Rarely is a list of the best UK television ever made without Abigail’s Party sitting somewhere. Considering that, technically, this was a single episode in the long-running BBC Play for Today series such singular recognition is no mean feat. In fact this is the only episode to be featured in the 1001 series – although a case could have also been made for Nuts In May.
The Play for Today is exactly as it sounds, a televised adaptation of a stage play. For Abigail’s Party it is very much that with all scenes taking place in the same set, the majority of which happen around the sofa at the front. As someone who loved I, Claudius – which was essentially a play done for television – the style of filming didn’t bother me too much. However, I do wonder if this was produced as a straight single drama, rather than a Play for Today, whether I would have had problems.
Probably not, Abigail’s Party would still get the plaudits because of how brilliantly written and acted it is. This is one of those pieces that clearly comes from the British sensibilities around manners and class that I do wonder how those outside the UK would view it. It’s so quintessentially of my culture that, despite this being 40 years old, so much of the class conflict and the characters themselves still ring extremely true to this day.
Speaking of characters, there is no way you can talk about Abigail’s Party without discussing Beverly. She is the centrepiece of the drama and is the one that has invited her neighbours over to have drinks only for them to watch her snipe with her husband and lead everyone to get more and more drunk. She is such a complex character to watch because, in many ways, she is monstrous and in others is deeply deeply sad.
And yet, despite having one of the great monstrous characters in UK TV history, Abigail’s Party is an extremely successful cringe comedy. If you are not cringing at the characters and their actions, you are laughing out loud – not at the end though. I really need to watch more Mike Leigh works.