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1970s, Angels, Armchair Theatre, BBC, Billy Smart, Conference paper, Douglas Camfield, Hospital drama, ITV, Katy Manning, Lesbian drama, Pat Hooker, Thames Television, The Golden Road

Pat Hooker: Writing for television in the 1970s

Forgotten screenwriter, Pat Hooker, had a number of scripts produced for British television in the 1970s, mainly in a range of popular series.

This post provides a consideration and close reading of her most significant work, ‘The Golden Road’; biographical research into who she was; and a wider consideration of her body of work for television, its recurrent themes and dramatic techniques, and how it fitted into the form of British television in the 1970s.

Pat Hooker

Patricia Hooker

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

 It isn’t very often that you can say that you’ve uncovered a major work, but Patricia Hooker’s 1973 Armchair Theatre play, ‘The Golden Road’ really is one. It’s a work of major historical significance because – even if not strictly the first lesbian play for British Television – it was surely the first one written by a woman. But as well as its historical significance it is also a work of terrific artistic merit in its own right, the work of a distinctive and original dramatic voice. Since its original broadcast it had remained unseen for over forty years, until it was screened for a new audience earlier this year at BFI Southbank as part of our ‘Television’s Forgotten Dramas’ season.

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The play has a simple Aristotelian rise-and-fall narrative. A young woman, Anna (Katy Manning), arrives unexpectedly at the door of mother and housewife Cass (Olive McFarland) and becomes her lodger. The exotic Anna has a transformative effect on Cass’ life, awakening dormant aesthetic and sensual perceptions to change the way that she comprehends the world and sees herself: “Not Mrs. Hunter, not mummy. Cass!” Anna and Cass sleep together. The husband, Jim (Neville Barber), realises what’s going on and goes back to his mother (Joyce Heron), taking the daughter, Christie (Karen Corti), 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 other single plays with lesbian themes (Armchair Theatre: Wednesday’s Child, ITV, Thames, 1970;  Second City Firsts: Girl, BBC2, 1974; Play for Today: The Other Woman, BBC1, 1976, The Other Side: Connie, BBC2, 1979), 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 a 1975 episode (‘For Life’) of the ITV 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, David Butler, 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.

The disturbing effect that Anna has upon the quotidian world is made immediately apparent in her introduction in the first scene, when she appears, not at the front door, but an upstairs bedroom –

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– disrupting Cass’s everyday domestic household procedure of cleaning –

1  – meaning that Anna’s very first action in the play is to turn off a vacuum cleaner, an understated, but highly symbolic action.

3  Note how these three frames are arranged: The arrival of Anna is immediate and not prefigured, Cass is placed in a physically awkward position on the other side of the room stood on a chair, and Anna physically imposes herself on the space. The disruptive effect implied in the script is fully realised through directorial decisions of composition and framing.

Close textual reading of ‘The Golden Road’ demonstrates how the spatial conventions of studio television drama could be used to present women’s experience to viewers, realised through visual codes – of performance, physicality and aesthetic detail – as much as through verbal means. These visual codes are embedded in Hooker’s writing, but picked up upon by the production to a rare, and exemplary, degree. By ‘studio drama’, I mean drama that was made on videotape in a multi-camera television studio, the dominant form of television drama in Britain up to the 1980s.

Which brings me to the second figure instrumental to the success of ‘The Golden Road’, director Douglas Camfield. Unlike Pat Hooker, much is known about Camfield, who is best remembered for his work on Doctor Who (BBC1, 1963-89) and The Sweeney (ITV/ Thames, 1975-78). ‘The Golden Road’ isn’t the type of drama that he is best known for directing, and indeed he was only assigned to the play late on, when the intended director, Darrol Blake, fell out with Armchair Theatre’s producer, Joan Kemp-Welch.

Hooker’s script would always have been interesting whoever directed it, but having Camfield in charge was a serendipitous stroke of good fortune. Because the one central quality of his direction, found throughout his work, lies in an acute sense of the dramatic possibilities of space. This makes ‘The Golden Road’ a happy instance where all of the nuances and implications in the writer’s script were realised with clarity and imagination through the ideas of the director, as I will go on to demonstrate.

Camfield’s direction always achieves movement, in the studio as much as on film. Two simple things immediately set his studio work apart from his peers – mobility of the frame and depth of field. A simple description of what made Camfield’s direction distinctive is that it makes the use of the camera and editing act like a narrative voice. Unlike most television direction of his time, his productions seem familiar with the idea of moving the TV frame around in order constantly to refocus the viewer’s attention or delay revealing an important development until the best possible moment. I’m going to play you a whole scene from ‘The Golden Road’ – Cass introducing Anna to her mother-in-law, to demonstrate Camfield’s studio sense in action: bringing out the rhythm of the scene through framing and shot selection that makes underlying attractions and conflicts explicit, and tells us something of how much each character understands the situation.

