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Hatfield Court


Nr Leominster



01568 760333

September 1999

Dear Madeleine

I’ve just been reading again your and Derek’s articles in New Theatre Quarterly. They are excellent and I have to say I think it’s wonderful that you feel that what I wrote and what Nell wrote so long ago have that degree of importance.

You write of the move from a writer led to a director led drama and from studio based to film based drama, and ‘Up the Junction’ and ‘Cathy Come Home’ are both evolutionary hybrids in that context with both having some scenes done in the studio and some on film.

Directors and writers: Certainly the balance of power seems to have shifted a long way since those times when Bernard Shaw was able to override his director (producer) and himself stride onto the stage to show the cast how it should be done.

I have been told tales of writers these days being ‘locked out of the theatre’ during rehearsals of their plays and the radio producer Sean McCloughlin, who had been a TV script editor, tells me how it was looked on as a script editor’s job to keep a writer happy during rehearsals. In one case a writer was objecting increasingly to what was being done to his play and Sean’s manipulative solution was to take him to the pub and get him drunk.

If writers are the unacknowledged legislators of their time, as Shelley called them, the increasing power of the director does not necessarily facilitate communication between a writer and society.

It can do so. One writer whose work one always first thinks of in terms of the author rather than the director is Dennis Potter. Many people feel his directors served him well and that his message was blunted when, in ‘Black Eyes’, he directed himself. (I don’t actually agree with this – I love ‘Black Eyes’.)

By temperament, writers are usually more introvert and directors more extravert. Writers often have quite a strong sense of British reticence and a desire not to be seen to be blowing their own trumpet. Directors often have no such inhibitions! Directors are that much closer into management and hence are closer in to the film companies’ publicity machine.

An example of the intensely negative effect a director can have can be found by comparing the film version of ‘Up the Junction’ to the television version. Most people would agree that Peter Collinson’s insertion of a story line is vastly unsuccessful.

In my own case, I’d say that Ken Loach enhanced the qualities of ‘Cathy Come Home’, Ted Kotcheff did wonders with the dramatic element in ‘Edna, the Inebriate Woman’ but vastly weakened its social message, and in a third play by me, ‘Smiling David’ (which had already been on radio in a powerful production), the direction by Phillip Saville was so extremely insensitive and wide of the mark that I asked for the production to be discontinued.

What I have written so far, much longer than I intended (!) is a preamble to what I was really writing to you about.

‘Up the Junction’ and ‘Cathy Come Home’ may as you say (I think) mark the end of a writer led tradition and the beginning of a director led tradition but they are also hybrids in this area as well. It could be claimed, I think, that both are plays where, like the Dennis Potter plays, it is the writer’s name that one thinks of first, before that of the director, and both are plays where the writer has made a huge and unusual contribution.

One thing you don’t mention is the tremendous success that ‘Up the Junction’ had already had (and continues to have) as a book. The vividness and verisimilitude of its language, its presentation of manual class lasses who go out of an evening actively seeking sexual frissons, families which are matriarchal because the menfolk are so often in prison, the wonderfully observed presentation of ‘ordinary’ people, burst onto a literary world where the privileged classes still ruled much of the cultural roost and immediately claimed its place in literature (as it still does) both as a sociological document (huge numbers of worthy people claimed that people just weren’t like that in Battersea) and for its poetry.

The television version of ‘Up the Junction’ wonderfully captures the qualities Nell put into the book. You talk of Loach and Garnett’s perception that the structure of Dunn’s text should reflect the on-going nature of the life-struggle and context she had depicted; ‘the radical revision of form in Loach and Garnett’s “Up the Junction” was its determination to present a vision of ‘life’ caught ‘on the very wing.’

However, all this, I think, is (unintentionally I am sure) disempowering to Nell’s book. Like reinventing the wheel or Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of America, this section of your article does really not take on board that while from Loach and Garnett’s point of view it was a discovery, from the native American’s (or Nell’s) point of view, it was all there already.

In ‘Up the Junction’ (television version) the authorial voice of Nell is very strong. I think all the particular qualities you find in the TV play are already there in the book and are as exploratory and innovatory in terms of the book medium as they later were when Loach and Garnett faithfully transferred them to television.

In the case of ‘Cathy’ too, I would submit that the author’s voice is strong. The film is based on years of research and on experiences the author had and on a crusading mission the author was mounting. The author chose most of the locations and tape recordings made by the author are used throughout the film. Some (very few) scenes are improvised, often from ideas supplied by the author on the set.

The director sometimes intrudes too much, I believe. Scenes which could have been suggested at script conference are instead improvised on location and are of a less high standard, I believe, than the vast majority of the scenes that are written directly by the author.

One critic (I’ve got the reference somewhere) once wrote that television drama moved from author led to director led when Cathy speaks over the heads of the homeless hostel committee, directly to camera (to us viewers) with her ‘Runts ... haven’t you got homes of your own ...’ speech. It’s a very powerful moment in the film and it was intended by me, from the moment I wrote it, to be shot like that.

It may be in the original script – I must check some day (and a few ‘directorial’ instructions were omitted from the script when I prepared it for publication to make for an easier read), but I always planned it like that and remember explaining it to Ken at a script conference.

That critic saw it as a director’s moment but (and this shows how this sort of view can be dangerous because the director/author roles do overlap) when it is actually an author’s moment. (Anyway, it’s the obvious way to shoot it?) (Anyway, who cares anyway, I’m suddenly thinking to myself!)

None of this, Madeleine, is intended to detract from the excellence of your article. It is, however, attempting to qualify what you say by suggesting that, paradoxical in this as in so many other areas, both plays could equally be described as author led or director led.

Perhaps their enduring strength is there just because the role of both writer and director in each case are both of them so strong?


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