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27th February 2012 13:05:00
Posted by Les Anderson

Dramarama Volume One

Out now from Network DVD, Les reviews this compilation release from the 1980s teen drama anthology series Dramarama...
This is a compilation release from the 1980s teen drama anthology series. Between 1983 and 1989 ninety standalone 25-minute plays were produced independently by the various regional ITV companies and transmitted under the Dramarama umbrella . This set gathers together all ten of the pieces contributed by Thames TV and, as you would expect, have a bias towards London and the Home Counties unlike the transmitted series which featured contributions from throughout the UK. The lack of this multi-regional perspective means this set is not completely representative of Dramarama as a whole.

Dodger, Bonzo and the Rest
Dodger (a young Lee Ross), his sister Bonzo and assorted kids live in a local authority children's home which happens to be run by Pam Ferris. When the home is threatened with closure, the kids act to try and prevent it happening. This is a far cry from the Technicolor world of Tracy Beaker. Without descending into harrowing social realism this otherwise-chirpy play has a decidedly dark streak to it. The overall aesthetic is very similar to, say, Grange Hill of the time. Lee Ross shines out from the rest of the cast and it's no surprise this was developed into a popular full-length series the following year.

Snoop
Cub reporter Colin (Michael Lee-Osborne) stumbles upon a Big Story for his local paper involving a self-confessed retired spy. He finds out the hard way not to take everything at face value. A potentially terrific story is let down by ropey acting all round and indifferent direction.

Mr Stabs
A hokey supernatural melodrama, this has already been seen as an extra on the Ace of Wands set. This is a second follow-up piece featuring the character of Mr Stabs, here played by David Jason assisted by the late David Rappaport.

On Your Tod
Teenager Ben (played by a 26-year-old Gary Oldman) lives alone in a big suburban house living off his inheritance from his deceased parents. An encounter with a homeless punk rocker makes him re-assess his self-centred lifestyle. This is a highly theatrical piece played out on a single set. Made just two years before he achieved international stardom in Sid and Nancy, Gary Oldman's talent and charisma shine brightly here, easily eclipsing everyone around him.

Pig Ignorance
Teenage badboy Darryl (Dexter Fletcher) is working on probation at the local city farm. He soon learns a lesson in compromise from the untimely fate of Muriel, a Gloucester Old Spot.

Jessie's Place
Two teenagers, middle-class Jessie (Dominique Barnes) and working-class Joe (Jeff Ward) are brought together by chance and find mutual support in new ventures away from their family woes. An interesting little play about teen friendship across the class divide let down by stereotyped characters and a decidedly Thatcherist on-your-bike resolution.

Frankie's Hat
East End girl Sonia travels to Oxford to visit her recently-married sister Frankie who is not coping well with motherhood. Frankie is desperate to throw off her worries and the two have a girlie day out to celebrate Frankie's birthday. To me, this is one of the most successful of the plays with a naturalistic script, effective location work and cracking performances from the two girls (Zoe Nathenson and Vicky Murdock both had decent acting careers).

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The Horrible Story
Three boys decide to spend the night in a tent given to them as a present. Pesky little brother Chris (James Green) exacts his revenge for being grudgingly included. What starts off as an indifferent Blytonesque tale is redeemed in the last five minutes by a surprisingly adept performance from Green.

My Friend Julie
A musical two-hander in which two fifteen-year-old girls sing about their friendship and their love for the same boy. I'm not really qualified to judge this but it's an interesting change in form. The entire play is sung while being staged against virtual backdrops (or CSO as it was called in those days) which makes it rather stylised. The two girls are competent singers but the whole thing is a bit lacklustre.

Rosie the Great
Directed by Michael Winterbottom and featuring a raffishly-coiffed Peter Capaldi this is one of the neglected gems to be found on this set. The strategically important mid-Atlantic island of Longsea discovers it is not, after all, part of the UK but an independent monarchy. Thus follows a political farce wherein the ambassadors from the UK, the USA and the Soviet Union (as was) are played-off against each other. If you can imagine an Ealing comedy done in the style of The Comic Strip Presents... with high-powered talent you'll get an idea of what's on offer. Owing a great deal to Passport to Pimlico and Rockets Galore! and shot stylishly by Winterbottom on location on the Welsh coast this features some top established talent of the time including Capaldi and Susan Jameson.

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The DVD

Given these plays were made individually over a period of years, they employ a variety of formats including studio interiors on video and location shooting on both film and video. However they were made to the same technical standards as most adult dramas of the time and the master materials are in excellent shape. Because of the variety of formats, picture quality varies from play to play.

As usual with Network there are no subtitles.

Extras include an image gallery of publicity stills from nine of the plays lasting 3 minutes 58 seconds. We also get some more substantial extras in the form of three plays which were originally transmitted in other drama strands.

The School for Clowns Parts 1 and 2
A studio-bound absurdist piece about clowning featuring the King of the Absurd himself, Ken Campbell. Chiefly of interest now for the participation of a then-unknown Jonathan Pryce, this comes across like Play Away at its most delirious.

Mr Magus is Waiting For You
Four Anna Sher-type kids are unwittingly drawn into a magician's web on a sunny summer afternoon when they investigate a creepy house and garden. This is a weird mish-mash of styles and genres culminating in a psychedelic sequence straight out of a bad 80s pop video featuring a rubbish animatronic cat. It's rather camp and takes itself far too seriously.

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Summary

One of the great pleasures of these collections is spotting major talents in their early days. Here we have Peter Capaldi, Gary Oldman, Michael Winterbottom, Jonathan Pryce etc amongst the ranks of established character actors (Pam Ferris, Susan Jameson, David Jason), future Eastenders (Lee Ross), very capable young actors and squawking stage school brats. Given that this is a motley collection of single plays covering a wide range of genres and styles there is a decent mix of excellent pieces (Frankie's Hat, Pig Ignorance, On Your Tod and Rosie the Great stand out for various reasons) amongst the mediocre and dull. One thing that does link all ten plays is that they were produced by Thames TV, the principal commercial TV station for London. If there is such a thing as an overarching theme linking them, I'd plump for that of self-determination. Over and over again the teenage protagonists are brought to realise that Life Is What You Make It, regardless of their circumstances or social background. This is made very explicit in Jessie's Place when Jessie realises that the best way to break out of her stultifying family life is to open her own business and employ her working-class friend Joe. Considering these plays were made in the capital city during the height of Thatcherism, this should come as no surprise. However the most overtly political of the plays, Rosie the Great is played very much as a general satire on greed and self-importance rather than as a critique of the government of the time but, to be fair, that was an arms-length independent production made in Wales for Thames.

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Details and Specifications
DVD Review

Region:2

Certificate:PG

Distributor:
Network DVD
Soundtracks:
English Mono

Subtitles:
None

Creator/Directors:
Michael Winterbottom
Various others

Main cast:
Peter Capaldi
Gary Oldman
Jonathan Pryce
Pam Ferris
Susan Jameson
David Jason
Lee Ross
Michael Lee-Osborne
David Rappaport
Dexter Fletcher
Dominique Barnes
Jeff Ward
Zoe Nathenson
Vicky Murdock
James Green
-- more --
Ratings
Series
7
Video
8
Audio
8
Extras
3
7