Several things are worth observing here. On paper, the scene is potentially rather static – four people eating dinner talking about their lives – with action contained in the inferences of the dialogue. After a teasing, and thematically astute introduction with a close-up of unfamiliar exotic food, Camfield brings out these inferences through close-up observation of individual responses, giving the viewer a precise and detailed sense of individual character; Anna provokes, Cass is naively enthusiastic, mother forbids, Jim spectates. It isn’t until three minutes into the scene that we get a prolonged shot of all four characters together. The scene also achieves mobility in how it places Anna within the frame, in charge of the evening, moving to and from the table. This arrangement is implicit in Hooker’s script, but Camfield accentuates it by, throughout the scene, only moving the camera in shots where Anna is doing things; the character with the catalysing power to affect and change situations. It is important to remember that this scene, consisting of 44 shots in four minutes, would have been shot in one take, with mixing between cameras done live at the moment of performance, giving the viewer a real sense of spontaneous reaction.

Camfield’s close directorial style enhances Hooker’s more symbolist and poetic scenes as much as it does to her relatively straightforward domestic ones. This is particularly apparent in the play’s most overly allegorical scene, in which the two women discuss the Golden Road to Samarkand, making reference to “the daughters of the Philistines” in Ashkelon, cited in King David’s ‘Lament for Saul’ in the Book of Samuel, evoking a pre-patriarchal era when queens ruled and Goddesses were worshipped while Anna rubs ointment into Cass’s face. Camfield concentrates on the action of the anointing, the sharply-defined 2” videotape image picking out exotic details of Anna’s braided dress, jewellery and nails.

12  Camfield’s shots emphasise the strange and otherworldly aspects of the women’s situation, with Cass seen upside down from Anna’s point of view –

14– and, eventually, blinded to the outside world.

15  Unusually for this time and medium, Camfield’s treatment of the scene uses point of view shots continually, and with precision.

16  The effect is like a novel, with insights into both women’s understanding of the situation allowing the allegorical discussion time and space to take root in the viewer’s imagination. This makes a scene that might otherwise be rather silly seem surprising, even spellbinding.

17  The viewer has become Cass, with no option but to lie back, listen to the strange stories and allow Anna to rub our face.

A frequent Camfield technique is to add mystery and surprise to the viewer’s spatial understanding by starting a scene on a detail of a space, and letting the viewer work out its place in the room that will eventually be revealed. ‘The Golden Road’ does this frequently, emphasising the potential strangeness in the everyday domestic –

4 – and reflecting the changed situation of characters, understanding familiar places from a new, perhaps frightening, perspective.

20  This bold close-up attention to detail make the viewer of ‘The Golden Road’ share Cass’s experience of the unusual new stimuli that Anna has introduced her to, such as exotic cooking –

18  – and an interest in mythology.

19  This reversal of the viewers normal spatial expectation of how information is conveyed – giving the detail before the establishing shot – is frequently used to introduce Anna unheralded into a scene that has already started, cutting into a close-up –

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– before establishing her relationship to the space of the room.

28  – emphasising her disruptive nature as an initially mischievous – and eventually tragic – figure.

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Anna is often presented within the frame as an active character, engaged in activities that just slightly push against expectations of decorum within the environment depicted, such as drinking beer at the table –

5  – or smoking in bed.

7  This activity sometimes takes the form of actively physically imposing herself on the situation, here bumping against Jim as she goes into the bathroom dressed in only her underwear –

11  – or, in one of the play’s final scenes, vigorously intruding into the mother-in-law’s home.

24Sometimes this motif of Anna’s physical assertion into the space doesn’t even need Anna’s corporeal presence, felt in her place through the introduction of alien exotic details into the home, such as this coffee percolator.

9By contrast, Cass is presented within the frame as a reactive figure, rather than an assertive one. Unlike Anna, her self-understanding is presented through moments of literal self-reflection. Her developing understanding of the constraints of her marriage –

10  – is itself mirrored at the post-coital apex of her journey within the play, a moment of epiphany that is immediately followed by a swift fall.

21  Close-ups of Cass show her reacting to situations, rather than instigating them. Unlike Anna, Cass’s expressions are always easy to emotionally read. When seen at such close range, these displays of Cass’s feelings, so emotionally unguarded as to be rather childlike, work as staging posts in the rise-and-fall tragic narrative of ‘The Golden Road’.

29  – as seen in the uncomfortable final shot of the play.

