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1970s BBC Julia Jones Play For Today

Play for Today: Back of Beyond

By Jon Dear

Written by Julia Jones, directed by Desmond Davis and produced by Graeme McDonald. Broadcast on BBC1 at 9.25pm on Thursday 14 November 1974.

Less than ten per cent of Plays for Today were written by women and four of those were by Julia Jones, yet she remains a largely neglected writer. A skilful adaptor of family and children’s drama, she also wrote for sitcoms and soaps as well as being the first woman to write an original British television drama series, Home and Away for Granada in 1972. One key characteristic of her work is the giving of a voice to the marginalised, be they women, the elderly or children. Jones’s writing also evokes a strong sense of place and explores how the landscape shapes the communities that live within them. Her first Play for Today, The Piano (28 January 1971), centres on an older woman’s pride and her need to be heard. The second, the James MacTaggart directed Still Waters (13 January 1972) looks at how long-term relationships can be renewed with fresh perspectives. The Stretch (25 June 1973) examines how a woman has changed and grown while her husband has been away in prison. And her final Play for Today, Back of Beyond tells the story of a schoolgirl who befriends a reclusive woman and in doing so encounters issues with which she’s entirely unequipped to deal.

Entirely shot on film in the Brecon Beacons, Back of Beyond’s director Desmond Davis had been a camera operator, working for, among others, John Huston and Walter Lassally before Tony Richardson brought him to Woodfall Films to work on A Taste of Honey (1961), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and multiple Oscar-winner Tom Jones (1963). He then graduated to directing the company’s adaptation of Edna O’Brien’s The Girl with Green Eyes (1964). This was something of a baptism of fire, with Peter Finch as his first leading man, but it also stood him in good stead for working with Rachel Roberts. There is, in fact, no real leading man to speak of in Back of Beyond. There’s Gareth (Edward Hardwicke)[1] and David (Michael Griffiths) but they are largely defined by their relationship with the young girl Rachel (Lynne Jones), her father and best friend respectively. This is a tale of two women.

The television and film landscape of Britain in the early 1970s was full of rural weirdness and Play for Today was no exception; however its offerings usually focussed on social dimensions. Robin Redbreast (10 December 1970) uses the tropes of what we now call folk horror to examine a woman’s place in society. Penda’s Fen (21 March 1974) utilises the pagan history of the Malvern Hills to help a teenager come to terms with his own identity. Rachel, like Penda’s Fen’s Spencer (Stephen Franklin), is no longer a child, but not yet an adult. Unlike Spencer she’s not suffering an existential crisis. She is seemingly happy in her life in the Brecon Beacons and it’s only innocent curiosity that brings her into contact with Olwen (Rachel Roberts).

We first see Olwen walking her dog in the hills; there’s a fierce wind and she’s rolling a cigarette (and there’s something defiantly unfeminine about the act, even though it was hardly uncommon). She looks down on the rural scene below before glancing up at the rolling clouds while John Addison’s music swells. She seems at one with her surroundings and totally isolated from everything else. The whole opening sequence is shot to seem as bleak and brooding as possible but there’s an abrupt lightening of tone as the focus switches to Rachel on her pre-school paper round. We see her enjoy some banter with her friend David before she arrives at Olwen’s cottage. Olwen is returning from her walk and hides at Rachel’s approach. Rachel calls to both Olwen and her dog, a friendly “coo-ee” and a “here boy”. Neither respond. Both dogs and lonely souls need time to trust. Presumably Rachel is new to this paper round as this seems to be her first encounter with Olwen, but it’s not Olwen’s first newspaper. The camera stays with Olwen and we follow her into her home; what seems quite a large abode from the outside is shown to be dark and pokey, at least in this front room/kitchen, the historical focus of life in a working-class home. Olwen takes the newspaper and removes the (unread) previous edition, placing it in a cupboard; this paper is not for reading. The cottage has no electricity or gas and Olwen retrieves water from the pump outside. Rural poverty was rife in Britain in the early to mid-70s and Back of Beyond was made at the midpoint of the political turbulence between the two General Elections in 1974. She lives in walking distance to the town of Hay-on-Wye but her home might as well be in the nineteenth century.

