When the actor and writer Elizabeth MacLennan died on 23 June 2015 newspaper obituaries understandably focused on her work with the 7:84 Theatre Company, which she founded with her husband John McGrath and brother David MacLennan in 1971.
But throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s she had a career in film and television which has been rather overlooked, appearing in at least 26 television dramas between 1961 and 1972 and three feature films: Joanna (1968), Hands of the Ripper (1971) and The House in Nightmare Park (1973).
In her book The Moon Belongs to Everyone (Methuen, 1990) MacLennan said she made her television debut in October 1961 “in a comedy with Alfred Marks for Rediffusion, and made the front cover of the TV Times” (p.7), but she had perhaps forgotten a half-hour experimental play called The Middle Men, written by Troy Kennedy Martin for the BBC’s Storyboard series, which was transmitted live on 7 August 1961, in which she played ‘Maria’ in a cast of twelve. The following year she was in two episodes of Z Cars, including the second episode, ‘Limping Rabbit’ (BBC, 9 January 1962), also written by Kennedy Martin, and had leading roles in two Granada plays: Barry Reckord’s You in Your Small Corner (5 June 1962) and Jean Anouilh’s The Lark (28 August 1962).
Leading roles in a number of single plays followed, for Associated-Rediffusion, ATV, ABC and the BBC, in addition to parts in series such as ATV’s Love Story, Associated-Rediffusion’s No Hiding Place, Yorkshire TV’s The Root of All Evil?, and the BBC’s Dr Finlay’s Casebook, The Spies, The Troubleshooters, The Expert and The Shadow of the Tower.
From 1971 she concentrated on theatre work for 7:84 and her film and television appearances tailed off but she appeared onscreen in McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (BBC1, 6 June 1974), The Adventures of Frank, Part 2: Seeds of Ice (BBC1, 11 November 1980), Blood Red Roses (C4, 4-18 December 1986) and There is a Happy Land (C4, 24 January – 7 February 1987).
In April 2006 I went to visit Liz MacLennan to look at a manuscript she’d found, a draft of John McGrath’s first – unperformed – play, Jack. John had written in his book Naked Thoughts That Roam About (Nick Hern Books, 2002), that Diary of a Young Man (BBC1, 1964), the innovative television serial which he wrote with Troy Kennedy Martin, was a ‘television version of Jack’ (p.19). In my conversations with Troy he disputed this and I was keen to look at the manuscript Liz had found to see if it corroborated John’s claim that Diary of a Young Man had its origins in Jack. For more on this see my book, Troy Kennedy Martin (Manchester University Press, 2007, pp.79-81).
In addition to looking at the manuscript, Liz and I talked about collaborating on a collection of John McGrath’s writings, speeches and interviews on film and television, a companion volume to Naked Thoughts That Roam About, which was a collection of John’s writings on theatre. We subsequently put together a book proposal, entitled A Good Night In, and began sending it to publishers.
I also told Liz about a research project on regional television drama I was working on which included a case study of Granada and Liz mentioned that she had been in two plays at Granada in the early 1960s. As I had my minidisc recorder with me (I’d recorded an interview with Herbert Wise the previous day about his work for Granada) I suggested recording our conversation. What follows is an edited version of that conversation, not an interview as such because I hadn’t come prepared to do an interview, but simply Liz talking about her early career as a television actor. I reproduce it here for the insight it gives into some forgotten or neglected television dramas from the early 1960s and as a tribute to Elizabeth MacLennan. We never did find a publisher for the book on John McGrath.
A Conversation with Elizabeth MacLennan (13 April 2006)
EM: After I was at Oxford I went to LAMDA [London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art] for a year, which is as long as I could take it, all the sort of control they wanted and I didn’t, anyway I was there for a year and then I went into rep and got an agent and a play of John’s went into London almost immediately, Why the Chicken?, and so I had to do that, that’s how I left LAMDA because I’d already been in it as a student. Then Lionel Bart got hold of it and decided he was going to – as it turned out fuck it up – but going to direct it for the West End and it was a very salutary experience for all concerned. Terry Stamp played my boyfriend and he was just beginning his career and Michael Caine played the tough guy in it and we did that and it floundered around because Lionel Bart really wasn’t a director at all. He was a sort of an impresario, but he couldn’t direct traffic, and so anyway it was transformed and it tottered around from places like the Golders Green Hippodrome and enormous theatres around London, one in Clapham, and various places, and then it didn’t come into the West End.
But my agent said you’ve got to get into doing stuff on telly so I was being trotted round and I was trotted round to Granada and directors there had tremendous power and freedom at that time. I don’t really remember seeing casting directors, they weren’t a big power in the land as they are now, it was always just the director. I did a play of Barry Reckord’s, he was a West Indian writer, his brother Lloyd was a leading young actor and I think that was Granada, that was the first one and the director was Claude Whatham. [The play was You in Your Small Corner, Granada, 5 June 1962].
