By Tom May
Written by Colin Welland, directed by Michael Apted and produced by Graeme McDonald. Broadcast on BBC1 at 9.25pm on Monday 22 January 1973
When leaving my last job as a lecturer in a Further Education College, I enjoyed a pint with soon-to-be former colleagues in the Town Wall pub in Newcastle upon Tyne in late August 2018. I was about to start my three-year studentship researching a history of Play for Today, while the others were about to start another year of teaching A Levels. I remember one chat with an Art lecturer born in the 1950s; I asked him which Plays for Today he most remembered. Without hesitation, he replied: Kisses at Fifty…
Colin Welland was an art teacher who went into acting at the age of 26. He was one of many Play for Today writers who had initially worked in education from the 1950s that included David Turner, Brian Clark, Peter Terson, Brian Glover, Trevor Griffiths, Neville Smith, Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell. Welland became established as a TV playwright with his plays for ITV’s ‘Saturday Night Theatre’, Bangelstein’s Boys (18 January 1969) and Slattery’s Mounted Foot (20 June 1970), along with two powerful dramas broadcast the same week: his first Play for Today, The Hallelujah Handshake (17 December 1970), and another ‘Saturday Night Theatre’, Roll On Four O’Clock (ITV, 19 December 1970).
In England and Wales in 1972, the number of divorces increased by 44,588 to 119,025: the largest ever increase, exceeding the previous record in 1947. This followed a sizeable upturn in 1971, clearly influenced by the 1969 Divorce Reform Act. This had made divorce more attainable and affordable for ordinary people who could now cite ‘irretrievable breakdown’ for a range of reasons, rather than having to prove adultery in court – a previously arduous and complex process. In 1974, a quarter of the divorces women obtained were due to their husbands’ adultery; instead of divorce, Welland dramatised marital breakdown and separation.
Kisses at Fifty is set in ‘Ravenswike’ in the then West Riding of Yorkshire: its main locations the Woodman pub and the Cook house are in Heckmondwike and Liversedge, within Kirklees. For this judicious, complex drama, Michael Apted was enlisted to direct; his work on the magnificent Up documentary series (1963- ) meant he was ideally suited for a dramatic anatomy of people in a northern working-class town adjusting to contemporary social changes. Fifty-year-old Harry Cook (Bill Maynard) commits adultery with Audrey (Marjorie Yates), having fallen out of love with his wife of twenty years Rene (Rosemarie Dunham), while being alienated from his dull, manual labour as a furnace stoker in a dye factory. His younger daughter, the 17 year-old Helen (Maureen Callaghan) is planning to get married to Kevin (Andrew Beaumont): a subplot subtly juxtaposed with the breakdown of Harry and Rene’s marriage.
Welland’s play dramatises adultery, permissiveness and separation with a liberal understanding of individual foibles and desires and a concern for open communication. Yet, there is no self-congratulation or smugness: the tone is humane and wide-ranging. Bill Maynard gives a magnificent performance, within an ensemble which Welland had a say in casting. Alongside Dunham and Yates are two generations of local northern battle-axes: Pat Wallis as the Woodman’s barmaid Flo and Lori Wells as the sharp, blunt-speaking daughter Sandra Cook.
The private and domestic becomes a taut and claustrophobic battleground of looks, silences and also plaintive, open discussions. Apted conveys distinctively northern spaces with a Territorial Army barracks, church, pub, railway station and steeply sloping hills. His view of the pinched chimneys does not aestheticise them as some British New Wave films do. This complements Welland’s inclusion of rough-and-ready insults: a policeman (David Bradley) uses a casually racist descriptor while Flo and Sandra deride Audrey’s sexual promiscuity.
Though we see an authentic filmed exterior ‘THE WOODMAN’, the public house interior is shot on video. Apted realises Welland’s exceptionally detailed stage directions, creating, in the writer’s words, ‘communal vigour in a studio’ and ‘a pub that’s actually living in the studio, not with stone-faced extras getting up and walking out on signals.’ The ensemble’s Coronation Street-flavoured jocular badinage and feisty confrontations take place in a simultaneously cosy and spiky space. Harry and his friends, including George (John Comer), customarily unwind in the comforting miasma of the tap room. While celebrating his fiftieth birthday, Harry, egged on by ‘the lads’, kisses barmaid Audrey for a laugh. This precipitates a passionate affair.
