Impish Hillmans

The eccentric tale of a car that just keeps coming back to haunt you.

Pinkie Johnstone, about to get a shock from the television set.
Terence Rigby and Pinkie Johnstone, about to get a shock from the television set.

“I remember this thing I saw on telly once about a couple that had this old car they didn’t want, and they kept trying to get rid of it. They dump it somewhere and then it starts being seen in different places until eventually…”

My brother recollected this strange story to me once, many, many years ago, as strange a Tales of Unease: The Old Banger (1970)story as anything allowed on television in those less-accountable days of old, when producers could commission on a hunch. Quite by chance, sometime later I found out what it was: The Old Banger, an episode of a 1970 anthology series, Tales of Unease. And despite only being shown once, and only in selected ITV regions, the little oddity clearly left an echo in its wake; in the years since then I’ve noticed quite a few queries on message boards, all asking for help identifying a similarly hazy memory of this quirky tale.

The seven plays in the Tales of Unease series were produced by London Weekend Television, an ITV regional station that, after a difficult birth, went on to become a powerhouse of popular drama, with successes including Budgie, Upstairs, Downstairs and Bouquet of Barbed Wire. Those of us who grew up in the South East will remember the announcer telling us every Friday at 5.15pm that it was now time to hand over to LWT’s South Bank headquarters, Kent House, a building that still stands proudly amid the London skyline, looking down on Waterloo Bridge and overseeing some of those it will be entertaining, those commuters parading out of town to the shires for their well-earned weekends.

Tales of Unease: The Old Banger (1970)The series was the first producer credit for Paul Knight, who had begun his television career in the post room at ATV, become an Assistant Floor Manager on the anthology series Love Story, and as one of Head of Scripted Series Stella Richman’s “boys” at Associated Rediffusion, become Associate Producer on another anthology series, Half-Hour Story. He stayed loyal to the anthology series, rounding off an impressive career that included the ornate The Adventures of Black Beauty and the mighty Robin of Sherwood with the excellent Murder in Mind (BBC, 2001-03), a surprise return of the thriller anthology, and one which should have also been its rebirth.

The Old Banger was written by actor Richardson Morgan, who also has a cough and a spit in the opening moments. The drama was his only writing credit. It was directed by Quentin Lawrence, who at the same time was doing a grand job of what would prove to be a much better-remembered LWT series, the merry Catweazle (1970). The Old Banger starred the lugubrious Terence Rigby, an actor who always played very much his own game, and the delightful Pinkie Johnstone (former flatmate of Judi Dench), who the same year gave birth to future RSC director Rachel Kavanaugh.  Watching it now (and I wonder if anyone else has ever watched it in the last 46 years), it is easy to see why, like its titular menace, it has dogged the memories of some of those who saw it. It’s quietly strange and original. Its tone is elusive. In reflection, it’s both amusing and eerie. Tales of Unease: The Old Banger (1970)

John and Susan Partridge are nice people, with a modest house in a west London suburb and a penchant for pigeon racing. But their clapped out Hillman is draining them of money, on this occasion having to be towed home and landing them with a bill for £5 –  more than the car itself is worth, in John’s opinion. They decide to buy a scooter instead, but when they find that sending the old banger to a scrapyard will cost them another £10, John decides instead to dump it on the other side of the city, removing the number-plates so that it can’t be traced back to him. Susan is all for the idea, but when their mechanical friend Eric (Neil McCarthy, expertly playing another of his gentle giants) finds out what they’ve done, he’s appalled, especially since “it had a perfectly good speedo on it”. He decides to retrieve it, but when he gets to the Peckham street it was left in, he finds it has gone, and turns out now to be parked in Camberwell.

Neil McCarthy as EricThen it inexplicably moves again, this time to Pimlico. When Eric attempts to immobilise it, he ends up in hospital after getting trapped under the bonnet.

After visiting him in hospital, the Partridges relax to watch News at Ten, only to see the car in the background of a report. Susan recognises the location as being quite close by. When the pair plot the points of the vehicle’s mysterious journey on a map, they realise that it is on a direct course straight back to their house.Tales of Unease: The Old Banger (1970)

Susan goes upstairs to bed, and screams when she sees from the window that the rusting menace is now parked outside the house.

John decides to sit up all night watching it, but inevitably dozes off. In the morning the couple are delighted to see that the car has gone, and, in celebratory mood, Susan zooms off on the scooter. Alone, John walks into his living room, only to find…

Tales of Unease: The Old Banger (1970)

It’s a stupendously bonkers shot. Susan returns home to find him dismantling the old banger piece by piece, but of course, the vengeful vehicle has the last laugh, trapping them both inside it and killing them.

Laced with a jolly brass and woodwind score that cheerfully fanfares each of the tale’s twists, The Old Banger is adorably droll. Blending comedy, the supernatural and ultimately, death, isn’t the easiest of tasks. Television tended to present its horror with a straight-face in those days; today it prefers to deliver it with a knowing wink. In that sense, this is somewhat ahead of its time, and feels like a more subtle ancestor of Inside No.9, more gentle and less grotesque.Pinkie Johnstone and Terence Rigby

Interestingly, along with many small roles on television, Richardson Morgan worked a number of times with Keith Johnstone, a pioneer of improvisational theatre. In his book, Impro, Johnstone recalls Morgan and mime artist Ben Benison playing a scene in which Morgan is an employee being fired by his boss because his cancer is affecting his performance at work. Johnson described it as “about the cruelest scene I’ve ever seen and the audience were hysterical with laughter. I’ve never heard people laugh more. The actors seemed to be dragging all the audience’s greatest fears into the open, laying out all their insecurities, and the actors absolutely knew what they were doing, and just how slowly to turn the screw”.

