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1970s BBC drama John Bowen Play For Today Writers

Play for Today: A Photograph

By Jon Dear

Written by John Bowen, directed by John Glenister and produced by Graeme McDonald. Broadcast on BBC1 at 9.25pm on Tuesday 22 March 1977.

The Radio Times listing for A Photograph states:

Michael Otway has everything to live for, but he is going to die. His life is elegant, his marriage comfortable, his career successful. But from the moment an inexplicable photograph arrives in the morning post all that world is to be turned upside down.[1]

As we shall see, that’s not an entirely accurate description. Michael’s life is turned upside down but his marriage is certainly not comfortable. Less a sequel than a spin-off from Bowen’s first Play for Today, Robin Redbreast (10 December 1970), A Photograph shares the earlier play’s concerns with the themes of broken relationships but more directly focuses on the central character’s marriage and suburban life.[2] In the earlier play, Norah (Anna Cropper[3]) is already separated and looking to restart her life away from her previous urban existence. In doing so she discovers a renewed sense of purpose but also encounters a rural world governed by different beliefs and hidden motives. The rural world in A Photograph  forms more of a background presence, but is no less alien and powerful in its manipulation of the central character. The framed narrative, beginning with a prolepsis that reveals the man we’ll come to know as Michael Otway (played by Bowen regular John Stride) dead and abandoned in a caravan, shows that Bowen has no interest in creating tension around Michael’s ultimate fate, opting instead to focus on the circumstances that cause him to dig his own grave.

A Photograph was John Bowen’s third Play for Today. In addition to Robin Redbreast, he also wrote the now missing The Emergency Channel (8 November 1973) for the fourth season. Bowen was also a successful playwright and novelist but in between publishing A World Elsewhere (1965) and Squeak (1983) he wrote mainly for television. A common concern  throughout his work are the things unsaid between people in close relationships and the isolation that results. He also likes to bring the fraudulent and the arrogant down a peg or two and examine ‘the conflict between rationality and instinct’.[4] While these are evident in both Robin Redbreast and A Photograph, his contribution to the Dead of Night series A Woman Sobbing (BBC, 17 December 1972), the story of a lonely housewife tormented to destruction by the sounds of a woman crying in the attic of her home, is also relevant. The three plays form a loose trilogy that examine the effects of isolation, both mental and physical, on their central female characters: three women, out of place, abandoned and manipulated. Both Jane (Anna Massey) in A Woman Sobbing and Gillian (Stephanie Turner) in A Photograph are fobbed off with pills and psychiatry by husbands unable or unwilling to help. Indeed, Jane describes her psychiatrist writing down the precise time she cried during her session, something we actually see happening to Gillian. And while Jane’s husband Frank (Ronald Hines) damns their relationship with faint praise, ‘I’m really rather fond of Jane’, Michael’s behaviour is something else altogether.  While A Woman Sobbing has much of the Gothic about it, A Photograph owes more to Greek tragedy[5]. However, while Michael may be the architect of his own fate, Gillian also possesses more agency than it might at first appear.

Michael Otway (John Stride)

We start as we mean to go on by seeing not only Michael’s body but also a hare strung up awaiting preparation. Judging from the abandoned food, Michael’s been here a little while. We also hear the end of the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 on the radio and the presenter informs us that it was actually his second Concerto ‘owing to the fact his second concerto was actually his first’.  Beethoven’s Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major was originally written a decade before Concerto No. 1 in C major but was heavily rewritten before they were both published in 1801. Should such minutiae concern us? Well, that largely depends on how you feel about what Michael did for a living.

As in Robin Redbreast, the title and writer credit are displayed over a photograph. In the earlier production the photograph was of Norah’s cottage (in reality John Bowen’s own), which acted as an economic scene-setter, the provenance of which is irrelevant. Here in A Photograph we see the blurred image of two seated figures outside a caravan, and the provenance of this photograph is the plot. Director John Glenister remembers that he and John Bowen had to fight to keep the title from being changed to The Photograph on the grounds that A Photograph was too vague. ‘I said to them that’s the whole point! Anyway, we won…It had to be part of the mystery more.’[6]