By contrast, Rachel’s world is full of bustle and noise; she and David have a mock argument about personal space as they are jostled in the corridor by their fellow pupils at the start of the school day. We then cut back to Olwen alone in her cottage; the silence is deafening yet no less oppressive. What makes this interesting is that Rachel is as aware of the contrasts as much as any viewer. She separately asks both of her parents how they would feel about living alone; their answers both betray the privilege of imagining the unlikely. Rachel’s mum, Megan (Diana Bishop) says she’d “quite fancy it…just sometimes”. Gareth talks about having a supply of books. The dreams of solitude are just that. Megan may seek escape from domestic drudgery and Gareth from the responsibility of being a Headmaster but there’s too much unspoken appreciation of the reality of Olwen’s lot for them ever to seriously consider a change of lifestyle. I’m reminded of Mark Corrigan in Peep Show: “I guess doing the things you hate is just the price you pay to avoid loneliness.”[2] The episode is also littered with examples of how people seek to domesticate various aspects of nature, from Gareth’s story of having to give a pig away because he’d grown too attached to it to slaughter for food to Rachel’s doomed chick. People can nurture but are quick to discard when it becomes an inconvenience. Rachel, of course, knows nothing of this and, with a childlike curiosity combined with the naïve simplicity of wanting to help someone she believes to be unhappy, begins to court Olwen’s attention. This involves first a childish prank and then a gift of wild flowers, which Olwen reciprocates with an egg left where Rachel will find it. Like forbidden lovers, these early nervous exchanges give little thought to consequences or opinions. One too young, the other too isolated.

Their first actual meeting is entirely accidental: Rachel and David run into her under a bridge. It’s suitably awkward but this sequence does a nice job of, ah, bridging the scenes with Rachel and her friends in the bucolic surroundings of the British countryside before we slowly dissolve into the howling night-time wind as Olwen lays awake in bed. As the episode progresses, we’ll return to the theme of Olwen’s cottage as a hostile, haunted space where she remains trapped with her memories. For this isn’t truly Olwen’s home, it is the place she left home for when she married. Her husband died in the War and she was left with her father-in-law.

We’re a third of the way through Back of Beyond’s brisk, hour-long running time before Olwen speaks, softly and reluctantly, but Rachel Roberts charges each scene with such emotion that words aren’t needed to convey Olwen’s plight. Roberts had risen to fame with the British New Wave; like Desmond Davis she had strong pedigree with Woodfall films, earning a Best Actress BAFTA for Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (1960). She would later repeat the feat for Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963), along with an Oscar nomination. The same year that Back of Beyond was broadcast she would reunite with her Woodfall co-star Albert Finney for Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974), perhaps the definitive adaptation of Agatha Christie’s most famous tale. But, by 1974, Rachel Robert’s life was in a downward spiral. She’d split with her second husband Rex Harrison in 1971 (she was his fourth wife), he’d quickly married her friend Elizabeth Rees-Williams[3] and she was now struggling with alcoholism, and had gained a reputation within the industry for her eccentric and embarrassing behaviour. She would die by apparent suicide in 1980. Watching Back of Beyond now gives an extra level of poignancy to Roberts’ performance, especially when she first opens a conversation with Rachel by talking about her husband and her regret at time cut short.

“But there weren’t so many Sundays.”

“Only one a week!”

“Yeah, well. Not so many weeks.”