Well this caused a lot of stir because it was the first play in which a black protagonist had an overt sex relationship with a white girl on telly and the other thing was the black character was educated and the white girl was not and that offended a lot of people. Lloyd Reckord played the boy and I played the girl and I remember I got obscene phone calls shortly after that and I wondered if it was connected with that and I became subsequently ex-directory, because it never occurred to me as a young actor just coming out of drama school and university and things that your name’s in the phone book and if they see you and they think ‘phwoar!’ they can just ring up and so I was I suppose naïve. But the next and most exciting thing I did, it was a production of Anouilh’s The Lark [Granada, 28 August 1962] which was live, so that can date it for you a bit, and it was also Claude Whatham.
LC: It would have been done as a Play of the Week or something like that I guess.
EM: It was a very big deal and it was an impossibly ambitious thing to do live … people just did things because that was how you did it, but I remember that the sets were all round the walls of the studio and we kind of moved from one to another and so forth and we ran, and I’ve done that in Z Cars and other series…. I was very, very busy at that time. I was a hot property in terms of telly…. The Lark got a lot of attention, it had Nicol Williamson playing the Dauphin [Michael Coles played the Dauphin, Nicol Williamson played Warwick] and Robert Harris playing the bishop, but a very strong cast and I got gastroenteritis on the morning of the recording, and I was sick, very, very, very sick and I did it. So they had to station, they had to put screens discreetly around behind curtains at various points around the set because I was sick during the dress rehearsal about four or five times. They had a nurse on the set, it sounds really dramatic, but it was horrible because the only thing that worried me was that I wasn’t up to full power, because it was a really powerful role. So I had to keep disappearing behind these screens to throw up, but fortunately by the time we came to the transmission I’d thrown up everything there was to go so this rather wan, no acting required, person who’d been in prison in the play, there I was no make-up required [laughs] … and John was terribly worried because he was in London watching it live and I was in Manchester doing it and he was like ‘what have they done to you, there’s something the matter with her, I know’, because he knew me rather well, he knew there was something up.
LC: I think they [Granada] were quite a progressive company really … of the ITV companies.
EM: The links between documentary news and drama were very close … the atmosphere when you went to work there was a bit like some sort of a family reunion, where it was quite common to get in the bar talking to people who did all the other disciplines and moved in and out. I may be imagining that but I think that’s the case.
LC: I think it was. I talked to Derek Bennett who was an early director at Granada and he said he worked on all kinds of things, all kinds of shows when he was just learning really, in the very early days before he concentrated more on drama.
EM: The atmosphere was very, very ‘can do’ and it really was palpable … when you came back from Manchester you always came back with several boiling ideas, people saying we’re going to do this, will you come back and do this, it wasn’t kind of ‘Oh I’ve been posted off there and that will be the last of that’, far from it and they were very loyal to their people, they were very supportive, I suppose supportive/competitive, which is a creative kind of atmosphere.
LC: This project I’ve been doing is on regional drama so I’ve been trying to find out as much as I can about the northern drama which Granada was producing, of which Coronation Street was obviously one of the most famous examples, but there are a number of others and productions of the Manchester plays, you know the early 20th century Harold Brighouse plays, things like that, a whole range of things, but what I’ve discovered of course is that that was only a part of their output and they were doing a whole range of things and people like Philip Mackie was doing loads of things, you know lots adaptations from European literature, from Saki, Maupassant and all kinds of things.
EM: I worked for Philip Mackie – what I can’t remember – for Granada. Did he do a series?
LC: He did loads of series.
EM: It was one of them I think.
LC: Quite interesting, innovative series as well really, very literary series, you know he was very into that kind of quality literary drama. He produced the Saki series in 1962, he did a series called The Victorians, which Herbie Wise said he directed some of, Maupassant, Paris 1900, The Liars …
EM: I don’t know, I think Herbie Wise may be the key because I did a show with him and I don’t know whether Philip Mackie was the producer.
LC: Maybe it was one of The Victorians.
EM: No I would have remembered, I hardly every did anything in long frocks, I was associated with the modern. I was always doing new plays, by new writers and contemporary characters, they were all wildly different. The only thing I did in frocks in that period was a film about Rousseau, Le Douanier Rousseau, with Ken Russell, because he got everybody into stays.
LC: Was that for television or …?
EM: Yes, it was a series he did about artists and painters and musicians [BBC 1, Monitor: Henri ‘Douanier’ Rousseau, 29 June 1965] … I did John Hopkins’ first solo play on television called Walk a Tight Circle, before there were the ones with Judi Dench and the family where they all … there’s four plays, the famous John Hopkins’ play.
