A play that now falls under the heading of 'Missing, Believed Wiped', Marking Time was a rare excursion outside of Coronation Street for the perennial William Roache who, as we all know, has now played Ken Barlow since the last throws of the ice age and the invention of steam television.
The play, written by 24-year old Richard Cottrell as Deutsches Haus, was One of "Five Undergraduate Plays" written by Cambridge students in 1959. It was first performed by an amateur group with Cottrell in one of the roles and enjoyed a Cambridge run at the ADC Theatre from 28 April to 2 May 1959. Having done reasonably well, it was transferred to London on 5 August and opened in repertory with Clair de Lune. Playing the lead role at the Arts Theatre Club London was a young actor by the name of Ian McKellen. Harold Hobson, critic for the Sunday Times was suitably impressed and wrote on 9 August 1959; "Mr McKellen's exploration of the emotion of disgrace when he recognises his moral inability to stand up to the responsibilities he has incurred is a poignant climax to the second scene."
When Granada Television commissioned a television adaptation the title was changed to Marking Time. Although most ex-servicemen would recognise the Deutsches Haus of the original title, a cheap juke box dance-bar where squaddies spent their evenings out of camp, it was felt that the title would be lost on a majority of viewers. Cottrell, who was born in London on 15 August 1936 and trained as an actor in Paris had been inspired to write the play based on his own experience of National Service, which was a legal requirement in the UK for all healthy males aged 17 to 21 from 1948 to 1960. His play deals with the difficulties facing young soldiers away from home, abroad, with time on their hands, the local girls who become attached to them, and the human problems inevitably involved.
Cottrell constructed a contrasting bunch of soldiers who find the one common ground to what they perceive as their predicament of being in the Army by trying to beat the system any way they can. Harry, a middle-class suburban boy, the central character of the piece, is played by Roache who was by now a well-known face of television. Having completed his own tour of duty with a number of foreign postings over a five-year period, Roache was very familiar with the setting of the play.
Harry is having an affair with Anna (Sydonie Platt), a German girl who is genuinely in love with him and completely trusting when he says that he loves her. But when she informs him that she is pregnant this is the signal for him to desert her.
A friend of both, Curly (James Kenney) a tough and cunning Cockney coster, is more concerned with his little bit of 'side-business' which involves running a black market in fags and booze. His main customer is Griben (Guy Deghy) who runs the bar. The dishonest Company Quarter-Master Sergeant Brown (John Alderson) epitomises the power conscious cynical N.C.O. who has finally stepped over the thin red line of military discipline. Mark Eden, another Coronation Street connection (although not for some years yet) plays the weak but kindly Corporal Hull who wants to marry a German girl called Renate (Marian Diamond).
The Stage review of this Television Playhouse presentation was somewhat dismissive; 'the story line is just not strong enough. The play had a routine development like a long and boring route march. No characters stood out clearly in the writing and interest in them was not sufficiently aroused. The young author has spent some time in the locale where his play is set, but the story never gets by with its superficial presentation.'
Published on June 15th, 2022. Written by Marc Saul for Television Heaven.