“I want to say first that whenever I wrote a play, comedy or otherwise, I felt I must have an underlying theme which had something relevant to say about the times. Also to give women a fair crack of the whip.” (Julia Jones, 5 April 2005)
So began an email that the television writer Julia Jones, who died on 9 October 2015, sent me in April 2005. I had invited her to a symposium on regional television drama but a virus prevented her from attending. Instead she sent me an email about her work, particularly Home and Away, the serial she wrote for Granada Television in the early 1970s.
Julia Jones was one of relatively few women writing for television in the 1960s and 70s. Her first play, The Navigators, was one of the first Wednesday Plays to be transmitted, in January 1965, and it was followed by other plays for Theatre 625, Thirty-Minute Theatre, Armchair Theatre, Saturday Night Theatre and Play for Today. She also wrote for popular series such as Take Three Girls (BBC1, 1969-71) and The Duchess of Duke Street (BBC1, 1976-77), adapted many novels, including Anne of Green Gables (1972), Our Mutual Friend (1976), Quiet as a Nun (1978), The Snow Spider (1988) and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories (1995-97), and wrote three original serials, including Home and Away (1972), the first serial to be written by a woman on British television.
Julia Jones was born in Liverpool, in 1923. During the Second World War, while working for the Auxiliary Territorial Service, she developed an interest in amateur dramatics and after the war she got an Alexander Korda scholarship to go to RADA. But she felt out of place there and left after two years to join Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, with whom she travelled to Czechoslovakia and Sweden. After that she got married, had two children and started writing children’s stories. In the 1960s she acted in a number of television plays and series, including Coronation Street and Emergency – Ward 10, but when her husband, the actor Edmund Bennett, got ill she started writing for television as a way to earn extra money.
She wrote several plays for the BBC from 1965-68 including It’s a Bit of a Crucifixion, Father (30 October 1968), a controversial Wednesday Play about the issue of abortion for Catholic women. Around the same time she wrote her first play for Granada, called Penny Wise (6 August 1968), about a middle-class woman from Hampstead who moves to the north where she works as a volunteer for social services, taking meals to the elderly. Shortly after this, producer Ken Trodd commissioned Jones to write two plays for London Weekend Television: The Piano Tuner (8 March 1969), directed by Alan Clarke, and Faith and Henry (6 December 1969), directed by Jack Gold.
When Trodd went to Granada in 1970 on a two-year contract he asked Jones if she would be interested in writing a series about ‘a woman of our time’. This was to be a response to the successful Rediffusion series called A Man of Our Times (1968), featuring George Cole. Jones immediately said yes. As she told me in 2005:
“It proved a very interesting project. I settled on a heroine in her early forties whose children were maturing and moving away. She began to feel half-used. Her life was comfortable, her husband had made money as a scrap merchant, she didn’t need to work but she began to look for fulfilment outside the home – to some protest from husband and children. However, she was not deterred, took up again her shorthand and typing and got a job as a PA to a highly successful management consultant whose work took him abroad a lot.” (Julia Jones, 5 April 2005)
On the scripts that are held in the Julia Jones Special Collection at the BFI the serial was provisionally called Nothing to Lose and the episodes are referred to as ‘Play One’, ‘Play Two’, etc, suggesting that she saw the serial as a series of plays about a middle-aged woman who feels unfulfilled and has ‘nothing to lose’ by seeking to change her life now that her four children are growing up. While there is continuity from episode to episode the serial is not narrative driven and there are no cliff-hangers at the end of each episode. Rather each of the ‘plays’ deal with a stage in the ‘re-birth’ of Brenda Wort as an independent woman.
The first episode begins with a domestic breakfast-table scene, where it’s noticeable that Brenda (Gillian Raine) is required to serve breakfast for her husband Godfrey (Tony Melody), as she usually does, even though it’s her 42nd birthday. It’s also their 21st wedding anniversary and the awareness that Brenda married when she was 21 and that another 21 years have now passed reinforces the sense of an ending and a new beginning which the serial explores.
The first two episodes of Home and Away were directed by Donald McWhinnie and are mostly recorded in the studio, although there are some scenes shot on location on film, most notably those involving Godfrey at work. It’s clear that Godfrey is the breadwinner and his income has enabled them to buy a comfortable mock Tudor house. The domestic scenes, where Brenda is initially seen, are all recorded in the studio. Domestic space is largely associated with Brenda while Godfrey’s space is the garage where he works and his social club, scenes which are filmed on location. When Brenda visits Godfrey at work it’s made clear this is a rare event and Godfrey is uncomfortable with Brenda visiting him and encroaching on his space.
