As it reaches its 40th anniversary, Ken Wilson recalls Abigail’s Party, the cracking TV play that was more theatre of embarrassment than theatre of the absurd… 

The most famous UK TV play of all was probably Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach’s 1966 dramatised exploration of homelessness. The second best-remembered TV play is from another man who went on to become a filmmaker, Mike Leigh. His 1977 BBC1 Play for Today Abigail’s Party could not be more different in tone to Cathy. The latter had a gritty, hand-held, documentary feel while Abigail is a reimagining of a drawing-room drama of manners. And while Cathy pioneered the docu-drama and faction genres of filmmaking it is Abigail that is recalled with most affection. It is chock full of one-liners and has a cast of recognisable grotesques. The play was an instant hit. On its first transmission, viewing figures topped 16 million and there have been thousands of productions of the play since. What makes it such a popular piece is that people do behave this way and the characters are totally recognisable.

Made on the cusp of Margaret Thatcher’s ascendancy to Prime Minister, Abigail’s Party was in many ways as much a state-of-the-nation piece as Cathy Come Home 10 years before. Essex-living Beverley and Laurence, her husband, are hosting a small drinks party for their new neighbours Angela and Tony and Sue from down the road. Sue’s 15-year-old daughter, Abigail, is having her first teenage party, which her mum assumes will be a relatively sedate affair, but turns rowdier as the evening progresses. The audience never sees Abigail nor her soirée but only hears disturbing reports of it from Laurence and Tony which set Sue on edge. The star turn of the piece is the hostess with the leastest, Beverley, played with devastating acumen by Alison Steadman – who more recently starred in Gavin & Stacey – and who was Leigh’s wife at the time.

Of the needling, wheedling Beverley character Leigh writes in an introduction to a newly-released play script: ‘whilst she may be perceived as monstrous, she is in fact vulnerable, insecure and sad.’ For all that she is horribly ingratiating and demanding. And yet when she goadingly utters such expressions as ‘I had to throw your pizza away!’ there’s something campy and endearing about her.

It is clear husband Laurence, a busy estate agent, feels that he has married beneath him and the rifts in his relationship are beginning to show. The hideously passive-aggressive Beverley is a former beautician, Angie is a nurse and Tony is a computer operator. Sue is newly divorced, doesn’t work and is posh. The play is as much about the shifting class demographics of the 1970s. These were soon to be sanctified in full-blown Thatcherism – a share-owning, council-house-buying democracy where hard work paid off and there was ‘no such thing as society’. Leigh explains that the play evolved from scratch entirely by rehearsal through improvisation.

By the rampant 1980s – with its deregulation and privatisation of public utilities and the ‘Greed is Good‘ allure of yuppiedom – Abigail’s Party looked less and less a quirky aberration, more a prescient foreshadowing. Leigh’s opus is about that great English obsession of class and the infinitesimal variations that define you as C1, or upper middle, or blue-collar: the age and make of your car, your postcode and which newspaper you read, right down to the kind of ornaments you have in your garden or the pictures you hang on your wall.

Forty years on, class pretensions and presumptions may have changed but perhaps less than might be imagined. The classless internet, social media where everyone supposedly has an equal voice, and that great taste-leveller Ikea have made class distinctions less obvious. But Brexit, Eton-educated David Cameron versus grammar school loving Theresa May, and the Just About Managings have given class in the UK greater relevance. And the pages of the Daily Mail remain a happy home for the Beverleys and Laurences of this world.

The denouement of this combustible play – during which civilised manners slowly dissolve thanks partly to too many Bacardi and Cokes and Beverley’s come-ons to Tony – sees hubby Laurence produce a framed print that the sexually predatory Beverley insists in hanging on their bedroom wall. It’s a sublime piece of kitsch, called Wings of Love by Stephen Pearson, depicting a naked couple surmounted by the overarching wings of a swan by moonlight. Laurence’s preference for Van Gogh to Pearson’s ‘pornographic trash’ reveals (and mocks) his own high-brow pretentions. Tastes change. The swan picture would fetch top dollar in a vintage flea market today and when Beverley – a party animal, red in tooth and claw – says she’ll put the Beaujolais in the fridge (seen as a howling gaffe at the time) how many of today’s connoisseurs would agree with her?

Nothing quite saves Bev’s bad taste. Her decor, a symphony of browns, remains an unappealing clash of swirls and whorls. Habitat’s knockoff Marcel Breuer cantilevered dining chairs clash horribly in their modernism with the nasty update of a Tiffany glass lamp suspended, incongruously, above a mock-Georgian candelabra. There’s a Trimphone, a shag rug and an onyx-topped coffee table. While Bev is happy to grind her hips to Donna Summer’s heavy breathing ‘Love to Love You’ Laurence (who becomes increasingly unstable as the evening progresses) would rather entertain their guests with Beethoven’s Fifth. Both Beverley and Laurence are poor, deluded fools. One thing is for sure, Abigail’s party is going to be a lot more fun that Beverley’s.

Critics have long suggested that Leigh’s excruciating cocktail party from hell was being snide and contemptuous at the affected, aspiring classes. The photographer Martin Parr was similarly accused of mocking his subjects (grasping parvenu booze cruisers, for example) in much the save derisive way. Leigh has insisted that this was not his intention, although the playwright is proud of his escape from the stultifying suburban ‘normality’ that Abigail’s Party seems to encapsulate. Alan Bennett described Beverley as ‘a brute hostess with a docker’s walk and shoulders to match’. Dennis Potter wrote in his Sunday Times review of the play’s ‘rancid disdain’ for its subjects. Leigh counters that his play is ‘a lamentation and a celebration of how we are, but it is not a sneer’. ‘The play came out of my intuitive spirit and the flavour of the times, and for a growing personal fear of, and frustration with, the suburban existence,’ he says.

Abigail’s Party 40th anniversary edition by Mike Leigh is published by Penguin at £7.99