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The Warp

Edna, the Inebriate Woman

Most film makers would admit that in spite of its versatility the straight documentary may not be the best form for the propagation of certain social ideas. When that limit is reached it often becomes time for the drama documentary to take over.

After its transmission Cathy also came out in novel form. At the same time three people wrote to me and claimed they were the authors of the play. In short the film, backed by the novel, achieved publicity, notoriety, and calls for action. Did it change anything? In spite of the immense hullabaloo the situation of Britain's homeless is probably worse than when the film appeared in 1966.

Cathy dealt with a likable working-class girl from a recognizable family and social environment. Edna goes a dimension further. It deals with the derelicts and the tramps - the true down-and-outs of society. It deals with the forgotton classless people totally without home, family and friends.

Although not acclaimed as highly as Cathy, Edna won awards from both the Writers' Guild and the Critics' Circle as best television play of the year. Actually it's rather a formless play that drifts through a very large number of scenes and incidents. The character of Edna the tramp is written and played with humour and brightness, but this merely serves to offset the sadness and pathos of her life.

What we are shown are many people like Edna to whom violence has been done by society. Though adult in appearance they are often only at a child's stage of development. What I demand is that we stop persecuting them and ask instead what we can learn about them and how we can help them.

Cathy made me famous overnight. Life was all television and newspaper interviews. The response was terrific to it. And various things happened as a result of it. Subsequent to articles I wrote in Birmingham newspapers and to a public meeting which Ken Loach and I called in Birmingham in the wake of the excitement caused by the film, the city of Birmingham announced that they were going to discontinue their policy of separating between three and four hundred husbands a year from their families. This was perhaps the most important of all the results of Cathy. A month of so later 'Shelter', a campaign which aimed to draw public attention to the position of homeless people in Britain today and provide accommodation for them, was launched. The effect of Cathy, according to Shelter's director Des Wilson, was that it immensely strengthened their hand in that they were able to point to Cathy and specifically refer to the social problems that they were talking about. I remember Des saying, 'Cathy was worth half a million to us.'

It was only later that I learned that quite strong pressure had been put on the BBC to not stand firm by the film but instead 'admit' that it was a fabrication and this sort of thing was not going on in Britain. It's greatly to the credit of three men in particular that they stood by the film: Sydney Newman, head of drama group, Kenneth Adam, director of television, and Hugh Greene, director general.

Q. Do you think the establishment of the BBC today would stand so wholeheartedly behind the facts which were so controversial and unpalatable?

A. Certainly what happened to Roy Minton's film Scum, about conditions in borstals (correction centres for juvenile offenders in England), suggests that the BBC establishment today might be less courageous about putting on a film that bears the same sort of relationship to reality that Cathy did. Scum was made but not transmitted.

Q. How much did Cathy help change the situation of the homeless?

A. When I first realised that despite all the hullabaloo surrounding altogether four television transmissions of Cathy, there were still more homeless families, I lost some of my faith in the power of the media to change anything. There is one thing that can be said, though. Certainly Cathy alerted social workers and the public to a grave injustice in this country - one of which most of them had so far, largely, been ignorant. Perhaps without Cathy, the situation might even be worse than it is. This at any rate is what people in the caring professions tell me, and I'd like to believe it.

Irene Shubik, a BBC producer, had every now and again been writing to me asking me if I would write another play for the BBC and my agent asked her out to lunch. We discussed various projects and she commissioned what was to be Edna, the Inebriate Woman (at that time designed to be one of three linked plays about injustice).

At the time when the contract was signed little more of it existed than the working title The Common Lodging House and my feeling that, having written about the problems of homeless families, I'd now like to turn to the problems of the single homeless. There was one other ingredient in this. Ted Kotcheff, whom I'd continued to be in touch with, had for some years been saying that he'd like to combine with me on a sort of British version of The Lower Depths, which I actually have never seen.

These three strands came together in about October 1969, when I received a letter from the Rev Kenneth Stoneley, of the Christian Action Hostel in Lambeth High Street, in which he said that he wondered whether it might be possible for me to write something which would bring to the public as forcefully as Cathy did the problems of the single homeless. At the time when I started writing this play there were over 100,000 single homeless in England.

I had already written articles in The Observer and other newspapers about the world of the dosshouse and the common lodging house, cheap or sometimes free overnight lodgings of the very lowest standard for 'dossers' or tramps.

In the course of research I had stayed in dosshouses and spikes (reception centres so called because, in the old days, in exchange for a night's shelter you had to break a certain number of rocks on a spike), or descending into 'the lower depths'.

Christian Action helped a lot with research. They were pioneering hostels for women at that time and I was drawn to the idea of having my protagonist be a woman. One of their hostels was about to be closed, and I went to a special inquiry about this, and a lot of the special inquiry in Edna is drawn, some of it verbatim, from that event.