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Much of the narrative power of ‘The Golden Road’ is achieved through associative visual logic, with each moment reflecting other moments in the play. So, the play’s last scene acts as a mirror of the first, with Anna again an unexpected apparition at the door –

25  – and Cass again interrupted while performing housework, but this time she is packing up Anna’s things –

26  – with Anna now unable to impose herself on the scene, instead leaving the room, a literal moment of closure.

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The BFI screening of the play attracted some thoughtful online discussion about the play’s ambiguous characterisation, in which Anna functions as an admirably free spirit and agent of change, but also force of tragic destruction. These are distinctive strengths throughout Pat Hooker’s work – she’s very good at depicting selfishness, and her fascination with mythology and the Greeks gives the play an Aristotlean sense of tragedy. It’s hard to retain much sympathy for Anna when she tells Cass to leave Christy behind her: “I know that she’s a nice kid and she came out of your guts, but she is seven years old!” Members of the audience wondered how many viewers at the time came away thinking of Anna, because of her sexuality and her behaviour, as a destructive temptress and the villain of the piece, despite Hooker’s intentions to portray the relationship movingly. It was speculated that by not laying Anna’s shiftiness on too thick, Hooker did leave this interpretation open to a lot of the original audience, but that many of them would have came to the same conclusion in a play about lesbians regardless, however they were depicted.

The actress Katy Manning introduced the play at the BFI, who recollected how Douglas Camfield had told her how the script leaves an awful lot unsaid about Anna, and how she had to convey it to the audience. Katy Manning manages this well, through always leaving a beat of unspoken withheld information whenever Anna talks about her experiences, for example why she doesn’t see her family.

‘The Golden Road’ subverts its domestic mise-en-scene to present a coded representation of different female experience. The domestic space is reconstituted through the physical presence and aesthetic sense of the women within it, realized through exotic, ‘other’, details of costume, décor and food. This rich, allusive and associative drama was fully realised through the intimate, watchful and spontaneous conditions of studio drama.

2. Pat Hooker: A biography

So who was the mysterious Pat Hooker? In the last century it was possible to have a writing career and yet leave no trace at all of your personal identity for posterity. Initially all that I had to go on were a dozen or so television credits between 1971 and 1981; three plays and assorted episodes of legal, police and medical series and women’s serials.

1971-72 Kate (ITV/ Yorkshire, 3 episodes)

1973 Armchair Thirty: Simon Fenton’s Story (ITV/ Thames, play)

1973 Harriet’s Back In Town (ITV/ Thames, 2 episodes)

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

1973-75 Six Days Of Justice (ITV/ Thames, 2 episodes)

1973 Crown Court (ITV/ Granada, 1 episode)

1974 The Carnforth Practice (BBC2, 1 episode)

1975 Rooms (ITV/ Thames, 2 episodes)

1975-76 Angels (BBC1, 3 episodes)

1980 The Gentle Touch (ITV/ LWT, 2 episodes)

1981 Plays For Pleasure: The Concubine (ITV/ Yorkshire, play)

She also had a play on at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1967 (A Season in Hell, about Rimbaud’s relationship with Verlaine, a few years before Christopher Hampton’s Total Eclipse on the same subject) and adapted various science fiction classics for BBC Radio in the 1980s.

It took me years to find out anything significant about her, when I eventually discovered one 350-word newspaper interview from which I found out a few pertinent facts, the most unexpected discovery being that she was Australian. Mary Patricia Hooker was born on 17 February 1933 in Port Lincoln, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia, Australia, the third daughter of Frederick Hooker, an employee of South Australian Railways, and Annie Hooker. She was raised as a catholic, later describing this background as “not a personal hobbyhorse, but a useful springboard” (Bakewell 1975: 57). In her late twenties and early thirties she made a name for herself in Australian television and theatre with A Season in Hell. In order to further her writing career she moved to London in 1964, and supported herself by working as a court stenographer, describing one job at the Middlesex Quarter sessions as hard work, “but I got background material for five plots in the first couple of days” (Ibid). Her most striking observation in the brief 1967 Sydney Morning Herald article reveals an archetypal dramatist’s insecurity, “I think you have to be deranged to be a playwright. Everything you see in life has to fit into that small square – the stage.” (Muir 1967)

But that was all that I could find out, save for a minimal entry in the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1994) detailing her early stage plays, which concentrated upon mythical, biblical, ancient and poetic subjects:

Was at one time employed in the ABC programme department; she left Australia in the late 1960s to write in London. Her plays include A Season in Hell (1965), which re-creates the personal relationship between the poets Rimbaud and Verlaine; Socrates, where the force of truth is ranged against that of malevolence; Concord of Sweet Sounds, a study of an ageing concert pianist; Twilight of a Hero, about the biblical father-son pair, David and Absalom; and The Lotus Eaters (1968).

