Savage Ms-Siah

A blistering drama about a lesbian artist torn between two wealthy lovers, who is determined not to compromise in a world ruled by men.

The Other Woman by Watson Gould

“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 Radio Times: 6th January, 1976fascinated (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.

Lynne Frederick as NikiThe 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 Other Woman by Watson GouldThe 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.

Jane Lapotaire as Kim“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 Three Sexes by Watson Gould (1977)

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, Michael Gambon and Jane LapotaireShaun 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!

The Other Woman: On location

“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.

Jane Lapotaire as Kim and Benedict Taylor as Ben
Kim and Ben in a pensive moment at Clevedon

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.

The Other Woman: Lynne Frederick as Niki

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 Other Woman: BBC Audience Research Report
BBC Audience Research Report

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”.Jane Lapotaire and Michael Gambon

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”.

Jane Lapotaire as Kim in The Other Woman

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.Jane Lapotaire as Kim

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.Lynne Frederick as Niki

“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 Cast and Crew at Kenilworth, June 1975 (Photo courtesy of Roger Gregory)
The final day’s filming, in Kenilworth, Warwickshire. Watson Gould isn’t present – “she didn’t like crowds!”

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.

The Other Woman by Watson Gould“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.

Jane Lapotaire

“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

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.