Under the Table by David Pownall

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Under the Table by David Pownall (1995). Dir. Eoin O'Callaghan. Perf. Kenneth Cranham, David Calder, Maureen O'Brien. BBC Radio 4 Extra 14 Feb. 2015. BBCiPlayer to 16 Mar. 2015.

This autobiographical piece won a Society of Authors Silver Sony Award. Inspired by Pownall's own life, it focuses on the early life of a narrator (David Calder) growing up in wartime Liverpool in a house dominated by a paterfamilias Seth Hammer (Kenneth Cranham), a victim of a gas-attack during the First World War who spends much of his life drowning his sorrows in drink. Frightened of what might happen to him, the young narrator spends much of his time under the table; this not only provides him with a refuge but enables him to construct imaginative fantasies.

Written to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, "Under the Table" invites us to reflect on the ways in which human beings create alternative worlds in order to cope with extreme situations. The narrator creates an intriguing scenario in which negotiations at the Yalta Conference (that focused on what would happen when the war ended) were shifted from Stalin's Russia to his family home. Churchill (Robert Lang), Roosevelt (David Healy) and Stalin (Andrew Sachs) frequently ask Seth's advice; they might not take too much notice of it, but at least the gesture demonstrates some concern for "the people."

Some of the sequences involving Seth and the three leaders are exceptionally funny; but they also prompt us to reflect on whether politicians do not inhabit similar fantasy-worlds as the narrator, as they make grand plans for the future without really considering their implications.

Fantasy-worlds can also provide a source of comfort. Seth's daughter May (Maureen O'Brien) refuses to believe that her husband Jack has been killed while on active service, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Even when one of his mates visits the house to pass on the news, she retains a na´ve belief that he might return. Perhaps he does; he always remains in her heart, even if he is not physically present. Later on life May and the narrator visit Jack's grave in North Africa, prompting May to consider whether she was justified or not in maintaining her fantasy.

Parts of Eoin O'Callaghan's production are highly original, especially when the narrator imagines an alternative fate for Adolf Hitler (Jonathan Keeble). What if he didn't actually die in the bunker in Berlin, but continued to live, maintaining close relations with Stalin while he did so? What if the whole story of his suicide was nothing more than a story concocted to placate the global media?

Yet it is also true to say that the narrator's imaginings laid the foundations for his future career as a writer; the creator of fictions that comment critically on historical fact. This is precisely what Under the Table is designed to do; to make listeners reflect on the way in which history impacts ordinary people's lives, as well as those of the politicians.