Greek tragedy was the very first formal theatrical genre to be invented. Created in the 5th century BC to honour the Greek god Dionysos during his annual festival in Athens, it developed over the next century or so thanks to numerous playwrights, including Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, to give us some of the greatest ever works of Western theatre and literature.
But since those times, as a genre, it’s pretty much fallen by the wayside. For all that David Simon and his fellow writers on The Wire may claim to have written to the rules of Greek tragedy rather than the more common Shakespearean model, they rarely touched on the classic formula devised by Aristotle for tragedy: the hubris, catharsis then nemesis of the protagonist, an ordinary man, who through some tragic flaw or mistake is eventually undone by the gods.
Greek tragedy itself didn’t always stick to the formula (e.g. Euripides’ Helene, Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound), so you have to hand it to former Daily Mirror journalist turned TV writer Michael J Bird to not only create one of the very few modern pieces of drama to stick to that formula, but to also set it and film it in Greece with a largely Greek cast.
1977’s BBC2 serial Who Pays The Ferryman? sees former soldier turned boat builder Alan Haldane (Jack Hedley from Colditz) return to Crete after more than 30 years’ absence. A legendary fighter with the Crete resistance during the War, he’d been a hero to the people and had fallen in love with Melina, one of the women he’d met there. Hoping to meet with her again after all this time, he tragically discovers that she has died. Compounding his misery, he is now getting a cold shoulder from the people who’d formerly seen him as a hero and been his friends.
Why? Well, unbeknownst to him, she’d fallen pregnant with his child. She wrote to him and, given the Cretan attitudes of the time and receiving no reply, she ended up marrying another man who would raise the daughter as his own. Haldane, who never received the letters and who now discovers his own letters to her were never received, decides to meet the now grown-up daughter he never knew he had and become her benefactor. And along the way, he meets a woman Annika (played by the very famous Greek actress Betty Arvaniti), who seems very familiar …
Why no one received the letters from their respective lovers and the lengths some people will go to to destroy Haldane are some of the central dilemmas of a very Greek story about vendetta, family and even the gods themselves that does not, of course, have a very happy ending. Here’s the title sequence, followed by the opening of the second episode. It features the incredibly popular and catchy theme song by Cretan composer Yannis Markopoulos.
Oh, and here’s Marina Sirtis – Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation – in her second ever TV appearance. This is all she gets to do, mind.
The story follows Haldane’s quest to find meaning for himself after 30 years building up a boat company that he’s now sold on, leaving himself with money but little else. He flies to Heraklion on Crete to locate his lost love, Melina, and meets with an old friend, Babis Spiridakis (Neil McCarthy), who now has little time for him. When it becomes clear that Haldane, rather than having deserted his ex when she became pregnant had actually already written to her asking if she’d welcome his return and received no reply, Spiridakis realises the communication error and thaws.
He reveals that Haldane has a daughter, Elena, who is now married, has a son and is running a taverna with her husband in Elounda. Her husband and she argue, largely because their business isn’t doing very well. She also doesn’t know that Haldane is her real father.
Deciding not to tell her who he really is, Haldane moves to Elounda and becomes her benefactor, offering to invest in the taverna and soon becomes a friend of the family. He also discovers that a mysterious woman he bumped into while looking for his lost love – and with whom he soon became very intimate – is actually her sister, Annika, the aunt of Elena.
Over the course of the eight episodes, the show delves into the very Cretan and tragedic theme of vendetta. We see Haldane build up a new boat-building business, get to find out where the letters went, who has a grudge against him, and eventually see the eventual tragic conclusion, with Haldane returning to his Cretan resistance skills to hunt down the man who brought him low.
But along the way, the show deals with another ex-soldier (Jack Watson) and his daughter (Lalla Ward – Romana from Doctor Who) who may have cause to fear revenge from one Cretan in particular; an Australian (Gareth Thomas – Blake from Blake’s 7 – with a very dodgy accent) returning to bury the body of his Cretan father, only to discover a generations’ old family feud propagated by Annika’s family; and a British vendetta – a murderer who’s run away from Britain (Patrick Magee) and has a plan to help the village where he’s living with his shouty girlfriend (Sally Knyvette – Jenna from Blake’s 7) – using a small engineering project (echoes here of Zorba The Greek, another story set on Crete), even if the British police officer who finds him isn’t willing to forget his crimes.
