Looking Back At P'TANG YANG KIPPERBANG - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony dabbles with love, kissing and cricket.
Jack Rosenthal was a writer with an extraordinary ear for how people actually spoke – and enough heart to know the layers that underpinned what they said and how they said it.

He was extraordinarily prolific across TV, stage, and film from 1961 until the early 21st century.

Given that it’s set in a formal, old-fashioned school of short trousers, peaked caps, blazers and the cane, it surprises everyone to learn that P’Tang Yang Kipperbang wasn’t made and released until 1982 – just a year before Rosenthal would collaborate with Barbra Streisand on the screenplay of her movie, Yentl.

It’s very definitely a look at a world that even by the time it was released was disappearing for most of Britain’s working and even lower middle class teenagers. In fact, it’s set not long after the Second World War – the ration is still a reality, and schoolboys gamble for sweet coupons. A major thread in the story involves a teacher who, while the war was on, had an affair with the headmaster at her school, and who fears she may now be pregnant by the handsome young gardener at the school.

But mostly, P’Tang Yang Kipperbang is the story of what love feels like for unpopular boys – or felt like in Rosenthal’s teenage days, when there were stricter social rules of behaviour for each of the sexes, and crucially, neither smartphones or the internet.

There’s the sweetness of a different age to Alan Duckworth’s opening conversation with God. He’ll never ask for anything else, ever again, he promises, if God can just see His way to letting him – Alan ‘Quack-Quack’ Duckworth - kiss Ann Lawton. Y’know… if she wants to. Wonderful, beautiful Ann Lawton, who to most of his fellow classmates is JUST Ann Lawton, or even, with the casual cruelty of the age, “Smelly Lawton.” Ann Lawton is to Alan Duckworth what Juliet is to Romeo, what Elizabeth Bennet is to Mr Darcy, what Pandora Braithwaite is to Adrian Mole – the unattainable, the magical, the intensely powerful feminine, and very, very probably, way out of his league.

Duckworth’s other love – in fact, more or less his I Ching – is cricket, which leads to his life being narrated as if it were a last-chance cricket match by legendary cricket commentator John Arlott, acting as himself in voice-over, defining the likelihood, the chances, the fumbled opportunities for Duckworth and Lawton to share a kiss.

And it’s fairly important to make this distinction. The story celebrates the power of a kiss. “Not… the other things,” says Duckworth, played by John Albasiny. “I mean, I want to DO the other things, but a kiss is different.” In a sense, this is a realisation that marks him out from his peers, most of whom see kissing as “just like shaking hands” compared to “the other things.”

For Duckworth, it’s the kiss that’s all important.

And, especially rewatching P’Tang Yang Kipperbang in the 21st century, it’s important to emphasise the sweetness and humanity of his ambitions. While he notices things like the shape of Ann’s mouth, and the beauty of the nape of her neck, he’s a character at an age and in an age before any prurience has attached to him. His desires, while physical, are relatively innocent. There’s none of the ‘thing-measuring’ of Adrian Mole’s contemporary 80s teenager in post-war Duckworth’s desire to kiss Ann Lawton (played by Abigail Cruttenden).

While Duckworth bottles out of a few chances to strike up conversations with Ann, he’s so far beneath consideration that when the girls in his class take a poll of the dishiest boy, he doesn’t even get ‘no votes.’ They simply forget to include him in the polling at all.

And then ‘God’ plays a blinder. Well, God as played by Alison Steadman’s Miss Land, the teacher with the affair and the pregnancy worries. Miss Land, played by Steadman with magnificent briskness, is handed the job of producing the school play, a melodramatic farce of fiancees and philanderers, in which Ann is cast as the female lead, Geoffrey Whitaker (officially the dishiest boy in the class, and Ann’s particular pash, played by Maurice Dee) is cast as her fiancée, and Alan – oh let the stars align! – is cast as the philandering jewel thief who steals the leading lady’s heart, AND A KISS at the end of the play.
Ann of course is no fool. When Alan says he wants to get to the last page of the play, she cuts him dead with a “Yes, and I know why.” But events conspire to mean they never get to rehearse the final scene, so the first time Alan has to kiss her is the night of the play’s performance.

