What’s the most terrifying voice to have ever issued from a cinema or television screen? Could it be the flat, dead tones of actor Douglas Rain, who in 1968 supplied the voice for the quietly murderous computer HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction classic 2001: a Space Odyssey? Or what about the vile, guttural croak that actress Mercedes Cambridge provided for the demon possessing Linda Blair in 1973’s The Exorcist? Fans of the early-noughties BBC TV comedy show The League of Gentlemen might even nominate the hideously rasping voice that comic-actor Reece Shearsmith bestowed on his sinister, black-faced, top-hatted character Papa Lazarou: “You’re my wife now, Da-a-ave!”
Actually, I can think of one voice that’s even more dreadful than those I’ve just mentioned. Here are a few clues to its identity. Bacardi and coke with ice and lemon. Gin and tonic with ice and lemon. Olives. Peanuts. Crisps. A little cheesy pineapple one. A little top-up. A bottle of Beaujolais, put in the fridge. Jeans, with the patches on, and safety pins going right down the sides, and scruffy bottoms, and plumber’s overalls. (“She makes me die, you know.”) Women’s lib and permissiveness and all this wife-swapping business. A little top-up. A silver-plated candelabra. Dennis Roussos records. James Galway records. The complete works of Shakespeare, embossed in gold. A little top-up. A Van Gogh reproduction. (“They called him a post-impressionist, but to my mind he was more of a symbolist… He was a very unstable man. Not only did he cut his ear off and live in a brothel, he also ate paint and he shot himself.”) A picture in the bedroom that’s either erotic or “cheap pornographic trash”. A heart attack. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Cramp.
Yes, the most terrifying voice to have graced a film or TV drama is surely that of Beverley in the Mike Leigh-devised drama Abigail’s Party. Leigh was established as a force in contemporary British culture when a version of Abigail’s Party was broadcast as part of the BBC’s Play for Today series in 1977. Indeed, in a survey of the ‘all-time top 100 British TV programmes’ conducted by the British Film Institute, it was ranked at number 11. Played in the TV version by Alison Steadman – Leigh’s one-time wife – Beverley is equipped with a voice that could be variously described as having the power to curl people’s toes, curdle people’s blood, strip paint or evoke the sound of fingernails being dragged down blackboards. Shrill, bossy, bullying, overbearing, wheedling, ingratiating, rarely pausing to consider if the words it’s giving form to actually make any sense, and never, ever shutting up, Beverley’s voice is a nightmarish thing. Then again, it’s the perfect accompaniment for the nightmarish cocktail party that she holds in her house as a refuge for the local adults while, elsewhere in their neighbourhood, 15-year-old Abigail throws a noisier and more boisterous – but possibly more civilised – party for her teenage mates.
Not that Beverley’s guests do anything to improve the tone of the proceedings. There’s the naïve, gawky and gormless nurse Angie and her sullen, tensed-up husband Tony, a man who gives the impression he could explode into a violent rage at any moment. There’s the melancholy and moderately posh divorcee Sue, who is Abigail’s mother and who gives the impression she could explode at any moment too, though into floods of tears. And there’s Beverley’s own husband, the diminutive, harassed and overworked Lawrence, who spends the party locked in a battle-of-wits with Beverley. Lawrence keeps losing that battle because of his wife’s Tiger Tank-like resolve and her complete lack of self-awareness. However, he does manage to bring the party to an unexpected close when, during a final bluster of impotent fury, he suffers a coronary and expires on the living room floor.
I saw Abigail’s Party on television when it was broadcast in 1977 and, at the age of twelve years old, I found it very disturbing – more disturbing than the horror films I was starting to watch on late-night TV. As a boy I’d assumed that all adults were civil, sensible and reasonable; so it unsettled me to see a bunch of them displaying the same bitching, bullying and petty-minded behaviour that I sometimes saw in my school playground. In fact, Beverley’s machinations and manipulations during the party were so obvious that even I could see through them, and it troubled me that the other adults seemed to be falling for them.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine came across a second-hand DVD of the 1977 TV Abigail’s Party on sale in a charity shop and I thought it’d be interesting to see how it holds up nearly four decades later. Viewing it again, what I found interesting was how direct and straightforward it still seems. The only element of the play I notice today that I didn’t pick up on as a kid is a bit where Tony and Lawrence leave Beverley’s party and go to check on Abigail’s party – for some unexplained reason Tony comes back later than Lawrence does and his manner is sheepish, suggesting that he might have got up to something untoward with Abigail’s teenage guests. That’s the only thing that went over my 12-year-old head in 1977.
With everything else, Leigh is upfront. The pretensions, tastelessness, hypocrisy and social embarrassments are there for audiences, young, middle-aged and old alike, to laugh at or cringe at without having to do much reading between the lines. Interestingly, the horrors of Abigail’s Party are something that Leigh chose not to inflict on audiences again, at least not so heavily. (His 1993 movie Naked is gruelling, admittedly, but in a different way.) Mike Leigh films such as Life is Sweet, Secrets and Lies and Another Year are gentler, tempered by having characters who show at least some degree of self-awareness.
In my memories of Abigail’s Party, the play’s one chink of light seemed to be the fate of Angie. After being depicted throughout as a vacuous numbskull, she suddenly comes into her own at the end when, using her training as a nurse, she takes command of the situation and tries to save the dying Lawrence. But viewing it again, I realised that Leigh denies even Angie a dignified ending. After all her heroic efforts with Lawrence, her leg falls prey to an attack of cramp and she ends up in indecorous agony on her back.
Some people, looking back on Abigail’s Party, have interpreted it as a piece of social history. They see Beverley as being representative of those materialistic nouveau riche southerners who would vote for Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s – money accumulating in their pockets, but vulgar as hell in their tastes. But I think poor old Lawrence represents more the people whom Thatcher thought she was empowering with her right-wing social revolution. He slaves away as an estate agent and Thatcher would surely have approved of his work ethic. But he also sees himself as a connoisseur of respectable, tasteful art – Shakespeare, Van Gogh, Lowry, classical music and Tudor architecture – that the future Prime Minister, the daughter of a respectable middle-class greengrocer, would no doubt have approved of too.
In fact, Thatcher seemed to assume that if the markets were freed up, and money put in the pockets of certain people, not only would those people climb the social ladder, but their tastes, values and morality would ‘improve’ too. However, this didn’t happen, as all those late-1980s jokes about the vulgarity of ‘Essex Men’ and the ‘Loadsamoney’ culture indicated. Lawrence was what Margaret Thatcher expected. Beverley was what she got.
Meanwhile, I wonder what Leigh wanted to symbolise with Abigail in the late 1970s. We never actually see her, but from the adults’ description of her she’s clearly a punk. (Mind you, apart from a distant snatch of The Jam’s In the City that I think I hear playing at one point, the teenagers’ party doesn’t sound particularly punk-rock or new wave.) Did Leigh intend her to represent a cultural and social revolution by the younger generation, rebelling against the inanities of their parents? Alas, I have no doubt that in 2014 the middle-aged Abigail has shed her plumber’s overalls and colourful-sounding jeans and is hosting cocktail parties that are nearly as painful as the one her mother attended in 1977.