Pinkie JohnstoneThe Old Banger is, admittedly, quite a few streets away from that sort of work, but it does suggest that Richardson Morgan’s only television credit could have been just the first breath of an interesting and original voice, one that would have gently explored the couplings of those uneasy bedfellows, comedy and tragedy, in an idiosyncratic way.

But it wasn’t to be. I did attempt to contact Morgan to ask him his memories of his sole half-hour as a television writer. I never heard back. Perhaps, unlike many of those who have seen it, to him The Old Banger is long forgotten.

 

 

Love Will Tear Us Apart

The story of a Christmas comedy that led to murder.

For my book, A Dangerous Place, I spent a lot of time talking to officers from Surrey CID, and through that research also discovered a remarkable website detailing the history of the constabulary. It’s a fascinating, if disturbing, resource, an aural history of the last half-century of policing the county in the words of the officers themselves. Unlike those huge, high-profile cases that earn themselves books and documentaries, the site is a vivid and frightening look at the everyday business of crime, which is still, more often than not, an extraordinary business. Some of the tales recollected are routine, some inexplicable, and some read as black comedy. This is one of many which caught my attention: 

1967: “Mrs Pretty stabbed her husband at their home in Chiddingfold on Christmas Day whilst rowing over who was going to carve the turkey, he was fatally killed…  she had been slaving away in the kitchen preparing the Christmas dinner and her husband was watching Norman Wisdom in a variety show on TV. Norman was in great form and the husband was roaring with laughter. Mrs. Pretty was stressed out with all the work she was doing and kept telling him to stop laughing. He ignored her and she ‘lost it’ and went in to the living room and stuck him with a carving knife. Norman had a lot to answer for that Christmas!”The file on the case of Helen Pretty

 For some reason I was reminded of the bizarre story recently while on the way to visit the National Archives, so while I was there enquired as to whether the file on the case was now open. It is, and reading it revealed that the recollection above was inaccurate (as one would expect after more than fifty years). It took place in Haslemere, not Chiddingfold (though there is a Chiddingfold connection), happened in 1964, not 1967, and the sequence of events was in reality quite different, if almost as ludicrous as I had been led to believe. This bizarre open-and-shut case is typical of the banality, pointlessness and meaninglessness of real crime (as opposed to the elaborate plots and meaty motivations of most crime fiction). Most serious crimes are split-second occurrences which shatter lives, their after-effects  spreading like stains across the years that follow and infecting the lives of even those on the peripheries.

Contained within the file are the usual forensic mixture of statements, exhibits lists, depositions, post-mortem and psychiatric reports and a transcript of the trial, which was held at Kingston Winter Assizes two months after the killing. Mrs Helen Pretty pleaded guilty to murder on the grounds of provocation.

The first piece of the jigsaw is a statement  made by the accused’s sister, Elizabeth. It reveals that both girls came from a very large Irish family, and when Helen was 24, the pair moved to England. Shortly after this, Helen met (Leslie) Michael Pretty. They married in December 1962, and the following June, Helen gave birth to a son.

Although it is not remarked on anywhere in the file, the fact that their child was born only six months after the wedding would have been a much more significant fact in 1962 than it would be today. From what follows, it would suggest that the marriage was instigated by social expectations more than love.

R v Helen Pretty

After the wedding, the couple lodged with Michael’s parents at Prestwick Farm, Chiddingfold. Then comes this line:

Helen often visited me without her husband. She told me on those visits that her husband used to beat her up and give her no money”.

She alleged that on two occasions while she was pregnant, Michael had assaulted her, and had marks on her arms and a lump on the back of her head to prove it. The head wound was apparently meted because she had refused to go out to buy him cigarettes.  Helen was pregnant at the time of both attacks.

A year after the wedding, the couple moved to St Cross Cottage in Weydown Road, Haslemere. Elizabeth witnessed many verbal altercations between the pair, which Helen said were usually because he gave her so little money and because, as she perceived it, his parents disliked her.

St Cross Cottage, Haslemere
St Cross Cottage

A curious incident occurred four days before Christmas. Helen had been wanting to visit her mother in Ireland, having not been back once in the four years since she left. Michael’s family had refused to give her the passage money or look after the baby while she was gone, but her husband then stumped up the money and offered to take a week off work to look after the child. Her sister dropped her at the station, but a little later, Helen appeared back at the house, having decided against going because she was anxious about leaving her son. According to Elizabeth, “when she same in he just said ‘can I have my money back’, no word of greeting. Bizarrely as the evening progressed, the couple appeared to be getting on perfectly well with each other.

Elizabeth saw a good deal of Helen over the next few days, and said she was perfectly normal and reported no trouble at home.

