Set in a Liverpool of 1977, Willy Russell’s play follows a rare school outing, in a dreary, dull and dilapidated environment. The situation is choked with deprivation and injustice, in a post-industrial and lifeless period in the city, in a working-class society. The local school is on its way to Conway Castle in Wales, the kids full of enthusiasm, anticipation and expectations of a ‘New World.’
The children are remedial, many unable to read or write, their hopes of a successful future, long forgotten, the system condemning them to a life of mediocrity. Their behaviour is unruly, although it is perhaps understandable given their situation and upbringing. One particular child, ‘Andrews,’ admits to the teacher Mr Briggs that he has been smoking since he was eight years old. When asked what his parents think about it, he replies, “Me mum says nott’n ’bout it but when me dad comes home, he belts me…’coz I won’t give him one.”
The children are so low in the social status that when Linda, a girl who fancies Colin the teacher, suggests to her friends that she wants to marry him, they think that she is absurd, and would end up marrying someone like her father. There is no escape from the truth.
I feel that a particularly strong character is Mr Briggs. He is a disciplinarian teacher. He enters the coach in the last minute before they leave Liverpool, sent by the Headmaster, another symbol of authority. He is concerned that the trip should have an educational purpose, and is unsure of the discipline that the teachers already on the trip will induce, further backed by the Headmaster, when he refers to Mrs Kay, in charge of the ‘Progress Class,’
“I don’t want to be unprofessional and talk about my staff, but I feel that she sees education as one long game!” He says that Mrs Kay keeps the children ‘entertained’ by ‘reading machines and plasticine.
Mrs Kay, on the other hand is what Briggs and the Headmaster feels is ‘anti-establishment.’ She feels that the kids should enjoy their freedom in youth, as they are not destined to a life of triumphs. Her main concern is that they should have an enjoyable day, and she is prepared to allow them to behave as they wish, and she says, “The only rule we have today is: think of yourselves, but think of others as well.” Mr Briggs and Mrs Kay, contrasting each other in their educational philosophies, are the most detailed characters in the drama.
The naturalism of the plot and characters enables the audience to not only understand but sympathise with the situation of the children and their teachers. Russell has used his characters themselves to express his opinions, on culture and politics, without being too explicit and making the characters seem unreal. Rather, by presenting characters and a situation familiar to his audience, he has created an archetypal representation of school trips of this nature, then using them as a springboard for the serious questions he asks his audience.
The environment they inhabit disappoints the kids, although Briggs sees it differently. When referring to the docks, Briggs opposes the views of the kids, saying, “Have a look around you, boy, and you might see things differently,” as if to say, that what the kids live in and around, the docks are a luxury. Ironically, it is Briggs who must learn, and Briggs who must open HIS eyes.
One subtle scene is on the coach. As it leaves Liverpool, through the dark Mersey Tunnel, Wales is the bright light at the end. This strong, metaphorical contrast highlights the difference between the locations successfully. More so, any tunnel is narrow and dark. This powerful symbol contrasts the darkness and confinedness of Liverpool with the space and light of Wales. The Tunnel of Liverpool has one set path, and like the lives of the kids, there is no alternative path, and no choice.
Wales is full of new experiences for the children, as they learn about themselves, their fellow students, and teachers, and see sights that surprise, shock and even inspire them. It is also in Wales that the ‘class-battle’ really comes into view, as the children see the vast differences between their society and the one that stands out of reach.
The first stop is at a road side cafe. Here a clash of cultures and views is displayed between Mrs Kay and Briggs. Before even entering the cafe, Briggs orders the kids into a straight line. When Mrs Kay ironically agrees that this is a good idea, he doesn’t catch on, and says, “You have to risk being disliked to do anything with these kids!”
Once inside the cafe, the kids proceed to ransack the counter, using a series of techniques that seem to have been used before. I feel that this is Willy Russell’s first mistake in the play. The language of the pupils in Progress Class is recognisably that of inner city Liverpool, and seems that they are actually school children from Liverpool. Their use of slang and their accent differs greatly from the English of their teachers, but in the cafe, the characters seem to behave only to show Willy Russell’s purposes. He almost breaks realism, and treads a thin line between amoral actions, and plausible actions. Also, in the following scene, in the zoo, Russell loses the naturalism that seemed so strong at the start, simply using both the kids’ acts of theft, and the children taking the animals home from the zoo, as vehicles for his opinions on the methods of education and discipline.
