“We’ll only ever change things by going on with what we believe.”
In the early 2000s, I was researching a planned history of the BBC’s Play for Today drama strand of the 1970s and 80s. Although the project eventually fell by the wayside, partly because of a lack of commitment from interested publishers and partly because my own original work began taking up more of my time, the experience allowed me the chance to explore a wealth of precious, forgotten drama deserving to be remembered, and the opportunity to talk to many of those who created it.
The savage 1976 film The Other Woman was one of the pieces that particularly fascinated (and battered) me. Love it or hate it (and it certainly doesn’t cry out to be loved), it demands a reaction. It’s as excitingly confrontational and divisive a piece of television as one could imagine. After gathering dust in the BBC Archives for forty years, I finally had the chance to reappraise this fascinating curio when writing for BBC Store. The article that follows is an unabridged version of the piece I wrote to accompany its brief digital release. At the time I was delighted that the play might at long last find and inflame a new audience, prompt new debates and take its rightful place as a difficult, frequently brilliant and at times devastating drama. I spoke to as many of the cast and crew as I could locate. This is the story I pieced together.
The title and the plot outline in the Radio Times might suggest this is merely a domestic drama about a love triangle, but such a summary only scratches the surface of a work raging with ideas about society and sexuality.
The blistering film stars Jane Lapotaire as Kim, an angry young artist who gets by cleaning toilets, involved in a love triangle with the pathetic Robin (Michael Gambon) and the enigmatic Niki (Lynne Frederick). Kim is a lesbian, but this is not a drama about a lesbian, it is a drama about Kim. Selfish, compelling, damaged and ruthless, she is determined to express her world-view through her art, and cares little what she must do to achieve that. Of her exploitation of the fawning Robin, she says: “Men have been using women for centuries”, vividly capturing the frustration and sense of entitlement that comes with being young, penniless and fiercely creative, with so much to shout at the world but no money to buy you the time to do it, and acknowledging that “all artists are professional spongers”, while also turning the whole situation into both an exploitation of sexual inequality and at the same time a revenge on it.
At the start of the play, Kim is contemplating moving in with Robin, whose affair with her has driven his wife out of the house and into illness, taking one of her three children with her. Robin is offering Kim a roof over her head and a room where she can work. But there are strings attached: Robin expects her to fulfill the role of hostess at work parties and the role of mistress in his bed. Unfortunately for him, at the first party he takes her to, Kim’s eyes fall on seventeen-year-old debutante Niki, who is about to start work at the company as a temp-sec “to find out what it’s like to be ordinary”. Niki is clearly impressed and intrigued by Kim’s forthright admission that she is currently homeless because she got thrown out of her last flat for “molesting the landlord’s wife”. Niki offers her a bed, which she gladly accepts, infuriating Robin.
The pair make unlikely flatmates and even less-likely lovers; Kim rarely says thank you, eats sugar from the bag and tells Niki she’s “too precious to spit”. Throughout the play, Kim runs away from Niki every time she feels she is falling for her, only to trample back over Robin’s life again for a time. Eventually, she loses everything, Niki rejecting her in favour of a suitable marriage, Robin destroying her work in a desperate attempt to reach her. Finally, as the unhappy couple sit among the ruins, Robin feebly murmurs “stay with me, Kim”. She concedes, replying shamelessly: “You’ve got the bread, Dad”.
Lapotaire gives a torrential performance; at times the character doesn’t so much leap off the screen as kick her way through it. It was the only television work of writer Watson Gould, who denounced the production, feeling her central theme, namely that a maternalistic society is our only hope, had been blurred. The Other Woman drew an enormous audience (nearly a quarter of the UK population) and aroused admiration and fury in equal measure. Whatever you make of it, it’s a unique, uncompromising experience, a story about refusing to compromise that is long overdue for reappraisal.
The story of how this unique and fiercely individual work travelled from brainwave to airwaves begins in Birmingham, and specifically at BBC Pebble Mill, which was the base of former Z Cars producer (and future Channel 4 Head of Fiction) David Rose, in his role as Head of English Regions Drama. The unit had been created as a response to complaints of a London-centric bias in television drama. With an exciting lack of interference from outside, under Rose a string of fascinating dramas were produced, many of them now acknowledged as classics, such as David Rudkin’s mystical, poetic Penda’s Fen (1974) and Philip Martin’s savage Gangsters. (1975) Script editor William Smethurst told me:
“Our job was to find new and bold drama from the regions. We did twelve half-hour plays a year, and four Play for Today films. At some point I started to receive half-hour scripts from an unknown – Watson Gould – whom I assumed for a long time to be a man.