The rest of the story is told in flashback. Michael is making breakfast for himself and Gillian in their stylish, modern suburban home. We don’t hear anything specific about their neighbourhood but, thanks to the partially completed postcode on a newly-delivered letter along with a stamp from the Post Office reminding people to use it fully, we at least know we are in Islington, with its emerging associations with the ‘liberal middle class’. Bowen’s dialogue leaves us in no doubt as to how the viewer should regard Michael. ‘If only one could give to charity without having to read the literature’, he complains, as if donating to Amnesty International absolves him of having to know the details of why his donation matters. Michael continues with cheap wordplay. ‘It’s too early in the morning’, Gillian tells him, ‘save it for your column’. Michael’s a man with a professional persona, even in the intimate space of the bedroom with his wife. The photograph in question, now seen more clearly, doesn’t yield too many answers; the two young people appear to be women and there may be someone at the window to the front. Anyway, it doesn’t mean anything to Michael who assumes it was sent by a fan. The following exchange then takes place:

Michael: It’s odd, they don’t look like fans. I mean you can’t imagine these two reading the posher papers or listening to Radio 3 or watching arts programmes on the telly.

Gillian: Oh don’t be so conceited Mike.

Michael: That’s not conceit, they don’t look as if…

Gillian: Well why should everybody look as if..

Michael: Don’t be so tetchy love.

Gillian: Well it’s ridiculous. You and your ‘fans’. There was that woman from Hove. And anyway, why should a fan..?

Michael: I DON’T KNOW!

The moment Michael’s prejudice is called out he goes on the attack and accuses his wife of undue emotion and, given what we learn about Gillian’s mental state, he knows that this will hurt. So we now know Michael is a writer, a snob and a bully. When Gillian questions if he has been ‘up to something’, Michael’s response is that they’re ‘not his type’. Yet this isn’t borne out by what we later learn about him. He likes to have flings and Gillian was, in her own words, ‘a bit of skirt’ he picked up from a teacher training college during a lecture tour. He married her because she became pregnant but then she lost the baby. He resents her, not for the failed pregnancy but for putting him in a position where he had to marry her. Gillian knows all this of course and believes Michael is trying to force her into suicide because he can’t afford to divorce her. We also know Gillian is lonely; like Norah and Jane before her she’s on medication, and she’s recently started seeing a psychiatrist, so this could well be jumping to a worst-case conclusion.

Bowen often likes to paint every person and situation in so many shades of grey. This is evident, for example, in the hypocrisy and incompetence demonstrated on both sides of the conflicts in his various episodes of The Guardians (1971) and the first Armchair Thriller, Rachel in Danger (1978).  But there is little ambiguity in the way in which the viewer is invited to view Michael. Vicky (Judy Monahan), the young hitchhiker he picks up, calls him out on his abuses of power and hypocrisy, recognising that his travels over the Warwickshire countryside in search of the mysterious caravan in the photograph, and whomever he should meet along the way, are for him little more than an adventure and a short-term distraction made possible by his privileged position as a freelance critic. Michael doesn’t like having to deal with consequences of his actions.

Hitchhiker Vicky (Judy Monahan) and Michael (John Stride)

Of course, centring the play on this most negative of characters begs the question as to how Bowen then views his own profession. Like Michael, Norah in Robin Redbreast works in the media and is a script editor for television. Although there is little focus on her professional life in the television play, the character first appeared in Bowen’s novel, The Birdcage (1962), a good example of how Bowen liked to recycle ideas, themes and characters during the course of his career. The Birdcage is littered with the casual sexism that Nora faces both in her work life and in the wider world, so it seems fair to assume that Michael is also seen to exemplify this oppressive culture. Michael, in this regard, may be read as the personification of all the privileged, manipulative, misogynistic people that Bowen had encountered professionally. It is interesting to note, for example, that Robin Redbreast was originally rejected by the BBC’s Head of Series and Serials,  Andrew Osborn, because, according to Bowen, we are shown Norah’s contraceptive cap. ‘Men of a certain age and class at that time could not accept that a woman should be in charge of her own body’, Bowen later commented. ‘The idea that a woman should put a barrier between her eggs and their sperm – no way! It was a direct threat to their own masculinity.[7]