Welland creates a panoramic canvas of this West Riding community as it reacts in conflicting ways to Harry’s adultery. In an incendiary scene, Sandra storms into the pub and has it out with Audrey and disowns her dad: this has an intensity ranking with soap opera at its best. Harry decides to leave, absconding with Audrey to a city where they aren’t known – probably Leeds – where he wakes, after sleeping rough, in a railway station.
Rene visits the welfare agencies, now lacking Harry’s non-beer-earmarked income; he sends her irregular postal orders. The Social Security clerk (Kathy Proctor) iterates bland, unfeeling officialdom, echoing Cathy Come Home (1966) and anticipating David Edgar’s depiction of officialdom in Baby Love (1974). Individual identity and personal agency are crushed, signified by the way in which the actress performs her staid, rule-bound character’s lines in a middle-class accent. She has internalised the characteristics her occupation ‘needs’. Welland depicts Rene and Harry as individuals exasperatedly pitted against an aloof, judgemental system; typically, his plays ‘usually champion the individual against the system’.
Harry’s work life is monotonous – he leaves his work shovelling at the dye factory’s furnace and then gets a job transporting crates. His work remains arduous, while Audrey now works at a cocktail bar. Two months later, Play for Today evoked a similar sense of alienation from unpaid and paid drudgery in Mike Leigh’s Hard Labour (12 March 1973) and Barry Hines’s Speech Day (26 March 1973). That Harry lives for leisure and passion makes emotional sense. The play’s vernacular quality is enhanced by use of three non-diegetic songs by the North Country folk band The Oldham Tinkers, who periodically comment on the action with gallows humour, empathy for the underdog and carpe diem attitude.
Despite implacable opposition from the fiery Sandra, Helen asks Harry to give her away at the wedding, which Audrey fully supports. At the pre-wedding party, Enid (Elizabeth Dawn) explains, movingly, her solidarity with Rene whom she has been taking out: ‘Bingo, boozer, showing ’er life’s worth living…’ The Cooks’ go-getting son Chris (James Hazeldine) is back from London. Harry re-enters his old home, greeted by stony silence from the guests, as in a Western stand-off. However, Helen has a long, wide-ranging discussion with her Dad and comes to an understanding. She faces the suspicious community and emotionally affirms her will: ‘Are you LISTENING!? […] That was me dad, he’s back and he’s giving me away tomorrow, and I’m glad…’ Apted immediately cuts away to the wedding, emphasising Helen’s triumph in including Harry: avoiding any reaction shots from the party guests.
At the wedding, Harry gives Helen away, to her visible joy. Welland accentuates humorous dramatic irony when the Vicar (Fred McNaughton) cautions about ‘carnal lusts and appetites’. While he speaks, Apted presents successive medium close-ups: Harry frowning thoughtfully; Sandra looking down in shame. Harry takes his place in the family assemblage for the wedding photos, but is generally ignored except by Chris, who invites him to stay with him in ‘The Smoke’. Harry slips off and boards the Leeds-bound train.
While Kisses at Fifty is clearly not an overt issue-based drama, it does dramatise the social issue of adultery and marital breakdown in all its human complexity. Apted’s camera has a probing, socially-critical gaze which complements Welland’s empathy for these northern characters whom he preferred writing about to southerners as they ‘wear their hearts on their sleeves, are far more communicative, far more honest’.
When broadcast in January 1973, Kisses at Fifty gained an impressive audience of 7.47 million. With a 42.8 per cent share of television viewers to ITV’s 38.8, it was the only episode in Play for Today’s 1972/73 run to outscore the ITV opposition. This is particularly notable as the 1972/73 series had the lowest average viewing figures – albeit a still reasonable 4.1 million – of any Wednesday Play or Play for Today series.
From the eight reviews consulted, the critical reaction was unanimously positive. Welland was consistently praised, while three-quarters of critics drew attention to Michael Apted’s direction. Sheldon Larry identified how it was ‘carved through a documentary maker’s eye’ while Michael Ratcliffe referred to the ‘pub scenes, the wedding preparations, camera moving in close and free among natural and gifted players’ as ‘superb’, and reflecting ‘great informality and good humour’. The casting was universally admired. Nancy Banks-Smith extolled Bill Maynard’s ‘great glowing performance whose foundations must have been laid long ago when he was a music hall comedian’ while Sean Day-Lewis claimed Rosemarie Dunham gave ‘the best of many well-judged performances’. Larry praised Lori Wells’s performance as Sandra: ‘Wronged, self-righteous, she too found a measure of that human grandeur which preoccupies Mr Welland in his writing.’