On Christmas Day, “everything was quite happy during dinner”. The three watched television by the fire for a few hours, then Helen brought in a chicken from the oven for supper, a present from Michael’s parents. She asked her husband to carve while she buttered some bread. Mr Pretty was the only one to have drunk any alcohol, and he’d only had “one ale”. The couple stood at opposite ends of the dining table while Elizabeth continued watching television. BBC1 were broadcasting Norman Wisdom’s Christmas pantomime of Robinson Crusoe (which achieved what was, at the time, a record audience of 18.5 million).

Radio Times, 25th December 1964

“Helen appeared to be enjoying it – she likes Norman Wisdom’s films very much –  they make her laugh”. Suddenly her husband told her to stop laughing. She explained she was only laughing at the television. He put down the carving knife and fork, then slapped her hard across the face. She responded with “I’ll hit you one back” and they tussled. The baby started crying and ran to Elizabeth. When she looked up again, Mr Pretty was clutching his chest and saying “I’m dying, Helen”. He fell to his knees, and despite Helen saying “don’t take any notice, he often says that when we clash”, Elizabeth said “he’s looking very pale”.

He went to the door, and Helen asked Elizabeth to telephone for a doctor. Then she noticed blood on the blade of the carving knife. Mr Pretty never regained consciousness. Helen was in “a highly distressed state” and sobbing when the police took charge of her, saying “what have I done?” and “what will happen to me?”

Those are the basic facts.  But there is more significant background in the other statements.

Mr Pretty’s father claimed that while the couple lived with them, Helen “spent most of the time in her room, watching television or listening to the radio”, and never helped his wife with the housework.

There were also a number of reports from local police officers and the family GP, all of whom had been called to the Prettys on a number of occasions because of violent arguments. On one occasion, Helen was drunk and in a ferocious temper, smashing up the living room. In her doctor’s words, she was “fighting mad” because her husband had left her and she had reacted by drinking all the alcohol in the house while in charge of her child.

Police map of the murder scene
Police map of the murder scene

In June 1964, a police officer arriving at the house was told by Helen that an argument had started because “he would not take me to the pictures. I never go out anywhere and he does not give me much money”. After her husband left the room, she continued: “he is always hitting me even when I was pregnant”. When Michael came back in with a dustpan and brush to clear away the broken glass, Helen laughed at him, and he told the police: “she even tore up the kiddy’s birthday card from my mother”.

Judging the situation as a “domestic”, the police advised Mrs Pretty that if she had a genuine complaint to make about her husband, it should be made to a solicitor.

On another occasion, two months before his death, Michael arranged to see a divorce lawyer; Helen again began to vandalise the house and, to stop him keeping the appointment, threw his shoes on the fire. On this occasion, Michael said to the police officer “can’t you do something?” However, by the time the officer left, the couple appeared to be at peace again. Volatile would be a diplomatic way to describe such a relationship.

Pathologist's statement

Three weeks after the crime, Helen was examined by a psychiatrist while on remand at Holloway. He discovered that she had a mental age of eight, was “a subnormal girl who requires some form of guidance and help” and was “emotionally immature with a rather inadequate personality”. She admitted to “crying on the slightest pretext”, but the doctor did note that despite her “mental subnormality… she has been able until recently to cope with the exigencies of life, namely that she has looked after a home and a baby”, and had previously worked as a domestic in a hospital.

A further, more detailed report revealed that Helen had been incapable of managing the house-keeping, which is why her husband controlled all the money in the house, and that her husband “had to do most of the cooking too”. The report also added that she was incapable of comprehending simple facts and was “lacking in forethought, to the extent that she is unable to judge the consequences of her actions”. It concluded that “coupled with her mental subnormality there is considerable emotional immaturity, together with an inadequate personality. She has also a recent history of an aggressive outburst in the course of which he husband was killed. In these respects she is in need of training and guidance in a hospital for the mentally subnormal”.

The final notes, headed “antecedents”, give a scant biography of Helen’s otherwise unremarkable life. Each employer she had before her marriage described her as hard-working; one went as far as to call her “an excellent worker of excellent character”, though another noted she was “very quick-tempered”.

Helen Pretty was detained at a mental hospital; her baby was taken into care.

Medical Report on Helen PrettyAlthough cold, emotionless official paperwork is devoid of judgement, many of the facts listed in this depressingly ordinary, senseless story read differently to us in 2017 to how many people would have perceived them in 1964. As soon as I came across the first reference to Helen complaining that her husband beat her, I immediately began to see this as the story of an abused woman finally fighting back and inadvertently killing her monstrous abuser. In 1964, such matters would have been looked on by many as nothing like as horrific. No less a symbol of decency and integrity than PC George Dixon of the fictional television series Dixon of Dock Green infamously and lightly told viewers in the 1956 episode Pound of Flesh that “if I arrested every bloke in Dock Green who clocked his wife, I’d be working overtime”.

The acknowledgement that Mr Pretty “had to do most of the cooking himself” was clearly something to remark upon in those times, too. And today, a shotgun wedding is not the first reaction to an unmarried woman’s pregnancy. Here it glued together two people who were clearly destined to tear each other apart.

Today, Prestwick Farm, nestled in one of the richest and most picturesque of Surrey parishes, offers four-star self-catering accommodation as well as organic produce. St Cross Cottage, in the early 1900s home to the weaving quarter of the Peasant Arts Movement, has long since been demolished. Most of the players in this sorry story are probably now long dead.