Michael’s profession is illustrated by recorded snippets from his radio programmes. The first we hear in the conclusion to his talk on the Morlocks, the antagonists from H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), in the fictitious series ‘Imagery of the Archetype’ (which is no doubt on the same station that concerns itself with the back story of the numbering of Beethoven’s piano concertos). He explains how the Morlocks are an extrapolation of the Victorian working classes within the capitalist system of the time, offering a commentary on poverty,  but which can now be read as the dark side of human nature. John Glenister uses a lot of close-ups throughout A Photograph, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere, and in this scene in particular we focus on Gillian as she listens to the broadcast. Framed in the immediate foreground she’s obviously unimpressed by Michael’s conclusions.  And little wonder. Concluding the Morlocks are reflections of our darker sides appears to ignore the fact that inequality and poverty were still a major social concern in 1977 (as in 2020) and relieves the social system and middle classes of responsibility for it.  In this way, Bowen’s play indicts the type of people he identifies as overseeing the country’s cultural landscape. So when Michael finds the caravan – thanks to the local knowledge of an enthusiastic Christian evangelist (Raymond Mason) – and meets the people who may be regarded as contemporary Morlocks in the flesh, they, to all intents and purposes, eat him.  That’s what Morlocks do.

Mrs Vigo (Freda Bamford) and her boy (Eric Deacon)

We’ve seen inside the caravan throughout the play. Mrs. Vigo (Freda Bamford) – a character we encounter in Robin Redbreast but here shown in very different circumstances[8] – and her son (Eric Deacon) initially seem separate from the plot but are obviously connected to it. The first time we encounter them he’s inexpertly reading a local newspaper article about a recent spate of pet killings, for which he may or not be responsible. They are clearly presented as grotesques rather than a realistic portrayal of the rural working class in late 1970s England and may, perhaps, be read as Michael’s projection of the rural poor. There is, however, a danger of Bowen trying to have his cake and eat it. Although Mrs. Vigo and her boy may, at one level, be regarded as dark agents of social justice (or the metaphoric return of the repressed) they are also presented in a way that undercuts the element of social critique. In line with the play’s employment of horror elements, what little we see of rural life in A Photograph is more akin to the cannibalistic family encountered in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) than the more overt social commentary of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Tales (1888, and adapted by the BBC in 1973).

The clues are there

How much of a surprise the viewer finds the final revelation that Mrs. Vigo and her boy are Gillian’s mother and brother (she told Michael she had no family), that Michael’s been having an affair with the brother and the photograph was an elaborate trap to ensnare Michael, depends on how much attention the viewer has been paying. The clues are there: the photograph being doctored, the tattoo, the alabaster heart.  A Photograph rewards multiple viewings, which is a shame given the ephemerality of television in the 1970s and the play’s apparent lack of a repeat. The reviews, as a consequence, were mixed. ‘I shall not give you precise precis of the story for this would make it apparent that I didn’t altogether follow it’, wrote Nancy Banks-Smith in the Guardian (23 March 1977). ‘This thriller was less successful than the earlier “Robin Redbreast” because the clever dialogue could not mask the improbabilities of the plot’, thought Sylvia Clayton of the Daily Telegraph (23 March 1977). ‘Quite apart from the ritual violence’, she went on, ‘Otway’s sudden decision to spend days driving through Midland country lanes to identify a mysterious photograph was never satisfactorily explained’. The Daily Mail’s Shaun Usher added:  ‘’UNDERDEVELOPED’ is the snide reaction to John Bowen’s A Photograph (BBC1), for it was one of those exasperating plays where the author knows what is going on, yet is unable or unwilling to share the information’.[9] The general consensus from the critics seems to be that the play was well-performed but the ending was little understood. No doubt John Bowen was unsurprised.

