REVIEW: Play of the Week – ‘The Education of Mr Surrage’

  • Broadcast: Tuesday, 20th January, 1959

Character: Geofrey Vallence

Background

‘The Education of Mr Surrage’, which was written by Allan Monkhouse, was by no means just a ‘Period Piece’, or simply one of those age-war situations.

The play, which was published in 1913, but set a year earlier in 1912, had been a regular on the reparatory circuit in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s (it was first performed by the Liverpool Theatre Company), and would probably have remained tucked away in a dusty pigeonhole somewhere thereafter if producer, Cliff Owen, hadn’t added it to the growing number of stage plays that turned out to be well suited to television. There were, of course, many such plays brought to TV in the late 1950’s and early 60’s which were, regrettably, spoiled by the medium.

Conversely, many others got by quite adequately on TV, and some – most notably those written by Checkov and Ibsen, had been hugely successful. And then there were those like ‘The Education of Mr Surrage’, which was rarely ever performed in theatre by the end of the Fifties, but which was given a new lease of life thanks to the small screen.

The Story

Our tale begins in the Drawing Room of Perceval Surrage’s (Maurice Denham) home, which is approximately 40 miles outside of London. Surrage is a 50-year-old widower, a retired businessman and father of two girls – Rose (Sally Home) and Violent (Jennifer Daniel), and a son, Archie.

On this occasion, the three grown-up ‘children’ have organised a gathering of friends whom they wish to introduce to their father; believing that they will assist in his “liberal development”, and ultimately drag him kicking and screaming into the 20th Century.

Two of these ‘friends’ – Geofrey Vallence (PETER WYNGARDE) – a Painter, and the unusually named, Arthur Suckling (Peter Reynolds), a playwright, have already arrived and have been shown to their respective rooms. Meanwhile, a third guset – the mysterious Mrs Stains, we’re informed, will be making her way the Surrage household by motor car.

Perceval is someone who might be described as a simple man – but only in the sense that he enjoys an uncomplicated life; he likes what he likes, and that’s good enough for him. But whilst he might appear a bit dull, he’s not incapable of irony, nor is he adverse to seeking out new adventures.

Whilst Archie regales his sister’s on how fortunate he was to have persuaded such a man as Geofrey Vallence to come to their home, Mr Surrage Sr. is assured that, in spite of the Painter being one of the most distinguished living Modern Artists, the two will get along just fine.

Nevertheless, the older man is convinced that his offspring are actually ashamed of him, as he’s long since heard a single compliment on his taste in art, or for the type of furnishings he has in his home. Archie, however, assures him that that’s not the case, and this only wish is to help enrich his father’s life.

It’s at this point in the proceedings that Mrs Stain’s (Vera Fusek) finally arrives, and Archie immediately introduces her to his father. She’s a well-dressed lady of around 35-years of age, and extremely composed. She’s followed into the Drawing Room by Bendloss (John Le Mesurier) – Surrage’s Valet, who announces to Archie that one of the guests – namely Vallence, requires the loan of a shoe.

“Just the one?” enquires Surrage Sr.

It would appear that the young Artist had discovered that the boots he’d arrives in leak water, and that he’d only brought one shoe in his luggage.

As Archie goes off to assist his Artist friend, Arthur Suckling appears in the Drawing Room for the first time to make the acquaintance of Surrage and his guest, Mrs Stains – the latter of whom announces that she’d “known” Vallence previously.

Suckling begins to tell his host how he’d run into the Artist at King’s Cross Station earlier that day, and how the young Painter had tried to convince him to travel Third Class with him. Both Mrs Stains and Surrage are both bemused by this revelation, as it doesn’t sound like the actions of a successful artist: Why on Earth would he wish to ride Third Class? “Because he had to!” replies Suckling: The renowned Painter, it would seem, is not quite as successful as at first believed.

At that moment Archie strolls back into the Drawing Room with the much-discussed Artist; a slovenly-dressed and bearded young man, who greets both his host and fellow guests politely but casually.

Rather impertinently, Valence then asks Mr Surrage whether Mrs Stains is his wife, only to latterly recognise her as a former acquaintance. A shocked silence fills the room, until Violet arrives and hands the Painter a cup of tea.

“I see that you’re looking at my pictures”, the older man observes of Valance.

