In the 1970s, the BBC occasionally pushed the boat out and shot a whole ‘play’ on film and location rather than taped it in the studio; it took years for anyone inside or outside the corporation to start calling these things ‘films’, maybe because back then the phrase ‘TV movie’ meant something American with Robert Foxworth or Diana Muldaur. Directed by Brian Gibson (Breaking Glass, Poltergeist 2: The Other Side), this is among the most cinematic of Dennis Potter’s TV scripts: at the heart of it is debate, but it’s a rare Potter with telling moments of silence and the literal presence of landscape (here, the sea-shore) to go with his frequent evocation of the wild woods of the heart.
Based on Edmund Gosse’s memoir Father and Son, this looks closely at the Victorian marine biologist and Plymouth Brethren fundamentalist Philip Henry Gosse (Alan Badel), a man who couldn’t help but be intellectually convinced by the force of Darwin’s theories but squirmed to come up with the easily-caricatured ‘omphalos’ argument to restore his faith in the literal truth of the Bible. Crudely, Gosse said, just as Adam and Eve were created with navels, the Earth was created with evidence (fossils) of a pre-creation past which didn’t happen. The widowed, grave, spade-bearded Gosse is absorbed in counter-theorising just as his young son (Max Harris) is starting to have doubts about the patriarch. Darwin’s theory that only those who can adapt survive resonates with the boy who will grow up to escape his father’s strange worldview (when he has nightmares, Philip tells him that he will probably die in his bed tonight and join his mother in heaven – then informs a guest that the boy is much happier now he has reassured him). There’s an odd moment near the end as the boy uses a chair to bar his bedroom door, raising the possibility that the father is molesting the son — the lad is groped by a village madwoman (Jean Boht) in one Potterish primal scene –, though that comes so far out of left field it’s hard to fit in with the rest of the drama.
The original book is surprisingly funny, as the author ridicules his priggish younger self as much as his grave stiff father – but this doesn’t have any of that backward-looking tone (Potter thinks we can’t get away from who we are as children, but Edmund Gosse does) and downplays the ridiculousness. We have the thread of the boy disapproving of the housekeeper (Heather Canning) who has quietly set her cap at his father, but not the punchline where Edmund throws his father’s own sectarian beliefs back at him (‘you mean to tell me she’s a paedobaptist!’) when told of their engagement. Badel, one of the most underrated actors of his generation, is outstanding – most Potter leading men have to plunge into histrionic agony, but Philip Gosse keeps everything inside and Badel conveys the internal struggles of this decent man who finds he has to take a losing side in an argument or else write off his entire life. The heart of the drama comes in conversations, with a serpentine, arrogant young Darwinian (Gareth Forwood) and the sympathetic author (and stutterer) Charles Kingsley (Ronald Hines). Potter makes the debate about evolution and creationism (which must have seemed settled when he wrote this piece) come alive, but also shows how inexpressible emotions (in Gosse’s case, grief and love) shape intellectual positions.