Ready When You Are, Mr McGill
R2 - United Kingdom - Network
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (6th April 2010).
The Show

Please also see our review of Jack Rosenthal's 'Another Sunday and Sweet F.A.'.

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Produced as part of ITV’s Red Letter Day strand, the television play ‘Ready When You Are, Mr McGill’ (Granada, 1976) won a BAFTA award for writer Jack Rosenthal. Produced by Granada for broadcast on ITV, the Red Letter Day strand contained seven different television plays, each focusing on a character faced by an important day in their life. ‘Ready When You Are, Mr McGill’ was also reworked and expanded to feature length in 2003 (but not broadcast until 2005), with Tom Courtenay in the lead role. This 1976 version of the play was directed by Mike Newell, in the days before his work on big budget Hollywood pictures such as Donnie Brasco (1997) and the forthcoming Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010).

‘Ready When You Are, Mr McGill’ is essentially a piece of metafiction, a film about the making of a film. Film extra Joe McGill (Joe Black) has a great day ahead of him: he is to play his first speaking part, as ‘Old man in street’, in a television play, a spy drama set during the Second World War. He begins the day by reciting the line he is to deliver in the drama, ‘I’ve never seen that young lady in my life before, and I’ve lived here fifty years’.

Along with the other extras, Joe is ferried to the location by bus. Quickly, the hierarchies on the set are established: the camera crew stick together, the extras form an alliance and the key cast separate themselves from the other groups on set. (Joe is something of a star amongst the extras, due to his speaking part in the drama: one of the female extras notes in amazement that Joe is ‘a speaking extra: he’s got sixteen words’.) Like Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s recent situation comedy Extras (BBC, 2005-6), ‘Ready When You Are, Mr McGill’ focuses on the interplay (and highlights the antagonism) between these different groups.

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The director is Mr Shaw (Jack Shepherd), a dour man who, as one of the female extras notes, looks ‘half-dead’ and ‘thinks he’s God’. Shaw and his crew face a series of interruptions which delay the shoot: an aircraft flying overhead, a technical slip-up, the arrival of a lorry, rain. The drama follows the series of aborted attempts to shoot the scene, with Shaw becoming increasingly agitated. Finally, the scene seems to have been shot perfectly, but the camera operator reveals that there is a hair in the aperture gate. (‘That’s show business’, McGill notes: ‘The shot’s no good, not with hair in the gate’.)

When it comes to reshooting the scene, McGill stumbles over his line, finding difficulty in emphasising the right word. Put under pressure by Shaw after endless retakes, McGill’s understanding of the grammatical structure of the sentence goes to pot. He is then abused by Shaw, who angrily tells McGill that his performance is ‘The worst bloody mess I’ve ever seen in my bloody life. And I feel as if I’ve lived here fifty sodding years’.

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McGill asks the director for another chance to deliver his line: ‘We’ve been doing it over and over for hours and hours [….] But we’re not machines; we’re not cameras’, McGill reminds the director. In response, Shaw tells McGill that ‘you’re no bloody good, and that’s why you’re an extra [….] You stupid, lousy bugger’. The director tells McGill he had one chance to deliver the line correctly ‘and you couldn’t’. ‘That’s not real life, lad’, McGill spits back, in a moment of realisation: ‘That’s pretend. We’re all pretending. You’re pretending. The whole damn fool play’s pretending’.

Finally, the scene is reshot on a sound stage as the extras are bussed home, like veterans of a war. (McGill concedes to a fellow extra that the scene may be ‘tarted up […] in the editing’.) Ultimately, Shaw decides to scrap the scene completely. Shaw’s assistant (Mark Wing-Davey) questions his decision to eliminate the scene. ‘Isn’t it the writer’s intention to…’, the director’s assistant tells Shaw. ‘What’s it got to do with the writer?’, Shaw asserts in a characteristic display of hubris. ‘Well, he wrote it’, Shaw’s assistant reminds him.

Displaying Rosenthal’s brand of bittersweet humour, ‘Ready When You Are, Mr McGill’ is an excellent and well-observed comedy drama – comparable in subject matter (but much sharper in its writing) to the recent sitcom Extras. Rosenthal’s script shows a strong affiliation with its underdog protagonist, Joe McGill, who along with the other extras is treated like a machine by the play’s director, Shaw. (Shaw’s treatment of the extras calls to mind Hitchcock’s famous assertion that ‘Actors should be treated like cattle’.) The political landscape of a film shoot is shown in detail: the technical personnel separate themselves from the actors, and the actors separate themselves from the extras. The pressure finally leads to McGill’s almost existential outburst: ‘That’s not real life, lad. That’s pretend. We’re all pretending. You’re pretending. The whole damn fool play’s pretending’. In his autobiography, Jack Rosenthal stated that this scene was the culmination of ‘Ready When You Are, Mr McGill’, featuring ‘The most important person on the set against the least consequential. The attack leads to a ferocious confrontation; and Mr McGill’s defence of himself and what really matters in life’ (2006: 216). McGill’s rebuttal of the arrogant director is entirely deserved, although the closing moments suggest that Shaw learns nothing from the incident.

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‘Ready When You Are, Mr McGill’ offers a backstage perspective on the production of a television play, highlighting the politics, boredom, incompetence, frustrations, hubris and the lack of contextual awareness or understanding (as in Shaw’s ham-fisted dismissal of the writer’s intentions for the television play he is directing) that take place behind the cameras. (Shaw’s dismissal of the writer’s intentions for the television play’s ‘meaning’ may be rooted in Rosenthal’s own experiences.) What’s more, ‘Ready When You Are, Mr McGill’ highlights the technical problems that might impede a film shoot, something that would have been fairly revelatory for most television audiences in the mid-1970s.

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‘Ready When You Are, Mr McGill’ runs for 52:35 mins (PAL) and is uncut. The original break bumpers are intact.

Video

‘Ready When You Are, Mr McGill’ was shot on 16mm film and has a very naturalistic, cinema-verite-like style. This DVD contains an excellent presentation of the television play: the image is deep and textured.

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Audio

Audio is presented via a two-channel mono track. The drama makes naturalistic use of ambient sound, but the dialogue is never difficult to hear. There are no subtitles.

Extras

There is no extra material.

Overall

‘Ready When You Are, Mr McGill’ is a touching character study; McGill is a dreamer (‘Joe McGill is a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company; Joe McGill appears by kind permission of the English Stage Company; Joe McGill is appearing in Sleuth at the Fortune Theatre, London’) who believes in his work as an extra but, as a consequence of the bullying he faces at the hands of the arrogant director, is forced into a moment of powerful self-realisation (‘That’s not real life, lad. That’s pretend’). However, the closing scenes suggest that McGill’s existential moment does not last long (on the bus home, he tells another extra that he is happy with the scene and believes that it may only be ‘tarted up […] in the editing’) and appears to have no impact on Shaw, considering Shaw’s final dismissal of the play’s ‘meaning’ and its writer’s intentions. In sum, ‘Ready When You Are, Mr McGill’ essentially offers a fairly bitter view of television production as a form of delusion, a performance from which neither McGill nor Shaw (the most powerful person and the least consequential) can extricate themselves.

‘Ready When You Are, Mr McGill is also available in Network’s Jack Rosenthal At ITV collection.


References
Rosenthal, Jack, 2006: By Jack Rosenthal: An Autobiography in Six Acts. Robson


For more information, please visit the homepage of Network DVD.

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