(Quick caveat: the play had to start early due to technical considerations so I missed the beginning. In the end I decided that I’d seen enough to review it).
If you’ve heard of Bill Grundy then, more likely than not, it will be in relation to him interviewing The Sex Pistols on “Today”, a regional news programme on Thames Television. At the end of what had been a fractious and awkward interview Grundy, irked by the band’s conduct (and more than a little sozzled), decided to goad guitarist Steve Jones. Jones gamely dropped a couple of F-Bombs in response. Cut to credits.
It was 1976 and ‘Today’ was broadcast live at 6pm. Profanity of that nature was unheard of on teatime television. The incident became a national news story, fanned by the faux-outrage of the tabloid press. Pensioners were spontaneously combusting in the street. Parts of the Home Counties tumbled into the Earth’s core. The Royal Family were evacuated to Canada for a fortnight as a precaution.
Within a fortnight The Sex Pistols were household names and Bill Grundy’s TV career was trashed, never to recover.
Plenty has been written about The Sex Pistols and this slice of TV history, but little of it – if any – focusses on Grundy and his life and career before and after the Today programme debacle. A new black comedy, “After Today – a Bill Grundy Story” by Tim Connery, takes steps to redress that.
The show is set three years after the Sex Pistols interview and Grundy has been reduced to presenting a low-budget documentary on Hever Castle. He’s drunk, fractious and apparently determined to rub his young director – Jeremy – up the wrong way. Throughout the play we flit back and forth through Grundy’s career and get a glimpse at the erudite, gifted but self-destructive soul behind the name.
The play moves at a breath-taking pace. That’s partly because it’s had to be cut down from 90 minutes to around 55 minutes to make it fit its slot at the Edinburgh Fringe.
But it’s mainly because of the spree of wonderful tensions at work within the play that fire a lot of the black humour. Grundy himself is fighting a constant internal tug-of-war between his intellect and rage; between his consummate professionalism and his knack for self-destruction. It’s only the surfeit of whisky in his veins that’s preventing implosion.
There’s also the tension between Grundy and his circumstances. His erudition and snobbery are at complete odds with the brave new world he finds himself in and which, in part, he inadvertently helped inspire.
Alex Dee – as Grundy – plays these contradictions superbly, smoothly progressing through the gears, while delivering the rapid stream of consciousness dialogue with barely a stutter. His Bill Grundy is a man of two faces, switching from assured and scholarly to spitting invective in an instant. Dee manages to navigate Grundy’s inconsistencies, assuredly winning and losing the audience’s sympathies in turn, with great aplomb.
Ankur Sengupta plays Julian, Grundy’s director. in many ways the face of the wave of youth culture that Grundy’s drowning in. It’s a less showy part in the two-hander, but Sengupta gives a likable and well-pitched performance. He sensibly doesn’t try to match Dee’s intensity, but provides him with a perfect foil while neatly farming his own laughs.
I saw the play unadorned in many ways; quite understandably as it was a scratch preview. It was the cast’s first show in front of an audience and was shorn of the lighting effects that will eventually benefit the play. However, if this first glimpse is anything to go by the finished article will be a gem.