Based on the 1981 play by Alan Ayckbourn, Way Upstream is a 1987 TV movie starring Stuart Wilson, Barrie Rutter, Marion Bailey, Nick Dunning, and Joanne Pearce. After being broadcast on BBC One on January 1st 1988 at 10 o’clock at night, this classic film for some unknown reason, has never again been aired in the UK.
The plot of Way Upstream is quite straightforward: two couples set off on a ten day boating holiday. The couples are equal partners of a firm (managing directors of a factory) but they each possess contrasting personalities which means they are far from being equal at work, in life, or more importantly, aboard the boat. Barrie Rutter plays Keith, a cocky, self-appointed leader who is in charge of everything including the booking of the boat. Keith’s wife June (played by Marion Bailey) also exhibits a loud and brash personality, she’s sarcastic and pessimistic and she complains about everything that Keith does or says. In stark contrast to these two is Alistair (played by Nick Dunning) a very timid man and his wife Emma (played by Joanne Pearce) who is also somewhat timorous, although she’s not as unassertive and cowardly as her husband. Alongside cocksure Keith and angry June constantly arguing with each other, Alistair and Emma seem extremely polite. They never raise their voice or assert themselves and they allow Keith and June to dominate every part of their lives, from work to leisure. What we the audience see therefore, is two extremes: a feuding couple at the end of their tether and possibly their relationship and a couple who possess a lack of intimacy and therefore any spark.
Keith’s arrogance is perfectly suited to the small insignificant boat. As soon as he steps foot aboard the “Hadforth Bounty”, he assigns himself the role of leader, wearing his captain’s hat and acting like he’s taking part in a naval expedition. Keith fancies himself as an expert at everything, and aside from appointing himself “skipper”, he begins to throw various nautical terms about (starboard, aft, stern, cast-off etc.). This annoys his wife June, who we discover had a previous life in “show-business”. Her fall from grace means she resents her current situation which she thinks is beneath her. Even though Alistair’s wife Emma suggests he take charge, Alistair says “I don’t want to be skipper” and we’re shown that this lack of courage extends to every aspect of his life including work and love.
Amongst the juxtaposition of the two couples, there’s also the factory assistant Mrs. Hatfield, who keeps popping-up to keep Keith and Alastair abreast of their business situations. When watching this film in the present day, Mrs. Hatfield reminded me of the river-side picnic episode of Keeping Up Appearances (“Riparian Entertainments”) although not as slapstick. Upon reading this kind of comparison, if you haven’t watched the film or the play, you might be thinking “is that it?”. But no, this isn’t some cartoonish sitcom or a drab drama, this is a mash-up of genres including comedy, drama, thrills, and even horror!
After temporarily taking charge, Alistair runs the boat aground. It’s at this point in the story that handsome yet slightly sinister Vince comes to help. He disembarks his boat “Our Dream III” and physically pushes the Hardforth Bounty loose at which point June exclaims “What an amazing man!”. June instantly falls for this masculine hero calling him a “white knight” but is Vince all he seems?
Vince starts out by being commanding and impressive but he turns out to be even more egoistic than Keith. Like Keith, Vince takes control, he assigns jobs on the boat, but he adds disinformation into the mix. It then becomes less of a holiday and more a naval regime with divide and conquer (a military tactic) being waged against the two couples. Vince begins playing psychological games. He teaches everyone incorrect nautical terms such as piggle, scuff, dodger, and kedge. The scary thing is that everybody knows he’s pulling their leg but they go along with it simply because he’s the leader. Vince then spends their food money on alcohol, he tries to get them drunk, and he brings aboard a posh, rich woman named Fleur who plays a part in splitting-up one of the couples (you can see why critics at the time saw this as an allegory about politics – more on that later).
Slowly Vince becomes more and more megalomaniacal. The weakest character then has to defend himself and his partner against the dominant yet psychotic alpha male. As Vince becomes a canal-pirate, forcing Emma to walk the plank, Alistair first shouts “stop this please… sorry” and adds “thank you” (a comment about the overly-polite British middle-classes in the 1980s perhaps?). Vince then challenges Alistair to a fight and when Vince begins to beat Alistair to a pulp, June says quietly “somebody ought to stop this” as Fleur screams “kill him!”. Just when you think Alistair is on the brink of death, he defends himself with a most unusual object and this is the scene that stuck in my head all these years (and led to the artwork above). You’d think this confrontation and fight would be the end of the story but like I already said, this isn’t a run-of-the-mill TV movie.
After their mini-mutiny, Emma and Alastair sail away and eventually reach “Armageddon Bridge” with a sign reading “Danger. No Further Passage”. The couple decide to go further. Emma asks “what’s happening?” and Alastair replies “I think it’s called the final collapse of civilisation as we know it”.