But it did occur to me, as I handed the file back, and thought that perhaps no one will ever again have any cause to seek it out, that perhaps one day, a middle-aged man might walk into the National Archives and order it up. Then, after studying its contents in a quiet corner for an hour, he might return it to the librarian, and then, as he walks back out into the world, think to himself:

“Well, now I know what happened to my parents”.

A Dreadful And Despairing History

A little-known telling of an oft-told tale.

Few, if any, remember a late-night series of half-hour plays under the cumbersome umbrella title TV TimesConceptions of Murder, broadcast at various points throughout 1970 in several ITV regions, with no fanfare and to little reaction. They were the brainchild of that gentlemanly, imaginative but inconsistent writer, the late Clive Exton. Each of the six episodes took a real-life murder case and tried “to recreate the minds and motives of the killers”. The first episode, The Dreams Of Tim Evans, dealt with the infamous Christie/ Evans case, and is significant because not only was it the first piece of screen drama in Britain based on the matter, (in the theatre, Howard Brenton’s distressing Fringe hit Christie In Love had debuted at the Oval House in 1969, the same year that a drama appeared on German television about the case) but because a year later, Exton expanded his script into the screenplay for the revered movie 10, Rillington Place, which starred Richard Attenborough and John Hurt as Christie and Evans respectively.

The Dreams Of Tim Evans has never been repeated, and never before, to my knowledge, has it been written about. I was intrigued to track it down in the light of the BBC’s recent misfire, Rillington Place, an unnecessary and implausible regurgitation of the 1971 film. Sadly, The Dreams Of Tim Evans is equally disappointing, though it is an interesting historical artifact. Fascinatingly, its executive producer was Peter Wildeblood, who, in the same year the Rillington Place case hit the headlines, was involved in the Montagu-Rivers case, suffering shameful indignities at the hands of the British establishment and later becoming a prominent campaigner for law and prison reform.

In truth, we will never know what passed between John Reginald Halliday Christie and Timothy John Evans in June 1949, in the hours following the murder of Mrs Evans. Both men were liars and fantasists. And both men took all that they knew to the gallows.

IMG_8207The dreadful history of the dreadful, despairing last house on the left, 10 Rillington Place, has probably inspired more words than any other piece of historical true crime except the Jack the Ripper murders. Even by the time Ludovic Kennedy’s major book on the case appeared in 1962, two other books had been written on the subject, The Man On Your Conscience, by Truth editor Michael Eddowes (the book that sparked Kennedy’s interest in the case) and Rupert Furneaux’s The Two Stranglers Of Rillington Place, which took the now unfashionable view that both men were killers, and that the fears of a miscarriage of justice in the case of Evans were ill-founded.

The facts that are not disputed are as follows. Christie, a middle-aged under-achiever with

Hugh Burden as Christie
Hugh Burden as Christie

delusions of grandeur, occupied the basement flat at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, with his wife, Ethel. In his early life Christie had a number of convictions for violence and theft, but in the Second World War was able to enroll as a War Reserve Constable. While alone in the house one afternoon in 1943, he murdered a woman for sexual gratification, and buried her in the back garden. He killed another the following year, lured there by  false claims that he had some medical training and could treat her for catarrh.

Six years passed, apparently without incident, until in 1949 Tim and Beryl Evans moved into the top floor flat with their baby daughter, Geraldine. Evans was a van driver, with a low IQ (he was not illiterate, as has been claimed, since he was able to read road signs) and was partial to making up stories about himself. The marriage was turbulent, especially due to Beryl’s poor money management, and a number of violent arguments kept neighbours awake and led to police visits.

Don Hawkins as Timothy Evans
Don Hawkins as Evans

Beryl became pregnant a second time, and sometime after this, Evans left London and stayed with relatives in Merthyr Tydfil. One afternoon he walked into the local police station and said “I want to give myself up. I’ve disposed of my wife”. He went on to tell them he had arrived home one evening to find her dead, having taken something to try and abort her child, and in panic he had put her body down the drain outside the house. The police checked and found the drain was empty. Evans then said “I only said that to protect a man called Christie. Now I’ll tell you the truth”.

He then made a long, detailed statement saying that Christie had offered to perform an abortion on Beryl thanks to his medical knowledge, but when Evans had arrived home, was told she had died, that for their own sakes they should dispose of her body and say nothing, and that the baby could be looked after for the present by a childless couple Christie knew who lived locally. A superficial search of the house revealed some newspaper clippings in Evans’ flat about a murder case, and in the wash-house, the strangled bodies of both Beryl and baby Geraldine.

Evans was brought back to London, and when he was told of the discovery of both bodies, simply replied “yes”. He then signed a short statement saying that he had killed his wife and child.Children playing in Rillington Place

By the time the case reached the Old Bailey, he was denying this last statement, insisting his second statement was true and that Christie was to blame. Despite Christie’s previous criminal record, he made a better impression on the jury than Evans, and Evans was found guilty of the murder of his daughter, and sentenced to death. In the period before his execution he made no attempt to appeal, and reportedly was cheerful and showed no remorse.

