BBC Play For Today: Our Day Out DVD Review

By Will Barber Taylor

An anarchic, bittersweet comedy drama from Oscar-nominee Willy Russell, creator of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine.

Directed by BAFTA-winner Pedr James (Our Friends in the North) and produced by David Rose (Z Cars).

A hilarious and chaotic romp about a group of inner-city Liverpool schoolchildren let off the leash for a day’s outing. Different teaching approaches clash when the compassionate Mrs Kay (Jean Heywood – Billy Elliot) and disciplinarian Mr Briggs (Alun Armstrong – Krull) attempt to supervise.

Stopping at a cafe, a zoo, the beach and a funfair, the children take every opportunity to cause havoc. This tender comedy draws on Willy Russell’s own experiences of school trips as both pupil and teacher.

Originally broadcast in 1977, it was later adapted as a stage musical and still features today as a popular school text.

Our Day Out is one of Willy Russell’s most imaginative and profound dramas. It deftly deals with the education system that existed in the 1970s and, in many ways, still exists today. Russell’s use of realism is one of his greatest literary weapons and that is one of the main reasons that both Educating Rite and Shirley Valentine are acknowledged as modern classics.

Yet Russell is not a writer who obsesses over the kitchen sink and makes the lives of his characters as miserable as possible – instead he presents the genuine flaws as well as the heart of real people. Instead of making his characters, whether they be the teachers or the students, caricatures, Russell creates characters that feel like real people rather than tools for a political message. For sure, there is a message in his work, but he never forces it on to the story in a way that would feel unnatural or make the plot or characters less believable.

Russell ensures that we not only understand the lives of the students but also those of their teachers. In particular, Russell’s depiction of Mr Briggs as a middle-class disciplinarian, who believes that the answer is to merely contain the students under his wing rather than attempt to educate them, is not as great a caricature as it could have been in the hands of a less able writer. Russell makes Briggs an interesting and engaging character who is, in many ways, as much a product of his surroundings as the children he sneers at.

Alun Armstrong is sparklingly brilliant in his portrayal of Mr Briggs. He brings a great deal of anger and confusion to his performance; this mixture of anger and inability to understand why the children aren’t acting as he thought they should is perhaps one of the best things about the play. Armstrong’s delivery is beautifully done, and his comedic timing is a thing of clockwork precision.

Our Day Out is one of the most enjoyable Plays for Today that the BBC produced in its long history. It is both radical and funny; lively and quiet and above all, astonishingly good fun.

You can buy Our Day Out from Amazon here. 

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