Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Fuss About Five Women: The Radio Times position, Jan 1969

In the Radio Times, January 16th, 1969 (p4), an anonymous essay, Keeping Faith with the Viewer, was printed under the heading 'Talking Point'. It was not made explicit that it touched on the ban on Five Women, but in the next week, the letter from Tony Garnett et al made clear what the underlying argument was really about.  I found both the essay and the letter in the BFI archive, on the microfilm, and have typed them out here for easier reference. Here is the anonymous piece from the Radio Times, quoted in full, the reply is linked here and above:

"Television is a demanding medium in the way that it compels the viewer to move more quickly in place, mood, and indeed emotion, than could ever be possible in real life; and because it can confuse him by the rapid succession of varying images presented on the screen. At one moment the viewer may be watching a fictional drama, at another a factual wartime scene in Nigeria or Vietnam, at another a sporting event unfolding as it happened, the result of which he can already have read about in  his newspaper.

As television techniques develop what are the safeguards for the public? What confidence can the viewer have that what he is watching is what it appears to be? The answer is that the BBC bears the responsibility for ensuring that whatever happens the viewer is not tricked. Bearing in mind that every kind of programme has to appear on the same screen, what he sees must be true to fact or true to art.

Over the years the viewer has learned to distinguish between those programmes which he knows to be fact and those he knows to be fiction by means of a series of conventions which he has come to respect. The first and in many ways the most important indication of the nature of a programme is given in RADIO TIMES. Aside from that, when the set is switched on, the signature tune and a related set of captions indicate whether a news bulletin is about to be shown or a current affairs programme, a documentary, a play, or a light entertainment show.

In a news or current affairs programme the viewer will see a selection of events that have really happened with comments about them by real people. If any world event is shown he knows that this really has taken place and has not been fabricated as were - say - the sequences in Eisenstein's film about the 1917 Revolution in Russia. These are great pieces of film-making, but they were not shots of what actually happened.

Through a different set of conventions the viewer knows that in plays, series or serials what he will see will be true to art: a good story or one episode in a continuing piece of fiction. He knows that this kind of programme will not be a photographic record of real events. It will be art presented as art.

In recent years this simple situation has been complicated by the emergence of many different variations in programme formula and the development of a new tradition of realistic writing. In fictional series great trouble has been taken by writers like Elwyn Jones in 'Softly Softly' to create brilliantly down-to-earth stories, which they have set in a most convincing framework. Elwyn Jones has made a special study of police cases, and he has talked at length to policemen. The result is a credible set of adventures, which can on occasion even startle the audience with their realism, as when one episode which dealt with a major disaster was felt by some viewers to be too close to the recent and real Aberfan tragedy.

Such realism in dramatic writing graphically illustrates how people behave in given situations in a way that a factual programme can never quite achieve. The viewer knows very well that what he is watching is only a story, but a series like 'The Troubleshooters' or 'Champion House' can illuminate, for instance, what it really feels like to be an industrial executive under pressure in a competitive world.

In a creative medium like television, experiments are always taking place, and new programmes are being devised with formulae that are slightly different from anything ever done before. Wednesday Plays like 'Cathy Come Home,' 'Golden Vision,' and 'Mrs. Lawrence Will Look After It' were experimental in the sense that although all three were well-acted dramas, each made a deliberate comment on an important social problem. And it was known that actual real-life material had been used to shape their preparation. This was the essential ingredient that made their impact so outstanding.

Can these new programme techniques be carried too far? Is there any danger that they will lead to confusion in the mind of the viewer, so that he is uncertain whether he is watching a play or a documentary - a criticism which was made of 'Cathy Come Home' by one or two panellists in a recent edition of 'Talkback'? This is in fact one of the problems with which the BBC has to grapple every day as part of its overall task of editorial control. Many factors are involved. Among these are professional judgement and contemporary taste. In order to provide a constant opportunity for development and variety in programme style it is important that both authors and programme makers should be left reasonably free. A work of fiction may borrow some of the techniques of a factual programme. 'Up the Junction' was a programme which did this, and one television critic praised it as a 'fiction which had the immediacy of real life, the raucousness, the feel, the smell of documented life, without being a documentary. It was the realistic convention heightened to the nth degree, and very exciting it was.'

As Christopher Ralling wrote in a recent article in The Listener:
"Many of the things worth discussing in human life are never going to happen of their own accord in front of a camera. This has led people working in films and television to move further away from the old ground rules ..."
But obviously there are limits beyond which experimental techniques ought not to trespass. All the time the BBC is walking a tightrope, but even in its most experimental programmes it seeks to keep faith with the viewers. People like and have a right to know what it is they are looking at. In the history of protest about broadcasting trouble has most frequently been caused when the audience got  - not what it did not want - but what it did not expect." 

