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1970s BBC Northern Ireland Play For Today Wilson John Haire

Play for Today: The Dandelion Clock

By Simon Farquhar

Written by Wilson John Haire, produced by Ann Scott and directed by John Bruce. Broadcast at 9.25pm on Thursday, 15 May 1975.

Despite being one of the first television dramas to be set amidst the Troubles, Wilson John Haire’s simple and sincere The Dandelion Clock, broadcast on 15 May 1975, has been unfairly airbrushed out of history, a process that, astoundingly, seemed to begin during the play’s pre-production. It is the only play from Play for Today’s fifth season not to exist in the BBC Archives; and only one subsequent Play for Today was deliberately junked, the following year’s Children of the Sun (18 November 1975).

The play was created at a turbulent time for the Play for Today production office. The two producers who had dominated the first five years of the series’ run, Graeme McDonald and Irene Shubik, were preparing to leave the series, as was McDonald’s trusted script editor Ann Scott, after graduating to a producer role. Kenith Trodd had recently joined the programme, and a tougher, more political and more experimental bent was apparent in his productions, more in line with the reputation of the series’ predecessor, The Wednesday Play, an attitude that would continue with approaching producers Margaret Matheson and, later, Richard Eyre. The strand was also beginning to host work from other producers and production centres, such as Mark Shivas’ exemplary and gentle production of the romance 84, Charing Cross Road (4 November 1975), and BBC Scotland’s handsome and award-winning Lewis Grassic Gibbon dramatisation, Clay, Smeddum and Greenden (24 February 1976). The Dandelion Clock was a play in the eye of this storm, Graeme McDonald acting as the original producer, until leaving the production and Ann Scott taking over.

hairertdandAnn Scott was also the producer of Haire’s first play for television, Letter from a Soldier (27 February 1975), a short piece for BBC2’s Centre Play that was actually commissioned after The Dandelion Clock but broadcast before it. It too no longer exists. According to Haire, “it was about a soldier in Northern Ireland suffering post-traumatic-stress disorder when he gets home to London and becomes a burden on his mother, younger brother and girlfriend”. “I had seen veterans from World War One when I was a boy in Northern Ireland”, he went on, “who were still suffering from the effects of that war. It was called shell-shock then. In London in the 1970s, I came across a former soldier who had served in Belfast and who was shell-shocked, so I wrote a play about him and sent it to the BBC unsolicited.”[1]

“I wanted to write about all the protagonists in the Northern Ireland war situation – the British Army, Loyalist paramilitaries, Provisional IRA – as human beings. Someone at the BBC found it acceptable to be writing about a British Army soldier but certainly not about a Provo. I could have written propaganda, but I wasn’t willing to do that. Fortunately, the National Theatre did let me write my Provo bit, which was maybe more Peter Hall than the National. The critics were scathing. That one short play probably damaged my theatre-writing career.”[2]

The Dandelion Clock is described by Haire as “a simple enough story about a young Protestant girl who bunks off school for the day and wanders through the city of Belfast, into areas she has never been in before, meeting kids of her own age but of a different culture, that she has not come across before. The year is 1974, a year which saw some of the worse violence hit the city”.  We follow Suzy (Verona O’Hara) around the city for a day as she searches a war zone for her father (Tony Doyle), and she in turn is searched for by her angry mother, forthright grandmother and protective grandfather, the mood constantly alternating between extraordinary tension and everyday boredom. The play ends on a positive note:  Suzy is reunited with her father, who comforts rather than scolds her. The play’s stark tenderness and compassion, free of recrimination, the camera pulling back on father and daughter embracing as a final image, seals The Dandelion Clock as a human story with heart and hope.

The play’s simplicity and spontaneity remind one of similar revelatory play-in-a-day pieces such as Peter McDougall’s Just Another Saturday (13 March 1975), The Elephants’ Graveyard (12 October 1976) and Just a Boys’ Game (8 November 1979), and Stewart Parker’s Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain (24 November 1981) (the latter also directed by John Bruce), two of which are also set against a backdrop of sectarian division, one in Glasgow, one in Belfast. However, all four of these productions, deeply entrenched in environments rarely presented authentically in television drama, were made on film.

