High Spirits and Low Morale

The Gentle Touch: Tough, Mrs Rudge (1982)

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Kathleen St John as Mrs Rudge

This is a story not only about a forgotten story, but about a forgotten tragedy. It is a two-part tale. Bear with me.

In the ever-changing sea of crime series, one of the better remembered but lesser-valued is LWT’s The Gentle Touch (1980-84), which history will probably acknowledge merely for Jill Gascoinebeing the first British police drama to be headed by a woman, namely DI Maggie Forbes, played by the similarly underrated Jill Gascoine. The Gentle Touch was in fact a fine series, which, unlike most of its contemporaries, was more interested in victims than criminals, more interested in the causes and effects of crime than in its detection, a tragic pursuit well reflected in its melancholic closing theme music . In this respect it had more in common with the early episodes of Z Cars than with the recent move towards filmed, action-based series such as The Sweeney. Set at a fictional nick in Seven Dials, it impressively expressed many of the concerns of its day: youth crime, sexism and racism on the streets and in the police force, domestic violence and homophobia.

Predominately a studio-based drama, The Gentle Touch was necessarily blessed with sensitive writers, in particular PJ Hammond, whose skill at exploring vulnerable personalities at crisis point had already been well-demonstrated in series such as Thames’s Couples (1976) and LWT’s women-in-prison saga Within These Walls (1974), andJill Gascoine, Kevin O'Shea and William Marlowe would find its best expression in the emotional ghost stories of his series Sapphire and Steel (1979-82). Although The Gentle Touch was always watchable and frequently excellent, its finest hours are two scripts by Hammond, Damage, the tale of a neurotic single dad, abandoned by his wife and the victim of a hate campaign by his seemingly-respectable neighbours, and Solution, in which a young lesbian dying of leukaemia asks her lover to assist in her suicide, Kenneth Ware’s devastating Pressures, in which the usually impervious DCI Russell (William Marlowe) finds himself on the verge of a breakdown (an episode which echoes John Hopkins’ most tortured walks into the dark on Z Cars), and the episode I will be examining here, for reasons which will become apparent: Antony Couch’s shattering Tough, Mrs Rudge.

All television drama series quickly establish their tone, their vocabulary, their politics and their parameters. A challenge for drama producers is to keep the viewer surprised but never disorientated. But occasionally, a genre series throws up an episode that successfully takes us out of its established comfort zone. It can be an unsettling feeling, that sense that this week “the goodies just might not win”.

Tough, Mrs Rudge begins with a forlorn old lady trailing around a shop and being accused of stealing a pint of milk. One could be forgiven for thinking this is not going to be a crime story of any great significance.rudge2

But when, while being questioned by the police, Mrs Rudge is examined by a doctor, he discovers burn marks on her arms, caused by a lit cigarette being held against the skin for several seconds. She also appears to be suffering from malnutrition, and only has 22 pence in her purse. When asked if she has any family, she says “me son went to Australia just after the war. He used to write regular, every month”.

She refuses to remain in hospital, anxious to get back to her flat. Maggie offers her a lift which she reluctantly agrees to, but says: “just take me as far as the street. Nobody’s going no further than that”.

Jill Gascoine as Maggie Forbes in The Gentle TouchAfter an exasperating phone call to the social worker who covers the area, and who hasn’t seen Mrs Rudge for two years, Maggie wonders “how is it we can never look after the old women who get beaten but we’ve always got plenty of time, money and colour tellies for the ones who do the beating?”

Back in hospital some days later after collapsing and nearly being hit by a bus, Mrs Rudge falls into a coma. The doctors discover shocking new injuries: heavy bruising on her back suggests she was kicked several times. Maggie’s revulsion is beginning to cloud her judgment; when she returns to the hospital to be told the old lady has died, the revulsion turns to fury. Standing in the graffiti-covered wreckage of Mrs Rudge’s flat, Maggie is told by the social worker that the youngsters who presumably did this: “have to live in the society we make for them. They’re as much the victims as Mrs Rudge. You know what it’s like around here. ConcreteAnn Curthoys and Kevin O'Shea and tarmac and everyone on the make from top to bottom. They don’t give a damn about the young. When something like this happens, everyone turns on the kids. They didn’t ask to be brought up in this rat trap”. But as Maggie points out, “this is not about mischief or petty crime. This is sadism”.

There are just two clues to the attackers: in her few moments of consciousness before she died, Mrs Rudge was captured on tape deliriously reliving her ordeal, saying “don’t come near me, Ginger. Take anything… but go away”. Also, a piece of green shoe leather is found in the flat, suggesting one of the gang was a girl.