What was not known at the trial was that Christie had already strangled two women and would go on to strangle four more, his wife and three prostitutes that he lured back to Rillington Place. The killings took place over a four month period at the start of 1953, after which, penniless and with the ground floor of the house now a tomb, he left. He wandered around London in a daze until he was caught. He confessed to every crime except that of the baby, but gave vague, untrustworthy accounts. He was hanged after a short trial.

Christie and EvansLudovic Kennedy’s crusading book, the 1971 film and the BBC’s Rillington Place have all taken the view that two stranglers both living in the same house is too much of a coincidence. Exton’s script here does the same. But while 10 Rillington Place works brilliantly as a mood piece, horribly evoking a tumbledown London of the post-war era and sustaining a mood of evil and futility in every scene (the film was shot in the actual street, and sparingly used a devil-driven, prickly score by John Dankworth), it was made as a rebuff to calls for a reinstatement of the death penalty, and, like the book it sprang from, is selective in its presentation of the facts.

The Dreams Of Tim Evans, sadly, suffers  when compared to the film into which it grew.  It is essentially a longer version of the central scene in the film in which Evans arrives home to find his wife dead, and Christie manages to persuade him to enter into a conspiracy of silence for both their sakes. That quiet, forgotten actor, Hugh Burden, is, alarmingly, probably the closest to Christie physically of any actor who has played him, and clearly imitates various facial expressions of the killer learned from photographs. Unfortunately, he maintains his native soft Welsh accent for the part rather than attempting Christie’s whispering Yorkshire tones. Like Attenborough’s, his Christie is prissy and puritanical (“there’s no need to use language, lad”), and quietly manipulative.

Christie and EvansDon Hawkins’ performance as Evans, however, seems unable to make up its mind what it is. He appears to barely react to his wife’s death, and is such a low-key presence in the play that one certainly struggles to imagine this Evans being capable of having violent altercations with his wife.

Despite the studio setting and the unsubtle colour of 1970s videotape, which does inevitably prettify the recreation of the house, there are some neat moments. When Christie reappears at the beginning of the second half of the play, he lurks in the back of the frame while Evans, in the foreground, is veiled behind a grimy curtain; at this point, Evans , without knowing it, holds all the power. He could go to the police and Christie would be charged with Beryl’s murder. But his mind is a fog, to himself, to us and to Christie. Later, the roles are reversed, as Evans stands lost and helpless in the background, asking Christie, now the one shrouded by that dark curtain, what he is to do.

Christie and EvansThe play’s title, and its core, come from a sequence in which Evans indulges himself in fantasy, telling Christie that he intends to move to a house in Hampstead, one of those “with gardens you can sit in”. But whereas John Hurt’s Evans was defiant, a hopelessly self-deluded windbag trying and failing to suggest he was better than those around him, and aggressively touchy when challenged, this Evans is almost lifeless. It doesn’t ring true. Nor does the play (or the film’s) off-screen insistence that Christie would go on to murder the baby. Why would he do this rather than simply abandon her? Why do something that he would then have to explain away to Evans, or, if Evans found out, would undoubtedly destroy any loyalty Evans might have for Christie?

One powerful piece of evidence that has recently been revealed is that when Evans was in the cells at Notting Hill police station, having been charged with murder, PC Leonard Trevallion asked him why he had killed his baby. Evans replied: “because without its mother it kept crying all the time and I couldn’t stand it”. (Trevallion gave a final interview detailing his eventful life and career to the Imperial War Museum; his reminiscences can be heard here.)High Burden as Christie

That Christie murdered Mrs Evans seems highly likely. Evans’s detailed description of Christie professing medical knowledge is damning evidence simply because it tallies with what we know were the methods Christie used to attract other victims. However, attributing the murder of Geraldine to Christie too strikes me as something that has been done for no other reason than convenience when trying to argue a miscarriage of justice, since it was actually Geraldine’s murder that Evans was convicted of.

The Dreams Of Tim Evans is a disappointingly mild piece of drama about a devastating situation. It fails to do justice to its subject, and while we will probably never hear the last word on the Christie case, this attempt at the story is unlikely ever to be heard again.

In respectable 1950s Britain, people perhaps were much more prepared to be reassured that a man hanged in their name had indeed been guilty of murder. Today, however, we live in an iconoclastic age, a  time of suspicion, distrust, cynicism and conspiracy theories, and are eager to embrace any suggestion that shadowy, uncaring authorities behave corruptly, callously and at the expense of their subjects. I’ve always believed that the truth lies somewhere in between, in this case and in many others.

Fear The Reaper

A second harvest for a first-class tale.

reaperSometimes you blow the dust off something that leaves you breathless with excitement. Nigel Hinton’s 1979 television play The Reaper has done just that. All I knew of it a few days ago came from this excited preview in The Guardian, published a few days before its sole broadcast as part of the ITV Playhouse strand in 1979. Even allowing for the ephemeral nature of television in the pre-video age, how such a vivid drama has managed to fall into such unjust obscurity is baffling.

The play begins with the clanging of a distant, discordant school orchestra. We are with a detention class, and settle on someone drawing a heart with an arrow through it, only to discover the lovesick doodler is not one of the pupils but their teacher, Nicholas

Philip Sayer as Nick
Philip Sayer as Nick

Nash (the late Philip Sayer). This is a play about the slings and arrows of romantic obsession and rejection, a state of mind which society frequently dismisses playfully but which in fact can, as here, lead to mental collapse and violence.