After a heated discussion, outside the cafe, with Briggs, where Mr Briggs calls Mrs Kay ‘anti-establishment,’ says that she has a ‘confused philosophy of teaching’ and is the ‘champion of non-academics,’ the group proceeds the zoo, tempers high. This is a particularly revealing scene, Russell telling us about the emotions and feelings, as well as being entertaining and humorous.
An interesting scene is with a boy named Ronson. He sees a bear in captivity, and is shocked to hear that it has never had freedom. He feels that the bear should be free, and holds deep sympathy for it. On the contrary, Mr Briggs objects this with an almost cruel and cold-hearted comment, “If it was born in a pit, an’ lived all its life in a pit, well, it won’t know nothin’ else so it won’ want nothin’ else will it.”
Russell has particularly used the word ‘pit’ because it is below ground level, and seems dark, and only fit for the lowest form of life. The bear’s situation is metaphorically connected to that of the children’s deprived lifestyle, an eerie comparison. We can relate this back to the tunnel, where there is no way out, only a set path in life. More so, it is said by Ronson, who so far has been portrayed as a very stupid person. In fact he is an ‘idiot savant,’ who makes this intellectual statement. He still retains the ability to love. The fool sees the world more clearly than the wise man.
In another scene in the zoo, without the supervision of the teachers, the children are fascinated by the rabbits and guinea pigs in their pens. Russell is able to show us what sort of people the kids are: again, out of sympathy, led by Ronson, the kids climb inside the pen and pick up the animals, stroking and caressing them. I feel that they do not do this to impress, but because they want to love something and maybe even be loved back. This is emphasised further, when the kids take the animals back to the coach. I would not call this stealing, as it is not immoral, but innocently amoral. They want the pets as a memento of ‘that’ happy day, as it is precious to them, but mostly because they want to love.
Briggs is furious and disbelieving, and feels humiliated. He feels he has not retained the order and discipline the headmaster had set for him to keep. He felt that his methods of teaching were working, only to see them fail heavily. After returning the animals, he calls the children themselves “animals” and the coach leaves for Conway Castle.
Conway Castle is a political scene, as the drama gets more and more overt. There is a confrontation again between the two teachers- a test of law and order. Later a dialogue full of polemics and tension starts. Mrs Kay tells Briggs that the kids CAN’T be taught, and that it’s too late for them. She is unafraid of Mr Briggs, and states plainly, that the kids were rejects from the day that they were born. Mr Briggs objects to these views and declares that Mrs Kay is ‘on their side.’ He opposes her when she says that he is a fool if he thinks that remedial kids CAN be taught. “They were born to be factory fodder,” she declares, and says, “You won’t educate them, because no one wants them educating.” Once again, this scene can be recognised in parallel to the idea of the Mersey Tunnel- they have no choice.
This, I feel, is one of the most gripping scenes in the drama. It is the teachers’ parting of ways, because neither is prepared to compromise. I feel that both teachers are correct to a certain extent. Strictness is needed in education whatever the situation, to teach the kids to be sensible and to behave properly. However, in their situation, the kids’ enjoyment is more practical. The children will not benefit greatly from the authoritarianism of Briggs, but must have their little freedom when young. I think that Mr Briggs and Mrs Kay should cooperate and combine their views to make the children enjoy the little they have.
The next location that the coach stops at is the beach. Briggs is very disturbed and it is clear that he is not wanted. He sits on a rock apart from the main group. He watches as the class happily play in the water, smiling and laughing.
In this scene, Carol expresses what the whole group feels, and asks Mrs Kay when they have to go back to Liverpool, “Cos I don’t wanna go home, miss.” Soon, Carol’s disappearance is noticed and the teachers, excluding Briggs, panic. They set out to look for her, Briggs refusing. The climax of the story, is when Briggs himself finds Carol on a cliff edge. She is lying blissfully, enjoying the ocean, the air, and the moment. She is at peace with the warm sun, and the small breeze upon her, a fleeting moment of tranquillity. When Briggs appears, he addresses her curtly. Carol refuses to back away from the hazardous drop, and when Briggs condemns her actions rudely, she threatens to jump.
Carol turns to Briggs and declares that he only wants her safe because he “will get into trouble when you get back to school.” She goes on to say, “I know you hate me! The way you look at us kids. You hate all the kids!”