Obit: Letters to the Guardian, October 1996; Roy Battersby, Director

Guardian, 23/10/96 p15
Roy Battersby writes: Wherever Tony Parker went he brought his healing discipline of listening to people, whether they were imprisoned in jails, barracks, mines, lighthouses, housing estates, or in their lives. The profundity and integrity of his witness produced work that illuminated every life he explored and the society in which it was lived.
Reading The Courage of His Convictions 30 years ago had a profound influence on my life. We made Five Women into a film for the BBC-TV Wednesday Play series in 1967 and I began a period of prison visiting under his influence. He wrote the documentary People Like Us on the two polar approaches to psychiatry. I directed some of his compassionate television series Couples on Counselling, and we tried to make films from his work on sex offenders and from The People of Providence.
Tony was a poet; his books have the pulse of poetic insight and passion. The BBC must now show Five Women, described by the Observer as “the first masterpiece for television,” in its original form as a tribute to a great man.

Obit: Letters to the Guardian, October 1996; Anthony Sheil, lit agent

Guardian 23/10/96 p15
Letters: Tony Parker
Anthony Sheil writes: The oral historian Tony Parker (obituary, October 5) stayed up all night in anger and frustration at the execution of Timothy Evans. His remarkable wife, Margery, said: “Well, why don’t you do something about it?” Tony did: he set about writing his first book: The Courage of His Convictions.
His first half dozen books were all about the identity we all have with what is now referred to as “the excluded”; the pariahs with whom we have difficulty in sympathizing. In the romantic political fervour of the late 1960s, I remember thinking that Tony was all very well, but not in the forefront of political activism. He soon changed my view; he was a one-man political party fighting with enormous passion.
He once described to me leaving a south London down-and-outs hostel and being approached by a man who said: “Do you think there might be another piece of bread?”. In his downbeat Mancunian way, he manifested his fury at this level of need in an affluent society.
Austere though he was, his humour and irony were all-pervading. He was a Manchester United supporter from childhood who, when he went to live in Suffolk, supported Ipswich. You have to have irony to do that. A master of his craft he certainly was, but also a fighter for reform and a delightful and unforgettable man.

Obituaries for Tony Paker, October 1996. The Independent; Colin Ward

The Independent
Obituaries: Tony Parker
Colin Ward
Friday, 11 October 1996

Thanks to the tape-recorder the post-war decades have witnessed a boom in oral history, gathering the experiences of people whose voices seldom reach the written record.
Most of us are not neutral observers and arrange the evidence to support a point of view. In America Studs Terkel assembled several vast collections of humble people's opinions, and has never left us in any doubt as to where his sympathies lie. It is intriguing to learn that his English equivalent, Tony Parker, had, shortly before his death, completed a book quite different from his 22 earlier ones, since it was about Terkel, as seen by his colleagues, friends and family in Chicago. It will appear in February.
Tony Parker had equally strong opinions. He was a convinced socialist, pacifist and atheist, but sought to be a silent witness making no comments and no interpolations in the stories he was told. One result of his quiet empathy was that people talked to him and his recorder with immense openness and trust, and plenty of them became friends for years after they met.
He was born in 1923 in Stockport, the son of a bookseller. In the 1940s he was a conscientious objector to military service and was sent to work in a coal-mine, developing an intense sympathy for the isolated colliery villages of the North-East. Forty years later this early background served him well when he compiled his book Red Hill: a mining community (1986) about the experience of the 1984-85 miners' strike.
His discovery of his unique vocation came almost by chance. After the war he had a job with Odhams Press, publishers of the Daily Herald, and in the evenings became a prison visitor, a task which stretched his capacity as a good listener and a non-judgemental observer. A chance meeting with a BBC radio producer, and an inevitable battle with the Home Office, led to a broadcast interview with one particular hard case, which was subsequently printed in The Listener. This resulted in a publisher's commissioning the book by Tony Parker and Robert Allerton: The Courage of His Convictions (1962), which was followed by The Unknown Citizen (1963), Five Women (1965) and The Twisting Lane: some sex offenders (1969).
The last two of these provided powerful material for television drama documentaries, and led to two further books, for one of which he lived in Grendon Underwood Prison for three months patiently gathering 200 hours of taped conversations. In all these books he carefully kept his own opinions out of the story, while being ever-willing to express them in the alternative press, from Anarchy to Peace News.
By this time, Parker had developed his techniques of transcribing and editing tapes, meticulously preparing a text without comment or interpretation, and talked to street people in People of the Streets (1968), to unmarried mothers with In No Man's Land (1972). Lighthouse (1975) was the result of six months of recording the recollections of lighthouse keepers from all over Britain.
Recognition of his devotion and integrity brought increasing demands for his approach to particular communities like the residents of a London council estate, Catholic and Protestant households in Belfast, and even the Army. Who but a lifelong anti-militarist could be trusted to report faithfully on the experiences of soldiers and their wives?
By this time, Margery Parker, his wife of 43 years, was accompanying him in his travels and laborious transcriptions. In Russia, the rooms were carefully arranged. He was sitting slightly below the level of the people he was questioning, with an interpreter behind his shoulder. At the beginning of the interviews people's gaze would be fixed on the interpreter, but before long they were addressing Parker, eye to eye.
It was inevitable that his publisher should invite him for lunch and ask him to spend three months talking to people somewhere in the middle of the United States. It turned out to be A Place Called Bird (1989), a town of 2,000 inhabitants at the crossing of two state highways in Kansas, surrounded by a sea of endless prairie under a vast blue sky. The Parkers listened and recorded everyone as they talked about their hopes and fears and hidden assumptions, from the incomer, groping for the word "circumscribed" to describe the place, to the 16- year-old high-school student who blamed herself for thinking that "sometimes in Bird you feel you can't breathe".
In the same year Studs Terkel was gathering material for his book The Great Divide, recounting people's second thoughts on the American dream. It will be fascinating to read the self-effacing Parker's examination of the approach of the committed and ebullient Terkel. His own triumphs were the result of his gentleness and modesty, which led the most taciturn or suspicious of people to open up with confidences they would not dream of revealing to more self-assertive questioners.
Tony Parker, writer and interviewer: born Stockport, Cheshire 25 June 1923; married twice (two sons, one daughter); died Westleton, Suffolk 3 October 1996.