“The plays all had problems of one type or another, but all had enormous strength, so I encouraged her. Eventually I met her in a pub in Goudhurst, Sussex. She insisted on drinking cherry brandy. Later she raged at me: did I realise, she said, that she had sicked up all the cherry brandy in a verge whilst driving home? Eventually I arranged a Development Fee to commission something from her. What came back was The Other Woman.
“It opened as I recall with a woman with a Christian cross over her breast – it was a very compelling image anyway. I was astounded by the way it tackled lesbianism and Christianity.
“I had little or no influence and the play moldered round for some time, then the director, Michael Simpson, who was due to make a play for us, read it and picked on it. Suddenly Watson Gould was that virtually mythical beast, an unknown writer commissioned to write a Play for Today.
“She insisted on calling me Gill – ‘Dear Gill’ she would write, regarding this as a victory of ‘hets over homos’, in the language of the time. She clearly thought of me as representing one side in the great battle between the forces of prejudice and complacency and with the forces of enlightenment. In some ways she was surprisingly conventional, a supporter of the Liberal Democrats – which would no doubt alarm them somewhat!”
The Other Woman was based on Gould’s then-unpublished novel The Three Sexes (1972). Kim is a lesbian painter, struggling to be true to her inner self, while finding herself financially reliant on her married lover, Robin, who represents our patriarchal society. But when she meets enigmatic teenager Niki, (a “lady”, as opposed to a “woman” in Kim’s eyes) she fears she is falling in love with Niki, and not even for her wealth.
Kim’s mission is to share with the world her belief that a maternalistic society is our only hope, and her belief that there are three sexes. “There is a positive difference amongst females that makes for two very separate types”. Smethurst continued:
“Watson was very professional when it came to script amendments. I remember one scene being something like four or five pages of dialogue between two people putting forward an argument. Strong and interesting, but not television, even in the mid 1970s. I pointed out that we needed some movement, even if the characters simply moved to another location. The scene came back set on a tennis court, with the players’ score reflecting the argument”. The earthy script alarmed the gentlemanly BBC Head of Drama, Shaun Sutton, who particularly objected to Kim’s post-coital dialogue with Robin: “lying here after in your pool of muck”, but the team fought and won the battle to keep it in.
The play moved into production in the summer of 1975. Roger Gregory sought out locations in Lapworth, Kenilworth, Clevedon and Solihull. “I was new in the department”, he told me. “I trailed Andy Meikle as production assistant, and searched Warwickshire for a house with a spiral staircase as specified in the script, though to this day I can’t find any dramatic need or significance in that specification! But I found one in Kenilworth. I mooted Jane Lapotaire for the lead, having been at the Bristol Old Vic with her. She ‘would give her eye teeth to play the part’ she said.
Jane Lapotaire proudly remembered the experience when I spoke to her:
“I was in a leather jacket, covered in paint, with no make-up and greasy hair! I’d played Viola the year before at the RSC, and found that when I’d come out dressed in doublet and hose, dressed as a boy, the crew all behaved very differently to me. And similarly here, when we were shooting the scene outside the church where my sweetheart is getting married, I had to fight my way through the crowd of extras, as they didn’t know I was in the production; they thought I was someone disrupting the filming!
“As well as having to learn to ride a motorbike for the part, I remember Michael Simpson and I went to see a feminist painter, to learn about what kind of work this character would perhaps be doing. One of her designs was of footsteps in a kitchen going to the sink, the fridge, the ironing board, the cooker and so on, back and forth.
“Kim was one of first lesbian protagonists on television. I quite consciously didn’t want to soft pedal on it, because this was covering ground that had never been covered before”.
Also in the cast was sixteen-year-old Benedict Taylor, playing Robin’s son, Ben. He told me: “Play for Today was a very special thing that we took for granted at the time. What a great opportunity it was for writers and actors to do quality work on a regular basis.
