Director: Alan Dossor
Screenplay: Mark Wallington
Based on the novel by: Mark Wallington
Producers: Gareth Neame
Starring: James Bolam, Alison Steadman, Jim Carter, Gwyneth Strong
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 150 mins
Among the DVD releases I most look forward to are the bursts of classic BBC dramas that Simply Media have been periodically putting out. While a good deal of the greatest BBC series are already available, there is a slew of mini-series and one-off dramas that were screened just once and then consigned to the archives and it’s a joy to see them rescued from oblivion. I’m still waiting for the release of John Sullivan’s wartime comedy-drama Over Here which I remember particularly enjoying but in the meantime I have loved revisiting the likes of In the Red, a star-studded three-parter which I was sure I’d never see again. These flawed but invariably enjoyable obscurities always made perfect accompaniments to three day bank holiday weekends and so are associated by many with a cosiness that is hard won in this hectic world. So when the opportunity arose to review a half-remembered memory called The Missing Postman, I jumped at the chance.
Originally broadcast over two nights in 1997, The Missing Postman is the story of Clive Peacock (James Bolam), a postman who is forced into early retirement when he is replaced by a machine. During his final pick-up, Clive resolves to take to the road on his bicycle and deliver every letter in the postbox by hand. Impulsively riding off without a word to his wife (Alison Steadman), Clive soon finds himself pursued by a curmudgeonly policeman (Jim Carter) and the country’s media as his story begins to capture the imagination of thousands of outcasts who see him as a symbol of the mistreated working man. But while the newspapers try to portray him in a specific light, Clive and his wife both begin to make realisations about themselves and their lives that they’ve kept suppressed for many long years.
While rewatching The Missing Postman I realised why it was a half-remembered memory – I’d only seen half of it. Probably forsaking the charms of a quaint comedy-drama for an early foray into underage drinking (oh, rebellious youth!), I never did see the end of Clive’s story until now. To be honest, having watched the first episode again, I did wonder how writer Mark Wallington was going to squeeze another episode out of the material (although the DVD case erroneously lists the runtime as 80 minutes, this is closer to the runtime of each episode, with the total length of the piece being about two and a half hours). I’m glad I finally caught up with the rest of this drama because it is very much a story of two halves, with the mood noticeably darkening in the second instalment and casting events in the more palatably twee first episode in a new and more convincing light.
Although it can make no claims to being a lost masterpiece, The Missing Postman is consistently enjoyable despite its flaws. One amusing activity for British viewers is to spot the familiar faces among the large cast. As the cameos stacked up I counted at least three supporting cast members of Only Fools and Horses amongst the well-known players. But for each semi-famous actor there also seemed to be a well-worn cliché. Scenes of apparently revolutionary technology thwarted by paperclips, strippergrams casually complaining they need to get their kids to school by nine and women blaming their tears of desperation on the slicing of onions all conspired to make me roll my eyes more often than I laughed. Clichés have their place in comfortingly hackneyed TV shows but as they kept on coming I began to feel they were undermining a potentially interesting concept. As Clive travels from place to place and has brief, sketch-like encounters with boldly drawn types, the hit-and-miss nature of the script becomes both compelling and frustrating. Fickle as I am, I found myself well-disposed towards the project after each sequence that worked and cynically dismissive of it after each that fell flat. Speaking of falling flat, Wallington has Clive crash his bike no less than three times, betraying a desperation for material between the shots of attractive rolling landscapes.
The many flaws aside, I did enjoy the first episode of The Missing Postman in the same way I used to enjoy watching Heartbeat on a Sunday night and fans of such parochial pleasantries will no doubt come away from episode one with a big smile on their face. But if a yearning for gentler stories is what you enjoy then you may want to stop, as I originally did, after the first episode and consider this an uncomplicated, slightly conservative ode to the importance of human beings over machines and how a determined spirit will win through in the end. If you choose to venture on into episode two, you may find yourself curiously disillusioned, although for me this was where things got more interesting. There are hints of the darkness to come in the first episode, notably Alison Steadman’s DIY meltdown in the face of her precarious and only platonically affectionate marriage, but these come to the fore in part two. The clichés do continue to rear their heads (Clive, while recounting a tale of personal trauma that aims to be the programme’s most emotional speech, actually uses the phrase “one dark and stormy night”) but the narrative takes unexpected turns into adultery, death, domestic violence and black comedy. There are even some red herrings that lead to satisfyingly confounding endings for prominent characters who the dramatic pessimist in me expected to be tied off with neat happy endings.
Ultimately, The Missing Postman hits its satirical targets with a sledgehammer but provides broadly enjoyable entertainment for evenings when you fancy something undemanding. The broadness of the material affects the majority of the cast, who largely turn in satisfactory but unremarkable performances. The British scenery is captured beautifully by director Alan Dossor, a theatre and TV director who reaches for the cinematic but feels confined by his script and hamstrung by the familiarity of it all. While the tonal change in its second part almost makes it worthy of a special mention, The Missing Postman is ultimately just decent entertainment for a long weekend that will leave little impression beyond its postcard prettiness.
The Missing Postman is released by Simply Media on 28th March 2016.