Olwen is apparently named after the daughter of Ysbaddaden from Welsh mythology. In the Mabinogion story, Culhwch and Olwen, her father will die if she ever marries, so when Culhwch comes to court her, he is given a series of immensely difficult tasks which he must complete. With the help of his cousin King Arthur, Culhwch succeeds and Ysbaddaden dies, allowing Olwen to marry her suitor.[4]

Olwen talks of personal memories, things for which Rachel has no frame of reference, and she’s reduced to asking basic questions on the practicalities of living alone. And this is the central tragedy of the drama. All the town knows of Olwen “on the hill” but the only person that makes time for her is singularly unable to deal with the consequences of trying to  get to know her. “Playing Lady Bountiful isn’t she? Our Rachel”, comments her father. Are her family being shamed for their lack of interest in Olwen or are they simply concerned that she’s in over her head? Certainly Gareth talks of trifling with people’s feelings but admits he can’t find the words to describe what he really wants to say because confronting the reasons why he doesn’t want his daughter spending time with Olwen is to confront a society that’s happy to leave her in this situation.

 An old woman, living alone, cut off from society brings with her an historical anxiety. We’re 40 minutes into Back of Beyond before we hear the word “witch” and the resultant fear for a child’s safety that supposedly justifies such prejudice. A year later, “Murrain” (ITV, 27 July 1975), the Nigel Kneale scripted episode of Against the Crowd would be broadcast. It tells the story of a group of farmers who blame their livestock’s sickness on an old woman; when the local vet (David Simeon) investigates, he finds a woman living alone, friendless and in poverty. But there is something unusual about her. The drama there lies in the ambiguity of whether Mrs. Clemson (Una Brandon-Jones) really does have supernatural powers or not. Julia Jones has no need for such a set-up; there’s no question of there being anything otherworldly about Olwen. Olwen’s life has been shaped by men. The only way out of poverty was to marry and, after her husband’s death, she shared her father-in-law’s bed. Now she has to lie in it. And Rachel, already wobbling with peer pressure, is disgusted with the revelation and it’s Olwen’s turn to sound naïve.

“And that dirty old man…”

“No, he was clean.”

In later years Rachel may reflect on the patriarchal influences on her life choices, but here and now there is only the black and white certainty of youth and she uses her forthcoming half-term as an excuse to break off contact with Olwen. Yet Olwen waits for Rachel, as she waited for her husband, and with a similar outcome – only this time she doesn’t even have the dubious comfort of her father-in-law. Just an empty cottage haunted with memories and regret. Several of Rachel Roberts’ characters have tragic endings, and as Olwen takes a journey to a cliff edge from which she will never return, we can only reflect on the extra tragedy of knowing what was in store for Roberts.

As a former cameraman, Davis knows how he wants this shot. His cameraman on this, the highly experienced Peter Bartlett had worked on several Plays for Today including Edna, the Inebriate Woman (21 October 1971) and Leeds – United! (31 October 1974) as well as Peter Watkins’ controversial docudrama The War Game (1966). There are some beautiful details in frame and none more so than Rachel absently rolling a sweep wrapper like a cigarette paper as we’ve seen Olwen do throughout the story. A story largely carried by young people can be a tricky affair, but Lynne Jones does a marvellous job, especially as she carries the bulk of the dialogue. Back of Beyond was broadcast on 14 November 1974 to generally positive reviews, as much for the landscape as the story. “Compelling without being dispiriting” was the Daily Mail’s (15 November 1974) view. The Morning Star  (16 November 1974) called Julia Jones a writer of “unique style, quality and integrity”.

Labels limit as much as they explain but, if works like Robin Redbreast, Penda’s Fen and Murrain are categorised as folk horror, could Back of Beyond be filed under folk tragedy? At the start of this post I mentioned how Jones shows how the landscape shapes its inhabitants and here she demonstrates how deeply ingrained a society’s assumptions run. It doesn’t take much for childhood innocence to be hardened against an inconvenience.  As Gareth honestly puts it, “deep down, deep down, I don’t care tuppence what happens to Olwen”.

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

[1] Best known at the time for Colditz and now as Jeremy Brett’s second Dr. Watson for Granada’s Sherlock Holmes adaptations.

[2] Peep Show: Sectioning. Channel 4, 18 November 2005.

[3] She’s the mother of actors Jared, Jamie and Damien Harris

[4] See https://www.behindthename.com/name/olwen

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