From that thin set of resources, I formulated the theory that Hooker’s dramatic style distinctively combined a mythical-poetic understanding with her court reporter’s eye for everyday detail. This dichotomy lies at the heart of the drama of The Golden Road where Anna is a mythic figure with the power to bring an awakened poetic sensibility, placed in the quotidian location of a suburban household.

Finding out about Hooker’s Australian origins has since opened up further research into her early life. A lot of information about her family and social background can be learned from copies of the local newspaper for Port Lincoln, The Port Lincoln Times, supplemented by The Adelaide Advertiser; The Melbourne newspaper The Age is also of use, as are The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times for her early broadcasting career. These newspapers can be read on the National Library of Australia’s Trove site. It is paradoxical that much more information is available about her early life in Australia than London.

The first reference to Patricia Hooker is found in the Port Lincoln Times in February 1946, in a listing of first year exam results for her convent school (she passed English, geography, bookkeeping, shorthand and typewriting).

Pat Hooker 1951

‘Port Lincoln girl, 19, in Miss South Australia Quest’ (Adelaide Advertiser, 15 November 1951)

By the age of 19 in 1951, we learn that she is working as a stenographer for the Australian Wheat Board, and has been appointed ‘Miss Port Lincoln Division, South Australia Railways’ as part of the Miss South Australia Quest, a charitable venture. Intriguingly, in 1954 the Port Lincoln Times reports an engagement party between Patricia Hooker and Mr Ray Owen at which, “Competitions and games were enjoyed” and, “The guests were the recipients of many useful gifts.”

Pat Hooker 1960

‘Playtime for Patricia’ (Australian Women’s Weekly, 19 October 1960)

Patricia Hooker isn’t seen again until 1960, when the 27 year-old is working in Sydney for the Stevedoring Commission (with a shorthand speed of 200 wpm), and in her spare time writes plays, three of which have been accepted by a small Sydney theatre, plus a further short play that has just been broadcast on television: “If Pat doesn’t make the grade one day as a professional playwright, she still has her workaday career. And a few months ago she passed an examination to become a licenced court reporter.” (Anon 1960)

By 1962 she was having full-length TV plays produced on ABC (as well as the radio), and is working as a script assistant to ABC producer Henri Safran (who also moves to London, in 1966). The most notable of these plays is ‘A Season In Hell’, its repeat in 1965 acclaimed in the Canberra Times as evidence that Australian drama can be world class.

Pat Hooker described the cultural shock of moving from Australia then of living in the big city in a very brief interview in the Radio Times ten years later: ‘It was hair-raising, I arrived at eleven at night with £1 left. When I got to the bank the next day I hadn’t filled out the right form back in Sydney. I had no money. It took me six months before I settled in England, two years to settle into London. I was shocked by English coolness.’ (Bakewell 1975: 57)

Pat Hooker 1967

‘Edinburgh orders an Australian play’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 3 December 1967)

After leaving the country, Pat Hooker’s one remaining major work in Australia was a commissioned playwright for the 1968 Adelaide Arts Festival. Her play, ‘The Lotus Eaters’, a satirical comedy about a dock strike (perhaps inspired by her time at the Stevedore Commission) was poorly received, and she is absent from Australian newspapers from this point.

The only official institutional documentation of Hooker’s career that I’ve been able to find is a file of correspondence in the BBC Written Archives concerning her career as radio dramatist. Despite not being for television, these letters, reports and memos are enlightening for several reasons. Firstly, the amount of radio drama produced, and the imaginative freedom afforded by the medium present a distinctive sense of a dramatist’s particularly cherished interests, and traces of the ambitious projects that she pitches can be found in Hooker’s TV work. The file also presents a practical demonstration of the vicissitudes of the professional writer’s career, and the discrepancy between the internal responses of readers and the more diplomatic rejections formally sent out to authors. Finally, in their enthusiasm and lack of calculation, Hooker’s own letters to producers convey something of her own voice, unavailable elsewhere.

The file starts in 1963 with routine enquires from Hooker and her agent to radio producers about how to submit to the BBC. Her career received early recognition soon after her arrival in England, when a Australian recording of one of her plays, ‘Concorde of Sweet Sounds’ was broadcast on the Home Service as an Afternoon Play. From that point onwards, a pattern emerges in which Hooker starts a correspondence with a producer and enthusiastically pitches a range of adaptations (some on an impractically large scale, such as a six part serial of Thomas Mann’s Tales of Jacob) to him. Her treatments are then passed on to the script department who turn them down as unviable.

In 1966, she submits her first original script, And We All Lived Happily Ever After, a fantastical comedy about polygamy, its outlandish premise greeted with disfavour by the BBC readers, as was an attempt to interest the BBC in a radio version of The Lotus Eaters two years later.

