Quartermaine's Terms by Simon Gray

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BBC Radio 4, 24 January 2009
Set in a Cambridge language school during the 1960s, Quartermaine's Terms contains a cast of diverse personalities. There is the well-meaning but ineffective principal Eddie (Clive Francis), a relic of empire who still perceives his duty as educating the colonials to speak the Queen's English. He never listens to anyone, but lives in a world of his own with his life-patrner. There is the dedicated but neurotic female staff member Melanie (Harriet Walter), dominated by her bed-ridden mother and dedicated to her job in the vain hope that her domestic problems might disappear. The would-be writer Mark (James Fleet) has become so absorbed in his novel that he cannot see his marriage crumbling before him. Henry (David Yelland), a well-meaning but ineffectual teacher, also experiences domestic problems. The eponymous central character St. John Quartermaine (Michael Palin) can neither keep control of his classes nor teach them anything; but no one has had the guts to fire him.
As a group, the staff symbolise a world in decline; the world of Empire in which Britain truly ruled the waves, and foreigners were happy to learn from native speakers, whether competent or not. Now the learners have become autonomous, voicing their complaints about Quartermaine's classroom practice and indulging in parties with the willing connivance of new staff-member Derek (Andrew Lincoln), a northern working-class man with none of the hang-ups that paralyse his colleagues. The language school is clearly in the twilight of its life, despite Eddie's frequent cheerleading speeches.
However no one appears capable of arresting the decline. One of Simon Gray's major achievements is to create a world whose characters are imprisoned by language. Unable to express their feelings, they employ the sad clichés characteristic of the teaching profession ("Good class?" "see you next term!" "have a good half term.") No one expects a sincere answer; to do so might expose the shortcomings of the teachers' lives. Quartermaine is described at one point as a man posessing "[the] amazing ability not to let the world impinge on [him]."
This linguistic facade soon collapses, as Quartermaine is revealed to be a profoundly lonely man, whose life revolves round the staff-room. Clichés matter to him, as this is the only way he can communicate. He tries desperately to make friends by inviting his colleagues to the local theatre, but no one wants to know. Despite valiant efforts to put a positive construction on his misfortunes, Quartermaine understands his position in the staff-room - simply part of the furniture. In Palin's performance he became more and more depressed, as signalled, for instance in his increasing use of pauses between sentences.
The final scene in Maria Aitken's production was almost unbearably poignant, as Henry became principal amd promptly dispensed with Quartermaine's services. He tried to break the news gently; but the frequency of pauses and hesitations in his speech made it seem all the more painful. One longed for him to get it over with and simply tell Quartermaine the truth. Quartermaine received the news with apparent calm; the shock only hit him when he used the cliché "Goodbye, Henry, see you next term." Palin delivered the first five words in a breezy tone, and then stopped dead as he realised there was not going to be a "next term" for him. After an agonising pause he murmured "Oh Lord, I say, Oh, Lord!" as the reality dawned. His world had collapsed around him, but he could not acknowledge it.
Quartermaine's Terms remains one of Simon Gray's best works - a study in loneliness and lack of communication set in a familiar milieu. Aitken's starrily cast production proved riveting listening, proving beyond doubt that Michael Palin is a quality actor. I would love to see him try Rattigan's The Browning Version in the future.