I found descending into that world a depressing experience. Once some years before I'd started Down and Out in Britain, and the unhappiness and hopelessness of that world had caused me to despair. I shall never forget the first time I went down to the Thames Embankment and saw, within sight of Big Ben and the Savoy Hotel, the vast numbers of dossers sleeping in the open air on a cold night beneath the stars, wrapped just in cardboard boxes and polythene. Some of the huge dosshouses were quite horrific, with dormitories housing up to 100 of the derelict and lost - dumping grounds for people whom society seems to have abandoned.

I was casting around in my mind all the time as to whom I would like to cast as the protagonist for my play, but hadn't come to any conclusion. Then sitting in the foyer of the Christian Action Hostel one afternoon I glanced through a little glass window giving on to the corridor outside, and framed momentarily at the window looking in at us I saw the wizened face staring in at us of a little old lady in a great coat with a huge collar and a little porkpie cap. She was only there for a moment. She tapped and one of the staff went out to see her. I was entranced by the little sad interesting face that peered through the window at us. I immediately asked whether I might meet her and one of the staff got up and went out to ask her. But she said that she didn't want to. Next moment the front door slammed and that was the last I saw of her.

And why did I choose a woman protagonist rather than a man? What I felt was this. I wanted to do a film about Britain's thousands of single homeless, and they're often uncouth in appearance. They do not have the immediate charm of Cathy, the young mother with children. Many of them would be thought of by the general population as filthy old tramps, or worthless. It was going to be a lot harder to get an audience to sympathise with our protagonist than it was with Cathy.

The male stereotype, the ancient tramp in his ill-fitting overcoat, was so familiar that I thought it would be difficult to break through the built-in attitudes of the typical audience to such a person. It therefore seemed to me that a clever way round this would be to follow a lady tramp. Although they've become fairly common now, at that time there would not be such built-in prejudices against such a person.

In Cathy I showed only the tragedy and some of the forces that produced it. In Edna I decided to show more than this. I wanted to show, as well as the tragedy of the treatment of our single homeless people, what I felt should be the solution. This was that instead of shoving them round on an endless treadmill between common lodging house, psychiatric hospital or spike or prison at vast expense to the taxpayer, one could provide small permissive hostels presided over by a kindly father figure which could provide a haven for such people until they were ready to return to society. And all this would cost only a fraction of the other places.

So the basic structure of my screenplay early on became fairly plain. I would show Edna in the typical lost spirals of the world of the down-and-out - this decrepit dirty old lady staggering from the door of psychiatric hospital to dosshouse, to prison, to spike, and back on the road. I would show her momentarily rescued from this in a hostel based on the hostel run by Christian Action. And because such hostels are rare, are always being closed down, or having to eject people and also, perhaps, because of some strange disturbed longing in Edna herself, I thought that at the end of the film she must be back on the road again.

I follow her, this drunken quarrelsome old lady who wears an ill-fitting overcoat and porkpie hat, on her continuous journey through town and country, showing the shortcomings and absurdities of a society whose response to her predicament is insensitive, inappropriate, and expensive.

Beneath the text of the play there was terrific passion on my part. The play was written from my anger and impatience with our reluctance to help those who wander through the twilight world at the bottom of society.

'Out of the darkness, out of the night, a frayed decrepit fragile old figure was emerging. At first she was a speck lit up fitfully by the headlamps of passing cars. Then as she got closer, it was possible to see in the moonlight her solitary trudge and the painful and uneven motion with which she moved forward.

One of the old lady's feet was encased in a polythene bag, lined round inside with tiny drops of moisture, and tied tightly around her ankle with string. Under one arm she carried a polythene parcel apparently containing old bits of newspaper and old clothes.

Now she was leaving the countryside and entering town. She reached, at last, in a terraced street, a battered door. It wasn't locked. She entered.'

And so it goes on until the end of the book, but not of Edna's journey. And she finishes up still wandering.

In an essay in the book version I wrote more about what I was trying to achieve:

'Concern about the homeless family has been mobilized by "Shelter" and the Squatters, but this equally grave problem has so far received little attention - the problem of homeless single persons. Such people are often dubbed by society "socially inadequate", and information about them is fairly hard to come by.

Kenneth Stoneley, representing the National Association of Voluntary Hostels, an organisation that tries to find homes for such people, told me, "We alone now try to find homes for four thousand such people each year."'

In the essay I went into much more detail on what makes people into Edna - and who is the homeless single person. Often it's a person who has suffered a series of rejections, or suffered a series of acts of violence. In the research I asked a doctor what makes these people like they are. Some have never had a loving relationship with parents and now can't make contact with society. Others again were institutionalised in psychiatric hospitals or prison. Some are alcoholics. Some drug addicts.