When Alistair says “We seem to have discovered the absolute limit of navigation” you could interpret this in many ways; from the construct of life, the end of the physical and the start of the spiritual world (Vince at one point says “life is a holiday from death”), hell, it could even be Antarctica on the flat earth map! (just kidding). So is this idyllic place heaven? Is this the afterlife? Is it paradise? With Alistair and Emma surviving the horrors that befell the others, is this an interpretation of “The meek shall inherit the Earth”? During this final scene, Alastair’s fantasy or ideal holiday experience becomes a reality (he wants to swim naked with his wife). I assume Emma can’t swim hence the life jacket she continually wears but in this possibly illusory state, she’s eager to skinny dip. As Emma removes her clothes, Alistair says “I forgot how beautiful you were without your life jacket” and like a reverse-telling of the Bible, we have the couple vacationing in the Garden of Eden after surviving Armageddon. Now, I recognise that “Hadforth” is a fictitious place with a believable name but the name “Armageddon bridge” was surely chosen for its apocalyptic or biblical connotations?
The fact that the conclusion is up for interpretation places this story firmly in the same league as Enemy or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Because of this ambiguous but completely unexpected end, Way Upstream remains a very memorable and unique televisual experience especially if like me, you initially sat down to watch a straightforward comedy-drama.
Alan Ayckbourn has stated many times that he’s an apolitical writer. He’s said that the interpretations of his play by critics (who said it was about the political state of Britain during the ’80s) is incorrect. That being said, I still see parts of the story as a general comment about societal norms, for instance the line “the only one’s who get heard in this world are extremists”. In the final act, Vince becomes angry and more authoritarian, forcing people to walk the plank. These scenes show how far people will go to obey and follow a bullying leader. In my opinion, this is a comment about society and our adherence to hierarchy, many times doing the wrong thing simply because a higher-ranking or higher-qualified person says so. My previous transcendental interpretation of the film may also be incorrect but at least I saw the piece as anything other than political.
The reason I score this BBC production so highly is because of the finale which places it firmly in horror-thriller territory. Way Upstream begins like a bog-standard TV drama and like I said, it plays like a sitcom in parts but the ending is so unexpected that it transforms this film into a classic. After Alastair and Emma defeat Vince and sail away together, the plot then veers-off into an almost dreamlike (or more accurately nightmare-like) scenario. Suddenly, everyone returns to haunt the couple; Keith returns as a swamp creature, June appears in bondage brandishing a machine gun, and Fleur is a glowing vampire. We hear “We’re going to get you” and Fleur the vampire says “Say your prayers, you middle class vermin” (surely a comment about class?).
Given that the finale is a surreal horror, there’s still lots of humour throughout. For example we overhear the end of a conversation from Keith and June’s sleeping quarters (“you tell me what’s normal and what’s average”). There’s also a scene where Alistair gives the wrong amount of honks to an oncoming boat and gets the Hadforth Bounty stuck.
There’s a simple piano score that is quite effective but in parts of the film it sounds like a Bontempi organ or Casio keyboard scoring a kid’s TV show. That being said, this “Chopsticks”-esque piano tune by Alan Brown works well when needed.
In terms of direction, it all looks quite typical of a British television film from that period, although the scene where a knife falls onto a river map is quite foreboding and is a nice touch by Terry Johnson (it’s also something that wouldn’t have occurred in the play).
This idea of a maniacal stranger coming aboard a boat and taking control pre-empted everything from Anaconda to Dead Calm with Stuart Wilson doing a better job than both Billy Zane and Jon Voight did or ever could. You may know Wilson as the villain in Lethal Weapon 3 or No Escape but he’s just as good an antagonist here. When you compare Vince’s villainy in the radio adaptation to the TV performance, you realise what a good job Stuart Wilson does here, in fact he’s one of the main reasons to watch this forgotten gem.
Apparently, there was a 1991 Dutch adaptation of Way Upstream called Stroomopwaarts which I haven’t been able to find. There was also a BBC Radio production in 1997 but it pales in comparison to this 1987 TV adaptation (incidentally, people sometimes refer to Way Upstream‘s air-date 1988 but the production date at the end of the credits reads “MCMLXXXVI” which is 1987).
Very similar to another classic BBC film from the late twentieth century (Bernard And The Genie), Way Upstream has never been aired since its initial broadcast and it has never been released on any kind of physical media or any streaming service. Pirate DVDs circulate the web in the dodgiest of websites but no official DVD or remastered Blu-ray is available to buy. On Alan Ayckbourn’s website it reads “Unfortunately, neither the 1988 television nor 1997 radio adaptations of Way Upstream are available to buy. The adaptations have never been released commercially and the playwright is aware of no intention by the BBC to release Way Upstream in any format in the foreseeable future.”. This is a real shame, because this is a very unique British television classic that warrants an official release. Thankfully, this BBC TV adaptation has been uploaded to YouTube albeit in eight parts (and in low picture quality). Someone has made a playlist so you can watch it seamlessly.
It may not be as scary or disturbing as when I first viewed it back in the late ’80s but Way Upstream is still a very entertaining and satisfying watch despite the quality of the TV-rip on YouTube. In terms of originality, in terms of genre-blending, and as a made-for-TV film it’s…
Way Up There.