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1970s 1980s BBC drama Paula MIlne Play For Today Writers

Two Plays for Today by Paula Milne

Of the 298 plays shown as part of Play for Today from 1970-84 just 34 were written by women.[1] 26 women writers, in total, contributed to Play for Today, several writing two plays (Julia Jones wrote four). One of these writers was Paula Milne, whose two Plays for Today were broadcast in 1982. They came after ten years writing for popular series such as Crossroads (ITV, 1964-88), Angels (BBC, 1975-83), Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-), Rooms (ITV, 1974-77), Z Cars (BBC, 1962-78), Crown Court (ITV, 1972-84) and Juliet Bravo (BBC, 1980-85). Milne was one of eight women writers to contribute to the twelfth series of Play for Today in 1981-82, the largest number by far to contribute to any Play for Today series. In contrast, only two women writers contributed to series 11, even though that series contained 26 plays, four more than series 12, and Milne was one of two women writers on the much shorter thirteenth series (8 plays) in 1982-83.

A Sudden Wrench (23 March 1982)

Throughout her career Milne has shown a concern to foreground the lives of women in her dramas and her two Plays for Today were no exception. The title of her first play, A Sudden Wrench, has a double meaning, referring to the effort bored housewife Christine (Rosemary Martin) makes to get herself out of the domestic rut in which she finds herself, and also to the new career – plumbing – on which she embarks, at the age of 43, in an attempt to reinvigorate her life. Her feminist daughter, Polly (Sasha Mitchell), recognising that her mother is trapped in domestic drudgery, persuades her to attend a meeting where a speaker is talking on the subject of ‘Women Against Apathy’, after which Christine starts thinking about the speaker’s suggestion that change needs to start in the home and the next day sets about installing new radiators in the house, a task which her husband has been putting off. She continues working into the evening, while the family eat a takeaway, and carries on the following day, eventually completing the work and successfully igniting the boiler as the family gather to celebrate her success with champagne.

A Sudden Wrench

The following day, however, Christine is back doing the housework. While out shopping she sees an advert for a plumber’s mate and goes to a building site, where the foreman reluctantly takes her on. On her first day she feels like an outsider as the men laugh at her difficulties on the job and play cards together at lunch while she eats her sandwiches alone. When she sees her son David (Jesse Birdsall) with his schoolmates he ignores her, seemingly embarrassed at the job she is doing, but he defends her against Polly’s criticism that equality is about more than getting a job. When the site architect tells the foreman they have installed the wrong radiators, Christine gets him out of a fix by working out the heat-loss calculations that night, while Polly cooks dinner. Her efforts win her acceptance by the men and the play ends with Christine eating her lunch with a smile.

Speaking on Archive on Four: Play for Today (BBC Radio 4, 17 October 2020), a programme marking the 50th anniversary of the first edition of Play for Today, Milne explained the intention behind A Sudden Wrench:

It started like this: I was in a supermarket and I was queuing up with all the other women and we all looked so tired. I wanted to reach them, but I didn’t want to depict women as victims. I wanted to depict an ordinary woman who picked herself up and did something and she just had this simple task which was to put in her own central heating which turned into a kind of marathon epic. I wanted it to be truthful and intelligent, but I wanted it to be warm and quite funny.

She also talked about how she was inspired to write for Play for Today after seeing Trevor Griffiths’ Through the Night (1975), a play about the insensitive treatment a woman receives when she is referred to hospital with a lump in her breast:

One of the reasons you’re interviewing me is because it was very rare to have women writers, but it was equally rare to see issues like cancer and mastectomy that Trevor Griffiths tackled in that. It wasn’t just a maudlin piece, as I remember, about a woman having cancer, it was a piece about a woman in the kind of institution of medicine in a hospital and having to some extent survive and fight her corner, and I think that’s partly what inspired me to want to write a Play for Today myself.

While many of the better-known Plays for Today were shot on film, A Sudden Wrench was recorded on video, giving it a visual quality resembling much of Milne’s previous work for popular drama series, as opposed to the grainy social realism of Jim Allen’s United Kingdom (1981) or Mike Leigh’s Home Sweet Home (1982), both of which were in the same Play for Today season as A Sudden Wrench.  An early directorial assignment for Jon Amiel, who went on to direct Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986) and a number of Hollywood movies, A Sudden Wrench may lack the dramatic qualities of some of the more canonic Plays for Today but it made an important intervention, along with plays like Rachel Billington’s Don’t Be Silly (1979) and Janey Preger’s Under the Skin (1982), in the predominantly masculinist tradition of Play for Today. While the feminist message may occasionally seem laboured, especially in the consciousness-raising ‘Women Against Apathy’ meeting, Milne was writing for the ordinary housewife represented by Christine rather than women already committed to the cause. As such the play represents an important departure in her work, paving the way for her examinations of women in a man’s world in the eight-part Driving Ambition (BBC, 1984), which also featured Rosemary Martin in the central role, Chandler and Co. (BBC, 1994-95) and The Politician’s Wife (Channel 4, 1995).

