise was a significant piece of theatre history.
The play focuses on a group of new recruits at an RAF training camp, but the ideas that the drama explores and the issues it raises go far beyond the confines of this situation.
It’s a piece which requires intense concentration as Wesker’s rage against society and his identification with what Jimmy Porter in the contemporary Look Back In Anger (by John Osborne) calls ‘good, brave causes’.
The blend of drama and comedy, the social and personal interactions and, above all, the powerful impact of the play’s series of lengthy monologues hammer home ideas about class warfare and class solidarity, society, order, tradition, humanity, culture and education.
The character who carries most of the play’s message is the upper-class Pip. He is marked out for officer status but identifies more with the ordinary ranks who he encourages to rebel, only to be tricked in the end into admitting that he wants to lead them.
Roots and shoots
Seeing Chips With Everything as a young teenager was a stunning experience. It seemed to tap into a zeitgeist of which we were only dimly aware, notions of the divisions of class and culture and of political movements. It sparked an interest in Wesker which lead us to the Trilogy Plays, and in particular, Roots.
Now here was a find. The central, vibrant character of Roots is Beatie Bryant and she’s a 22-year-old female, unlike the all-male protagonists of Chips With Everything.
Town and country
What’s more, she’s a girl in a position to which we could instantly relate. She’s going home to her family in rural Norfolk, a world of pigmen and tractor drivers and garage mechanics, to prepare them for the visit of her boyfriend from London, the clever, passionate socialist Ronnie, whose ideas about life and politics and society have transformed her thinking.
The rich seam of the newly enlightened child returning to the parental home to show them the errors and limitations of their ways yields gold time and time again, in plays, novels, songs, sitcoms.
It is a source of comedy and of tragedy. It’s the student Ken Barlow returning to Coronation Street, him with his university scarf and his high-falutin’ ways. It is Rita in Educating Rita, in the pub sing-a-long with her family, finding she doesn’t know the words any more, and longing for a better song to sing.
With Beatie, the dramatic arc takes us through confrontation and challenge, disappointment and finally, triumph.
At the beginning, we hear Beatie, as she admits, mouthing Ronnie’s words, imitating him, parroting his ideas. She refers to the Manchester Guardian and Chaucer. She gets her Mum to listen to Bizet. Beatie isn’t at all patronising, she is simply fizzing with her discovery of a new world. Just as you are wondering what Ronnie is going to add to this mix, (SPOILER ALERT) his note arrives. He’s not coming, and Beatie is dumped.
But Ronnie has completed his work. He has opened Beatie’s eyes, and his departure enables her to find her own voice. It’s a magical end to the play, when, in wonderment, she finds she can use words as bridges, she can communicate, she can articulate her own thoughts. ‘I’m beginning,’ she says. ‘On my own two feet — I’m beginning…’
Way to go, Beatie. Her final diatribe against the cultural impoverishment of people who suck up the kind of pappy mass-produced entertainment which is considered good enough for the masses, those who accept ‘chips with everything’, is a powerful piece of polemic.
For a moment, it made you feel a bit ashamed of being one of the masses, enjoying pop music and films and women’s magazines. But Beatie had said earlier in the play that Ronnie thought there was nothing wrong with rock and roll as long as that wasn’t all you liked, and there was nothing wrong with football as long as that wasn’t all you did.
So that was all right. We could have both. Ronnie said so. And in a few short years, popular culture would have its own place in academic studies and intellectual discussions. Beatie wouldn’t need to hide her ‘love comic’ behind the Manchester Guardian, good news for those of us who hid our copies of Boyfriend, Romeo and Valentine underneath our school text books. When Jackie magazine came along, the lines were already blurred, and our younger sisters could openly enjoy their magazine, free from jibes about their ‘lowbrow’ choices.