Myth and tragedy
Bird, an avid historian and Greek mythographer deploys many references to both myth and tragedy in the show. As well as frequently unnaturalistic dialogue more in keeping with tragedy than a TV drama, the title is a reference to the later myth and practice of placing an obol (a coin) in the mouths of the dead to ensure their safe conveyance over the river Styx and into the underworld by Charon, the ferryman. The final episode is entitled The Daughters of Themis, a goddess of ‘the natural order of things’ who was also the mother of the Fates. The perpetrator of the vendetta against Haldane, Annika’s mother Katarina (Patience Collier), talks frequently to the Fates, whom she has watching over her home in the form of a plaque.
The tragedy that befalls Haldane, just as he is at the heights of his hubristic happiness, is (spoiler alert) for Elena, her husband and their son to be hurled from a cliff in Haldane’s car after one of Annika’s employees, Matheos Noukakis (Takis Emmanuel), sabotages it at Katarina’s instigation, thinking to kill Haldane, his rival in love to Annika. It’s a clear echo of Euripides’ Hippolytos, in which Theseus, erroneously believing that his son Hippolytos has raped Theseus’s wife, uses one of the wishes granted to him by his father Poseidon to cause Hippolytos’s chariot to hurled from a cliff. Theseus, discovering his mistake, is a destroyed man, just as Katarina is destroyed when she discovers she has accidentally instigated the destruction of her entire family. But Haldane, the mortal man who made the simple mistake of trusting the postal service to safely deliver his letters, is crushed by fate and left without either his daughter or grandson – only the love of the equally bereaved Annika.
Bird eventually went on to claim belief in and even increasing intercession by and presence of the gods themselves in the writing and filming of first the The Lotus Eaters and eventually The Aphrodite Inheritance. Arvanti recalls that despite having never met her before casting her:
“…the moment the door opened and I entered, he thought ‘This is Annika’ (the name of the character I played in the series) ‘I wrote it for her’. In fact there was something supernatural in our first meeting.”
Filming and legacy
The show is set and shot largely in Elounda, then a little village a few miles away from Agios Nikalaos on Crete, the site of Bird’s first BBC show, The Lotus Eaters. As a result of both shows, tourism soared in Agios Nikalaos and Elounda, making them some of the most popular destinations on Crete. Even to this day, if you go to the taverna featured in Who Pays The Ferryman?, you’ll see this sign above it:
It’s changed a lot, mind, as has the entire town. There’s also a restaurant called The Lotus Eaters nearby.
This was the second and final one of Bird’s Cretan-set serials, and for anyone who knows that area of Crete, it’s very precise and accurate, although it does take the occasional liberty in location. Having a largely Greek cast at times speaking Greek certainly helps (although its noticeable when certain British actors are on the scene how quickly characters start speaking English with no reason). Its tragic ending is certainly appropriate for the 1970s and although it could have done without quite so many standalone episodes to pad it out to the full eight, the show’s intricate plot of internecine familial conflicts is as strong as the plots of some of those original tragedies.
The series was also the second to feature Stefan Gryff. Gryff had played Greek police officer Major Michael Krasakis in The Lotus Eaters and it had been Bird’s intention after The Lotus Eaters to film a show based around Gryff’s character entitled Krasakis. However, when told by Alistair Milne that the BBC had enough cop shows, Bird instead incorporated Krasakis into Who Pays The Ferryman? sans moustache and sunglasses, referring to him simply as ‘The Major’ throughout.
The show was popular enough that Bird was given virtually carte blanche to do what he liked with his next project, The Aphrodite Inheritance, to the extent of not even having an idea what it was about before flying off to meet with its Cypriot co-producers. The gods interceded, gave Bird the scene breakdown for the entire show before the plane landed, and the show got the okay.
Gryff went on to play the very different character Charalambous (aka the Greek god Pan) in The Aphrodite Inheritance, while Arvanti skipped that show to join Bird’s final Greek drama, the Rhodes-based The Dark Side of The Sun, which took full advantage of that island’s history with medieval knights for some advanced weirdness.
Despite the show’s success at the time, it’s disappeared a little into the mists of time. Thanks to our lovely Dutch neighbours, though, it is available on DVD, though. Watch it – it’s great.