LC: Talking to a Stranger.
EM: Right. Before that he did a play called Walk a Tight Circle [BBC, 29 March 1963].
LC: That may not have been his first because he did a couple of very early plays for Granada in 1957.
EM: No well then it wasn’t – his first one at the BBC.
LC: And then of course he did lots of Z Cars.
EM: It was directed by Vivian … Granada director, but maybe at the BBC … Vivian Daniels.
LC: Yes that rings a bell.
EM: It was a very exciting play, caused a great big stir at the time, like single plays did. This is inconceivable to people nowadays, I mean Walk A Tight Circle, You in Your Small Corner, the Barry Reckord play … people talked about it all the time, one play, it wasn’t like the impact of a series, the impact of one evening, and the same with John Hopkins’ play Walk a Tight Circle which involved a girl and her father in a semi-incestuous relationship, not realised, but it was all about that, you know John Hopkins half-suggested about everything. It’s always about currents beneath currents and the actor who played my father was the actor who played Dick Barton originally, Noel, I’ve forgotten his other name [Noel Johnson], very famous, he was a hero for everybody and I’d listen, as a child, I’d listened to Dick Barton – Special Agent in my father’s car, he was a doctor on his way to visit patients and he would leave me outside in the car but I’d say ‘No I’ll wait here and listen to Dick Barton’ [laughs] and then suddenly there I was with him in the same room playing my dad, and that was that John Hopkins play and Vivian Daniels was the director and it won an award of some sort, for the writer.
LC: I’ve got a list of John Hopkins’ work somewhere … he did lots of really interesting things actually.
EM: Yes he is one of my absolute favourite writers, I loved working with him and I was convinced we would work together again. We became friends, with my John, and we spent lots of time with him and his family subsequently and then he went to live in America.
LC: I think most of his work was for the BBC but he did do some work for Granada [and other ITV companies].
EM: He had a very distinctive way of using dialogue, which perhaps became a bit mannered later on, but it was unique to him. He really found a way of writing the way people talk, without completing the idea, the sentence and overlapping and though he never went to the theatre, as I recall and I used to chide him for this, it was a very theatrical kind of device if it had been directed differently, because his plays were directed very naturalistically, I mean really, really naturalistically, but treated slightly differently in the theatre it would have been almost like Beckett or Pinter.
LC: Because he didn’t necessarily write naturalistically did he? I mean he was quite innovative in his structure.
EM: Exactly but most of the performance style, the majority of performance style, directing style at the time was naturalistic. I mean they had the idea that you were looking through a window into people’s houses and that was it, which is a sort of fourth wall concept, in terms of telly. So that’s why things like Diary of a Young Man and subsequently Frank [The Adventures of Frank, 1980] and so on were regarded as really quite shocking by some people. Because you don’t suddenly burst into song in your, well actually in our house you do [laughs].
LC: Talking to a Stranger was quite innovative wasn’t it?
LC: Quite avant garde really for the time I think, as far as TV drama is concerned.
EM: Yes well the idea that you could look at the same situation from different points of view in itself was innovative, but even within that context it was conceived of as quite kitchen sink and I would say that his models as a writer would be people like Paddy Chayefsky, not Beckett … in fact Paddy Chayefsky is somebody who in that period was really important and I don’t know if his plays were done on English television.
LC: Oh yes some of them were I think.
EM: I hardly ever hear his name these days.
LC: There was a strong influence, especially actually at Granada in the early days because they recruited a number of American and Canadian producers and directors to come over.
EM: Oh yes Sydney Newman.
LC: Sydney Newman was the most famous example, although he went to ABC, but a number of Americans, people like Silvio Narizzano at Granada …
EM: Yes, I knew him.
LC: Canadian and of course they brought their knowledge of North American television.
EM: There are hardly any writers now writing who bear the impact of Chayefsky to me except perhaps David Mamet and it may be unconscious, it may be just generic in his case, but I think there is a link. I’m sure he’d be a hero for John Hopkins.
LC: Yes it’s quite interesting because I talked to Troy [Kennedy Martin] quite a bit about this as well of course and it’s one of the things he says he was reacting against when he wrote that Nat’s Go Home piece and just before Diary of a Young Man was produced, you know how he and John were very much reacting against that naturalistic influence on television drama.
EM: Have you read the MacTaggart lectures?
LC: Yes I’ve read John’s and Troy’s.