“When you read this script, you knew it was classy. I’d been very lucky to work with John Barton at the RSC, an exceptional Shakespearean scholar. Actors were spellbound by his ability to reveal the complexities of a text. That stood me in good stead for this, and I certainly remember recognising at the time the depths this script had.
As well as the great Michael Gambon, who plays the fawning Robin with a commendable blend of weak romance and ugly misogyny, an interesting piece of casting was the late Lynne Frederick, last wife of Peter Sellers, as Niki. Taylor continued:
“She had a lot of glamour about her, a very beautiful woman and someone in the news at the time, a time when there weren’t that many home grown celebrities”. Frederick had won the Evening News Most Promising Actress Award in 1973. Her Dresden-doll beauty and hoity-toity accent make her presence in the play fascinating and at times bewildering; her character is underwritten but, as a result, intriguing.
Topped off with a prowling, chilly score by the National Theatre’s resident composer, Marc Wilkinson, the far-from-festive film was scheduled for broadcast on Twelfth Night, 1976.
It drew an enormous audience and, predictably, provoked strong reactions, many of them surprisingly positive. Some called it “powerful, harrowing and compelling”, but said that it helped them “to a greater understanding and sympathy for such people and situations”. Many welcomed “such an open treatment of a previously taboo subject still unfamiliar in television drama”. Inevitably, others found it a depressing or a “battering experience”.
In the Daily Telegraph, Richard Last called it “a remarkable study of a ruthless anti-heroine”.. . In contrast to “the comic portrayals of homosexuals” television usually employed… this “unsympathetic portrayal, with brutal realism… rang like the harsh, defiant cry of someone who had been rejected by society and was determined to get her own back”. He called Jane Lapotaire’s performance “remarkable”.
The Radio Times’ Letters page contained some further outrage, one woman saying: “I should have turned it off but I wanted to see how it ended. Is there no censor? I felt quite defiled and dirty for hours afterwards”. Many were savage in their attacks on the play, including the artist who had provided the paintings for the production, Catherine Nicholson; she told the Daily Mirror “I am not a lesbian myself, but most of my friends are”, and said that she felt she had betrayed her own sex and that the play “victimised women artists”. (The newspaper continued with “…claimed Miss Nicholson, who shares a house with a girlfriend in Brockley, South London).
Also making her feelings plain was Watson Gould, who responded to the attacks by calling the production “a travesty”. She saw the piece as “a tough play with an underlying spiritual theme glorifying women’s values. In letters to Time Out and Radio Times, she said that the play was “not directly about lesbianism at all, but a denunciation of the patriarchal system and an analysis of its continuing success”. She also said that Kim’s character lost half her personality in production, and that “her inner fight to overcome her masculine vices with her womanly virtues- a personification of the world’s need to do likewise and the whole point of my play- was lost”.
The Other Woman inspired a poem by Caroline Gilfillan, and was later described by Keith Howes in Broadcasting It as “an extraordinary farrago of the lucid and the lurid”. But the rest has been largely silence, and now, with the closure of BBC Store, the farrago looks doomed to gather dust again for another forty years, if not forever.
The year after the play was broadcast, The Three Sexes found a publisher. It is a fascinating read, both for the intense detail it supplies on the backgrounds and motivations of the characters, and for the room it allows Gould’s ideologies to breathe. It also contains a treasurable exchange in which Kim explains to Robin that there are two kinds of fantasy: “Mine, which is daydreaming that the world is already the way I want it to be. And yours. Pretending there’s nothing wrong with the way it is”.
If The Other Woman falls short in the plausibility of its relationships, what it does have is a hinterland. There are passing references to huge backstories, the taunting Kim endured as a child, her family background, the abuse she suffered from her father (which drew inevitable anger for its insinuation that her sexuality was a reaction to it) and the grim collapse of Robin’s family, the youngest son of which, in one jaw-dropping scene, Kim terrorises over his liking of guns, speculating on what a service she might do the world by killing him before he grows into yet another plundering, misery-spreading adult male.
The Three Sexes fleshes all its elements out much more: every page, in its forensic detail and relentless commentary, has the smack of being more fact than fiction. Even street names place the location as the Hastings which Gould lived in at the time of writing it (her address is on the BBC contract from 1975).
