By Tom May
Written by David Edgar, directed by Barry Davis and produced by Kenith Trodd. Broadcast on BBC1 at 9.25pm on Thursday 7 November 1974
David Edgar’s Baby Love is a significant addition to the Play for Today strand; it is an edgy, archetypally ‘underdog’-centred drama that addresses difficult, emotive issues. Directed by Barry Davis, it has a stark, uncomfortable quality which the audience, in contrast to many critics and BBC managers, embraced. As such it is an important example of an issue-based, socially-critical Play for Today that combines the Brechtian radicalism of the original stage play with the observational realism of 16mm film. Indeed, of the twenty-seven Plays for Today adapted from stage plays, Baby Love was only one of two during the strand’s fourteen-year run to be fully shot on film.
Baby Love was originally commissioned by Leeds Playhouse where it was first performed on 16 March 1973. It was subsequently staged at the Soho Poly Theatre in London in May when Patti Love took over the lead role of Eileen, a young woman who takes a baby from a pram following the loss of her own child. Love was from the same generation as Edgar and came to prominence in productions of works by Brecht, Wedekind and C.P. Taylor. Described as ‘an irreverent bubble of energy’ and, by herself, as ‘a bit manic’, she was retained for the television adaptation, in which her performance proves both immensely powerful yet subtly gradated.
The play’s subject-matter was familiar from contemporary news coverage and, in a rather unexpected piece in the Radio Times designed to promote the programme, Peter Gillman provided a three-page journalistic account of Pauline Jones’ conviction for ‘baby-snatching’ in 1971. In the same issue, Janet Suzman recommended the play as being ‘in the unbeatable British television tradition of mixing documentary and drama’, claiming that although it was ‘a fictional story’, it was nonetheless based on actual ‘cases of baby-snatching including the Pauline Jones case’.
While only a few details, such as Jones’s Catholic background, are directly echoed in Edgar’s play, these pieces succeeded in creating the impression that the play’s central character Eileen Millett represented a dramatised version of Pauline Jones. Jones’s lawyers took notice and, following a special screening provided by the BBC, Tim Ewbank reported in the Daily Mail that the broadcaster was ‘taking the unusual step of making a special announcement’ prior to the play’s transmission that ‘the story of a 19-year-old girl sent to prison for snatching a baby is not based on any one living person’. As Ewbank indicates, this meant that the play was broadcast uncut though the perception that the play was rooted in actual events survived.
The play itself, however, is best understood as a topical social-realist tragedy with Brechtian roots. It exemplifies what I call the Play for Today subcategory ‘RAID’ (radical, agitational, issue-based drama) with an added sense of inexorable catastrophe. In doing so, it builds on the example of David Mercer and Ken Loach’s Wednesday Play, In Two Minds (1 March 1967) which also examines the dehumanising effects of institutions when dealing with matters of mental health. In terms of style, Baby Love has a mean Average Shot Length (ASL) of fractionally under 10 seconds: about average for a fully filmed Play for Today. This fairly sedate cutting pace fits its theatrical origins but, given the use of film, the aesthetic feels more akin to ‘art’ cinema than commercial film practice. Its lack of musical underscore enhances the effect of unvarnished realism, while the absence of voice-over or on-screen captions informs Davis’s and Edgar’s non-didactic mode of address to the viewer, whose desired emotional responses are never simply telegraphed.
The story concerns Eileen Millett’s theft of baby Simon (James Noakes) from his pram outside a shop in the Lancashire seaside town of Morecambe following the loss of her own child, seven and a half months into the pregnancy. Due to the honesty of her boyfriend Shahid Das (Dev Sagoo), social security records and a nosy neighbour, the police trace Eileen to a flat and recover the missing child. She is then sentenced for her crime and, while incarcerated in a hospital, is treated by Dr Jim Sillitoe (Donald Gee), who at least initially aims to communicate with her rather than medicate her.