Nick appears to be neat and clean cut; in fact, he is a tightly coiled spring. He scribbles out another day on the calendar, still waiting for something that is never going to happen. Half-term has arrived and he has no plans. “Come on, Nick, don’t slip back”, says his enthusiastic colleague Val (Marty Cruickshank), a cheerful but lonely soul. He agrees to go to dinner with her, before adding “I’ve always been straight with you. You know how I feel”.

“Yes”, she replies with a brave face.img_8218

Nick’s flat is crammed with books, records and posters, but the kitchen is positively squalid. This is a man who once had everything to live for but who stopped caring about life some time ago. An obsession has eclipsed everything. An unsettling montage of eerie images of his ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Judy Monahan) stares blankly back at him, and on the wall are a worrying collection of newspaper cuttings.

The Reaper by Nigel HInton

He has a nasty dream that he and Rachel are together eating breakfast only for the food to turn into a bowl of maggots. Then he’s woken by a telephone call. Twenty-one months since he last saw her, it is Rachel. We learn that she left Nick for a fellow actor, Joe, but now they have split.

Standing up Val unthinkingly, he meets Rachel at the restaurant which was once their favourite haunt, armed with gifts of books and roses. He is euphoric, forgiving her for their break-up, claiming “it was all a test, and we’ve come through it”.

Judy Monahan as Rachel
Judy Monahan as Rachel

“There’s not a week goes by I don’t think of you”, she says, lightly. Unfortunately, it’s obvious there’s not an hour goes by Nick doesn’t think of her.

We learn that Rachel was once a pupil at the school, and Nick, a man who now has no future, once taught her history. They had a five-year affair in secret, at the end of which, now established as an actress, she left him. To Rachel it’s all a cute memory, and him once telling her “you are the other half of what I am” amuses her because in recollection it’s so syrupy.

Even though a medium had assured him that Rachel would one day return to him, Nick’s delusions are permanently derailed when Rachel casually mentions that she has a new lover, Pete. Nick has been under the assumption that her contacting him again was because she was honouring the promise she made two years ago, namely that if it didn’t work out with Joe, she would come back to him. But no, she has no memory of that. She has merely called him up to ask for his help with an audition piece. He explodes with rage and confusion, and she flees. He chases her through the drab back streets of Notting Hill, The Reaper (1979)begging her to love him again. At one point, they are filmed in long shot against a vast, shabby wall decorated only by a few pitiful posters and some once meaningful graffiti. Nick’s pain and desperation mutate into sexual jealousy and menace (Sayer really is alarmingly good), slapping her before she manages to escape him.

Nick now begins a murderous campaign of revenge, on Rachel, on the boyfriend who stole her from him, and on the fraudulent medium who has led him to waste two years of his life on a promise of her returning.

It’s at this point that The Reaper could opt to play itself out as a conventional thriller, its currency being jeopardy, its thrust becoming Rachel in danger and its objective being merely to keep us in suspense about whether or not she will survive until the end credits. But instead it does something else, something much more interesting and unsettling. After one further scene, in which Nick breaks into her flat and trashes it after tricking his way past her neighbour (a just-starting-out Art Malik), Rachel disappears from the play altogether. Instead, The Reaper ploughs on relentlessly, not as a thriller but as a character study of a murderer, and one that gets so close to him as to be almost stifling. In the scene when Nick arrives to kill the ludicrous medium Madame Noire (Rosemary Martin), Sayer’s alarming performance reaches the peak of its intensity as the character reaches the depths of depravity and obsession.

Rosemary Martin as Madame Noire
Rosemary Martin as Madame Noire

The Reaper is a ruthless play not only in its dropping of Rachel when it no longer needs her, but in its picking up of Val again. The reintroduction of the tweedy spinster, stood up but still patiently waiting for Nick to fall in love with her, completes the picture disturbingly. “Whatever’s happened, I’ll be with you,” she claims after seeing his blood-drenched overcoat. She is sick of being “a nice, kind daughter” to an elderly mother she has never spent a night away from until now.

Without giving away the specific details of the final half of the play or its eerie, diminuendo ending, suffice to say there is no dramatic chase and no crowd-pleasing resolution. Nick Lowe’s mournful Endless Sleep plays over the closing credits. The evil that a man has done will never be washed away, from his own mind or from the world around him.

Philip Sayer in The Reaper (1979)

I spoke to Nigel Hinton after watching The Reaper. Despite not having seen the play for 38 years, he recalled that it was an unsolicited script, sent to producer Rob Buckler on the suggestion of mutual friend Peter Prince (at the time giving a good account of himself as a television playwright in works such as the impressively honest single-dad story Early Struggles for Play for Today in 1976.) “The Reaper was partly inspired by my time as an actor”, he told me. “I’d been in a summer rep on the Isle of Wight, and in the company was a lady who was very into astrology and Tarot. I was trying to work out what life was about I suppose, and sat down with her for a reading, but she was so clearly a charlatan, asking leading questions and all that. It got me fiddling around with the idea of someone being given an important prediction by a medium and staking their life on it.

