Friday, 6 March 2015
The Hallelujah Handshake (1970)
The Hallelujah Handshake is a 1970 Play For Today written by Colin Welland and directed by Alan Clarke is a thought provoking one which gained an extra, unsettling resonance for me now watching from today's modern contemporary perspective.
The story - based on a real life anecdote Welland heard from a friend who happened to be a Minister - concerns a lonely and compulsive misfit called Henry (played by Tony Calvin) who one day arrives at a church social and subsequently throws himself passionately into helping that parish, ingratiating himself deeply with the Minister (John Phillips) and others. He is shown to work with youth groups, Sunday School and Scouts and delivers lectures allegedly based on personal experiences of travel but in reality are just parroted recitals from holiday brochures. Slowly but surely this habit of exaggeration and lying, along with some unusual personality traits and actions begin to strike each of them as odd and potentially dangerous and the play explores the church's well meaning but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to integrate and rehabilitate such a clearly disturbed man.
The unsettling resonance I felt in watching this play now, some 45 years since it was made, is the pervading and subtly alluded to threat of paedophilia that hangs over Henry's character. His clear enthusiasm for and desire to work with the parish's children automatically flags up warning signs for the modern viewer, but here it is developed in the most slow burn, unsuspecting and naive of manners. Of course this is in keeping with the time the play was written/made, a time before DBS, formerly known as CRB (although the effectiveness of that tool can be debated even now) when a person got by only on trust and instinct, with perilous consequences as we know now. The Minister is shown over time to start noticing Henry's manner and doubting his intentions - Does he hold that child a little too close, a little too tightly with more than natural affection? - but even when he feels sure Henry is clearly ill, his primary response is to protect, shelter and help a man who he believes reached out to the church for love rather than report or expel him from his voluntary duties. It's a Christian attitude I guess, but it's one that is hard to swallow knowing as we do how rife sexual abuse was within the church itself in recent history. I firmly believe in rehabilitation and have worked with sex offenders towards it in the past, but I can't shake the (perhaps natural for the time) naivety expressed here even though the film takes great pains to point out that Henry's attitudes towards children is not, at that stage, a malignant or active condition. I don't think Henry is a truly sexual being, but he's certainly on the cusp of being so. He's shown to be confused and alarmed by promiscuity, sexuality and even by salty, ribald language but ultimately this only serves to highlight the dangers in such an arrested development coming into contact with naturally growing youths.
The film's structure apes that of a case study with scenes of Henry’s involvement with the church’s community accompanying voiceovers and cuts to scenes that show the priest relating his experiences with Henry and his slowly rising anxieties and suspicions to a social worker, which tips the viewer off that things end badly for Henry. He is shown to leave the church under something of a self imposed cloud, panicked by the Minister's attempt at reaching out to him and asking him for the truth. But his activity is too compulsive, too habitual to end there and he is shown to have moved on to a nearby Catholic community where he is passing himself off as John, a former BBC Wales Orchestra violinist, and presenting the same disturbing patterns. When the Minister tries to flag up his concerns with 'John's' new priest, the priest won't hear of it and, interestingly, Welland makes a satirical point here depicting the priest as someone who believes his fellow clergyman is simply jealous that one of his flock transferred to his instead. For the priest this is simply validation that his faith is in someway the right faith. It is only when, on an impulse, Henry/John steals a prize in a raffle - a teasmaid - for an elderly parishioner - that the priest sees the error of his ways and promptly, and not very Christian-like (compared to the Minister's initial efforts) washes his hands of Henry/John as his previous long list of thefts is heard in court before his inevitable sentencing at Her Majesty's Pleasure.
The final scene shows him released from prison and now part of the Salvation Army's marching band, suggesting that Henry, forever half a person in need of contact, will continue to try and gain the acceptance and approval of large organised groups, specifically those of a religious base - a "cry from the wilderness" as Welland has one character state, looking for a home. Ultimately I think the play's intention is to suggest that giving help to someone who clearly needs it is not always an easy task and one that not everyone wants to make the sacrifice for. Little is given in terms of case history for Henry but this only serves to make the character such an intriguing blank slate, played by the necessarily blank looking Tony Calvin. I believe Welland's original intention was to depict Henry as a much more suave and presentable a person (as befits the original anecdote he was told) than Calvin, taking his cue from Alan Clarke's direction offered. There is clearly something 'off' about Calvin from the start and, though his performance (only very occasionally) veers towards caricature, the essence of both childlike peculiarity creating empathy and unsettling peculiarity creating concern is neatly captured by both him and Clarke throughout, making the piece suitably debate worthy.
Like many Play For Today's of the time, this remains languishing in the BBC vaults unwatched.
To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays please sign the petition I started here