 10 Oct 1966 Memo: Gerry Jones: “COMMENT: […] The Church, the Police and the Politicians, are so superficially and illogically conceived that the satire doesn’t really bite. Heaven knows, I fall over backwards to suspend my disbelief, but the play really did not help me. I chuckled a bit, but ended up with my mouth pointed downwards. VERDICT: No”

22 Nov 1966 Memo: Miss P. Wells: “This doesn’t go nearly far enough. As it is, it is vaguely unpleasant and definitely No.”

25 Nov 1966 W. Ash (Drama Script Ed.) to Hooker: “We have now carefully considered And We All Lived Happily After. We feel that a good gag has not entirely come off. The mood varies among comedy, farce and social satire without quite having the courage of its off-beat convictions and pressing on with a disregard for consequences. The various public figures are too superficial and illogically conceived to help the piece make the right sort of impact. It is a good idea but we feel it presented too many problems in its realisation.”

RT 10.02.73a

In 1972 Pat Hooker finally had a submission accepted by the BBC, with a version of the Helen of Troy and Odysseus myth, ‘The Beauty of the World’, produced as a 90 minute Monday Play on Radio 4 (12 February 1973) starring Coral Browne as Helen, at Hooker’s suggestion.

RT 10.02.73b

Hooker’s next two recorded proposals demonstrate the two sides, mythical and quotidian, of her writing. A proposed four-play cycle of the Odyssey, continuing ideas from ‘The Beauty of the World’ was cooly received – “The thought of an adaptation of the Odyssey makes me tremble if undertaken by anyone less than an Edward Bond”(memo from Perry Gold to Bernard Krichefski, 2 November 1978), while Bobby Shaftoe, a naturalistic presentation of a police investigation and court case into an accusation of pederasty was considered as a “controversial Afternoon Play”, but rejected.

The file concludes in 1981 with a dispiriting undated memo reading “Author’s previous history. Number of submissions 23. Number of broadcasts 2”.

However, Hooker’s subsequent radio career was more successful, adapting a range of ghost, detective and science fiction stories, her final production being a version of P. G. Wodehouse’s Last of the Bodkins in 2000.

1965 The Afternoon Play: Concord of Sweet Sounds (Australian Broadcasting Commission production)

1973 The Monday Play: The Beauty of the World

1981 Afternoon Theatre: The Terror (from Arthur Machen)

1986 The Death of Grass (from John Christopher) (World Service)

1987 A Bullet in the Ballet (from Caryl Brahms)

1988 Saturday Night Theatre: Right Ho, Jeeves (from P.G. Wodehouse)

1989 Fear on Four: Survival (from John Wyndham)

1989 Saturday Night Theatre: Seven Against Reeves (from Richard Aldington)

2000 The Saturday Play: The Luck of the Bodkins (from P.G. Wodehouse)

Pat Hooker died in hospital in London on 9 April 2001, after “a long illness” (probably complications from asthma). Her death notice in the Times commemorates “a dearly loved sister, aunt and friend”. She was cremated at Mortlake Crematorium, London on 24 April 2001.

I’ve discovered the process of researching a woman who is as close as possible to being an invisible writer to be a rather liberating experience. Studying the work of Pat Hooker is the opposite of trying to write about Dennis Potter. With no accumulated baggage of personal reputation or existing writing it’s perhaps easier to understand the work solely on its own merits (which in Pat Hooker’s case are, in my considered opinion, tremendous). It’s also more enjoyable coming up with connections between plays and episodes if you’re certain that you’re exploring territory where no one has trodden before.

3. Pat Hooker’s dramatic style and themes

 Since I first saw ‘The Golden Road’ I’ve managed to track down most of Hooker’s productions, which have added to my understanding of her as a writer with a distinctive individual voice, who found the ideal “small square” form for her worldview in studio-made popular television drama in Britain in the 1970s.

In the last section of this talk, I’ll point out and discuss some particular preoccupations and techniques of Pat Hooker’s television writing. A particular strength is the presentation of evidence within a story, a building-up of details of behaviour and speech as part of a story that subtly leads towards a conclusion. This is most immediately apparent in her scripts for courtroom and legal dramas, informed by an ear for dialogue and procedure drawn from the real life experience of transcription.

For example, Armchair Thirty: Simon Fenton’s Story (ITV/ Thames, 22 August 1973), her first single play for British television, is a plausible magistrate’s court custody case, Simon Fenton being the contested child. The evidence given is often apparently trivial, drawn from petty incidents and observations, but the adversarial and formal nature of court procedure imposes a severity upon the testimony. The simple half hour play dramatically culminates in the evidence of the mother, Amy Fenton, who gives automaton-like testimony, in a valium trance (“I’m sick”). She justifies her value as a mother through recounting the details of her routine:

[Over a close-up that focuses closer and closer in. Amy’s blank eyes] Why should he go out? I’m there, you see. Always. You could see your face in my furniture. I had his dinner promptly on the table every night. His favourite food. I kept his clothes spotless. There was no need for him to set foot outside our home. Everything I did was for him. Make him happy. All I have. All I am. What more could he want than that?”