“But it also drew on my memories of being jilted during my teenage years and simultaneously finding myself studying Jacobean revenge plays at school and university. It got me thinking about pain that leads to obsessive behaviour and wild, unreasoning desires to hit out. Unless it becomes pathological, as in the case of someone like Nick, I guess it’s a kind of paradigm of adolescent self-absorption. I remember my hurt teenage-self fantasised about scratching the car that my ex-girlfriend had recently been given by her doting parents. I was kind of shocked by such feelings and, fortunately, I was able to observe them and put them in their place and store them up for creative use later. So certainly, it was the darkness of the psychology of the piece that interested me”.Philip Sayer in The Reaper (1979)

I too once wrote a play about rejection and obsession leading to violence and psychological collapse, Rainbow Kiss (Royal Court Theatre, 2006). It was inspired by two different people I knew at University, both of whom were driven to dreadful lengths by relationships ending. One attempted violence against their ex-partner, the other committed suicide. Perhaps it was the distant echo in this play of my own take on that familiar yet strangely under-explored theme that has made The Reaper haunt me in the days since I watched it. Nigel continues:

“The director, Marek Kanievska, wanted it toughened up a little; in fact, we did have one blazing row, which he won, insisting that Nick would slap Rachel’s face. I wasn’t convinced Nick would be so wildly violent at that point; I was much more interested in the slow burn, in the psychological”.

Judy Monahan as RachelRegarding the quiet, bleak ending, he says: “Interestingly, one of the books I wrote for children, Collision Course, which was sort of Crime and Punishment for teenagers, had a similar ending, just fading out, everything internalised, which didn’t satisfy some people; again, there was no real resolution”.

It’s this commendable lack of reassurance that disorientates the viewer. We are used to having everything neatly sewn up on television and film, a world where crimes are cracked in an hour. That tradition can mistakenly fool us into believing that a crime being solved is a crime being resolved. But it never can be so simple. Rehabilitation, restitution, forgiveness, none of those things can change the past. A crime committed against one person may have many victims, all of whom, like the perpetrator, may survive the crime but will probably never forget it.The Reaper (1979)

The Reaper is a skillful, troubling play that I suspect will never quite leave me now, precisely because it ends with a sense that there can be no atonement, no hope, after the awful consequences of a senseless obsession. An arrow through the heart, unlike in that playful, frivolous drawing at the start, can in truth be a lethal wound.

A Light Touch And A Good Ear

“… a forgotten story about forgotten things, and about a woman refusing to allow progress to obliterate her past”.

When I wrote an obituary of the enchanting writer Julia Jones for The Independent, I said that she “quietly and assuredly told bewitching, humane stories of simple lives in crisis, always blessed with a warm, unsentimental, maternal touch”. I compared her to another of the great television playwrights of her day, coincidentally another actor-writer, Colin Welland, and said that “both were at their best writing simple, sincere and unpretentious domestic dramas set in the parlour or the pantry, and both preferred to place women centre stage”. Her typically sincere and unpretentious play The Piano was shown on BBC1 as a Play for Today in January 1971, and is a wonderful example of her work. It is a forgotten story about forgotten things, and about a woman refusing to allow “progress” to obliterate her past.

julia-jones-009
Julia Jones (1923-2015)

Julia had originally been an actress with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, before scoring a huge success with her first television play The Navigators in 1965. Just before The Piano, she had worked with Play for Today script editor Ann Scott on the series Take Three Girls, her contribution winning her first prize in the drama section at the Prague Television Festival. She was delighted when Scott rescued a play that had been written three years earlier but which had been indefinitely postponed because of budgetary problems, despite its modest demands.

The Piano came about because it was an era when a lot of little streets were being torn down and some wonderful communities were being destroyed,” Julia explained to me when I interviewed her in 2003. “The instrument was a good symbol, filling the whole room and dominating this family. I usually start with a tiny thing like that, a little idea. In those days you were simply asked if you had any ideas, and if you did you went in and discussed them briefly and then were left alone and trusted to deliver the goods.

Hilda Barry as Ada
Hilda Barry as Ada

“My first question was always ‘how much filming do we have?’ and that would influence how I plotted the play. Ann was a wonderful script editor and it was an important role, making suggestions to the producer in your interests. A good director would go through the script line by line with you too to make sure he understood it. Once it was finalised, they never changed a line without consulting you”.

Like everyone on their estate, Ada and Edgar (Hilda Barry and Leo Franklyn) are content to vacate their terraced house for a modern bungalow, to allow their nephew Willie (Glyn Owen) to build on the site what he and the local council he works for believe will be “the best town in Lancashire”. Willie has dreams of high-rises and geometrical estates, and is comforted by the convenient belief that he is improving the lives of the community.

The only area of his life Willie can’t bulldoze away is his wife’s ex-boyfriend, fellow member of the local band Jeremy Plunkett (James Cossins), a decent and drippy antique shop owner who is still melancholic at losing his beloved Mabel (Janet Munro) to Willie, a grudge which is taking its toll on both his waistline and his good nature. But although Jeremy may be a fuddy-duddy he’s a man of decency and dependability, devoted to his community, and while the townsfolk admit that “Willie’s got things moving” in the area, in Jeremy’s opinion “he moves too fast for some”.

James Cossins as Plunkett
James Cossins as Plunkett, at home alone around old things.

