While I’ve seen plenty of people talking about Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year (1722) and various works concerning the 1918 influenza epidemic, most notably Pandemic 1918 by Catherine Arnold (2018), perhaps the most human story of life in lockdown is rarely discussed. In many ways this isn’t too surprising. As a play first performed in 1970 and adapted for television in 1973 The Roses of Eyam (pronounced ‘Eeem’) seems rather more ephemeral. Although the play is regularly performed and has been a set text for students of English Literature, theatre and script books do not have the cultural ubiquity or accessibility of films and novels, and any 48 year old television programme that only had one repeat in 1974 and isn’t available commercially is going to struggle to find new audiences. But The Roses of Eyam deserves better than this, as does the story it’s based upon.
Eyam is a village of fewer than a thousand people in the Derbyshire Dales. It’s local economy now largely relying on tourism. Back in the mid-17th century its economy, like its neighbours, was agriculture. In late August 1665, a parcel of cloth arrived from London for the village tailor, Alexander Hadfield, London was at that time in the grip of the Bubonic Plague. When Hadfield’s assistant George Vicars spread the cloth out by the fire to air, he found it was infested with rat fleas. His was the first recorded death, on 7th September 1665. As the plague began to spread throughout the village, people turned the Church for Leadership and guidance. In Eyam this was the rector, the Reverend William Mompesson. But Mompesson had been in post only a year, and his predecessor, the Puritan Thomas Stanley had been forcibly ejected from his post following the 1662 Act of Uniformity.
Following the restoration of Charles II in 1660, a liturgical meeting was convened at Savoy Hospital on 15 April 1661 to reconcile the Church of England post Commonwealth. Known to history as the Savoy Conference, it would lead to a split in the Anglican Church and the removal of Puritan and other nonconformist clerics. Many of them had been in post a long time and guided their parishioners through the turbulent 17th century. Stanley was better known and more trusted by the villagers of Eyam than Mompession, and there was certainly little love lost between them. Nevertheless, they managed to put aside their differences for the sake of the village and organise a response.
Three precautions were enacted, the burial of bodies near to where the victim(s) died, the closing of the church and holding of ceremonies outside (so, social distancing) and most significantly, the establishment of a cordon sanitaire around the village. This involved persuading the entire village to stay within the quarantine zone and thus accept the likelihood of death. The village would be supplied by surrounding villages with food and essentials left at the southern border of the cordon and paid for by money left in pools of vinegar.
The plague would last for 14 months. The church in Eyam records 273 individuals who were victims of the plague from a village population of 350. One survivor, Elizabeth Hancock, lost six children and her husband, and the collective sacrifice would halt the spread of the plague and saved untold thousands of lives.
The play was written by Don Taylor. Taylor first joined the BBC in 1960 as a trainee director on a six month contract.[i] He initially worked with The Roses of Eyam Producer David Rose on two episodes of Police series Scotland Yard, but such programmes were not really Rose’s main interest. He wrote “I didn’t have the slightest interest in film making as a profession, or as an art, and never had done. I was a poetry man through and through. I had a passion for dramatic poetry, for writers who used language imaginatively, rather than grainy realists who imitated the incoherence of speech. Picture making, as an expressive end in itself, rather than as an adjunct to words and people, seemed to me to be an irrelevant preoccupation.”[ii] He found his professional soul mate in the form of Yorkshire playwright David Mercer and they would go on to collaborate seven times on BBC productions between 1961 and 1974. However, the arrival of Sydney Newman, the new Head of Drama in January 1963 would spell the beginning of the end for Taylor as a permanent member of staff. For Doctor Who fans, the arrival of Newman at the BBC is akin to the Second Coming but for Taylor, Newman’s changes to the Drama Department, the splitting of the drama department into series, serials and plays, along with the separating out of Producer and Director roles, meaning the Director was brought into the project relatively late in the day, was an anathema. Taylor saw what Newman created as “the industrialisation of television drama.”[iii] To make matters worse Taylor disagreed with Newman’s artistic decisions as much as his logistical ones. Newman wanted Taylor to work in the series department, and his first project was to be the new science fiction series Doctor Who. Taylor had no interest in this and told Newman so, shortly after Don Taylor left the BBC to work freelance. He returned to the BBC a couple of times after Newman left, firstly for the well regarded first episode from the Dead of Night anthology series, The Exorcism (1972), and secondly to adapt his own play, The Roses of Eyam.
Don Taylor died in 2003 but I spoke to his son, the actor Jon Dryden Taylor about where his father’s interest in the story began. “You couldn’t grow up in our house without talking about the 17th century quite a lot” he told me. “Dad was very obsessive about that period of history, and what it represented[iv]…He wrote the play in ’61, it was much much earlier than it looks in the course of his career. It was the first thing he’d written since signing with (his agent) Peggy Ramsey…Ramsey sent a play he’d written to George Devin at The Royal Court and Devin said dad used language ‘like a maniac with an axe’ which he took to heart and Roses of Eyam was his first attempt to write something since that feedback and I think there was a desire in him to fine tune his use of language a bit more. Then he started working with David Turner and David Mercer, then came the blacklisting, which you can put in air quotes if you want but I don’t.[v] Then it was in ’68 he did Sisters (at the Northcott Theatre) in Exeter, which went well and so had a relationship with the theatre. And so, in 1970 Anton Rogers directed the premier of (The Roses of Eyam). And then once he had a foot back in the door of BBC Drama, that’s when the idea of making a TV play came along. In fact, Dad missed me being born because he was at the edit!”[vi]
If The Roses of Eyam had been made at Television Centre then maybe Don would’ve made it to Ellen’s side in time, but it was produced at Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham. Producer David Rose had been asked to head up the BBC’s English Regions drama department, and commissioned Taylor to write and direct the adaptation, recorded entirely on videotape in Studio A. Its style is very much that of a theatrical play, something that Rose wasn’t entirely comfortable with. “It was Don Taylor’s proposition that I must have been compelled by. I frankly felt that his approach was too close to theatre – even somewhat ‘old fashioned’. But I backed it – and very much welcomed his desire to accompany it with a short documentary investigation.”[vii] Broadcast the evening before The Roses of Eyam, at 7:35pm on Monday 11 June 1973, This Story is True is a 25 minute programme fronted by Taylor himself looking at the modern day village of Eyam and its relationship with its turbulent past.