It would absolutely spoil the last act of the story to tell you how things go, but let’s imagine for a moment that Jack Rosenthal was a better writer than any of the button-pushing scriptwriters of the last 20 years, and what you get here is much more achingly realistic than what you might imagine happens.

Again, it would spoiler the story for you to tell you whether Steadman’s Miss Land actually IS pregnant with the child of Tommy, the gardener, but by the end of the story, it becomes clear that there’s both more and less to Tommy than we, or Alan, ever imagined. In fact, events that play out around Tommy rock Alan’s self-confidence to the core, but he rebuilds in a new, not-exactly-fatalistic but also no-longer-childishly-optimistic way, and finds a new outlook on life. It’s a change that tweaks the end of the story for Alan and Ann, and you may well be shouting at your screen for young Alan to stop over-thinking things, because we live now in a more impulsive, less constrained world.

But in a moment of acceptable triumph, Alan ends the story on a high, both for how things work out with Ann, and for his own understanding of life and himself, his inner emotions still voiced by Arlott as the result of the cricket match.

Oh, and the title? Everyone always mentions the title, although to quote Rosenthal’s wife, Maureen Lipman, they tend to call it “That…Kipperbang…thing.” While it’s mostly tangential, it’s important in Alan’s growing up. P’tang Yang Kipperbang – or, to be strictly accurate, P’tang, Yang, Kipperbang, Uh! – is the innocent white boy post-war version of a gang sign. It’s a phrase Alan and his friends in class repeat to each other, along with a fist gesture, whenever they meet or part, and it’s an element of the gang’s lexicon. They also over-extend some words, or use arcane overcomplications to describe some things.

While it’s absolutely a signal of inclusion and comradeship, it comes under attack from two directions in the story. Notably, when Alan offers him a P’Tang Yang Kipperbang, dishy Geoffrey sneers that he doesn’t DO P’tang Yang Kipperbang (instead, he and Ann exchange “Manana,” whenever they part from one another, followed up by the equally twee “Manana’s not soon enough for me”).

And Ann herself turns on Alan at one point, describing the gang-language (ganguage? No, let’s not…) as stupid. Between the two attacks, Alan comes to see the phrase and the overcomplications as the trappings of boyhood, something to escape and grow away from as he gains a broader understanding of the world.

Even at the end, when Ann asks him if he’d like to say P’tang Yang Kipperbang – more or less in an attempt to gauge his level of reaction to the world – Alan smiles at her thoughtfulness, but says no.
By the end of the story, Alan Duckworth is more a man than a boy, and his need to say P’tang Yang Kipperbang has at the very least become just a social thing, rather than a part of his identity. How things will go with him the day after the camera stops following him around, when he has to interact with the P’Tang Yang Clan is something we never get to find out. We leave him on a high note, having grown beyond his years.

P’Tang Yang Kipperbang – like many of Rosenthal’s TV plays (The Knowledge, Bah Mitzvah Boy, The Evacuees) positively shivers with acting talent. We’ve mentioned the central role Alison Steadman plays in the whole thing, and many of the other actors went on to big things.

John Albasiny still regularly stars in films (The World Is Not Enough, Les Miserables, etc), and has appeared in some big hitting TV shows in recent years, from Luther to Manhunt: The Night Stalker. Abigail Cruttenden includes the likes of Midsomer Murders, Sharpe, Not Going Out and The Theory Of Everything on her CV.

For 80s prime-time fans, it’s odd to see Eric Richard (The Bill’s Sergeant Bob Cryer) and Peter Dean (Eastenders’ Pete Beale) in miniscule roles as a road worker and a police constable respectively, and long-established sharp-voiced script-helper Richenda Carey is here too, significantly underplaying the potential for nastiness as a teacher. If anything, this twinkling casting proves the adage that if you write good lines, good actors turn up.

As the actors on his eight-year stint on Sixties Coronation Street, as Barbra Streisand, and even as Aardman Animations could attest (believe it or not, it was Jack Rosenthal who wrote the first draft of eventual hit movie Chicken Run), Jack Rosenthal wrote great lines. Almost always. And P’tang Yang Kipperbang is a heartwarming but never overly soggy or soppy hymn to the innocence of young love and growing up in an altogether less busy age.

Watch P’tang, Yang, Kipperbang today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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