“I wrote The Dandelion Clock as a film, not realising that I was writing a film, and the BBC producers decided it should be shot on location in Belfast. This would have been the first time a film of this kind would be shot during what was basically a war going on, as armoured cars and armoured jeeps roamed the streets and soldiers with rifles at the ready patrolled, to say nothing of the armed Royal Ulster Constabulary. Two or three bombs were going off before breakfast, and bodies were being found up alleyways. Most people felt their lives to be in danger, and we were going to make this film in the streets, and those streets would not be in the city centre but in both Catholic and Protestant areas. The cast was mixed; they weren’t picked because of their religious backgrounds,  that just happened. So how to protect them?”

dandpic“The BBC thought of having the police or the army standing nearby, as unobtrusively as possible. I didn’t like the idea of this and neither did the director. We thought hard about this problem and then decided, boldly, to approach whoever controlled these areas, both Catholic and Protestant. So, we found out who the paramilitary chief was in the Protestant area that we wanted to film in. He was flattered that we had considered approaching him directly. We did the same in the Catholic Republican area and got the same reaction, surprise that we had even thought of him as being the real power in the area.”

“The mainly Protestant-controlled BBC Northern Ireland reluctantly approved of our contact in the Protestant area but seemed put out by our contact in the Catholic area. They even invited our Protestant contact to the BBC headquarters in Ormeau Avenue, but they didn’t mention the Catholic contact at all. The Army weren’t pleased and nor was the RUC. In theory they controlled the two areas that we were going to film in. Army Intelligence then asked for a copy of the script, which we supplied to a Major who came to the Europa Hotel where we were staying. It was a strange attempt at military censorship.”

Having satisfied them that the script was a simple story told without prejudice to either community, the film crew had a guarantee they would be safe and that mixed casts would be allowed into all areas. “The deputy head of BBC Belfast actually wanted to cast it himself, and presumably put in his favourites, but that didn’t happen. Then the film crew arrived from London. The international media were by now taking an interest in the proceedings, and the Radio Times planned to capture the whole experience. Then things began to unravel, practically overnight.”

“No one would tell the director or me what was going on. We could only gauge from rumours that the telephone wires were hot between BBC Northern Ireland and BBC London. Maybe the Army and police were not going to stand for our independent stance of making our own security plans by our approach to the paramilitaries. Maybe someone in the higher echelons of the BBC decided against the whole venture, maybe even someone in Whitehall. With all the intrigue that was going on, it was hard to know who pulled the plug on it.”

The word filtered down that the filming was being cancelled and that the play was now to be made in the studio at Television Centre, TC1, the largest studio, where a desperate attempt would be made to realise the film’s many locations and its relentless atmosphere of a city at war. In fact, one of the script’s most striking aspects is the incessant soundtrack of distant explosions and the characters’ reactions to them – often weariness rather than shock – contrasting with the panic and anger of a false alarm at close quarters caused by an abandoned suitcase.

The play’s sweet title underlines that this is a story about children, and specifically about what their environment is doing to their innocence and their futures, as school is avoided, aggression and division is imitated, and prejudice is inherited. When heroine Suzy befriends Ann (Linda Robson) in a record shop, where a soldier holding a semi-automatic browses beside them, they decide to delight in not knowing each other’s religion, but when a bomb goes off, Suzy catches Ann crossing herself, and the friendship is over before it has even begun. This contrasts well with Suzy’s moments of childish eccentricity; whiling away the day looking for her daddy, she blows the dandelion clock to decide when the time has come for him to appear. She is also prone to lapse into fanciful rhyme; towards the end of the play she discomforts the boorish adolescent Hambone (Trevor Gill) by conducting a strange burial ritual for a dead cat, the play’s most sustained moment of stillness and dreaminess.

Cast as the truanting children, Suzy and Hambone, were two teenagers who had never acted before, Verona O’Mara and Trevor Gill. “I thought they were wonderful”, says Haire. “They remained the leads when the play was produced in London rather than on location. I am still in touch in Trevor, he is now a successful businessman in Lisburn and acts and directs in amateur theatre there. Verona seems to have disappeared into thin air. Both of them were superb.”