Whatever David Rose’s initial misgivings where about the play’s style, he had no hesitation in appreciating the reaction it caused. “The project’s strength lay in the very direct manner of storytelling…and the story itself, of people’s courage in the lifestyle of 17th century everyday acceptance of life as it was led. Add to this a cast of first class actors.” [viii]
Seen though 21st Century eyes the TV play can take a little getting used to. The staging is elaborate and natural, but it is still noticeably a set (if you’re familiar with the BBC Shakespeare series, you’ll know what to expect). The long takes and 125 minute running time mean that a greater level of concentration and effort is required from the viewer. But once you accept that and embrace the fact, you’re watching a theatrical production rather than a ‘TV Movie’, you are rewarded with an incredibly powerful and affecting drama, with Ron Pickup’s performance as Mompesson as the play’s emotional core. The struggles of the village as a whole are played through him – the conflict with Stanley (Leslie Sands), the burden of responsibility, the tragedy when his wife Catherine (Caroline John) succumbs to the plague and the subsequent struggle with his faith, and the apparent betrayal when he sends his own children away in secret and in defiance of the quarantine he has imposed on the village – all of these complex, flawed choices, decisions and relationships are both his alone and the village’s as a whole. Both Mompesson and Eyam emerge victorious but at a terrible cost.
Taylor’s strength of characterisation extends to the supporting cast, and people who aren’t part of the central historical narrative are given voice, personality, dashed hopes and broken dreams, helped in part by the lengthy running times gives them time for focus, from the doomed lovers Emmot Sydall and Rowland Torre (Hazel Clyne and Seymore Matthews) to the warring old men Unwin and Merrill (John Garrie and Joe Gladwin), Taylor gives a wider sense of village life as well as finding inventive ways to dump expository dialogue on the viewer. But’s it’s probably in the neurodivergent character only known by the villagers as ‘Bedlam’ (Raymond Platt) that we find the greatest humanity. Like a Shakespearian Fool in both in the broken poetry of his speech and crucially in how the other characters interact with him, most obviously Marshall Howe (Brian Coburn), Bedlam’s role as separate from the village (and indeed wider society) give him leave to create innocently horrific imagery. “I’ve seen a man on a door” he tells Howe, “and a bundle of washing with legs”. The dead must be buried somehow.
The dialogue is certainly stylised, but then why shouldn’t it be? From Shakespeare to the British New Wave, writers use language to convey a message rather than accurately delineating human speech. “Dad was never interested in wholly naturalistic dialogue” Jon told me. “He didn’t punctuate for speech in the way modern writers do…people speak more articulately than we do. I think that because his biggest influences, at least from the 50s onwards were (Tennessee) Williams and (John) Osborne. And then (David) Mercer who didn’t write naturalistically in the beginning either. And I think that in a play that was of necessity going to need a lot of exposition and a lot of practical conversations the character of Bedlam in particular gave him an outlet for the poetry.”[ix]
I’m writing this piece in the wake of Ron Pickup’s death. By any measure he had an incredible long and successful career and watching his performance as Mompesson it’s easy to see why. The role is as emotionally demanding as it gets, and the long single takes mean that momentum as to be maintained. The portrayal of innate humanity pushed beyond all reasonable (and quite a few unreasonable) limits is as moving now in a 48 year old drama as it is to a 355 year old tragedy.
The credits for The Roses of Eyam are played over the only film sequence of the production, a montage of the modern village. Eyam understandably wears its past with pride and is still known as ‘the Plague Village’. Yet the story is largely forgotten to the wider world. Does the story of ultimate sacrifice to contain a pandemic hold any lessons for our current predicament? Well in a time of universal belief in God, little travel and narrower horizons, such things were certainly easier to contain but that shouldn’t diminish the courage and resolve it took to either die or watch your loved one’s die and still hold firm for the benefit of others. Don Taylor’s play does justice to their story and gives voice to those who are so often lost to recorded history. It deserves to be known alongside his more famous work.
[ii] Don Taylor, Days of Vision (1990) p.17
[iii] Ibid, p.190
[iv] Other 17th century dramas written by Don Taylor includes The Agreement of the People (1975), A Last Visitor of Mr. Hugh Peter (1981) and the radio epic God’s Revolution (1988)
[v] In Days of Vision, Taylor quotes Producer Lionel Harris as telling Taylor’s wife Ellen Dryden that Taylor had been put on a blacklist by Sydney Newman, p. 223
[vi] In conversation with the author, 2 February 2021
[ix] In conversation with the author, 2 February 2021