The custody passes to the father, Amy’s testimony having an ironic effect in presenting the destructive effect of ostensibly laudable values – protectiveness, loyalty – upon a child.

This same technique of gathering evidence is found in other Hooker scripts for non-legal dramas. When one attempts to précis ‘Susan’ (18-19 February 1975), her story for Thames’ afternoon bedsit drama series Rooms (ITV 1974-77) – a study of father-daughter incest – it seems impossible that such a play could ever have been transmitted. Yet the gradual nature of the narrative counts against the shock value of the material, allowing the viewer to build up a sense of circumstances and character that leads towards an understanding, rather than a prurient or horrified response.

Susan, a 17 year-old secretarial student, is introduced alone in a state of grace, her sense of well-being connected to the mise-en-scene of the bedsit room; returning from work she switches on the radio to play Beethoven, lays tablecloth for meal, fruitbowl, and so forth. Susan’s interactions with others are uneasy. She is uncomfortable with her landlord, Mr Lawson (Bryan Marshall): “The least I could do is to keep a fatherly eye on you”. Her mother (Pauline Yates) visits, agitated, looking at Susan preparing her own meal with disapproval, pumping her for details of boyfriends, disapproving of another tenant being a student. Susan hasn’t spoken to her father since a row two months earlier.

The second part of the story starts with Susan in the same ritual of preparing a meal, but in a distracted unhappy state. Susan’s father (Morray Watson) arrives, uninvited, in her room. Susan lies about who she was with – a woman, not a man. The father is appalled – the tenants “chose to live without responsibilities (…) What do you think the neighbours think? (…) the right sort of people” and share a bathroom. Mrs Lawson interrupts non-consensual incest. The play ends with Susan preparing a third meal to eat with her new student boyfriend, but again being disrupted by the arrival of her mother.

The centrality of the room, and the withholding of information, turns what is ostensibly an “issues” story into a surprisingly optimistic study of Susan’s independence and self-definition. Dialectical considerations of incest are given to the only two regular characters in Rooms, the landlords Mr and Mrs Lawson (Sylvia Kay). The revelation that Susan is under 18 makes her a point of contention between the Lawsons – “All I did was brush against her. You’d think I’d tried to rape her!” The wife has been better able to read the situation – “you can’t live with somebody and not know what’s going on” – her understanding deriving from her experience of jury service:

Mrs Lawson: It’s not far from looking to touching, is it? You see a girl going to the – bathroom and – a flimsy rub and nothing underneath. You see it all the time here.

Mr Lawson: That’s different.

Mrs Lawson: Is it?

All three scripts that I have outlined are concerned with disputes between parents for control of a single child, and Hooker’s stories frequently revolve around triangular arrangements between three parties. These are as often unusual love situations as between parents and children – for example the Gentle Touch episode ‘Rogue’ (ITV/ LWT, 16 May 1980), in which the female detective investigates a gigolo who is preying on an unhappy rich divorcee, while herself falling for his charms.

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Snapshot-2015-12-03 at 09_00_34 AM-2046080855 More successfully, her final television production, Plays for Pleasure: The Concubine (ITV/ Yorkshire, 28 April 1981) (broadcast in 1981 but written as early as 1972, the same time as ‘The Golden Road’), presents an arrangement brokered between a bookseller’s wife and mistress to share the husband. Despite this premise, it’s a play about routines rather than passion. Disrupting and rearranging routines is how the wife exacts revenge, and living without routine is posited as attaining independence.

Action is evenly divided between the two women’s households, and the viewer’s understanding of the husband’s passive and unsympathetic nature is achieved through observing his behaviour in the two environments. On one evening the viewer is shown George (Bruce Montague) enjoying lazing on the sofa at the mistresses’ flat until Ann (Clare Higgins) serves up a Spartan supper (meals always being central in Hooker scripts). When Ann’s back is turned he swaps plates of chicken pieces to give himself the marginally larger piece; there is only Perrier water on the table, no dressing for the salad, crispbreads instead of white bread and a pear for pudding. Ann wants to go to cinema to see either Polanski’s Tess or a Kurosawa revival, neither of whom George has heard of. George breaks the agreed arrangement to return back to his wife (Judy Parfitt) at the marital home on her “night off” and demand a second dinner. Meg has been seen alone in a cheerful state of grace, singing opera tunes to herself. She tells George to make his own supper: “Now you’re here you can hear me through my irregular [Italian] verbs.”

