The Wednesday Play: Dennis Potter’s Follow The Yellow Brick Road (1972)

Follow The Yellow Brick Road

It’s easy to imagine that the likes of Abed in Community are the first fictional characters on TV to realise they’re fictional characters on TV and to be aware of genre conventions being applied to their everyday lives:

But, of course, they’re not and in this week’s play, we look at Dennis Potter’s Follow The Yellow Brick Road, part of BBC2’s 1972 series of eight plays, The Sextet, which featured the same six actors throughout: Denholm Elliot, Billie Whitelaw, Richard Vernon, Bernard Hepton, Dennis Waterman and Michele Dotrice. Potter’s play, which (of course) borrows its name from the song in The Wizard of Oz, follows Jack Black (Elliot), a disturbed actor who believes he’s trapped in a television play, being followed around by an invisible camera.

A major theme of the play is the exploration of individual choice in the face of a seemingly omniscient narrator. Black comments on the drama as it progresses. In the opening scene, Black talks about the “shoddy” set design and the play’s apparent lack of pace (“Not much bloody action, is there? Hardly any dialogue at all – just background noises… People will switch over or switch off”); when an elderly patient tries to make polite conversation with him, he chastises her for the banality of her dialogue (“You don’t get many interesting lines, do you?”) before acknowledging this is “not [her] fault” and that she has “only got a small part”.

Jack’s paranoia about his predicament is intensified by his awareness of the camera, which he frequently addresses, either to demand that it stops following him, or to ridicule the audience (“I can picture them now… Munching away on their telly snacks, the corrupt zombies”). He also abdicates responsibility for his actions in the early part of the play – when he beats his wife Judy (Whitelaw) during their walk on Barnes Common he immediately apologises by saying it is what the script demanded of him.

Is Jack mad or is he really in a play? Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?