However, when the penny drops for Ada that there isn’t room for her late father’s piano in the new bungalow, she announces that she won’t move, scuppering Willie’s plans for his redevelopment and Edgar’s hopes of a garden. “Your father’s had his day and so’s that piano” he pleads, but Ada is firm. Her father “paid for it in sweat and taught the whole family. All except Willie. There were great grief when he took up with cornet.”

It’s delightful exchanges like this that exemplify Jones’ mastery of warm-hearted wittiness. Ultimately the piano creates discord between everyone in the family, Willie even having to face a choice between his bride and his pride. Ada’s house is at the very centre of his housing scheme, and he is aware that if he doesn’t solve the problem he’ll be a laughing stock.

The Sunday lunch lies uneaten at an empty table as Edgar packs and Willie and Mabel storm off. Ada resorts to staring at her father’s photograph, “such a peaceable man”, that, in a lovely moment, crossfades into a shot of Willie standing outside Plunkett’s door. He knows there is only one solution: since Edgar would choke on charity, Willie must swallow his pride and ask Plunkett for help.

It’s an adorable scene. Plunkett agrees to consider babysitting the instrument, after gloating momentarily, though not gratuitously, at the pickle Willie is in. But when they arrive at the house, Ada sitting mournfully at the piano, tells them “I’m beaten. First time in me life. Not by you and the council. But by Edgar. A man must have his pride.” Edgar’s pride reminds her of her father’s. His love for her and the piano means no money can buy it and no stranger should sell it. “It can die with the house” is her resolve.

Glyn Owen as Willie and Janet Munro as Mabel
Glyn Owen as Willie and Janet Munro as Mabel

Willie returns home to hear Mabel trying to make restitution and accept the piano, but it’s too late. Everyone has played their hand and the past which the piano represents has been given a final hearing. The rest is silence.

Julia was delighted with the production. “Hilda Barry was a brilliant actress, she was well into her seventies by then and that was a lovely performance she gave us. I remember being at a writers’ party some years ago and a writer telling me he still remembered that play, which was wonderful.”

Tragically, this was Janet Munro’s last role before he death at the age of thirty-eight. Once married to Ian Hendry, she had enjoyed great success in her twenties in Disney films including Swiss Family Robinson (US 1960).

Janet Munro as Mabel
Janet Munro as Mabel

Julia was by now a very recognisable and welcome voice to the critics, who universally found her writing charming and endearing. “Good old Julia Jones never let’s you down” wrote Peter Black in the Daily Mail. “What she gave us was a neatly constructed and amusing North country comedy in which the piano effectively but modestly symbolised the queer feminine dread of change that holds some women in thrall.” Nancy Banks-Smith noted that Julia Jones “can handle a very authentic family row, as what woman cannot”.

Jessie Palmer in The Scotsman remarked how “sometimes a play can be even more telling than a documentary in its presentation of a social problem. Julia Jones gave us such a play…a very human, very real story…and put the case of the old people with genuine sympathy. A quite beautiful performance by Hilda Barry”.

Julia remembered that “one of the nicest things someone told me after watching The Piano was ‘I always know if it’s you when I am watching a play on television, because I recognise the dialogue.” Peter Knight in The Daily Telegraph summed this skill up well: “Miss Jones has a true ear for dialogue and a sensitive touch. If the action seemed at times trivial, it is because she writes of ordinary people whose lives for the most part are trivial… The Wednesday Play used to be one of the most controversial drama spots on television. Now, as Play for Today, it has slipped into a rather cosy, comfortable rut, like some precocious youth coming late to maturity and quickly developing a middle-aged spread.” It was a left-handed compliment that had no idea what the right hand had up its sleeve, as the following week’s drama was the tough-as-old-boots Billy’s Last Stand by Barry Hines.

The Piano still survives in the BBC Archives, although the first minute was accidentally wiped, which is probably why it was never repeated. As well as its merits as a piece of honest entertainment, the play can also be seen as a homely companion piece to the work of photographer Shirley Baker, whom I wrote about here, a photographer whose work chronicled “the erosion of people by progress”.

Play for Today: The Piano by Julia Jones

Two equally beautiful television plays by Julia Jones are now available on BBC Store. Still Waters (1972) is a warm and witty drama set one sunny Saturday in the Brecon Beacons, about a group of lost souls each finding someone to talk to. Back Of Beyond (1974) boasts a magnificent, near silent performance from Rachel Roberts as a mysterious recluse who lives in a tumbledown farm up in the hills.

When I told Julia that her dramatisations of children’s books for the BBC, most especially the eerie The Enchanted Castle, still held powerful memories for my generation, and that her fantastically eerie dramatisation of Antonia Fraser’s Quiet As A Nun for Thames Television’s Armchair Thriller in 1978 had recently won a place in Channel 4’s 100 Scariest Moments poll, she was delighted. “One sometimes thinks one’s work has been all but forgotten. It’s so nice to know that isn’t the case”.

Julia Jones died in October 2015. When preparing to write her obituary, I found a letter she had sent me after reading the essay I’d written on The Piano for a planned book on Play for Today, which this post is drawn from. At eighty, she was enjoying writing her first musical. She asked if she could give me lunch to say thank you for caring about The Piano.

I wish I’d gone.