Ben Lamb has noted how Cathy Come Home (The Wednesday Play, BBC1, 26 November 1966) generated such goodwill due to its presentation of Cathy (Carol White) as an attractive, virtuous figure far away from cultural stereotypes of the feckless or aggressive working-class: a part of the ‘deserving’ rather than ‘undeserving’ poor. Patti Love’s performance as Eileen, however, suggests she is very far from Carol White’s ‘virtuous’ Cathy. Eileen speaks with casual, flat northern vowels, using the sort of northern sociolect common in British New Wave films and television soap operas: ‘you daft appeth!’ ‘nowt’ and ‘any road’. Initially bubbly and cheery, Eileen later self-presents as aggressive and ‘rough’, crudely discussing her boyfriend’s genitalia with the psychiatrist Dr Sillitoe, calling the benefits officer Mrs O’Brien (Rowena Cooper) a ‘stupid bitch’ and a policewoman a ‘sodding bitch’. As a result, she is presented as a far from sympathetic character but one whom the play nevertheless suggests still merits our understanding, particularly in light of the institutional forces arraigned against her.
Edgar’s play generally presents institutional authority, especially those of the modern welfare state, as aloof and uncaring; church, courtroom, prison, school, hospital, the social security system and the workplace are all subjected to criticism. Significantly, the end credits, as well as the Radio Times’ listing, do not apply first names to any of the authority figures and simply list ‘Detective’, ‘Assistant Governor’, ‘Priest’, ‘Doctor’, ‘First nurse’, ‘Second nurse’, ‘First policewoman’, ‘Second policewoman’ and ‘Reporter’. This indicates how such characters are conceived of as archetypal functionaries, or social types, that reveal the play’s residual Brechtian approach and highlight its concern with systems and institutions rather than individuals. However, their appearance when filmed in real welfare state locations – a hospital, a block of social housing flats, a police station – projects a social realism – and associated complexity – that the original play would have lacked. In this way, the realist aesthetic works against the character typing to change the emphasis of the play and temper Edgar’s institutional critique.
When confronted with figures of institutional authority, Eileen is wilfully defiant displaying what the prison officials refer to as ‘psychotic tendencies’. Love conveys Eileen’s refusal to recognise ‘right and wrong’ and anarchistic sense of defiance in refusing to accept the baby had a name ‘Simon’ and a real mother, insolently raising her eyebrows to a nurse and laughing about skiving at work and losing her job.The play specifically indicts the education system for its utilitarian narrowing of learners’ horizons. Those around Eileen have failed to help her gain practical skills or intellectual understanding of the society in which she lives. Her mother, furthermore, forced her into studying ‘domestic bleeding science’ at College where she was later expelled for not doing any work, prefiguring her sacking from her job at the carpet factory.
Dr. Sillitoe, who takes on the guise of unconventional white knight, echoes the radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing in arguing ‘you can treat people as people’. Furthermore, he ostentatiously boasts to Eileen that he won’t give her ‘electric shocks’ or medication, positioning himself as civilised and affable in offering her a cigarette to smoke. Yet, Sillitoe deftly exerts instrumental power over her while exuding a calm rationalism and reasonableness – ‘Look, I can’t help you if you’re shouting your head off’. This, however, is undermined later when he associates sex, bedsits, unemployment and sexual ‘degradation’ with Asians: ‘Where you lived, no job etc., thinking that sex is all you’re good for… That in your own eyes, you weren’t worth any more…’ It is possible to see Dr Sillitoe as a psychiatric fraud – he uses Laing’s ideas as a cover and ultimately acquiesces with the institution. However, he is seemingly more naïve than duplicitous: he believes in the ideas but lacks the communication skills and empathy to truly enact them.Indeed, the scene in which Dr Sillitoe questions Eileen regarding her Asian boyfriend Shahid will shock most 2020 viewers. After a brief appearance by an unspeaking black nurse, whose performance is uncredited, Eileen reveals that her mixed-race relationship is partially a rebellion against her socially conservative parents. There is a long, still take when she characterises her parents’ reaction had they found out and pokes fun at her parents’ implied racism. But, this is itself presented in highly problematic language and, although Shahid himself is presented in a sympathetic manner, the play is weakened by his departure from the narrative after the baby is found and Eileen is imprisoned.
