C(ecil) P(hillip) Taylor Benedict Nightingale

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Benedict Nightingale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Not long before his death last December, C. P. Taylor told the director of Bring Me Sunshine that he wanted to 'show working people exploring their own feelings, philosophies and relationships with the same concern and sensitivity that had usually been the province of plays of middle-class origin'. Insecurity and anxiety, marital ennui, parental unease, sexual envy, menopausal angst and other such commodities could afflict the families of unemployed Newcastle shipwrights as well as bank-managers from Eastbourne, Sittingbourne, or that well-known centre of genteel despair, Ayckbourn. That is what Sunshine points out, and points out with all Taylor's much-missed generosity of spirit and wry, forgiving humour, that tolerance of human failing which could (be it admitted) sometimes go too far. The play lacks the toughmindedness which Good, because of its theme, so amply displayed. Since none of the characters of Sunshine was going to end up wearing an SS uniform, burning books, or organising the 'humane' slaughter of the mentally crippled or racially uncongenial, Taylor could afford simply to enjoy the sight and sound of them being idiosyncratically, amusingly themselves; and enjoy it he evidently did, occasionally more than we can.

Yet even the more prolix episodes, such as an endless, enervating wrangle over the characters' convoluted sleeping arrangements, are observed with marvellous accuracy; and several of the better encounters don't seem prolix at all. The scene in which a feisty OAP disarms the protagonist's punk son and his tough-guy chum ('You've broken me Nazi dagger!') and proceeds to beat them up; a sexual invitation in a park, he nervous and awkward, she unbelieving, prickly, wincing affectedly at what doesn't really displease her; the coda to a booze-up, with the protagonist harangued, embraced and pledged undying friendship by a man he actually detests: all could be lifted from their contexts and used to illustrate a lecture on their author's quirky yet trenchant talent. Moreover, Sunshine offers a by no means unserious slant on a subject that continued to preoccupy Taylor, from Allergy to Good. What is the internal pathology and the external impact of those who mean well, or mean to mean well, or like to think of themselves as enlightened, progressive, or simply 'good'?

Ted, the podgy ex-shipwright, is the sort everybody likes and uses, whether as factotum, cook, or friendly ear. He is infinitely understanding, yet infinitely ineffective. He is so anxious to see other people's points of view that he hardly seems to have a view, or even an identity, of his own. His idea of quarrelling with his wife is to shout 'All right, then!' when she, maddened beyond endurance by his interminable niceness, yells, 'Can't we have a real disagreement, a real screaming-match?' He has cosy little chats with his son, which leave him half-convinced that the boy is right to throw away his job, take to drugs, commit the odd crime, and impregnate his girlfriend. And he watches helplessly while his wife gets emotionally entangled with an army sergeant, accusing himself of intolerance when their embryonic affair begins to bother him: 'I know it's nowt, but I don't feel it's nowt.'…

[Ted is] variously earnest, genial, flustered, glum and, by the end, as plausible as any character Taylor concocted. Here's an example, if much milder than Halder in Good, of the perils of being 'nice', of failing to say 'no' to those things to which 'no' must be said. Here's that split between mind and feeling, reason and instinct, which Taylor's work as a whole suggests he saw as a principal affliction of our times, as well as an unfailing source of comedy. And here, in this play as in Bandits and Good, he found a form for his characters' confusions and doubts, their mental and moral schizophrenia: fluid, flexible, capable of moving from meditation to interaction or description to dialogue at the touch of a button. Good … was his penultimate play; [Bring Me Sunshine, Bring Me Smiles], alas, was his last of all. Who can say what he might not have achieved had he lived?

Benedict Nightingale, "Nice One," in New Statesman (© 1982 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 103, No. 2666, April 23, 1982, p. 30.∗