Amanda York as Lorna BainesThe girl in question, Lorna Baines, is arrested while attempting to mug an old lady for her pension. Once in custody, she refuses to cooperate, and it becomes clear that it is not the police she is scared of, but someone else. When the realisation dawns on her that the reason she has not been asked to take part in an identification parade is because Mrs Rudge is dead, she reluctantly names her accomplices (all girls), and finally, fearfully, the leader, Ginger Dawson.

Up until now, Tough, Mrs Rudge has played out as a distressing, well-acted piece of crime drama which impresses with its sense of outrage and injustice, and alarms with its tough, end-of-its-tether attitudes, armed with a storyline that taps into real fears of its era about a seemingly lawless new wave of youngsters. Amanda York is particularly effective as the feral, hateful Lorna. But what follows in the episode’s final act is a scene that catapults us into another realm, less familiar and more frightening.

Whatever we might be expecting is confounded when Ginger finally appears; the sparse writing, the acute direction and the eerie performance of Lowri-Ann Richards make this single Lowri-Ann Richards as Gingerscene extraordinarily disturbing. Ginger silently rocks back and forth on a chair in the interview room, utterly disengaged, unmoved and unperturbed by her surroundings. Whatever we might have expected, she is not it. “You’ll have to talk when you get into court, and that’s where you’re going,” Russell tells her. “Judges regard silence as contempt. They don’t like it. They hate it”.

As he makes to leave, finally she speaks.

“Hey. And I hate them”.

If this is an attempt at establishing a plea of diminished responsibility, it’s unlikely to succeed, because she has been far too careful: a calculated campaign of terror to force an old lady to hand over her pension. “The fact that you behaved like something that crawled out from under a stone isn’t going to help”, says Maggie.

Silence.

Then we cut to a wide shot as Ginger, her foot resting on the table, sends it hurtling across the room.

Kevin O'Shea, Jill Gascoine and Lowri-Ann Richards

The officers look down at her, simply unable to comprehend what they are dealing with. As Maggie orders her to be taken back to the cells, Ginger speaks once more, playfully:Kevin O'Shea and Jill Gascoine

“Hey you. Tea. I wanna cup of tea. You gotta give it to me. I got rights”.

Maggie puts down her notepad, incredulous.

“Stand up,” she orders.

“Go and screw yourself,” comes the reply.

Maggie grabs her and pulls her to her feet. But as she looks into the girl’s eyes, she can find nothing, no humanity, no sense, no explanation. All she can do is storm Lowri-Ann Richards as Gingerout, insisting: “No tea. No nothing”. Ginger continues to rock back and forth on the chair, half smiling.

Maggie is then told that the medical report on Mrs Rudge’s death puts the cause of death as a heart-attack, but says the causes are “not determinable”. It would be impossible to prove conclusively that the death was murder and not the result of an existing heart condition.

It is an exceptionally bleak ending, and, in what looks like an intervention from someone other than the writer, it is only slightly weakened by a deus ex machina seconds before the end credits in which another elderly resident who was a victim of the gang comes forward, prepared to give evidence against Ginger.rudge11

The director of Tough Mrs Rudge was Nic Phillips. “What an amazing training multi-camera drama like this was for doing soap, which I do today, because it was predominantly dialogue, not action” he says. “The Gentle Touch was an issue-driven series, with a group of characters putting service before friends and family, and I can see how coming out of the craziness of the 1970s, that was how they wanted to steer it. There was a constant theme of police officers sacrificing their family life for their work.

“Jill was charming, and very good at what she did. She used those glittery eyes, and when her character was anxious her head would sink into her shoulders. I remember the producer, Michael Verney-Elliott, would sometimes just shout to her “Jill, no neck monster!” and she would change shape.

William Marlowe“William Marlowe was brilliant. A very focused actor; some actors , when they are on set, they just command. He was a charming, gentle man, but he delivered this very clipped, quite stylised performance”. Marlowe is indeed strikingly good as the demanding, seen-it-all copper with an intimidatingly-powerful moral centre. “Kenneth Ware, who wrote Pressures, wrote this curious dialogue, with phrases chopped off, things like ‘who am I to look a gift horse’, a slightly American feel to it perhaps, but it worked well. Bill then started writing episodes himself, under a pseudonym, Neil Rudyard, which were often slightly comic, and which were a breath of fresh-air for all of us in what was generally quite an intense series”. (Marlowe had in fact been spotted earlier in his career by Stanley Baker, who cast him in the wonderful Robbery (1968) and was determined to turn him into the next Michael Caine, but Marlowe was not interested in being that kind of star, and instead became a reliable television player, usually playing either a cop or a robber.

Turning to the character of Ginger, Phillips says that “when you’re shooting something like that interrogation scene, it’s best to keep things simple. A bare room, a table and chairs. Because most of all it’s about the acting, and those two girls were marvellous”.