Eileen is eventually pacified when Dr Sillitoe gives up on his ‘talking cure’ approach, assenting finally to the Assistant Governor’s decision to medicate her. Sillitoe feebly says he will review the case in a week, but he ends the scene tongue-tied. Soon after, there is a close-up shot of a syringe which we then see the nurses use to sedate Eileen. Aesthetically, Baby Love is sometimes strikingly Brechtian. Davis’s mise-en-scène regularly conveys a spatial sense of entrapment and unequal power relations: during her arrest following her discovery by the police, for example, Eileen leans unsteadily against the wall like an overwhelmed marionette, towered over by the detective and restrained by the policewoman.Near the end of the play, Barry Davis frames a tableau of a defenceless Eileen reduced to a state of utter dependence; this follows her defiant Laingian claim that they aren’t seeing ‘me… You are looking at a problem!’ Her earlier defiance and irreverence is replaced by her submissive positioning in the mise-en-scène, loomed over by nurses who address her in a babying tone. This works as dramatic irony: earlier, Eileen had used identical language with the baby. Davis’s stark framing captures in objective, Brechtian terms a societal defeat and a breakdown in human understanding. However, this also moves the viewer on a realist, humanist level, due to the cumulative power of Love’s performance and its situation within a tangible hospital location.
The reactions of television critics to Baby Love were finely balanced. James Thomas of the Daily Express baulked at its realism; while claiming to be ‘assured’ by the programme makers that the ‘baby appeared came to no harm’, he ‘found it disturbing to see a real infant being screamed over by a distraught actress while police closed in to get it away from her […] for the sake of realism in a TV show’. However, he did praise how Edgar ‘presented a tough case against the State machine which he sees steam-rollering the anguished girl who resorts to baby stealing as a cry for help’.
Peter Fiddick, in the Guardian, echoed Thomas’s concern over the realistic use of the baby, but also criticised its caricatured characterisation as a legacy of its fringe theatre origins. Edgar’s ‘stiff, pre-committed dialogue’ produced ‘cardboard’ authority figures such as a ‘deliberately crass psychologist’, ‘B-feature detective’ and ‘bitch governor’. Fiddick claimed there was little insight into the social problem and that we aren’t left any the ‘wiser’ about Eileen’s inner workings. Peter Lennon also suggested in the Sunday Times that the play was unsuccessful in navigating its ‘emotionally complex material but nonetheless acknowledged how it was dominated by Patti Love’s ‘creepily convincing portrait […] of a girl in an unredeemable mess’.
Rather surprisingly, the Daily Mail was more positive about Baby Love than the Guardian. Shaun Usher saw it as ‘a powerful and disturbing drama’ filled with ‘sparks and ozone from naked nerve ends short-circuiting into violent action and screams of rage or frustration’. Usher saw Love’s ‘frenzies’ as ‘judged though never obviously calculated, conveying Eileen’s wildness, vulnerability and near-animal quality’, noting Edgar’s ‘obvious theme’ that jail neutralises criminals but does nothing to address psychological maladies. While Usher is critical of the ‘nightmarish’ ending which felt to him like ‘Evelyn Waugh satire among pages of observed reality’, he nonetheless saw it as ‘a responsible and potent work, a fairly rare blend of social studies and harrowing drama’. Peter Knight of the Daily Telegraph also regarded Baby Love as ‘deeply moving’, ‘intentionally harrowing’ and ‘a compelling production difficult perhaps to enjoy but easy to admire for its documentary realism.’ He praised the production for ‘wisely’ never trying to ‘milk audience sympathy’ for Eileen, making her ‘sluttish, dim-witted and drab’, but who Patti Love ‘brought […] to life with shattering impact’.
The play was also discussed by BBC management as part of their internal Television Weekly Programme Review. Alasdair Milne (Director of Programmes, Television) praised Patti Love’s ‘marvellous performance’ but saw its positioning in the Play for Today series the week after Leeds United! as lacking in ideological balance (as well as relying on ‘caricature authority figures’). Head of Plays Christopher Morahan took responsibility for this scheduling but blamed ‘the industrial situation’ which meant the ‘Plays Department was working from hand to mouth’, leaving him with little choice. The Managing Director of Television, Huw Wheldon, expressed doubts over the play’s acquisition given that it ‘had not been all that outstanding as a London stage play’. Morahan responded that this ‘faithful transcription’ deserved a wider audience as ‘a compassionate and provocative story’ of great public interest and topicality but conceded it ‘had not been totally successful’. Milne, however, was not persuaded and ended the meeting by suggesting that story editors and producers were not sufficiently ‘monitoring’ or seeing ‘the implications’ of ‘the scripts that they handled’.