The events of Edna are based on real events, and she passes through many of the traditional lodging places of persons of her type. Sometimes she sleeps out in derelict buildings. Occasionally she uses the 'spike' - or reception centre. Then a rung above these come the kip-houses. I wanted to show the brutality with which many of these people are treated, and the way they are often moved on by the police without any feeling. Newspapers still sometimes carry stories about 'tramps', still treating them as figures of derision rather than as human beings in need of as much compassion and help as anyone else.

I worked on the screenplay through November and December 1969, and January, February, March 1970, and went to Irene Shubik the producer with a draft in April, which differed little from the final draft.

Meanwhile I'd been keeping Ted Kotcheff posted on what was going on, and I sent him a draft too, hoping very much he might be able to direct it. I also, as a way of getting to know the story better, was writing it alternately in the form of a novel and a screenplay.

I'd worked with Ted Kotcheff some years before all this on a play of mine called Dreaming Bandsmen based on my experiences in an RAF band. This was directed by Ted for the Belgrave Theatre in Coventry, the first time I think that he'd directed outside television. It was a wonderful occasion and Ted, freed for the first time from the shackles of television, let his imagination run riot. The play worked well and we got on very well.

Ted and I worked for a number of days on the script up at his house in Highgate, beginning in August. Once in a while there came "script notes" from Irene which, so I felt, failed to grasp the essential importance of the irrationality of the script. Most of her comments in these script notes seemed to be an attempt to impose some sort of rational flow onto it whereas the essence of the thing I'm sure is that it should be disjointed, with its own sort of wild poetry. So I ignored her notes and kept it that way.

I took Ted round the common lodging houses, doss-houses, and to a psychiatric hospital I knew. I also took him down to the Embankment to see the hundreds of people sleeping out, or huddled against the railings outside hotel kitchens to pick up a bit of that warmth.

I saw Edna as being technically very similar to Cathy.

I was most anxious to have disembodied statistics on the sound track chipping in where relevant, as in Cathy, and also to have the voices of real dossers and down-and-outs on wildtrack, in order to give a strong sense of reality. Ted, however, is a different sort of director from Ken Loach, and Edna is in fact more theatrical than Cathy. Fairly late on, Ted felt that the film would be better without these statistics, and I acquiesced.

I scripted parts for some of the inmates of the Christian Action Hostel, and some of these, in the production, played themselves. We used a real psychiatric hospital in South London, and a real ladies' Common Lodging House which had just closed with the inmates from another Common Lodging House.

For the "legion of despair" sequence, where Edna's predicament is shown in relation to the predicament of hundreds of others, sleeping rough and scrambling after the mobile soup kitchen run by nuns, we used in part those who were actually there sleeping on the Embankment, and partly the inhabitants of one of the Rowton Houses, one in Hammersmith which itself was to be closed not so long after.

I gave the work the name Edna, the Inebriate Woman ironically. Society may dub her "inebriate" but of course her problems are far greater than just this. Thus I have Josie, the warden of the hostel, say:

'... if there is no hostel provided for these people they have nowhere to go, poor dears, except to the mental hospital or the streets. Or to prison ... Going there, not because they are really criminals or mad, but because there's nowhere more suitable for them. These people are referred to in official reports as inebriates, alcoholics, schizophrenics, drug addicts, the disabled, layabouts, failures. These words are alibis to help us to ignore why they're really like they are. Stack the cards against us, these people are the same as us - you and me in a mess. The answer, so I believe most sincerely, is in the sort of hostel that we have set up. Let us help them. They can exist and be happy in a hostel like ours. They can live fulfilled lives. There should be hostels like this everywhere. One every four or five streets.

The places where they're put at present are no answer. The huge institution, so vast, so impersonal. What they need is a small place, a place to be a typical home, the home that most of them never had. They escape the help that is their right because they can't dress up their needs in the correct form. And so they get kicked from pillar to post. And there are thousands of them. I reckon something like one hundred thousand of people littering lunatic asylums, prison, Common Lodging Houses, spikes, sleeping out in the open, mostly men, but a few thousand women.

And the need is desperate. Every day I have to turn women and girls, even men, families away from my door. I don't want to have to turn these away as well.'

Edna is not a typical homeless person in the way that Cathy is a typical mother of a homeless family. The reason is that there is really no typical single homeless person. This makes it that much harder to write a book or screenplay about them.

Public reaction to Edna was good. A critic in The Telegraph said, "Mr Sandford forces attention and involvement. The strength of his portrait lies in its depth and dimensions, comedy and sadness together springing naturally from the character." And Colin Hodgetts in Church Times wrote, "When Edna was first shown, many people commented that it seemed exaggerated ... Those who work in the field know that [it is] depressingly accurate."