“That job more or less kick-started my career”, remembers Lowri-Ann Richards. “Afterrudge17 drama school, I was in various New Romantic bands, and wore my own clothes and make-up for the part. My agent wasn’t someone who gave praise lightly but she did praise me for that performance. And ten years later I put the clip of that scene on a showreel, and off the back of it I got a Hollywood agent.

“It was probably Nic who suggested rocking on the chair and making that drumming sound. It gives that scene another dimension, an extra edge. But also, regarding the way I looked, I must have walked into the interview like that. I mean I’m not sure someone like Ginger would necessarily have looked like that, with eyeliner so quite delicate and precise”.

In fact, it is precisely her unexpected appearance and behaviour that make the character so intriguing. Rather than looking too exotic, it actually underlines the character’s acquisitiveness, her obvious desire to elevate herself from her surroundings. Her strange contentment after her arrest and her intimidating performance when being questioned suggest someone living her life as her own work of art.

“Now that is fascinating”, says Lowri-Ann. “Like the centre of a drama of her own making, creating her own world and her own legend? Perhaps that aspiration and other-worldliness is a bit like Sting’s character in Quadrophenia”.

Tim Roth in Made in BritainIt is, in fact, depressingly common for young criminals to react to feelings of inadequacy by imagining themselves as malevolent heroes of their own dramas. In my book A Dangerous Place, I mention how David Mulcahy, the “railway killer”, inspired by a warped interpretation of martial-arts ideology, saw himself as an “immortal warrior”, and felt “God-like” when committing murder. In the case of the “Red Riding Hood Murder”, 21-year-old David Smith committed the motiveless slaughter of a child; found in his bedroom were notes fantasising further offences and imagining himself as a master-criminal. And in fiction, the same year as Tough, Mrs Rudge, David Leland’s celebrated Made in Britain starred Tim Roth as Trevor, an intelligent, violent skinhead who, at 16 years old, has consigned himself to a life of incarceration and deprivation, but paradoxically insists that in his rejection of the world around him, “I’m a success. I’m a fucking star”.

“I wasn’t terribly politically aware at the time.” says Lowri-Ann, “In some ways it was a very ‘me me me’ world, the music scene, but there was a heaviness around at that time, queer-bashing, football violence, lots of stuff in the press about hooligans. There was a certain element of danger, but of course when you’re in a band, you’re in a gang yourself, you feel invincible, unlike the little Mrs Rudges of this world, who are all alone”.

So much for Tough, Mrs Rudge, an exceptional episode of a good series. Why should it be considered as anything more than that?

Because, to the surprise of both Nic and Lowri-Ann, it was a true story.

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Ronan Point

It happened in Nottingham, in 1978, on a notorious estate named Hyson Green (and renamed Hill Green in Tough, Mrs Rudge). While conceived and sold as a utopia to replace slum housing, its local Tesco opened by Crossroads star Noele Gordon, Hyson Green was a brutal (and Brutalist) example of the reality of the new housing estates of post-war Britain. With a population of 101,000, it was the most populous and problematic police district in the city.

The two most famous high-rise estates in Britain were probably London’s Trelllick Tower and Ronan Point. The latter opened in 1968; two months later a gas explosion caused one entire corner to collapse. High-rise living, on paper, was thought to be the solution to Britain’s housing problem, but corrupt deals between local councils and building companies, as well as sociological pitfalls (some of which were unforeseen, some of which were preventable) made places like Trellick shrines to crime by the end of the 70s, the press reporting stories of women being assaulted in the lifts and, on one of the numerous occasions when the lifts weren’t working, an elderly resident dying after returning with his shopping and suffering a heart-attack climbing the stairs on Christmas Eve.

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Hyson Green

“It took a hundred years for what our ancestors built to turn into slums, and it’s taken just ten years for Hyson Green to turn into a modern slum,” were the words of a BBC news report. In the middle of the chaos there, at 22, Valley Walk, lived a 70-year-old widow, Linda Bilson: the real Mrs Rudge.

Her ordeal began with a group of children, either by their trickery or her trust, acquiring rudge9a key to her flat. “They seemed like nice kids and I trusted them,” she later said. It was the beginning of nine months of persecution. At first they offered to run errands for her, but never returned with the cash or the goods. When she started to refuse them entry, they kicked her door in. As well as robbing her repeatedly of her pension, they also tortured her and vandalised her flat.

Just before Christmas 1977, she collected a double-helping of pension to see her through the holiday period, £54.28, which they stole from her, squabbling over the share-out in the process. Local bobbies visited her at Nottingham Evening Post 1978Christmas and gave her wine and mince pies. But a few months later, the violence reached such extreme levels that local MP William Whitlock became involved in the case. Nine youngsters appeared in the juvenile court, the press reporting that they had kicked the old lady in the knees and on her back, twisted her arms and fingers and cut her hair. One of them had even urinated on her.