The focus in the domestic scenes is very much on Brenda, with lots of zooming-in to close-ups on her face for emphasis, as when she makes a telephone call to the local employment agency to enquire about getting a job. Brenda is clearly bored at home and is seeking a change. In the final part of the first episode she has a job interview and while the woman who interviews her doesn’t think she’s suitable her male boss tells her to employ Brenda, saying “She’s fairly intelligent – and old and plain – which is what I want.” We subsequently learn that he is a womaniser and does not want the ‘distraction’ of having a young woman working for him. Husband Godfrey, however, is not at all happy about Brenda going out to work.
In the second episode Brenda’s job is having an impact on her family life. She stays at work to do overtime, forgetting she has the family’s dinner with her, and her youngest son (a young Peter Firth) cooks dinner in her absence. That evening she goes to see her old school friend, Agnes (June Brown), who she now employs as her cleaner. Agnes has six children and is looked down upon by Godfrey and Brenda’s friends but for Brenda she’s not just her cleaner, she’s her confidante, and a woman with hidden depths. When Brenda calls round to see her Agnes is reading Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?
‘A Risky Virtue’ (ep.2)
In her email to me Julia Jones said that, in 1948, she had toured Czechoslovakia with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop:
“The country had just voted in a Communist government. We went from there to Sweden, neutral after the war. It was an extraordinary experience of culture ‘shock’. I asked Ken [Trodd] might there be a chance of filming abroad. He thought it a possibility and I suggested Sweden, thinking we’d never get behind the iron curtain. Then I told him about my experiences in Czechoslovakia. Ken decided to have a go at breaking through the iron curtain and Granada generously said why not? Czechoslovakia wouldn’t wear it but Poland said yes…” (Julia Jones, 5 April 2005)
Ken Trodd brought in Roy Battersby, with whom he had worked at Granada on Colin Welland’s Roll on Four O’Clock (1970), to direct the scenes set in Poland and Julia Jones wrote an extra episode to accommodate all of the scenes they wanted to film there. Jones had originally set the scene where Brenda first goes on a working trip with her boss in Dover, but rewrote it to be set in Poland when Trodd got the okay from Granada to film abroad.
Like Trodd, Roy Battersby had a radical reputation, being involved with the Worker’s Revolutionary Party in the 1960s, and the choice of Battersby to direct the Poland scenes had a radical effect on Home and Away. Battersby’s first episode, ‘What is to be done’, taking its title from Lenin, is largely filmed in Warsaw, with just a few studio scenes set in the Wort household. The difference is signalled immediately when, after a short scene in which Godfrey is shown alone at home, the episode cuts to Brenda waking up in a hotel in Warsaw before going out onto the streets. These scenes are filmed in a naturalistic style – the cameraman was Tony Imi, who was cameraman on Ken Loach’s Up the Junction (1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966), and these scenes are shot in a similar verite style. As an indication of the difference in style there is no dialogue for the first seven minutes of episode 3 as Brenda walks the streets of Warsaw, before she joins her boss for breakfast in the hotel.
‘What is to be done’ (ep.3)
This radical change in style signals a departure from any expectation of the serial as a domestic, largely studio-based drama. It also helps to explain the change of title from ‘Nothing to Lose’ to Home and Away. The scenes in Poland provide the ‘culture shock’ for Brenda which Julia Jones had experienced when she travelled abroad with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop after the war. There are long sequences shot on film in Warsaw, intercut with scenes shot on film at Godfrey’s garage, giving an equivalence between Brenda and Godfrey in terms of the visual gravitas that film carries that wasn’t the case in the first two episodes when Brenda was mainly seen in domestic studio scenes.
In a recent email to me Roy Battersby explained how he had long been influenced by the films of the Polish film-maker Andrzej Wajda and wanted Warsaw to be ‘the hero of the story’ in order to communicate the effect it had on Brenda:
“Being in Poland for the first exploratory visit affected me deeply. Wajda’s early work (The trilogy Generation, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds) had been especially influential in my early years of trying to become a film maker. (In fact I had Wajda on my shoulder through my working life.) Visiting for the first time an ‘iron curtain country’, talking with Krystoff Zanussi and others, with actors and technicians, having been so impressed with Czech and Hungarian cinema, being active at that time as an anti-Stalinist communist, I easily felt something of the powerful affects Warsaw and Poland might have on Julia’s protagonist. I wanted Warsaw to be the hero of the story, experiencing it deepening the growing struggle for independence and selfhood in her, strengthening her by its bravery and suffering and enduring.” (Roy Battersby, 11 May 2016)
This was emphasised in the extraordinary opening sequence of episode 4, ‘Past Talking To’, a sequence which takes Home and Away well beyond the realms of conventional British serial drama. It opens with an observational sequence of present-day (1972) Poland, lasting nearly four minutes, accompanied by Chopin piano music, before a shot of memorials to Polish people who died in the Second World War signals a transition to a sequence using B&W archive footage of the devastation of Warsaw during the war, the piano music being replaced by a more unsettling score, before cutting to show Brenda walking along a street with the female manager of the factory which her boss has been asked to redesign.