John David (23 November 1982)

Milne’s second Play for Today was adapted from the novel she wrote after giving birth to a Down’s Syndrome baby and was clearly a very personal subject for her. Like Judith (Dearbhla Molloy) in the play, Milne let her own Down’s Syndrome baby be taken into care, and he died five months later. Speaking about the experience in 1982 Milne said, ‘I refused to allow myself to feel anything for him: it was a battle for survival between the baby and me. My quality of life or his quality of life: I felt relief when he died’ (The Guardian, 27 March 1982).

The drama explores the struggle Milne obviously went through in making such a difficult decision, dramatising her real-life experience in order to explore social attitudes towards ‘mongol’ children (as both Judith and her husband refer to the baby in the play) and the ethical issues involved in rejecting Down’s Syndrome babies and putting them into care. As she said of the novel on which the play is based: ‘I felt that… by fictionalising the experience I could broaden the debate’ (ibid).

Consequently a range of views are represented, from the doctors and nurses in the hospital (one nurse criticises her decision, saying that some people would consider it a privilege to have such a child), to friends and relatives, one of whom writes to Judith saying ‘You can’t return imperfect children like a pair of shoes that don’t fit’. More controversially, Judith’s sympathetic mother proposes to adopt the baby with the apparent intention of killing him, in order to relieve her daughter of the guilt she feels at rejecting him.

No other drama in Milne’s long and prolific career so profoundly interweaves personal experience with social and ethical concerns. The encounters with doctors, nurses, social workers and the registrar of births and deaths are all portrayed dispassionately. At the registrar’s office Judith arbitrarily names the baby ‘John David’, combining the registrar’s name and the name of an artist she sees on a painting in the registrar’s office. Indeed, Judith’s unequivocal rejection of the baby is rather chilling, Dearbhla Molloy giving a magnificently icy performance, suppressing all emotion until the last few seconds of the play, when Judith finally allows her grief to emerge after the baby has died.

Judith (Dearbhla Molloy) in John David

Whereas A Sudden Wrench took a lighter approach towards the issue of a woman’s emancipation, John David was firmly in the tradition of social realism associated with an issue-based Play for Today. Having drawn on the dramatic values of popular drama series for her first original play, with John David Milne set out to tackle a controversial subject head-on. As such, the play stands alongside such canonic male-authored Plays for Today as Jeremy Sandford’s Edna, the Inebriate Woman (1971), Griffiths’ Through the Night and Jim Allen’s The Spongers (1978), while contributing to an alternative canon of female-authored plays, including Nemone Lethbridge’s Baby Blues (1973), Julia Jones’ Back of Beyond (1974), Jehane Markham’s Nina (1978), Rachel Billington’s Don’t Be Silly, Carol Bunyan’s Sorry (1981) and Rosemary Davies’ No Visible Scar (1981).  

Paula Milne’s Plays for Today were a stepping-stone between her writing for popular drama series in the 1970s and the original serials and single dramas she wrote subsequently, many of which were award-winning. From early in her career Milne established a reputation as a feminist writer because of her concern for dealing with ‘women’s issues’ in soaps and popular series and her original dramas and serials consolidated that reputation. Still active after five decades – her most recent serial, The Same Sky (ZDF, 2017), is currently screening on More4 –  Milne has outlasted many of the male writers in whose shadow she spent the first two decades of her career, having created a body of work which is generically diverse but thematically consistent in placing women at the centre of the narratives.

The Same Sky (2017)

Lez Cooke

(This is a revised version of essays previously published on Screenonline)

[1] 32 of these were original plays and two were adaptations (by Vera Blackwell) of plays by Vaclav Havel. One more play was co-written by a woman and two women were among the nine writers credited on Easy Go (7 March 1974). In addition, two plays (written by men) were based on novels written by women. The total of 298 plays does not include plays that were commissioned for Play for Today but not shown as part of the series or plays first shown in other series and repeated as Plays for Today.

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