Real gents

18th November 1994 at 00:00
Scene: Pride, BBC2, Friday, November 18, 1.00-1.30pm. Free programme guide, BBC Education, POBox 234, Wetherby,West Yorkshire LS23 7EU. All are equal, standing in front of the Grand Palace urinal," says old Alfred, the hotel's long-serving lavatory attendant. He's been wielding the Dettol since the year dot and is sharing a lifetime's accumulated wisdom with George, the young man who is taking over his job.

Every scrubbed nook and germ-free corner of his "palace within a palace" bears sparkling testimony to Alfred's dedication. Will young George show the same commitment? He's "a scrap-heap kid", who has been blighted by "a dead-end education" and made to feel "like a worm" on a series of desultory youth-training schemes. He's too ashamed to tell his girlfriend how he intends to earn his crust.

It's all going to be so predictable, isn't it? George, with the tactless exuberance of youth, will confront sad old Alf with the awful truth that he should have more to show for a lifetime's graft than pristine pans and polished plumbing. Some right-on rhetoric will remind us of the injustice of a world in which the few can pee in palatial splendour while others can aspire to nothing more than a squeegee mop.

I'd written the play in my head and was delightfully surprised by just how wrong I was. The charm of the piece is its light, almost dream-like, atmosphere. There's no tension, no argument no story, really. All the action takes place in the Gents as Alfred devotedly goes through the elaborate morning ritual of changing loo rolls, checking flushes and suchlike. As he works, he philosophises. George, the perfect disciple, hangs on his every careful word.

It might be the bogs to us, but for Alfred, it is a little heaven that he has created for himself. People, he explains and amply demonstrates, can only gain a sense of their own worth through work, and through the knowledge that they do it well. "It doesn't matter what you do as long as you do it proud." It's pride alone that "stops us from being ridiculous".

Alfred, marvellously played by Peter Bayliss, is a persuasive propagandist. But, as with a slick party political broadcast, you are both won over by the argument, and, at the same time, outraged by it. Pupils will find plenty of other things in Alfred's philosophy to get them either up in arms or nodding vehemently in agreement.

Even if they decide against becoming lavatory attendants, Alfred's careers lesson will have given them plenty of food for thought.

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