The council offered Mrs Bilson accommodation in an old peoples’ home, but she refused to move. The youngest boy’s solicitor argued in court that he lived “in overcrowded conditions with nowhere to escape. He mixed with restless and bored children and he is easily led”. But the chairman responded that “thousands are living in the same conditions you are. Your parents have tried their best to ensure you have a Hyson Greengood home. You are a cunning individual”. The boy who was charged with indecent assault (a charge that was subsequently dropped), when asked why he had slapped Mrs Bilson and ripped the stuffing from her settee, said he “enjoyed seeing her become annoyed”.

Most of the boys were given short stays at detention centres; one girl was placed in the care of the local authority and the others received fines.

Linda Bilson was epileptic, and at this point was suffering up to six attacks in a day. Two months later, a neighbour, who hadn’t seen her for two days, entered her flat and found the heating full on, the windows closed and Linda, fully-dressed and wearing an overcoat, lying on the floor. She was dead. The coroner returned a verdict of natural causes.

In 1981, rioting adding to the depressing list of crimes at Hyson Green, which also included prostitution and drug taking. Four years later, the council admitted defeat, and pulled the entire estate down. Today it is the site of a vast Asda supermarket. Recently, a National Lottery grant sponsored a local history project remembering Hyson Green and capturing residents’ memories. When they were published, there was not one single mention of Linda Bilson.

To the right-wing press, the case of Linda Bilson was a story of indiscipline, lawlessness and depravity. To the liberals, it was sickening proof of the worst extremes of what can happen when vulnerable people are packed together in inhospitable spaces, and they,

Linda Bilson of Hyson Green
Linda Bilson, in the wreckage of her home.

and their children, are abandoned by the state. In Tough, Mrs Rudge, the diagnosis of “moral imbecility” is mooted; Sgt Phillips, who represents the new breed of idealistic, degree-educated fast-track policeman, is asked for his reaction to the term, and even he can now only interpret it as “vicious little bastards”.

Whichever side of the issue one comes down on, it is impossible not to apportion some blame to those who got rich off the poor when designing cheap, shoddy, inhumane estates. Both Tough, Mrs Rudge and the case of Linda Bilson are forgotten stories today, but both deserve to be remembered, one as a tragedy, and one as a vivid example of how, through genre television, a writer can share with millions of people something that on this occasion he clearly couldn’t ignore, but equally he couldn’t understand.

My thanks to Nic Phillips and Lowri-Ann Richards for sharing their memories.

 

 

The Milkman Also Rings Twice

When suburban dreams become a private hell.

milk-bottle-glow

“I might kill myself today. No, I’ll go shoplifting instead… then I’ll kill myself. Are you listening to me? Does this cry from the heart meaning nothing to you? I am bored. I am frustratingly bored. I want to pull life through the letterbox. I want someone to meet me from a train. I want to go running across a field, barefooted and knickerless, treading on buttercups. I want to be raped”.

The past is a foreign country: they laugh at different things there. That speech comes from the second episode of the 1978 BBC sitcom Butterflies, written by Carla Lane. Eight years earlier, another bored housewife, played by Christine Hargreaves in Dennis Potter’s Play for Today: Angels Are So Few, taunted her husband with:

A Ladybird's eye view of life.
A Ladybird’s eye view of life.

“I love my life. I simply adore it. I love every second, every sweet, sodding second of it. Every drum of washing-up liquid of it. Every unmade bed of it. Every children’s sock of it. Every boiled egg of it, every “mummy” of it, every milk bottle, laundry basket, carpet sweeper, food mixer and every milkman and laundry man and baker and candlestick maker… I tell you, if the milkman didn’t have dirty teeth… if the milkman didn’t have dirty teeth and a wart on the side of his nose I’d let him screw me rigid”.

These are just two of countless incarnations of what in the Seventies became a stock figure in comedy, drama and pornography: the bored housewife, dreaming of a knock on the door to wake her from sleepwalking through her suburban life, the housewife who had just missed out on enjoying the Sixties, imprisoned in an automated kitchen, robotically serving an embittered, ulcerous husband while watching, on her television set or through the bars of her Venetian blinds, the liberated generation that had succeeded her, in charge of their own destinies.