“Yes,” the young man replies curtly. “They are pictures!”

Archie quickly interjects with an explanation on his friend’s behalf: “Valence,” he stammers, “belongs to a new order”, whereupon Surrage Sr. is forced to concede that he isn’t exactly up-to-date with modern society.

Artists like he and Vallenace, Suckle continues, are not ordinary people. This comment, however, results only in the Painter calling the playwright a “fool” which, once again fills the room with shocked silence.

The two girls, Violet and Rose, decide that the best course of action given the atmosphere amongst their guest is to invite Mr Suckling to join them in the garden. Valence refuses their invitation – deciding instead to continue his conversation with their father.

The older man asks his companion if he likes this part of the world, but Valence retorts by confessing that he really has no idea where he is!

The impression given by the young Artist is that he has only contempt for the former Businessman and his family; might the reason for his accepting Archie’s invitation to visit merely be to see Mrs Stains again? But Vallence tells Surrage that he had no idea that she’d be there.

Surrage admits to the younger man that he only agreed to their friends coming because he wished to understand his children more. But Vallence has little interest in this bonding exercise; he accepted Archie’s invitation merely to get the chance of a proper meal! The older man appears wounded to hear this, but as the Painter is quick to point out, making such a confession hurt less than having to go without food.

There is a moments silence between the two men, until Surrage tells the blunt Artist that his children believe him to be a great painter. “They’re right!”, he responds, without a hint of conceit, but then announces that he’s decided to leave.

Surrage is taken aback to hear this, and repeatedly asks the young man to remain. Why, Valence demands, “so you can watch me eat?!” The older man refutes this, and again implores him to remain.

When at last Valence agrees to stay put, he asks the older man why he allows his grown-up children to bully him – and more importantly, why he consents to let them inflict his sort on him. Surrage has no answer to that, and decided to join his family in the garden.

As Surrage disappears, in strolls Mrs Stains, who wants to know what Valence is doing there. He tells her that he hopes his host, who is clearly well-to-do, might buy some of his paintings. But what about her? It would seem that she’s had similar thoughts – but it’s not paintings she hopes to sell….

After Thoughts….

Back in the day, when playwrights and novelists wished to emphasise the differences between conventional society and the world inhabited by forward-thinkers and creative types, an artist would often be introduced to the story – in this instance he comes in the shape of Geofrey Valence. In helping to draw a sharp contrast between himself and the bourgeoisie Surrage, the Painter provided the author with a straightforward premise around which to constructed his story.

With both wit and a refreshingly observed approach, the bourgeoisie Surrage was able to deal skillfully with every situation – which included coping with the arrival of Modern Artist. The elderly former businessman had never before met a man like the outrageous Valence – who wolfed down his food like a wildman; frequently pilfered money, and was abominably rude. Yet, by the end, Valence was more perturbed by the middle-aged man than Surrage was by the Artist. Within six months – although still with no real understanding of Modern Art, the old boy finds himself organising an exhibition of Valences’s work and selling it like proverbial hot cakes!

The peculiar quality of this play was that it was as much a study of Surrage as it was of the dashing, yet unscrupulous, Painter. While the preoccupation of the quiet, older man was that he’s falling behind and failing to understand the new ways, he’s still capable of taking the wind out of the Artist’s sails with his persistent and pertinent questions.

Whilst it could be said that Maurice Denham’s clever study of Surrage holds the centre of the screen; his every facial expression being a pleasure to observe, PETER’s portrayal of the despicable Artist blows everyone else off the screen. Even with everything loaded in his favour – especially towards the end of the story when he takes over as Valence’s agent, it was all Denham could do to stand up to PETER’s character.

And whilst PETER made an excellent foil for the lead character, Vera Fusek was fascinating as the mysterious Mrs Staines. Surrage’s children were more in the nature of a commentary rather than fully realised, which appeared to be a flaw of many of Monkhouse’s characters, as he seemed to lack the vital constructive knack. whilst he could put a useful assortment of persons in front of an audience, he didn’t quite know how to keep them interpenetrating.

If I have one small criticism, it’s that there seemed to be several loud crashed and bangs off-set which didn’t appear to have any obvious part in the plot, but otherwise I found the whole thing to be a thoroughly enjoyable comedy.


© Copyright The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/

 

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