Critical discourses also emphasised Kisses at Fifty’s truth to life. Peter Black commended ‘its realism’, and drew attention to how Welland and Apted brought off ‘an extraordinary illusion of life’ that ‘rang true as an honest look’ at what such an affair would mean in a working-class setting. James Thomas argued the characters ‘ring very true’ and that North-set plays like this were ‘a good deal more solid and more real’ than most set in suburbia. Larry and Ratcliffe noted its far from idealised presentation of the affair and its unpatronising view of a working-class community; the former praised its sense of ‘reality’ and avoidance of ‘denominators of absolute good or evil’ while the latter acclaimed its naturalness: ‘it just happened’. Clive James saw it as ‘a serious play, finely executed’ lacking in ‘artifice’. However, Banks-Smith partly disagreed, claiming the women were two-dimensional compared with the men though she concluded by stressing the play’s ‘great vigour and warmth’.
In the BBC management’s weekly programme review, Tony Preston from Outside Broadcasts – described in the minutes, jokily, as ‘aged 44’ – claimed to have ‘been enthralled throughout’. Head of Plays Christopher Morahan was ‘pleased’ with a ‘moving, truthful and compassionate’ drama, lent irony by The Oldham Tinkers’ music. Bill Cotton and others ‘warmly’ commended the performances by Maynard, Dunham and Yates. Controller of BBC1 Paul Fox sounded the only adverse note in questioning ‘the language at one or two moments’. Managing Director of Television Huw Wheldon, claimed he would also have done so had the play ‘not been so extremely good’. This demonstrated how the BBC afforded a greater license to expletives as a result of a value judgement of overall quality rather than on the grounds of ‘realism’.
Among the audience, there was some antipathy, with one in six echoing Fox in disliking ‘so much bad language’, saying of Sandra: ‘once Colin Welland had made the point that the elder daughter swore, did it really require a bloody, damn, bugger, etc. every sentence she spoke?’ A ‘small group’ also found it ‘sordid and dreary’ and disliked such ‘slices of life’. However, the overall response was ‘cordial’: ‘This was solid, ‘jam-butty’ Welland handling a difficult subject ‘with skill and understanding’’. It was received as successful realism: most saw Bill Maynard’s ‘believable’ portrayal as a ‘revelation’ while some gave ‘a special word of praise’ for Lori Wells. The play has ‘a feeling of authenticity’, its ‘Northern working-class environment was vividly conveyed […] such a realistic setting in terms of people and life’. Viewers appreciated the play’s wise worldliness: ‘Like it or not, these things did happen, and the play had depicted the reactions of ordinary people to such a situation in a most convincing manner […] this is what life is, not what some writers would have us believe’. A remarkable 93 per cent watched all the way through or switched on and stayed with it. While there is no official Reaction Index, the report gives an audience ‘Reaction Profile’ across four indices which, when calculated, gives an equivalent figure of 81 per cent, exceptionally high for a Play for Today.
Kisses at Fifty motivated significant public reaction, constituting a minor ‘media event’: the BBC received 19 phone call ‘appreciations’, alongside 46 letters ‘objecting to the language’. Echoing the moralistic faction within the audience sample, one of six letter writers published in the Radio Times about Kisses at Fifty criticised the quantity of ‘blasphemies and oaths’, attempting the witticism that it should have been set in Chapel-influenced industrial Wales which would ‘could have reduced it by one-third’. Welland replied wryly that ‘Those fellows I stood amongst on the terraces at Cardiff Arms Park must have been Northerners in disguise’ and noted the letter-writer’s confusion of Lancashire and Yorkshire. A teenage girl from Bideford called for a ‘more positive approach to Western society’, criticising Welland’s depiction of marital breakdown. Welland replied courteously that he didn’t think more divorces would destroy Western society but merely change it, ‘perhaps for the benefit of Harrys and Renes’.