Victims: opening shotI was a child of the Seventies suburbs, a time and place that has been stereotyped in popular culture ever since as a place of petty social pretension, twee ornamentation, naff aspiration and wife-swapping. Graham Greene had seen the new style of homes growing beside the green belts as representing “something worse than the meanness of poverty – the meanness of spirit”. In the suburbs, window shutters, crazy paving, birdbaths and front lawns guarded by garden gnomes are weapons of oneupmanship but also expressions of a quintessentially English brand of existentialism, a striving for individuality in a maze of anonymity,

I’ve always found the fantasy figure of the bored housewife an eerily tragic one, because of two disparate incidents that my childhood mind eccentrically stitched together. When I was a boy, my mum and I often had tea in the restaurant of the local British Home Stores when we were out shopping. On one occasion though, as we were walking into the British Home Stores bagrestaurant area, which was adjacent to the lighting section, I heard a commotion and saw a woman in a trench coat collapse into tears as the store detective apprehended her for shoplifting. I’d never seen a grown-up in such a helpless state before. I kept wondering why she was stealing when she appeared quite prosperous. The same season as this happened, Donna Summer’s doomy Macarthur Park chorusdisco version of MacArthur Park was in the charts, and while its wobbly metaphor of a cake being left out in the rain representing a relationship in ruins was lost on me at the time, the chorus of “I don’t think that I can take it, ’cause it took so long to bake it” sounded to my wandering young mind like the banshee cry of a housewife, tortured by spending her life in her least favourite room of the house, the kitchen, like Ria Parkinson in Butterflies, but in her reaction to it, closer to the edge psychologically, like the woman in British Home Stores, who, like those bored housewives in sitcoms and dramas, I was sure was somebody’s wife and somebody’s mother too.

Perhaps those bizarre associations were what attracted me to Victims.

TVTimes, June 1984The less orderly television schedules of my childhood threw up all sorts of curiosities, and in June 1984, I spotted it in the TVTimes, tucked up in a late-night slot. Starring one of my favourite conveyors of middle-class ennui, Angela Morant, the film has hovered ghost-like in my memory ever since.

Victims can be seen here. Watching it again today, I find it has lost none of its eerie thwack, though it has also gained additional value as a well-placed window onto a simpler world, a world that was seemingly less complicated and less confusing, but disturbingly so. A world where husbands went to work, wives went to the supermarket and life went missing along the way, where gender roles were rigidly defined and people turned into their parents as soon as they became parents themselves. This is a packaged, contained, ordered world waiting for an inevitable explosion into madness and violence, our heroine wearing a haunted, tragic and increasingly fragile beauty as she drifts drearily through it, wandering down the High Street like an alien, bewildered by all she sees and how little she feels. Barely a word is spoken as the banality and bane of everyday life is allowed to speak for itself, telling in microscopic, clinical detail the mental collapse of a woman driven to distraction by boredom, lust and shame. After watching it again, I contacted the film’s director, Alan Blake, who told me:Angela Morant as Sarah

“I had the idea for this film in the winter of 1978. At the time I was a young tv commercials director at Jennie & Co, one of London’s top production companies. My partners in that outfit were the film directors, Terry Bedford and the now famous Adrian Lyne, along with our managing director and producer of Victims, Gower Frost. I was known for a narrative comedy style of work which included award-winning ads for things such as Hamlet cigars and Cadbury’s Fingers (some of the many classic ads directed by Alan, as well as some of his recent work, can be viewed here).

“Like many of the ‘up and comings’ in our business, I wanted to graduate from shooting adverts to making ‘serious’ films. I just needed an idea…

Miracle cures...
Miracle cures?

“As a director of TV ads, much of my time was spent in the glorification of materialism but I was personally not convinced that western society had got it right. As I looked around at people’s and maybe my own ‘struggle for the legal tender’, as Jackson Brown put it, I couldn’t help feeling that life wasn’t supposed to be like this. The pressure on ordinary people to ‘succeed and do well’, wear the right clothes, drive the right car, keep up with the Joneses, to control other people or to be controlled, to conform, I thought that all Fabric softener adthis was contributing to a suburban wasteland, where many people were either drifting into a robotic state or madness was simmering just below the surface.

“One evening I overheard a conversation in ‘The Builder’s Arms’, my local pub in the North London suburb of Barnet. A couple of the regulars were ribbing a young guy who’d just got a job as a milkman. They were suggesting that this fella’s sex life would now take a turn for the better, ‘what wiv all The Builder's Arms, Barnetthem bored housewives an’ all’. This was followed by bawdy ‘real-life’ anecdotes in support of their theory. It was the typical male chauvinist banter of the day, immortalized by comedians like Benny Hill and in films such as the Carry On series, but it set me to wondering about the kernel of truth that might have prompted exaggerated stories such as this.

“It seemed to me that if a ‘housewife’ were to be tempted into a relationship with the man delivering her Gold Top, it could well be in response to overwhelming loneliness and distress. I decided to turn the bawdy cliché on its head.

“I wanted my film to convey these feelings in a way that perhaps might cause the audience to ask themselves questions about their own environments, but I didn’t want to preach and I needed to keep people interested and in their seats. So I wrote Victims as a pseudo-thriller. In my mind our ‘bored housewife’ is on the brink of a mental breakdown; she’s eventually brought to her snapping point not just by
the mind numbing, semi-detached, suburban area she inhabits nor by her tedious daily routine, not even by her male chauvinist husband. It’s her shame that broke her. The shame she feels because for one brief moment, in reaction to her extreme loneliness, she had allowed herself to fantasize about a liaison with the handsome young milkman. And perhaps the shame she feels for sacrificing her individuality to the conformity that is everyday British suburban life?”

