Royal Holloway’s ongoing project ‘The History of Forgotten Television Drama in the UK’ is currently running ‘Drama She Wrote’, a season of neglected TV dramas by women writers from the ’50s to the ’70s, held at BFI Southbank. You can find more details over on their blog here. The screening on 11 September 2018 was a double bill of TV plays by Fay Weldon and Edna O’Brien.
A Splinter of Ice was Fay Weldon’s second script for anthology series ITV Playhouse (1967-82). Unlike soap opera or children’s television, few women wrote ‘serious’ drama for television. In the link above she talks about the institutional sexism in the industry and how the inequality was hardly ever questioned, either by men or women. By 1972 Weldon had worked extensively in the advertising industry and already had a large number of TV writing credits, including the so-called ‘serious’ drama of the BBC’s The Wednesday Play (1964-70) (which also featured the earliest TV works of Dennis Potter) and ABC/Thames’s Armchair Theatre (1956-74). Arguably her most noted credit to date was for On Trial (1971), the first episode of Eileen Atkins/Jean Marsh’s exemplary series Upstairs Downstairs (1971-75) and it would win her a Writers Guild Award. She would go on to have a hugely successful career as a novelist, including The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil (1986) which would be adapted by Ted Whitehead into a highly acclaimed BBC series.
A Splinter of Ice concerns a married man’s affair with one of his publisher’s secretaries and the resulting unwanted pregnancy. As might be expected the story is crammed with examples of how society gives a woman little ownership of her body with virtually every character that Clemence (Judy Loe) encounters offering their opinion/expectation as to the fate of the unborn child. At the time of broadcast Loe was best known as Lulli in Thames Television’s children’s fantasy series Ace of Wands (1970-72) but is now probably better known as Kate Beckinsale’s mum. What might be a little more surprising is that she really isn’t the focus of the story. Beyond a line about her mum being dead you learn nothing about her family life, even her flat-mate is a work colleague (which reduces the required number of characters). Instead we centre on the married man, successful writer Tony (Ian Hendry) and his miserable, waspish wife Joy (Annette Crosbie) in their comfortable suburban home. Michael Grimes’s open, multi-layered sets try to give the studio cameras as much freedom as possible. I’ve covered Grimes’s work on The Corridor People (1966) but it’s often in the more mundane, everyday settings of homes and offices that you can see a designer’s skill at setting tone and character. Tony’s office in particular seems to be a reflection of the sort of person he wants to present rather than an insight into his soul. Through him Weldon explores the mid-life crises that strike disaffected men as all the trappings of success are devoid of anything that might give Tony’s life meaning. Even having money is just a path to greater debt as he laments to his nihilistic publisher, Jude (Norman Eshley). Like the expensive car he buys for Joy in lieu of genuine affection, Clemence is another externalisation of his frustrations. The unwanted pregnancy however means he has to deal with that enemy of fantasy, unintended consequences. When they discuss the pregnancy Clemence seems far more sanguine and in control than Tony. He, burdened with assumptions of authority and power struggles to cope with his own conflicts about his feelings for Clemence. She at least initially is sure she doesn’t love him, and her pragmatic decision to have an abortion on the NHS empowers her to the point of near indifference. It’s only when that falls through and she needs money to go private, that the power shifts back to the status quo and Tony goes from blaming her for causing him mental stress to suggesting they move in together. He’s safe if he feels he controls her.
Throughout all of this Annette Crosbie’s joyless Joy revels in her misery and status of wronged woman. Unable to face breaking away from Tony and being left with nothing, Joy represents the other side of her husband’s failures and of the wider patriarchy that enables them. Yet Joy’s problems go deeper than Tony, and her visiting childhood friend Bridget (Zena Walker) is treated with the weary contempt people reserve for close relatives they have no choice but to tolerate. Married Bridget’s brief and rather cold fling with Jude feels a bit crowbarred in but it seeks to underline the friends’ differences in stark terms. And even Joy, when doing the unthinkable and reaching out to help Clemence, is guilty of manipulation. She projects her unresolved grief at the death of her unborn child as she whisks Clemence first to the abortion clinic, then to antenatal, telling her the Hans Christian Andersen story The Snow Queen (1844), from where the title of this play is taken, a fairy story of childhood folly and adult regret. Weldon also weaves in a subplot about Joy’s cruelty to her cat, the only thing in her life she can control. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen it but I’d be interested to compare Crosbie’s role to her portrayal of Liz, a similarly wronged women in the BBC’s Take Me Home (1989).
The director, the highly experienced Derek Bennett (the very first director of Coronation Street), shows that less is more with plenty of close ups and intimate two-shots, but there’s a couple of boom shadows in evidence that briefly threaten to take you out of the drama and the single film sequence (a brief chat between Tony and Bridget) adds little in isolation. Weldon leaves us on an ambiguous note, stories like this rarely have tidy endings, but there’s a slightly cynical flash as Clemence chats with a penniless smoking woman having her third child. Given Fay Weldon’s later overhaul of her feminism, I’m not sure who she’s blaming here.
Fay Weldon also wrote for BBC2’s short lived Then and Now (1973) which also included three adaptations of Jean Rhys novels (which can’t have been easy in a 30 minute slot). The fourth episode, Over was written by Edna O’Brien, surely in the running for the mantel of Ireland’s greatest living writer. A single hander from Barbara Jefford, grieving the end of a love affair, it was described by the BFI’s Documentation Unit as “a dark and dreamy variation of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads.” But that doesn’t quite cover it, Jefford never addresses the camera nor speaks to the viewer. Her internal monologue is reserved for the departed ex-lover.
Single handers can be a risky business but the decision to deliver most of the dialogue via voice over creates a suitable introspective tone even if it makes the occasional line spoken aloud by the character seem clunky by comparison. We see Jefford (her character is never named) at home: in her lounge, in the kitchen, in her bedroom (of course). She does tangible things, she bakes, throwing herself into it with gusto. She listens to records but that’s a little too passive when your mind is racing and you need distraction. She turns the volume up, it’s in vain. You don’t cure heartbreak with music.
The need for only one actor gives director Robert Knights more range with the studio cameras and Sally Hulke’s sets feel more enclosed, more real as a result. We even see outside the house: a pub, a cafe – mini sets in single shot but it enriches the story without wasting a second. This is a very efficient production.
At the end she breaks and tries to phone, but she’s too late, you can’t call the past. He’s left the country. And now she knows all hope is gone there’s a kind of peace and relief, like the acceptance of a loved one’s death. The similarities between break up and bereavement are all too obvious and you can’t help but be affected after spending half an hour inside this sad woman’s head. But it’s not a bleak tale, too many of us recognise the way you define yourself by that which you have lost when you’re at your lowest after a break up, but that it’s also a time for renewal and reassessment.
These two plays could both be seen as expressions of how women are defined by the effects of the potential destructive relationships with the men closest to them, and just how ubiquitous that is, but they can also been seen as women finding a voice in a hostile landscape, as real a danger behind the camera as in front of it.