More typical were the Leeds and Surrey letter-writers who praised the play’s ‘pure entertainment’ and how the ‘great writer’ Welland had captured ‘down-to-earth, day-to-day life as only [he] could see it’; his ‘territory is the minutiae of working-class life, his foe condescension, his weapons truth, honesty and compassion’. Another Leeds scribe was grateful for Welland’s ‘guts’ in providing a rare television dramatisation of a ‘sincere, true-to-life situation’, while Mrs J. Walker from County Antrim warmly thanked Welland and all concerned for making her cry.
Such was the acclaim for Kisses at Fifty that Colin Welland appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs that summer: symbolically accepted into the cultural establishment. This regard extended to industry awards: the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and television critics in the Broadcasting Press Guild hailed it as the best teleplay of 1973, while the Society of Film and Television Arts gave Michael Apted an award for best single play direction.
Kisses at Fifty has so far been repeated twice: on BBC1 on 20 December 1973 and on BBC2 on 11 August 1993. Given its consistently outstanding reception, it seems unnecessarily parsimonious that Kisses at Fifty has received so many fewer repeats than certain Alan Bennett and Mike Leigh Plays for Today. It was briefly available in 2017 to buy from BBC Store before that platform’s closure, which enabled my first viewing. In 1985, Welland refashioned Kisses at Fifty for Hollywood, scripting Twice in a Lifetime, with Bud Yorkin directing. This was set in a ‘decaying […] industrial suburb’ of Seattle and starred Gene Hackman as steelworker Harry MacKenzie, who falls for Audrey Minelli (Ann-Margret) on his fiftieth birthday and walks out on his wife Kate (Ellen Burstyn). This film was generally received as Welland’s unsuccessful, if interesting, attempt at updating and culturally translating the play to America.
Kisses at Fifty achieved a vigorous, heightened realism, intensely pertinent in its 1973 context but which remains universally resonant today. Michael Apted’s masterly, hybrid use of film and video perfectly complements Welland’s textured presentation of raw, deeper truths beyond surface realism. It is a true slice of northern life, a tonic to the formulaic Slices of Life or romanticised dramas to which audiences were used. ‘Solid, jam-butty Welland’ constitutes one of the richest repasts in Play for Today’s history.
Tom May is a postgraduate researcher at Northumbria University, in his third 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.
BBC copyright content reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.
 Anon, DATABLOG: Divorce rates data, 1858 to now: how has it changed?, Guardian, 28 January 2010 [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/jan/28/divorce-rates-marriage-ons#data [Accessed: 10 September 2020]
 Paul Madden and David Wilson, ‘The Communal Touch’, Sight and Sound, Spring 1975, 118.
 This was actually filmed in Windsor and Eton station, but the accent of David Bradley, playing a policeman in this scene, suggests the North.
 Significantly, Play for Today’s next outscoring of ITV opposition came with Colin Welland’s next contribution, Jack Point (1 November 1973).
 S. Larry, ‘KISSES AT FIFTY’,The Stage and Television Today, 25 January 1973, 14; M. Ratcliffe, ‘Kisses at Fifty’, Times, 23 January 1973, 13.
 N. Banks-Smith, ‘Television’, Guardian, 23 January 1973, 10; S. Day-Lewis, ‘Elopement at fifty skilful play theme’, Daily Telegraph, 23 January 1973, 15.
 Larry op. cit.
 P. Black, ‘Entertainment/2’, Daily Mail, 23 January 1973, 17.
 J. Thomas, ‘Stealing a kiss at 50’, Daily Express, 23 January 1973, 8.
 Larry op. cit; Ratcliffe op. cit.
 C. James, ‘When life begins at fifty’, Observer, 28 January 1973, 32.
 Banks-Smith op. cit.
 BBC Television Weekly Programme Review minutes, 24 January 1973, 12. [BBC Written Archives].
 The subsequent quotes and Reaction Profile data come from BBC Audience Research Report, ‘Kisses at Fifty’, 19 December 1973 [BBC Written Archives, VR/73/49].
 BBC Television Weekly Programme Review minutes, 31 January 1973, 2. [BBC WAC].
 Letters, ‘Welland’s view of middle-aged marriage’, Radio Times, 8 February 1973, 58.
 Anon, ‘’A Touch of Class’ wins three prizes for writers’, The Times, 15 May 1974, 2; Anon, ‘Top TV awards’, Guardian, 4 March 1974, 7; BBC Handbook 1975 Incorporating the Annual Report and Accounts 1973-74. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1974, 31.
 P. French, ‘Gotland Bomb party’, Observer, 11 January 1987, 21.