In arrangement with the BBC Press Office, a press showing was arranged for the morning of the transmission at the Christian Action Hostel in Greek Street. There I spoke about the reasons I had for writing the play, and invited some of those who had appeared in it or who were in Christian Action Hostels to speak.

Later, on television, I insisted that people actually from the down-and-out world should be present and there was a dramatic moment when one of them became over-excited and chased the camera crew into an alcove and started unzipping their flies.

I was most anxious that those actually working to fight these conditions should be represented, in the same way as Shelter was directly involved in Cathy. In addition to Christian Action I involved the Cyrenians in the enterprise, especially their director Tom Gifford. In the months, indeed years that followed Edna, I worked mainly with Tom, showing the film and lecturing, encouraging people to enter the field of caring for the single homeless, fund raising, and generally spreading information. I became a director of the Cyrenians.

People have compared Cathy and Edna. What are my own feelings about their relative successes, their styles and their differences?

Edna was successful, and was transmitted three times, but it wasn't the tear-away success that Cathy was, partly because the production veered perhaps more towards documentary than Cathy did. Edna looks more like a traditional drama and some people have said to me that they felt that it was a betrayal of the idea to choose an actress in the grand histrionic style like Patricia Hayes for the role. I don't know. I think that with a subject which is lacking in attraction for a lot of the population, one might have got a lot of people switching off with a more realistic production. At any rate with this, people got involved in Edna's situation and above all in her courage. More people watched than would have watched a more Loach-like production and perhaps the message thus may have got through to many more people. Certainly the performance by Patricia as Edna was magnificent.

I don't want to make extravagant claims for Cathy and Edna but at any rate Cathy, I hope, helped shift the field of drama on television just that bit closer to reality. I would say that for a number of years British television drama just wasn't that concerned with reality. Today I think that's generally changed, and that drama documentary in particular has become much more common.

In the famous Johnny Go Home real people were used to reconstruct events in which they had participated. In Dummy a script was drawn up from the real life of a deaf and dumb prostitute. This was then played by actors, and the only criticism that I have heard is that the tragedy of this girl who ends by stabbing her tormentor is not particularly related to the society in which she lives. One is not clear, watching it, whether the anger one feels is anger about the society which has driven this girl to this condition, or anger about the human state as a whole.

The dramatized documentary form has become increasingly popular. The justification for it must be, as I have said, that the events portrayed are inaccessible to true documentary treatment, either because they are in the past, or because they lie in some area of secrecy or inarticulacy, such that to shoot them as straight documentary will destroy the very thing that one is trying to show. I do think, boring though it may be, that the viewers should be told the relationship of what they're seeing to reality - as we did tell the audience in the final captions in Cathy.

In the historical category, the television series "Roots" used the method to look at the events that led to the descendant of an African finding himself in the social position that he does in America today. "Washington: Behind Closed Doors" needs a different justification. Real people would not have been prepared to confess to the apparently typical events that this drama showed. And the lyricism of its treatment made it attractive to watch.

In the other areas of inaccessibility, namely that the camera may destroy the very thing it aims to portray, there have been Leeds United, and quite a number of films from Loach and Garnett, including The Divided Mind.

An opportunity to compare a dramatic treatment with a documentary treatment of the same subject came with the play Destiny and the documentary The National Front, both transmitted on the BBC within a few weeks of each other. My experience of these two was that I was made angry at the National Front film, and frightened by it. In the case of the play Destiny, I felt horrified and alarmed but also that sense of "the pity of it all" which seems to be often present in literature and seldom in documentary.

A "cause célèbre" has recently been Roy Minton's Scum, built up from interviews with about 100 former inmates of borstals. The arguments used against it being shown by the BBC establishment were that though all these things do happen in borstals, not all of them could happen to the same person in so short a time.

This sort of point of view raises questions as to the relationship of dramatic time to real time. Nobody is saying that Cathy passed from marriage, had three children, lived in a slum, and got evicted seven times, all in the space of three hours. My view is that there is so much of television mildly or highly supportive of the establishment that in the interest of balance it would be a good thing to have programs which showed a less rosy side of such things occasionally.

Certain documentaries can only be done as drama. There are so many areas into which, because of their remoteness in time or their sensitivity, cameras cannot go. That is the area of dramatized documentary. Writers must come forward and be given space on the telly to give their message of the world as they see it. Drama is a persuasive medium. Television drama is our national theatre. Space must be given for writers old and young to contribute to public debate about the sort of society we want, the sort of world we live in.

One of the strongest feelings at the moment in Britain must be contempt for the old order, immense impatience with the mystique and small-mindedness and dishonesty of the old ruling class. Television I believe has contributed to this, especially in its documentaries about the bungling of the First World War, and also in programs like the Garnett-Loach Days of Hope. This in its turn has caused people to question much more the blind authoritarianism of our society. And that is very much to the good.


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