Victims screenplayHis script completed, Blake then gathered together funding and crew for his drama debut. “I don’t remember the production budget but it was definitely a lot less per minute of screen time than a TV commercial, though probably much more than the average first-timer could have hoped for. Shooting commenced on May 29th, 1979 at Lee International Studios, Wembley, where we filmed the interior scenes of our couple’s house; the following week we were on location in the towns of Chalfont St. Peter and Chalfont St. Giles in Buckinghamshire. The exterior shots of the family’s house were photographed in the village of Arkley, Hertfordshire”.

Arresting piano arpeggios begin the film and establish the family home in a smart suburban close. Hubby (Warren Clarke) leaves for work, leaving a detritus of breakfast things behind him for his wife to deal with. Their son goes off to school. Sarah (never named on screen) closes the gates behind him, shutting herself away for another day. It’s not quite dark enough for a light as she sits in the gloom, flicking blindly through magazines, searching pessimistically for something to engage her. She’s still not dressed. Then the milkman cometh.

It’s the closest she gets to a smile. And then she stabs him to death. Sarah greets the milkman

“To the audience,this was supposed to look like a real murder, and I hoped to hook them with: ‘Why’d she do it?’ and ‘Will she get caught?’ narrative questions”.

The milk bottles have smashed, and Sarah’s pink dressing gown goes into the washing machine. Through the opaque glass of the front door we see a distorted, smirchy view of her pulling his body away from the hall to a place of concealment. As she brings him into the kitchen she knocks into the table and we cut to a scene of her accidentally knocking a glass of orange juice all over Hubby’s trousers at breakfast.

It’s the first dialogue we’ve heard as she tries to reassure him it’s “not that bad” and he responds in ugliness with “oh I see. So now I’m supposed to turn up for work looking as though I’ve pissed myself”, their fragile-looking child sitting between them, watching timidly.

We cut again as Sarah returns to the kitchen from the back garden and takes a dustpan and brush to the smashed cup she dropped when the milkman knocked at the door.

Angela Morant as SarahBlake frequently places Sarah within the frame as a lone figure; inside her home she might be at the far end of a corridor or with dark shadows clouding around her, realized vividly by cameraman John Crawford. In open spaces, she is often faraway and passive, as the character drifts further and further from reality. Blake says: “John and I decided that the look of the film was to be a combination of bleakness, combined, when appropriate, with moody, ominous lighting; with lensing and camera work that would be interesting enough to engage our audience and aid the ‘suspense’ inherent in the narrative. This film was not going to look like a commercial! On a technical note I should mention that this film was shot for cinema. Its ‘edge of darkness’ exposure range often tested boundaries that tv just couldn’t handle. This wasn’t helped by some poor film-to-tape transfers made when the movie was put out on the small screen. Only those people who saw it in the cinema got to see the best of John Crawford’s work.

“Of course, many other people contributed to the look of the film. Evan Hercules designed sets that captured the ‘aspirational’ but dull, middle class feel of our protagonist’s home. I recall that on one occasion, Evan got a bit of stick from the camera department for designing sets that were more suited to the TV aspect ratio than for the widescreen format we were shooting; Evan protested that his design was deliberate and would help give a claustrophobic feel. He was right”.

In the supermarket (populated entirely by women), Sarah picks up items as if unfamiliar At the supermarketwith them, like an alien. The strange electronic music becomes more and more persistent as the camera pans along shelves of preserved meat and bottled herbs. Remembering that Blake was a commercials director, it’s a fascinating sequence of unspoken horror, allowing the slogans, branding and packaging to speak inanely for themselves, promising miracle cures that “remove everyday dirt and stains” and “care for special things”, the beeping cardiograph-like sounds of the checkout becoming ever more aggressive and taxing.

Searching in vainShe stares blankly at cards in the newsagent’s window offering dog walking services and appealing for daily cleaners, the mundanity on offer offering her no purpose and no escape. In the park she watches mothers and toddlers. Waiting at the bus stop, a young couple behind her kiss passionately. She fantasizes again about the milkman,  but it’s a fantasy more of intimacy, tenderness and being desired than of mere sex. Back at home, a magazine is flicked through, the television is turned on, then turned off, and a drink is poured.

“Come on love, it’s been weeks”, Hubby grumbles in the bedroom. “I’m tired” she says, weakly. Then, as he tries to persuade her, she pleads: “no”. He breaks off, disgruntled, and lights a cigarette in the darkness. Silence follows, and then: “what’s the matter? You getting it somewhere else?”