The unappealing husband is contrasted with scenes between the wife and mistress, with the first half seemingly setting up a familiar conflict between the two, which is then undermined by showing a putative mutual support in act two, only tested once the wife goes on holiday, leaving the mistress with four weeks of George’s uninterrupted company. During this period, Anne discovers that she is pregnant, and George leaves her for a newer and younger mistress.

The final scene returns to the scenario of the first, with Meg arriving unexpectedly at Ann’s home. Ann will keep her child. Their situation is likened to Rachel and Leah in the Book of Genesis, the two wives of Jacob and their handmaidens. Meg suggests that the two of them and the child can move to Kettering and run a bookshop together – Ann agrees. George can go to York. Ann and Meg in unison: “Pity about George!”

This rather abrupt resolution is more satisfying formally than dramatically, coming slightly too late, with any prior feeling between the two women too sublimated to have been previously apparent to the viewer. The impression received by Jennifer Selway in the Observer was counterproductive: “The pleasure, charm, or whatever of Pat Hooker’s play lies in the notion of women’s unwilling but binding chumminess in the face of male stupidity. Yet it becomes a cruel, empty tale. This is the sort of play that gives women a bad name.” (Selway 1981)

I’ll conclude by showing you two examples from the BBC hospital series Angels (1975-83) that demonstrate how well suited Pat Hooker’s dramatic concerns could be to a popular drama series of the 1970s. In its early years the long-running series, which examined the running of a large hospital through following the progress of student nurses, was devised by script editor Paula Milne to work as a series of individual stories, rather than a serial narrative in the tradition of Emergency Ward 10 (ATV/ ITV, 1957-67).

Writers were encouraged to identify with one of the six nurses who formed the main company and tell stories that explained the health system though their character’s perspective. Milne explained the difference between Angels and previous hospital series as lying in the emphasis placed on character, with the student nurses’ “experiences, doubts and accomplishments” forming the basis of stories: “Rather than rapidly-evolving, action-orientated stories, we are presenting the viewer with developing dramatic situations.” (Milne 1975: 303) Hooker chose the character of Maureen Morahan (Erin Geraghty), an 18-year old convent-educated girl from Southern Ireland, newly come to London, conceived as a domesticated family girl, spontaneously at ease with patients, and having a quality of simple commonsense.

RT 30.08.75 55

RT 30.08.75 56

This comparatively open brief provided Pat Hooker with an ideal space in which to create stories about the lives of young women, which function as well as single plays as they do series episodes. Both of her first two Angels stories follow Nurse Morahan and her more worldly-wise middle-class friend Nurse Rutherford (Fiona Fullerton) in situations away from the hospital. ‘Home Sweet Home’ (8 June 1976), shows a week spent by the ‘odd couple’ apart from each other, back home on leave in Bath and rural Ireland. The script has a slow-burning structure, taking time to evoke the sense of dislocation that can take students or soldiers by surprise on a homecoming – people have changed, aren’t interested in or can’t understand you, you find yourself missing your new friends. Pat Hooker’s ear for nuance and the concealed digs and traps of conversation made her an ideal writer to realise this theme.

This sense of dislocation is realised in a theatrical scene of Maureen returning back to the farmhouse.

Snapshot-2015-12-03 at 01_41_21 PM-1015490737  She is excited to be back, then disappointed to find everyone out. Objects have been moved. Her youngest brother arrives and is suspicious of her, then her younger sister turns up and is resentful and uncivil. Its almost a shame that the story has to become any more eventful than this, particularly as very clear-eyed and funny scene where Patricia talks to her supposed best friend and the pair really have nothing to say to each other is immediately followed by a major plot crunching into gear. But both major plotlines turn out to be quite gripping; the boy back home at the farm who appears to be waiting for Maureen (“It isn’t the tryin’ it on I mind. It’s the sayin’ you love me”) and the collapse of Pat’s parents’ marriage and their unreasonable expectations of their daughter, as seen here.

Again we see a depiction of possessiveness in action, and a triangle between child and parents. There is a lesson in this episode, more resonant for never being articulated: For many people home isn’t a place of respite and comfort, but the place that you have to get away from to become a healthy person.

‘Off Duty’ (29 September 1975) shows a night out for Maureen and Patricia, in a seemingly inconsequential story, constructed around a sequence of small selfish actions and lapses made by Patricia over the course of the evening and their cumulative consequences.

The episode starts at the end of the day’s lessons, when Patricia is impatient to leave and is no longer prepared to work after four o’clock (“So you’d leave your patient to bleed to death?”).

Snapshot-2015-12-03 at 10_37_19 AM-154176252

Before leaving the hospital clumsy Maureen bumps into Sister Easby (June Watson), scattering her papers to the floor and creating a bad impression (“You’ve done it now. That was Sister Easby.”)

