A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

Posted on Wednesday, 6th March 2002 at 18:55 GMT by Dek Hogan

The eighties saw the death of the one-off studio bound drama. Hand held camera techniques pioneered in shows such as Brookside led to more and more location shooting. Then Inspector Morse came along with it’s cinematic values and the art of video shot drama was lost for forever.

Rumblings are afoot at the BBC to redress this balance by bringing stage plays to the screen and if they turn out to be a tenth as good as this offering from BBC Four, a revival of Peter Nichols's remarkable sixties play, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, then we are all in for a treat.

As the show opens, you could be forgiven in thinking that you are at an Eddie Izzard comedy gig. Izzard stands before a large blackboard and delivers the kind of teacher monologue that Joyce Grenfell was so famous for.

At end of this monologue, we join Izzard’s character Bri as he returns home to wife Sheila (Victoria Hamilton). There’s plenty of typical stage play type husband and wife banter and then without ceremony we meet their daughter Jo. Jo is profoundly disabled, so disabled in fact that we often hear her described as a vegetable. Following more bittersweet dialogue between the couple the play takes a unusual turn.

The scenery revolves showing us the back of the set, where Bri emerges and begins conversing with the audience about his situation. Sheila overhears this and joins him. Together they begin to recount the tragic events surrounding their daughters birth and early years, Hamilton staying in character and Izzard providing the voices of various medics and a trendy vicar. Through this storytelling we come to appreciate the trauma this family has been through and that their dark, occasionally sick humour is merely masking the pain as they struggle to care for Jo and maintain their relationship.

The play returns to conventionality in Act Two as they are visited by a well-meaning but unhelpful couple from Sheila’s am-dram society and eventually Bri’s mother. These characters provide a sounding board for Bri and Sheila’s angst and frustration and gradually their true feelings come to the fore, quite shockingly in Bri’s case as he considers the possibility of euthanasia, much to the horror of Sheila and the guests.

As Jo’s health worsens, Bri and Sheila’s desperation manifests itself in vastly different ways.

This play is engaging, both sad and very funny, although as necessitated by the subject matter the gags are often in dubious taste. This could well be the best thing you’ll see on television this month.

The leads are superb and excellent support is offered from Prunella Scales, John Warnaby and Robin Weaver.

There is no happy ending on offer here and to be honest you’d feel cheated if there were. Stunning.

Rating: 10 out of 10

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