Angela Morant’s quietly begging delivery of the word “no” is for me the most affecting moment of the entire piece, the closest the character ever comes to voicing her despair. And despite how little screen time the piece allows him, Warren Clarke’s is an impressively vivid sketch of the bovine husband. Blake says:Angela Morant and Warren Clarke

“It’s easy to overplay this sort of thing, but I felt that Warren got it just right, giving enough aggression for impact but keeping it real. That scene demonstrated his tremendous talent. I had wished to show that the marriage was in difficulty but although The Husband was something of a ‘male chauvinist pig’, I didn’t want his aggressiveness to be the reason for it or for her breakdown. I feel that anger and unpleasantness is more often the result of marital problems rather than their cause. The Husband arrives home late; he’s drunk but not in a nasty mood. Here, shot in a half-light, Warren’s portrayal of intoxication was totally convincing, yet with barely a slurred word. The Husband actually apologizes for being late and explains that he was out celebrating his promotion at work. In bed with his wife he gets ‘affectionate’ but is rejected, prompting his retort. Warren’s precise balance of anger and hurt in the way he delivered that one short line really brought out the pathos in the situation. Of course this line also drove the narrative back to The Wife…”

We are back in the afternoon. She sleeps in an armchair. Nothing else to do.

Reflecting and cracking upMore reflections. Her reflection in the mirrored bathroom cabinet, opening up to reveal on the inside: pills. Sitting at her bedroom dressing table staring into the mirror. Another fantasy of the milkman kissing her neck. Her son coming in and telling her Dad wants her to hurry up with his breakfast. “Go downstairs”. Then she hurls everything off the table and finally weeps.

Alone in the dark, she pours a lethal flurry of tablets out onto the table and gazes down at them. As the camera closes in she starts to convulse. Footsteps on the path. She takes a knife from the washing-up bowl. The milk bottles haven’t been taken in. She closes in on the figure in the hall corridor. Hubby’s home. Screams, his and hers, as she kills him.

It’s evening in the close as the credits roll.

Fantasizing“The first murder didn’t happen in a literal sense”, says Blake. “It was merely the wife cleansing herself of the fantasy she had imagined. At the end of the film it is evident that the milk bottles on the doorstep which were smashed in the beginning are still fully intact. This device was pretty clear on the cinema screen for which the film was designed, but needed closer attention from the tv viewer when the film eventually appeared on the small screen! The first ‘murder’ does act as a portent of the husband’s demise at the end. I was hoping that by almost replicating the scene of the first stabbing I’d also be helping to dispel its reality – not sure I succeeded with everyone on that!”

Music was provided by former Greenslade keyboard player David Lawson. Says Blake: “David had been highly recommended as a talent to watch. I really think he did a brilliant job and am not surprised he has gone on to be such a successful and highly respected musician/producer. His music really drives the film and in my opinion, perfectly conveys themes of loneliness, alienation and sadness, punctuated by menacing and suspenseful undercurrents and asides.Waiting for the bus

“Our film could have accompanied any number of minor features being put out at that time, so you can imagine how pleased we were to learn that Victims had been selected to go out with a major movie, Escape From Alcatraz, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood. It was released to over 500 UK theatres. Up until this time, short films really had few outlets beyond the ‘art-house’ circuit, so this release represented a major leap forward and was seen as offering new hope to young film-makers. Unfortunately, the Eady Levy, a government backed tax rebate scheme which incentivized this kind of production was terminated in 1985 due to the realization that its financial benefits were, more than often, going to distributors, rather than to the producers the scheme was intended to help”. (There are also rumours that the Thatcher government axed the Eady Levy when they discovered that it was funding films of which they disapproved).

Dilys Powell's review of Victims
The legendary Dilys Powell’s review of Victims

Reviews of the film were encouraging; Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that “Although it makes rather a meal of its suburban angst, this is a short film of some flair. The calculated showiness of shooting and editing is sufficiently justified by the material not to lapse into the portentous, and sequences such as the supermarket visit successfully convert the mundane into the authentically strange. The trick ending – even though it can be seen coming – manages by its timing to take one by surprise. Alan Blake can be looked to for interesting work in the future.” The Observer’s Philip French also praised the film, though Blake admits that “although Mr. French’s review was mostly complimentary, I was very annoyed at his accusation of the film being ‘stylistically over-egged in the manner of tv ads’. A lot of critics at that time were too quick to assert, when new directors had a background in commercials , that their films look like commercials. This just wasn’t true in most cases and certainly not with Victims. My commercial clients would have run a mile if I made their ads look like this!”

