DANIEL, the pilgrim hero of Mi. Piers Paul Read's The House on Highbury Hill (BBC-1) leaves a seminary and becomes a spoiled priest. The term is used definitively. not pejoratively. Daniel thought himself unworthy: his aborted priesthood makes of him a spoiled layman.
A perpetual fugitive from scruples (there are worse ailments), in his heart — poor papist brat — he always will aspire to the priesthood and, in his humility. will not tell himself the truth until old age reconciles him to the vacuity of life in the world.
Piers Paul Read's comedy is a "BBC Play for Today." Daniel is a characterisation of a Catholic very much of today : his strength as a work of art is that also he is a Catholic who carries within him all his Church's yesterdays, which is a good thing. So many nowadays seem to lack backs to their skulls.
In that magnificent novel, "The Junkers," Mr. Read revealed himself as a writer of his own time — he is about thirty — who sees his characters each as a segment of the continuing life of humanity on this tiny self-indulgent planet. His mind grips history. With droll gravity, his first television play takes a cool look at aspects of his Church and society in 1972.
Daniel comes to the house on Highbury Hill on a pious errand. When he abandoned hope in himself as a potential priest he resolved to serve the people of God in the world. The lady of the house was his mother's friend, and the visit is a mere courtesy-call preliminary to his working the apostolate of the laity.
Mrs. Anderson, the householder, is an absentminded lady who lives within her head, in a world secretly contrived for herself — always, one deduced, changing.
Occasionally she is wrenched out of this private world by importunate realities and always her face the quite beautiful face of that superb player, Miss Rachel Kempson — has the rumpled look of a woman half asleep. She pays small heed to realities.
In her youth she was, and remains progressive — one of those, 1 suspect, to whom the surrealist small ads., on the back page of the NewStatesman, are directed.
Holding to her principles, she married a working man and, widowed, has two daughters. In a whisper the d a u ghter-who-takes-after-mother confides to Daniel that father was addicted to stout and dies of the stuff. And mother is mad.
In the bemused way of a fledgling curate confronted by a multiple bigamist. Daniel listens. He finds himself a lodger in the house and demurely goes walking with mother's girl.
But heaven does not lie above him. In the Anderson house the class war has become the cold war; the daughterwho-takes-after-father has a separate apartment on the top floor. Marigold carries on the lethal tradition of drinking stout, although, in her case, it seems to do her a world of good.
An innocent pagan slob, unselfconsciously predatory, she plays pop records, plies Daniel with cocoa, takes him to bed and, because neither appears aware of the issues raised by Humanae Vitae, to the altar.
BLURRED In a blurred way Daniel becomes aware of those facts of life which, as a married layman sees things, are strikingly absent from the dialectics of those clerics who find their celibacy irksome. Daniel continues to work, raising money to build homes for the homeless. A rich woman, airily aware of her debt to her "suffering Saviour" gives him £10,000.
Because he is a nice young man — or perhaps because wealth has reduced her wits by about 50 per cent — she makes the cheque out to Daniel. Marigold points out to him, not quite accurately, that they are homeless, and although he prays like the saint he thinks he is not, he cannot liberate his actions from the liberated tongue of his spouse. Legally he gets away with it.
Daniel, it will be seen, finds that this is not the world of Cash i Connubi in which Pius . XI said that "marriage, before being a union of bodies, is first and foremost, a union and harmony of minds."
RIGHT IDEA The Pope had the right idea but Daniel has Marigold. And Marigold has a gentleman caller who visits her every afternoon and brings gifts for the offspring. Come nightfall she finds Daniel's more chaste endearments tedious.
A shrewd cookie — the mot is juste she advises him to call upon the daughter-whotakes-after-mother. Ethel is more his type. She plays good music on her piano.
Mother believes happiness is all : so does Ethel. Daniel, while aware that his relationship with Marigold and Ethel needs dimensions other than those bound by mattresses and blankets, finds himself in bed with Ethel too.
He is an embezzler and an adulterer and on each occasion he goes to confession. Mr. Read is, so far as I know, the first writer who has satirised those contemporary clerics who provide conveyor-belt absolution. As every layman knows, they swarm in the Church today.
The priest to whom Daniel confesses that he has absconded with £10,000 (meant for the homeless) recognises the young penitent's voice: he knew him in the seminary, HEARTY
One of those hearty parsons who every layman believes wear Rugby League football boots under their cassocks, he does not listen, splutters the words of absolution and closes shop. He and his old chum must have a drink. He has a large whisky, Daniel a light ale; he talks of old times.
Better educated, the priest to whom Daniel confesses his rather complicated adultery consequently is progressive and charitable. The face of Mr. Will Leighton in the part exudes misty piety and, one would guess, the odour of after-shave lotion.
He consoles Daniel. Dreamily he recalls King Solomon who achieved glory although no slouch at bed athletics. And who knows, morality may develop in the Church in the years that lie ahead?
Mr. Read has written a salutary and compact satirical comedy. Ably he is served by Mr. Cohn Farrell as Daniel. The player might have stepped from the script.