Although the BBC received a number of telephone calls suggesting that the baby in the play had been ‘cruelly used’, the public generally seemed to approve of this undoubtedly uncomfortable Play for Today. Baby Love achieved an audience of 5.71 million, which amounted to a 34.4 per-cent share of television viewing.  This was somewhat higher than the 1974-75 series average, and was also nearly double the ratings that David Edgar’s later, and more celebrated, Play for Today, Destiny, achieved in its first screening. Eighty per-cent of the BBC audience research sample watched the whole play (which also received a higher than average Reaction Index of 67) and generally responded ‘enthusiastically’, finding it ‘unsentimental (though moving)’ and an ‘all-too-true, plausible representation of a present day situation’. A small minority found it ‘sordid and depressing’, while a larger number – a third – echoed BBC management in seeing it as unfair to the authorities represented. The performances were, however, acclaimed, with Patti Love receiving ‘superlatives’ from viewers such as ‘magnificent’, ‘superb’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘agonisingly convincing’.
Baby Love is a very talky drama, with an unadorned, spare visual style. Barry Davis’s long takes provide the actors with the time and space to enact the human conflicts that are at central to its troubling content. It retains the influence of radical theatre in its Brechtian use of social types to investigate societal ills though these were mainly perceived as ‘caricatures’ by the BBC management. Edgar and Davis, however, avoid one-sided polemic, making Eileen complicated and dramatising a difficult situation that is open to more than one interpretation. Eileen is no saint, nor a scrounger, while Patti Love’s portrait of a northern working-class woman struggling and failing in exceptional circumstances complicates and deepens what could have been too deterministic a social drama. Both a realist tragedy and a Brechtian critique of the Welfare State that raised a mix of legal, institutional and socio-political issues, Baby Love is a fascinating Play for Today that should be more widely seen today.
BBC copyright content reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.
Tom May is a Post-Graduate Researcher at Northumbria University, in his second year of study of a funded PhD research project constructing a history and analysis of Play for Today with attention to its aesthetics and style, representation and reception. He also blogs at May’s Britain and Opening Negotiations.
 The other was John McGrath’s version of his stage play with 7:84 company, The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil (6 June 1974). Overall, the theatre-adapted Plays for Today make up 9.2 per-cent of the total Play for Today output.
 J. Cunningham, ‘The body and soul of Love’, Guardian, 6 October 1981, 10.
 J. Suzman, ‘Preview’, Radio Times, 31 October 1974, 5. Peter Gillman’s piece is in the same issue: 9, 11 and 13.
 T. Ewbank, ‘PICK OF THE DAY: People who steal people’, Daily Mail, 7 November 1974, 23. See also the letter from Victor Mischcon and Co., Pauline Jones’s London solicitors, to the Radio Times, 21 November 1974, 80.
 B. Lamb, ‘Cathy Come Off Benefits: A comparative ideological analysis of Cathy Come Home and Benefits Street’, 2016, 17 [Online] Available at: https://research.tees.ac.uk/files/4034271/595935.pdf [accessed: 30 June 2020].
 J. Thomas, ‘Did they have to use a real baby for this snatch scene?’ Daily Express, 8 November 1974, 12.
 P. Fiddick, ‘Television’, Guardian, 8 November 1974, 10.
 P. Lennon, ‘Light on dark continents’, Sunday Times, 10 November 1974, 36.
 S. Usher, ‘Pity her, this girl whose crime is love’, Daily Mail, 8 November 1974, 23.
 P. Knight, ‘Patti Love makes the nerve ends tingle’, Daily Telegraph, 8 November 1974, 13.
 Television Weekly Programme Review, 13 November 1974, 8 [BBC Written Archives]
 Television Weekly Programme Review, 13 November 1974, 2 [BBCWritten Archives]
 Figures come from the BBC’s Daily Viewing Barometer, 7 November 1974. The Reaction Index and subsequent quotes come from BBC Audience Research Report, ‘Baby Love’, 3 December 1974 [BBC Written Archives].