EM: Of course they were written in the seventies but John’s was the first MacTaggart lecture ever and it was an attempt to systematise the practice that had been going on for some time. Even then, the impact of that at the conference where it was delivered was dynamite … you know the English distrust of intellectuals or intellectualising and certainly being funny about intellectualising was really very gross. They were quite shocked that you could take a line like that, it made people quite uneasy, it was like we should be talking about rugby or different kinds of beer or something at such a conference, you shouldn’t be talking about ideas in this subversive way. It was considered very subversive, but the audiences were very good for those things, the figures were really good. I’ve come across bits of paper with lists of audience figures that have been circulated at the time. The audience had no problem with it, because in a way it was close to the variety tradition and things they were already comfortable with.
LC: Well of course one of the things about John’s work, which always strikes me, is the use of music, the use of songs, and that seems to be there right from the beginning. I don’t know how much that was the influence of people like Joan Littlewood.
EM: Yes but I’d say that perhaps more than any, certainly he was very aware of Brecht and Weill and all that and particularly keen on not so much the use of music but the actual music of Eisler, he’s got many recordings, wherever we went, in countries where Eisler was recorded, where he wasn’t recorded here, we were always buying records of that and I have a huge collection of that.
But in practice I think because his first theatre job after university was at the Royal Court reading scripts for thirty bob a week, none of those plays really, except with the possible exception of John Arden’s, had any songs in them and John Arden’s had. John Arden’s had English folk tradition-type songs, without instruments, Live Like Pigs for example, I think they sing in a rather, you know, hand against the ear kind of tradition. But the idea of having instruments on the stage and all that, he was excited most, I think we went to see The Hostage, I was still a student and he was reading plays at the Court probably, I don’t think he was yet in the BBC script department, that was slightly later, and you know he absolutely loved that, the combination of things in that that were obviously very close to him, the Irish element, the anarchic sort of element and the talking to the audience and the music, and Kate O’Connor, the piano player in John’s company, sat on the stage with an upright tilted, it was very awkward to do, I’ve done it a number of times, you’ve got to get an angle where you can see the audience, they can see you and you’ve this bloomin’ thing on, now of course all the fenders and so on it’s not a problem, but an upright piano on stage was her game and the songs in that and also the ideology behind it, I think the fact that at the end of the play the character stands up and says ‘I’m not dead after all’ is so much in accord with John’s view of the joyful part of theatre, you know even if the most terrible things happen, people have this resilience, people are better than any systems and we will overcome and that was really manifest in that. I remember Alfie Lynch’s wee beautiful smiling face, a most beautiful, beautiful young actor, as the hostage singing that song at the end and the audience just jumping for joy because they all want to live for ever, they all want to jump up at the end of their lives and go ‘Ha ha I’m not dead after all’. So that yes was a big influence.
LC: Which is why I was interested in the fact that Jack is described [in Naked Thoughts That Roam About, p.249] as ‘a play with songs’, essentially a musical, so right from the very early days of John’s writing – I guess that’s one of the earliest things he wrote …
LC: – it was there wasn’t it really.
EM: Oh yes. When we were editing Naked Thoughts, his book, Nadine Holdsworth drew up a list of the plays, they’re not all in it actually but of the ones that are in it I said it’s not enough just to give the name of the play and where it was done it’s important to say a little bit about what they were about and then I realised the thing they all had in common was the music, they practically all had music and so that was when we put a play with songs, a musical, a ceilidh, or whatever it was, the nearest description to the use of music in that particular show and you realise it goes right through, as you rightly say. I mean, even in the small pieces he wrote for particular demonstrations or something, you remember Sharpeville, the massacre, for example, he wrote a little piece for that called Sharpeville Crackers which they did outside Rhodesia House and it was a polemic against that government but it included songs … and Jack this play with songs he wrote with Dudley Moore writing the music, and I think in another play he wrote at that time, called Bagwash Blues, also had songs in it, although he wasn’t interested particularly in the blues, he didn’t particularly like that strand of music. But the manuscript of Jack is slightly incomplete and one of the things you will see, I haven’t been through it thoroughly, but I looked it out for you, is that the first page is missing and this is really crucial because … it’s the first song.
LC: Oh that’s the one I wanted to check against Diary of a Young Man.
EM: I know but my thoughts about that are probably that he took it out when he was writing [Naked Thoughts] … and there is a song about fifteen pages into the manuscript which you will get a chance to read when we stop talking [laughs], there is another song which I think is probably in Diary, I’m sure it’s in Diary, where he’s having a long scene with the padre and so forth, an interview with the sergeant and all this stuff, anyway there are songs in the manuscript, that particular one may be later in the pile because it’s not entirely in the right order and he has an annoying habit at that period of writing things, typing things with numbered pages up to a certain point and then the numbers run out, because he’s typing so fast or whatever the cause was … you may find page one in another part of the pile.
LC: Right okay, perhaps I should have a look then.
EM: Yes you should, we could talk forever.