Walter Now by David Cook

Contact Us

BBC Radio 4, 10 January 2009
Some twenty-seven years ago Channel 4 came on the air with a programme-mix very different from what it broadcasts today. As well as news, current affairs and documentary, the network commissioned several single films - some of them under the Film on 4 banner with occasional cinema release, and others solely designed for the small screen. Walter was one such film; the tale of a man with learning difficulties (Ian McKellen) trying to cope with a fundamentally hostile world. It was an auspicious, through controversial film, directed by Stephen Frears, and described by one critic as "one of the most shocking films about mental illness ever shown on British television." A sequel, Walter and June, aired in May 1983.
Walter Now brought the character's life up to date. Now an OAP, Walter has been left destitute, as the mental hospital where he spent much of his adult life has been closed. Enter a pioneering social worker Steph (Becky Huntley) who asked Walter to participate in a radical scheme designed to rehabilitate those with learning difficulties. Together with three younger friends Mary (Anne Marie Heslop), Bernard (Robert Lonsdale) and Terry (Gunnar Cauthery), Walter is placed in a house and learns how to look after himself under Stella's guidance. Walter Now depicts the struggles experienced by the four of them as they endeavour to survive - not only learning how to get on with one another but also coping with the inevitable prejudice shown by their able-bodied neighbours, many of whom objected to the presence of "these sort of people" in their midst.
Cook showed that the passage of time between the early 1980s and the present day had not softened people's attitudes. The four house-mated were still treated as potential threats to community stability. In one scene Walter was summoned to the police-station, accused of sexual assault by one mother who objected to him patting her son on the back after the little boy had scored a goal during a football match in the park. Nothing happened as a result: Stella ensured that Walter escaped scot-free. Cook also focused on how the inmates were judged to be unfit parents as Mary became pregnant by her friend Tom (Edmund Davies). The play ended with the house-mates achieving some kind of a moral victory, as they persuaded Stella to intercede on their behalf with the social services, so that Mary and Tom could be allowed to have their child.
Walter Now came to no definite conclusion, other than to encourage listeners to treat everyone on equal terms, irrespective of their so-called 'difficulties.' Ian McKellen reprised his role as Walter; with his soft northern accent and fundamentally optimistic outlook, despite all misfortunes that befell him, he offered a shining example of how to cope with an often troublesome life. The director of this Saturday Play was Claire Grove.