Again there is no dialogue in the first five and a half minutes of the episode and the sequence with Brenda and the factory manager continues for another seven minutes, with the street scenes filmed in an observational documentary style, much of it in long shot, before they go to the manager’s apartment for a meal. The manager talks to Brenda in broken English, speaking much more than she did with Brenda’s boss, in a scene which firmly shifts the focus onto the two women and away from the ostensible reason for Brenda being in Poland, which is to assist her boss on a working trip. Brenda tells the factory manager that she likes Warsaw and that the old town, which has been rebuilt after the war, is “like the past talking to the future”, a phrase which gives the episode its title.
‘Past Talking To’ (ep.4)
Brenda returns from Poland a changed woman and the relationship with Godfrey deteriorates, so much so that in episode 5 she moves out of the family home into a flat. Episodes 5 and 7 were directed by Vivian Matalon, who directed Julia Jones’ first television play, The Navigators, while episode 6, in which Brenda visits her eldest son Walter in York where he’s at university, is directed by Roy Battersby. Once again there’s a distinct difference in style with the scenes in York filmed in an observational documentary style, while most of Matalon’s two episodes are recorded in the studio.
Home and Away provides an interesting test for the auteur theory in television drama. The serial is clearly authored by Julia Jones, even if the original idea for a serial about ‘a woman of our times’ came from producer Ken Trodd. There were clearly some autobiographical elements in the serial: she drew on her experience of going to Czechoslovakia with Theatre Workshop, an experience which she said had changed the way she looked at the world, just as it did for Brenda in the serial. Jones had taken time out from her acting career to raise a family and then embarked on a new career writing for television, not just writing episodes for series but writing original television plays. As she said in 1981:
“I have written a lot for series and I enjoy it. To some extent I can introduce my own ideas, but I can’t put my own individual thing, the thing I want to say, into a series episode. So the single, original play must be kept alive.” (Television Today, 11 June 1981)
With Home and Away Jones had the opportunity to write a long-form drama, even if she saw it as a series of ‘plays’, and relished the opportunity to “develop theme and character well beyond what’s possible in 75 minutes.” Home and Away in fact amounts to nearly six hours of screen time and for Jones it was “a tremendous commission because it proved I really could write.” (Television Today, 11 June 1981)
The writing in Home and Away is certainly very accomplished and there’s an interesting gender division, with the men – husband Godfrey and her boss – speaking in an elliptical, often abrupt manner, while the women, especially Brenda, speak not only intelligently but also eloquently. But the three directors clearly had different styles and put their own imprint on the serial. As Julia Jones said in her email to me:
“They worked in very different ways but Ken kept things under control and they gelled together very well after very vigorous and interesting discussions in the early stages of the production.” (Julia Jones, 5 April 2005)
It would be interesting to know the nature of those ‘vigorous and interesting discussions’. The contribution of Roy Battersby, in particular, was significant because his observational verite approach, filming on location, took the serial in a different direction and the episodes he directed in Poland and in York stand apart from the other episodes, the Polish episodes in particular emphasising the ‘culture shock’ that Brenda experiences with their long dialogue-free verite sequences. These sequences, especially the opening of episode 4, seem authored more by Battersby than they do by Julia Jones, although Jones clearly did some rewriting to accommodate the decision to film in Poland, turning the opportunity to her advantage and making what was already an interesting ‘feminist’ serial into something that had extra resonance because of Poland’s experience of the holocaust, which is referred to in the serial, and because of Poland’s post-war history as a communist country.
Home and Away is not just another ‘forgotten’ drama. It’s an exceptional, original serial written by a neglected female author, on the feminist subject of a woman’s quest for independence, which has been unduly neglected for the last 40 years. In fact, when I watched the serial last year at the British Film Institute it was the first time the serial had been viewed since the BFI acquired it in the 1990s and possibly the first time it has been watched by anybody since it was transmitted 44 years ago. It’s a serial which deserves a wider audience.
(This is a slightly longer version of a paper given at the Doing Women’s Film and Television History conference, Phoenix Cinema, Leicester, 18 May 2016)