The script for Victims
The script of Victims

One illusion that has been shattered for me is that I had always wondered if the film had inspired Paul Weller to write the song Private Hell, featured on The Jam’s Setting Sons album. The lyrics are virtually a commentary on the film, for instance:

The morning slips away, in a Valium haze,
And catalogues, and numerous cups of coffee.
In the afternoon, the weekly food,
Is put in bags, as you float off down the high street

The shop windows reflect, play a nameless host,Reflecting
To a closet ghost, a picture of your fantasy,
A victim of your misery, and private hell

Alone at six o’clock, you drop a cup,
You see it smash, inside you crack,
You can’t go on, but you sweep it up

Safe at last inside your private hell.

It can’t be true, however, since Escape From Alcatraz was released in the UK in January 1980, two months after Setting Sons was released. Instead, the coincidence simply demonstrates again what a ubiquitous character the bored housewife had become, and what angst-ridden places the suburbs had become.

Blake reflects that “Victims was not a passport to instant success, but I’m still here, fighting the good fight – and one of these days I still intend to make that feature film! I haven’t yet lived up to being the ‘ray of hope for British cinema’ – but there’s still time! My own opinion of Victims was mixed; I had been greedy, wanting to make a serious film that had artistic and social integrity, that would win high praise from the most discerning critics, whilst being thoroughly entertaining and enjoying popular appeal among people from all walks of life! Of course this was a very tall order; not often achieved by the greatest and most experienced directors, let alone a comparative beginner such as I was then.

“I definitely made some mistakes, perhaps leading the audience on too much and dwelling too long on some of the suburban fill. The blend of the dramatic narrative ‘carrot’ with the suburban documentary ‘stick’ would be better balanced if I were tackling the subject today. And I’ve learned that ‘message’ in films is often better delivered as sub-text. So, although proud to have made a pretty original and ‘different’ short film that succeeded on many levels, I did at the time also feel some measure of failure, to temper my ego”.Going home

However justified such self-criticism may be, Victims derives much of its impact for me from its confidence in simply “dwelling”, and not being urgent or busy in its narrative. Although the ending works more as a shock than as a plot twist, the film is a stunning piece of team work and a remarkably evocative depiction of the extraordinary components of ordinary life. At its centre, it boasts a genuinely upsetting central performance from Angela Morant.

“When casting for the part of The Wife, I was looking for someone who’d be able to convey the inner sadness and tension needed, without a hint of overacting. Within minutes of meeting her, I was convinced that Angela Morant was that actress. I’m still completely wowed by Angela’s performance in Victims. She appears in every scene of the film and consequently worked every day of the shoot. It was pretty hard work too. Playing just one scene where a character is in a distressed state can be demanding and tiring for an actor, but to stay in that character for an entire movie must be downright exhausting – but Angela was up for the task.

“This shoot was also a technical challenge from the actor’s standpoint. The build of The Wife’s breakdown needed to be incremental in ‘real-time’, but the script’s time-line was littered with flash-backs and ‘fantasy’ elements to be considered. This, along with the usual’ out-of-sequence’ shooting schedule that filming requires, meant that Angela had to employ an extraordinary level of concentration and skill to calibrate the intensity of her acting in each scene.

Alone in the park“The nature of this film, with depression running through every scene, didn’t make for a particularly jolly shoot. I’m sure there were some lighter moments of banter between us all but they were certainly fewer than I enjoyed when making commercials! Angela and I did indulge in occasional small-talk, but I always felt she was making an effort to break out of an underlying sadness. Was her slightly subdued off-camera demeanour purely the result of her being ‘in character’ or was she actually a bit unhappy? Angela had divorced from the actor, Ben Kingsley a couple of years earlier and I wondered if the pain of that still lingered – but it was none of my business and I didn’t pry. Actors have to draw on their life experiences and sometimes need to revive painful moments to get their art on screen – as do writers and directors!”

Many years later, when The Bill was in its golden age of half-hour episodes, it threw up a gem of an episode entitled You’ll Be Back, about a depressive suburban housewife arrested for shoplifting, played again by Angela Morant. It can be seen here, and is worth it purely for her devastating final line, when she finally reveals the reason for her despair. “I did wonder if she was cast in that role because of Victims” says Blake. She played another character saddled with more than her fair share of misery in one of the strongest (and darkest) of Inspector Morse episodes, Service Of All The Dead.

I only saw her once on stage, at the Apollo in 1995, in a not-terribly-good thriller entitled Dead Guilty. As soon as she stepped out, the humdrum atmosphere changed. Like two other fine actresses, Maggie Stride and Emily Watson, Angela Morant has a strangely eerie, faraway look in her eyes. She brilliantly conveys a sense of futility and impending doom.

For my money, no-one has ever made more compelling that male-redefined character: the bored housewife. I only wonder which of the many variations that she played was closest to the woman wearing the trench coat in British Home Stores on that wet afternoon in 1978.

Angela Morant in Victims

With huge thanks to Alan Blake for taking the time to revisit the story of Sarah, for me a story once seen and never forgotten.

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.