Dandelion Clock

“During the recording at BBC Television Centre, I remember Chris Morahan (BBC Head of Plays at the time) being quite hostile to it. For some reason, he objected to the schoolteacher being portrayed as I had shown her”. To be fair, the character of Miss Flack (Kate Binchy) is as unsubtle as her name. Encountering Suzy’s mother, Ruby (Phyllis McMahon), rather than show concern for the missing child, the teacher is merely a mouthpiece for a rather severe monologue about the dangers of a compassionate society.

Clearly a badly compromised production, the play made little impact on broadcast. “When it was finally screened it was just shadow of what it should have been. Some of the reviews said that it looked like it should have been made on location, if not in Northern Ireland then at least in some English city. Later I wrote a script about the attempt to make a film on the Belfast streets during what was a war situation. The BBC turned it down on the grounds that it was too speculative – the approach to those paramilitaries would be seen as fantasy by the viewers.”

Haire never wrote for television again. “I was resident dramatist at the Royal Court at the time, so I just thought: “It’s only TV and I’ve had my fill of it already”. I did like the idea of writing for television, but only occasionally, for I had seen a couple of theatre playwrights disappear into TV writing and graduate to writing soaps when they got a taste for the money. I just went back to working as a carpenter in between theatre productions, seeing myself as a playwright who had to work as a carpenter, for I had loved writing since boyhood. At that time, word came to the BBC that half the script writers working in Canadian television had deserted to US television in California. This was a good hint for me to get over there and pick up a plum job in Canadian television. It wasn’t for me. Some Canadian producers had also jumped ship. I know Graeme McDonald went over there, took one look at Toronto and got the next plane home.”

Haire had also fallen in love with someone who worked in BBC production. “She was young and pretty and intelligent. So love blossomed, although I had just married again for a few weeks. So, I got drunk continually instead, which destroyed my marriage, and any hope of taking up with her. I became surly I suppose, and insulted a few of the BBC high-flyers at parties, so that was me out of TV. But Play for Today was a very important slot, as was Centre Play. I would quite happily have written more for it if I’d been given the chance.”

It’s a poignant coda to a regrettable story, a brave, peaceful piece of writing that itself became a casualty of war.

[1] Simon Farquhar interview with Wilson John Haire, 15 May 2014. Unless otherwise indicated all subsequent quotes are from this interview.

[2] This formed part of the Lost Worlds trilogy, performed at the National Theatre in 1978

SIMON FARQUHAR is a writer and broadcaster. Works include, for the stage, Rainbow Kiss (Royal Court and 59E59 New York), Dream Me a Winter (Old Vic) and Wassail Play (Theatre Royal, Dumfries), and for BBC Radio 4 A Sympathetic Eye: The Story of Man Alive (Archive on 4) and Elevenses with Twiggy. He writes for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent and his book A Dangerous Place was shortlisted for the 2016 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. He is the author of Play for Today: The First Year 1970-71 (2021) and his personal selection of Plays for Today may be found here while his personal blog may be found here

3 replies on “Play for Today: The Dandelion Clock”

Fine piece, Simon!

I think it sums up the calibre of this one that your account doesn’t say much about Catherine Gibson as the grandmother. It’s so sad we cannot see the performance of what is a brilliantly written – and very identifiable – part. Also Nula Conwell as Stormy, as leader of a teenage girl gang who are distinctly threatening to Suzy. Conwell had malevolent bullies as a stock in trade by this point after Liz Jones in William Trevor’s Eleanor.

This play really is in the top tier of the junked Plays for Today I have read camera scripts of so far. Picaresque but on an intimate, fable-like level, thus close indeed to the Joycean Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain, less sprawling than, say, Ackerman, Dougall and Harker.

The production history of this sounds fascinating and fraught. From memory, its critical reception was mixed, but several did stand up for it. I’ll check later. It was reviewed pretty widely. The audience and RI were quite low, one of those times were the popular taste wasn’t on the mark – though generally Northern Ireland set and themed plays were a turn-off for sections of the TV audience. Their loss, as there was so much that was very good – Carson Country, previous to this. Taking Leave did get a higher audience but then that has a suburban South East England setting.

Oh and I like the scene with the schoolteacher! Flack’s monologue is rather like some of Liz Smith’s dialogue in Breath (1975), and is a good summation of toxic nostalgia and how some people totally lack any generosity. Maybe a bit unsubtle for Morahan’s tastes, but, well, it clearly communicates its meaning!

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