Snapshot-2015-12-03 at 10_40_20 AM-1374989082 Maureen sees another nurse playing ping-pong on her own and looking unhappy, and wants to invite her to join them (“Couldn’t we bring her, too?”) –

Snapshot-2015-12-03 at 10_41_03 AM-369975807  – but Patricia leaves before Maureen can do this (“Come on!”).

Snapshot-2015-12-03 at 10_41_15 AM-1218230184The girls trek across London (“There is a queue, you know!”) –

Snapshot-2015-12-03 at 10_41_51 AM-685611990  – to meet Maureen’s staid aunt, whom the louche and inconsiderate Patricia creates a bad impression on, asking inappropriate questions (“What do you make of the situation in Belfast?”) and leaving the table without asking to smoke without an ashtray.

Snapshot-2015-12-03 at 10_44_42 AM-1830949775  Maureen’s cousin Barney (Karl Howman) arrives at the aunt’s home from work (“Well, so what do you girls do, then? Students?”) and leaves for the kitchen with Patricia.

Snapshot-2015-12-03 at 10_45_56 AM-1298643274 When Patricia returns she suddenly develops a migrane, and has to leave. Maureen is concerned, and has to accompany her back.

Snapshot-2015-12-03 at 10_46_59 AM-1421201657  They move on to a pub, where teetotal Maureen is ill-at-ease and drinks bitter lemon (“You never go off duty”). Snapshot-2015-12-03 at 10_58_09 AM-1823127265  The girls are joined by an unhappy older woman (“Would you think it very pushy of me if I joined you?”), Beryl (Jane Lowe), to the displeasure of Patricia: “I came here for a good time. Not to play nursemaid to a lush.”

Snapshot-2015-12-03 at 10_58_28 AM-1003267459  Maureen’s cousin arrives (“Surprise, surprise!), as arranged by Patricia.

Snapshot-2015-12-03 at 10_59_20 AM-2022070816

Patricia and the cousin get the teetotal Maureen drunk on spiked soft drinks, and leave Maureen talking to Beryl for the evening. Beryl it turns out, also works in a hospital and talks about her unhappy relationship with another health worker, Alex: “I’m still an attractive woman. Its not too late!” Maureen talks about going to Mass in London (“They say the words, but they don’t mean them.”) The play ends with the older woman’s long-suffering partner Alex arriving to carry her home, and the girls recognizing Alex as Sister Easby.

The details of this episode are commonplace – although when seen through 21st century eyes the final scene’s representation of a ‘typical’ 1975 London pub, complete with drag entertainment, seems like an outlandishly colourful, grotty, place, more Vauxhall Tavern than JD Weatherspoon’s – but the slow pace and sense of journey makes the story a quest narrative, creating a much greater sense of depth than a plain synopsis might suggest. Through the quest character is revealed, not just the character of the two students (the viewer’s accumulated narrative understanding of Patricia’s selfishness is more akin to reading a novel than watching TV), but also the character of mid-seventies Inner London itself.

Here’s how the story concludes –

This scene rewards the viewer for having paid attention to the accumulated detail over the previous 45 minutes, picking up not just plot strands such as the spiked drinks, and the major surprise of Sister Easby’s secret life becoming known in embarrassing circumstances, but also ideas that have been planted over the preceding story, particularly about duty and responsibility. In its skilful weaving together of small character details, hidden sexuality, and selfish behaviour, realised in a comic register, is distinct to Pat Hooker, and is a drama that found its ideal form in the conditions of British television in the 1970s.

Bibiography

Anon, ‘Playtime for Patricia’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 19 October 1960, p. 22.

Bakewell, Joan. ‘Six writers in search of six characters’, Radio Times, 30 August 1975, pp. 54-7.

Milne, Paula, ‘How six angels were born’, Listener, September 4, 1975, p. 302-3.

Muir, Nigel, ‘Edinburgh orders an Aust. play’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 December 1967. p. 55.

Selway, Jennifer, ‘THE WEEK IN VIEW: MONDAY’, Observer, Apr 26, 1981, p. 48.

(Text of a lecture given as part of the London Screenwriting Research Seminar series at The Institute of English Studies, Senate House, London on Thursday 3 December 2015. An abridged version given at ‘Doing Women’s Film and Television Histories III: Structures of Feeling’ conference at De Montfort University, Leicester, 18 May 2016.)

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Discussion

4 thoughts on “Pat Hooker: Writing for television in the 1970s

  1. Fascinating research on a little known writer. I was looking for another Pat Hooker and ended up reading this though it is not the person I was seeking. Good stuff.

    Posted by Mary O'Sullivan Rice | September 4, 2017, 7:27 am

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