This is the point where Briggs changes, momentarily, and Russell brings new life to the character. A sudden change in his attitude livens the scene. Carol can also be seen as an ‘idiot savant’. She talks to Briggs on the cliff about herself living in “one of ’em white nice houses,” and is aware of the situation both she and the teacher are in. “Y’know if you’d bin my old feller I woulda been all right wouldn’t I?” she asks as Briggs tentatively holds out his hand for her to grip.
This drama and climax on the cliff is the most gripping moment in the story. I feel that it enraptures its audience, although I find Carol’s speech a little melodramatic. Russell has once again stepped over the line between realism and is using the characters as props to express his views. One could argue whether Carol would rather die than return to Liverpool, but the scene serves well as a change in Briggs’ heart and to excite its viewers.
One of the most heart-warming moments in the drama is when Carol says, “Sir, you should smile more often.”
Briggs is reformed, and returns Carol to the group. Mrs Kay is joyous, and Briggs ironically says, as Mrs Kay said about the zoo earlier, “You can’t come all the way to the beach, and not go to the fair.”
At the fair, the group have a fantastic time. This is a very short scene in the film, suggesting that Briggs’s change won’t last forever. The scene is shown as blurred images and photographs, each showing Briggs having the time of his life, on the waltz, the merry-go-round, eating candy floss, and then playing darts with a cowboy hat on his head, and presenting a goldfish in a plastic bag to Carol. The use of photos suggest that it will all disappear in a fleeting moment, the blurred images serving as a memory, distorted yet definite.
The class return to coach, ecstatic, all asking Briggs when they will return to Wales. Once back in Liverpool, the coach has turned almost to graveyard, as kids stare blankly out of windows. Russell has shown us that the kids realise what they have, and what they wish they could have. Reilly says, “It’s friggin horrible when you come back, isn’t it?”
Briggs also reacts to the change in environment. He sits up, puts his tie on, and removes the cowboy hat from his head and a comb from his hair. When Mrs Kay reveals to him that there are pictures of him on ‘the day you enjoyed yourself,’ he offers to develop it, giving her a rare smile. As the teachers and kids leave, and the policemen walk past in a group of three, Briggs reaches into his pocket, and exposes the film. Russell shows us how Briggs reverts to type. Earlier, he refused a drink with the teachers (does this show that he is not one of them?), perhaps making up his mind then, his actions not being impulsive. Briggs maintains the Status Quo. He is afraid of the children losing their respect for him, and he feels that he must not lose his grip, and his image of discipline and authority.
This brilliant denouement is completed when Ronson is shown holding a small teddy bear, as if to say, that he is back in the pit, and Carol is pictured walking with the goldfish in her hand, to remember the ocean, but also as a metaphorical reminder of her, in her unnatural environment, trapped, possessing perhaps a glimmer of hope, that will soon die out. She is in both the first and last scene of the drama, and as Briggs drives past, ignoring her, it seems that nothing has changed, outlining the circular structure of the film.
In this witty, fast moving drama, Briggs has destroyed all the positive achievements that have been made. Carol has grown into an understanding of her predicament: becoming aware of the fact that she is trapped into her social situation by virtue of her background and abilities. The outing has done nothing to alleviate her situation; if anything it has given her an understanding of its true nature, making it worse.
The clashes between Mr Briggs and Mrs Kay, creates the most tension in the play, and serves to focus on what type of education is appropriate for these types of pupils. Much of the play’s humour arises from the gulf between the pupils and Briggs, and from their mutual incomprehension. It is also the source of its success. Even the title of the play is ambiguous and entertaining. The audience soon realise that in fact it is not the children’s ‘Day Out’ but Mr Briggs’ or even Carol’s.
I feel that Willy Russell has approached this drama in a pessimistic manner. From start to end, nothing has changed fundamentally. Briggs has reverted to type, the children have remained trapped in the cage they call Liverpool, and they have returned to the beginning both socially and geographically. The audience is left in indecision of the state of Briggs, as he remains frightened of change. Also, the audience is left to decide what they feel for the children- impatience, pity, anger, or sorrow? However, the humour in scenes such as the cafe and zoo also helps us to sympathise with them, and feel for them further. This circular structure aids to highlight the helplessness and the ‘tunnel’ that the kids are left in, and serves as a reminder that they will never be a success.