Stephanie Turner as Gillian Otway

A Photograph seems destined to be overshadowed by Robin Redbreast, even before the so-called ‘folk horror revival’ of the last decade introduced some of Bowen’s other work to a new audience. It was seemingly too subtle, too intricate, too demanding of the viewer to garner the same kind of acclaim. Similar criticisms were levelled at The Ice House (BBC, 25 December 1978), his original piece for the final regular BBC Ghost Story for Christmas. I’ve argued elsewhere that this story would work better as a Play for Today, away from the trappings of, and expectations associated with, Christmas. I hope the forthcoming BFI Blu-Ray release will go some way to re-addressing this balance because I think A Photograph is due wider recognition. Bowen plays with audience expectations and keeps motivations obscured whilst leaving you in no doubt as to the real villain of the piece. Not everything works. Gillian’s fling with her colleague, Fred (Will Knightley), for instance, doesn’t fit as well as it might largely due to the fact that the sub-plot is primarily used as a way for Stephanie Turner to provide a lot of the exposition. There’s also possibly too much going on here for the viewer to take on board in a single viewing. Bowen’s regular themes of isolation and control are combined with elements of social criticism involving the media, social class and sexuality but don’t entirely cohere.[10] However,  there are faultless performances from the entire cast, especially Stephanie Turner, who in an unnervingly tense scene towards the end first expresses genuine joy that Michael has come home and seemingly walked away from the trap that has been set for him before coming to a horrified realisation that he intends to return despite her desperate attempts to change his mind. Like an inverse of Cold Comfort Farm, Michael’s discussion with Mrs. Vigo about his job and thus his value to society shows just how shallow modern culture sits in the multi-layered English landscape and how singularly unequipped most of us are to deal with anything deeper. A Photograph now feels more relevant than ever.

Jon Dear is a freelance writer on television and film. You can find more of his writing at https://viewsfromahill.com/ He also hosts BERGCAST, a podcast on Nigel Kneale which can be found at bergcast.room207press.com.

Thanks to John Glenister, Toby Hadoke, Andy Murray and Dr. Jo Botting.

[1] Radio Times, 19-25 March 1977, p.45.

[2] There’s a second spin-off, the two-part Dark Secret (18 and 25 January 1981), part of ITV’s Sunday Night Thriller series, which partly acts as a sequel to A Photograph.

[3] Although not a part of A Photograph, Anna Cropper would make an appearance on BBC1 on the same day it was broadcast in an episode of A Place Like Home, a part of the Television Club series for children with learning difficulties. This was written by David Cook who also happened to be John Bowen’s partner (Radio Times, 19-25 March 1977, p. 43).

[4] Interview with John Bowen, Robin Redbreast DVD (BFI DVD997, 2013).

[5] It is however worth noting that Bowen adapted Sheridan Le Fanu’s The House of the Dragon Volant (1872) as The Flying Dragon (5 November 1966), part of the second series of ATV’s Mystery and Imagination. The story concerns a man falling into an elaborate trap and being immobilised by poison.

[6] Conversation with the author, 24 August 2020.

[7] Introduction by John Bowen to a screening of Robin Redbreast, Cornerhouse (now HOME), Manchester, 28 October 2007.

[8] As with Norah Palmer in The Birdcage, Bowen would occasionally reuse characters in slightly different circumstances.

[9] Reviews taken from press cuttings held in the BFI Reuben Library.

[10] The revelation that the person with whom Michael has been having an affair is a man is so subtle that it can be missed on first viewing. At one level, the revelation of the main character’s bisexuality involves a degree of subversiveness for a mainstream drama made at this time. On the other hand, Michael’s unacknowledged homosexuality partly provides an ‘explanation’ of many of his personal shortcomings which rather undercuts the more ‘positive’ aspects of its appearance in the play.

2 replies on “Play for Today: A Photograph”

The plot, and staging of this play, gives it something of the same feel as a contemporaneous Brian Clements Thriller (ATV) tale – only with a much higher level of intelligence and more interesting dialogue! But the mystery of the anonymous photo sent in the post is really compelling in its own right, and works in the same way. I like what Robert Hardy had to say about it in the Radio Times:

“a fine example of how the visual short story, rightly exploited, can offer plot and character in great detail and at the same time set the imagination spinning. It is gripping as a mystery, alarmingly real in terms of character, and frightening on many levels, probably most in its suspicion of a deep gulf between the attitude and habits of urban sophistication, ancient beliefs and values of the country”

John Stride is one of my favourite TV actors of this period, but did he ever play a character who didn’t have a high opinion of himself? Right from his first Armchair Theatre (Late Summer) as a disagreeable toyboy in 1963, to Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, to the egomaniac Welsh author in Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils? John Bowen writes for him again very soon after in the also-horrifying The Ice House. Of all the possible professions there is something particularly amusing about seeing an arts journalist and broadcaster uncomprehended and taken apart by rustic pagans.

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