Who Pays The Ferryman is a seminal BBC television series, transmitted in 1977. The programme was a major success, watched by millions, the theme tune made the top ten and Michael J Bird established himself as one of the leading screenwriters of the time. The script and acting are of a quality rarely seen since on UK TV, the plot of the series reaching the unbearable pitch of a genuine Greek tragedy by the stunning final episode. Not surprising, as the series is set on Crete and uses local history and lore to move the story along to this extraordinary climax.
Jack Hedley plays Alan Haldane, a British ex-serviceman and boat-builder who takes early retirement and returns to Crete to look up the friends he had made while fighting with the partisans there during the war. He finds he had unknowingly fathered a daughter and determines to stay on the island to assure her future as best he can. Unfortunately, his daughter's clan is headed up by Patience Collier, a classic Greek dowager, who intervenes to settle old scores. Much pain and tragedy ensue.
This story is told over eight episodes. Several episodes only touch on the main plot, having stand-alone stories of their own (the Gareth Thomas episode is especially good), and throughout all of them Haldane has an on-off love affair with a local woman who is unaware of his full history - she is played with great depth, gentleness and sympathy by Betty Arvaniti. Other performances of note are Stefan Gryff as the seemingly nonchalant police inspector who seems to act as a moral oracle arbitrating between Cretan traditions and his duties as a modern policeman. And Neil McCarthy as Haldane's oldest friend - an actor of great character with a fantastic ravaged face.
I can't praise this series highly enough - it's everything that good television should be. More than that - it's event television - a series so good that it captured the public imagination regardless of its complex structure and classical references. Unfortunately, the BBC never bothered to release it on video, so it has faded from living memory. But recently it was issued on DVD in Holland - it is worth tracking down a copy to see just how good, how pure, how brilliant, once casual entertainment was on British television. We have fallen a long way since then. Who pays the ferryman, indeed.