To accompany the play’s release on BBC Store, I asked writer, performer and alternative historian Rose Collis to watch it and share her reactions to it. She said:
“I remember watching it on television when I was sixteen and squirming! Watching it again now, it just pokes your eyes out in places. The character of Kim: I can’t remember ever seeing a female like that on television before or since. It’s a fantastic performance and she just jumps off the screen at you. She was angry, but it’s justifiable anger. She is probably the most overtly feminist character I’ve ever seen on television.
“To me it wasn’t about sexuality, it was about the pressure to conform. All of those characters are having to compromise and no-one seems terribly happy.
“The badminton scene contains a terrific line about how the Bible doesn’t explain everything, ‘it just gives an excuse for everything’. The views put across in that scene were amazing stuff for so long ago. I don’t know what people would make of it now.
“I didn’t see Kim as a victim. Awful things have happened to her but she was still fighting for what she believed in. And her line: ‘We’ll only succeed by going on with what we believe in’: that’s as true now as it was then”.
We both agreed that the play’s biggest misjudgment is its pop-art rape sequence, which Niki seems to forgive Kim for bafflingly easily. (The book is much more violent in this regard – “Kim hammered the hell out of the kid”).
But in conclusion, she says: “What I liked about it most of all was that relationships were very complicated in those days; women were trying to find their independence and assert their sexuality. Things have changed now. Women come out, find lovers and so on, not in all cases, of course, but the road to true love can be a lot easier these days. But also, in dramatic terms, everything is now a bit clean and tidy and homogenized. A lot more packaged. Today everyone has to appeal. Whereas the character of Kim makes no concessions. She is her own person. That courage is an attractive quality”.
The Other Woman remains a testament to the powerhouse of creativity and artistic freedom David Rose oversaw at BBC Birmingham, and to his commitment to giving new voices a place in the schedules. It is a defiant piece of writing that refuses to be quelled.
The first page of The Three Sexes claims that Gould was at that time working on a new television play, Sack, Cloth And Ashes, but in fact, she never had another original drama broadcast. Smethurst remembered that “she was certainly keen to get work. She had a daughter didn’t she? She complained bitterly in a phone call: ‘Surely I can earn enough to get enough to live on?’ She approved of Jane Lapotaire, but her farewell was a postcard saying: ‘Thank you for your part in fucking up my play'”.
Roger Gregory remembers a later play she wrote, “about vegetarianism. The basic idea was that if you are prepared to eat an animal, you should be prepared to kill it too. It was set around a table, at a dinner party. At a meeting with a producer, she referred to the audience as “the punters”. He was offended by the term, and when she used it a second time, he walked out. She was treated very badly”. Back to William Smethurst:
“Later, I went on to edit The Archers on Radio 4. There, I enticed her to write some scripts for me. I was fascinated to see how she would tackle the everyday story of country folk. She didn’t last long, although she wrote very well.
“Watson eventually vanished in the night during a weekend script-meeting in Chipping Campden. She had written ordering a strange dinner featuring walnuts and other odd things, so I went ahead and ordered it for her. It was the wrong move on my part. Next morning there was a brief note in the hotel lounge. She had gone.
“How she got herself from remote Chipping Campden to the railway station, I have no idea. This was nearly forty years ago, remember, and at the time, Chipping Campden was a very sleepy place.
Just a few weeks before he died, Smethurst sent me a copy of a letter Watson Gould had written to him soon after the broadcast of The Other Woman, a precious and fascinating document raging with scorn, cynicism and gleeful disrespect. I myself tried to contact her back in 2001; her reply began “Good grief! Someone who remembers the days when I was paid to write!” She agreed to talk to me because she still stood by the beliefs expressed in the play, but I never heard from her again. I tried to contact her again last year, to no avail.
William Smethurst’s last words to me were: “Watson Gould… so brave, in her fight against the world.”
May he rest in peace, and may her work live on.
“Through my work I’d been trying to show how much better life would be if there were not three sexes. But one. But they didn’t work. Such hope, such fantasy, just didn’t spell out to people what is wrong. Why the world is in such a mess. But people need it spelt out”.
“The Three Sexes”, Watson Gould