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1970s, Armchair Theatre, Billy Smart, Katy Manning

Armchair Theatre: The Golden Road (ITV/ Thames, 30 October 1973)

Even when you work as an assiduous researcher of television drama history, it’s rare that you make a genuinely major discovery, but watching Patricia Hooker’s 1973 Armchair Theatre play, ‘The Golden Road’ (to be screened at BFI Southbank on February 23 as part of our ‘TV’s Forgotten Dramas’ season), I had the tremendously exciting sensation of unearthing a buried treasure and being the first person to hold it up to the light for forty years.

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The play is a work of major historical significance because, even if it wasn’t the first lesbian play broadcast on British television (that honour is probably held by Roger Marshall’s 1970 Armchair Theatre, ‘Wednesday’s Child’), it must surely be the first to have been written by a woman. But, just as importantly, it’s also quite terrifically good.

‘The Golden Road’ has a simple Aristotelian rise-and-fall narrative. A young woman, Anna, arrives unexpectedly at the door of housewife and mother Cass and becomes her lodger. The exotic Anna has a transformative effect on Cass’ life, awakening dormant aesthetic and sensual perceptions that change the way she comprehends the world and sees herself: “Not Mrs. Hunter, not mummy. Cass!” Anna and Cass sleep together. The husband, Jim, realises what’s going on and goes back to his mother, taking the daughter, Christie, with him. Jim denies Cass any access to Christie, and Cass realises that to have any possibility of keeping her daughter she must cease contact with Anna. The play ends with Anna locked out of the house.

Lesbians were rarely seen in 1970s British television drama. I’ve only found four single plays with lesbian themes, plus a handful of subsidiary plots in episodes of legal, police and medical series. The inclusion of lesbian characters generally served one of two dramatic purposes; either a device for partial and withheld character information – so half way through an episode the viewer would think, “Oh, of course, I see, so that explains the hold that she had over her!” – or, more problematically, as a psychological or social “issue” to be explored. The nadir of the “issue” approach is perhaps ‘For Life’, a 1975 episode of the women’s prison drama Within These Walls (ITV, LWT, 1974-78) that ends up being about the heroic tolerance of the prison chaplain, rather than the prisoners he ministers to. This episode makes more sense to a present-day viewer once you learn that the actor who played the chaplain also wrote the script.

‘The Golden Road’ combines elements of both approaches. Cass doesn’t realise Anna’s sexuality or understand the nature of their attraction until the end of Part One, and after Cass loses custody of her daughter ‘The Golden Road’, of necessity, has to become an ‘issues’ play, once Cass’s legal status as mother becomes dependent upon her sexual identity.

My discovery of this play was serendipitous, and happened because I was researching the director, Douglas Camfield (1931-1984), who is best known for his work on Doctor Who (BBC1, 1963-89) and The Sweeney (ITV, Thames, 1975-78). ‘The Golden Road’ isn’t the type of work that Camfield is usually remembered for, but the particular quality of acute spatial sensitivity that his direction bought to Cybermen invasions of London and bank robberies – realised through movement of the TV frame, depth of field and imaginative montage – works equally well to illuminate the nuances and implications of Hooker’s domestic script with clarity and imagination.

A more detailed study by me of the play and its significance can be found on the University of Reading Spaces of Television blog.

POSTSCRIPT: Katy Manning discusses the play and the screening (from 46.50-50.00).

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