Obituaries for Tony Paker, October 1996. The Times

The Times
Friday October 11, 1996, p23

Tony Parker, oral historian, died on October 3 aged 73. He was born on June 25, 1923.
TONY PARKER'S ears were once described as “a national treasure”. As an interviewer he saw it as his task to be quietly attentive, to record without comment or judgment. He was simply a blackboard for people to write on, he said. The impact of his interviews rested on the immediacy of recorded speech and it was this which made Parker the greatest oral historian of our day.
In the published transcripts of his interviews, Parker exposed readers to the lives of people they might otherwise have shunned. He penetrated the often violent and hostile worlds of convicted murderers and IRA terrorists, of striking miners and sex offenders. He portrayed the richness of marginalised lives, exploring the worlds of lighthouse keepers and the inhabitants of a small Kansas town, of the residents of a South London housing estate and Americans on Death Row.
Tony Parker's own upbringing was in an environment remote from those he was later to portray. He was born in Manchester into a comfortable, middle-class background. Though his mother died when he was only four years old, he was so doted upon by his father and elder sisters that he at times felt suffocated, and he would later recall his childhood with a certain unease.
Having completed his secondary education at Stockport Grammar School, he escaped to London, beginning a career as a poet and playwright with staged readings of his work on Sunday nights. He read voraciously too, including the works of Huxley and Wilfred Owen. It was probably under the influence of these writers that, when at the age of 18 he was called up, he declared himself a conscientious objector and, persuading a hostile tribunal of his convictions, was exempted from military service.
Parker was sent to work in the coalmines instead. The long hours spent down stifling shafts were a sharp contrast to his cosseted earlier life, but in his 18 months there he learnt to respect the views of those whom he worked alongside and was confirmed in his socialist beliefs.
An injury put an end to this work but Parker, with a wife and child to support, could not return to his life as a writer immediately and instead took a post as a publisher's representative. It was to be his first and last conventional job. Reading about the Craig and Bentley case in which a mentally subnormal adolescent was hanged for a murder he did not commit, Parker became a campaigner against capital punishment and a prison visitor.
After a chance encounter with a BBC radio producer, he was invited to make a programme based on an interview with one of the most difficult convicts whom he visited. It was powerfully direct, the subject encouraged to state his case with a frankness unencumbered by intervention or outside commentary.
This style was to form the basis for Parker's ensuing work as a writer. After the text of this first interview was reproduced in The Listener , a flood of work followed. His first book, The Courage of His Convictions (1962), was based on tape-recorded interviews with a recidivist criminal with multiple convictions for robbery and violence. It painted a remarkable picture of an intelligent and well-read man who had no intention of ever “going straight” and no wish to reform. It was typical of Parker that he insisted the subject should be included as a joint author.
Parker would - somewhat misleadingly - claim that he had “no personality”. But beneath his controlled exterior, a passionate resentment of the inequality and unfairness of modern society flared. His interests and sympathies lay chiefly with the underdog or the outsider. But his range was wide. Soldier, Soldier (1985) is a portrait of military life including, even, an interview with a general. Parker also aimed to give a balanced view. In May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast (1993), he included interviews with terrorists on both sides of the divide, as well as contributions from priests, housewives, teachers and the Army.
Alert to the drama and interest of everyday life, Parker would spend up to 15 hours - spread over several weeks - with his subjects, listening with patience and sympathy, allowing characters gradually to unfold through repetitions, evasions and hesitation. Several of his interviewees became friends. He rarely found anyone’s company tedious, but enjoyed the ‘perpetual surprises” of what they had to say.
Parker shied away from passing judgment and formulating theories on what he heard. “There are so many theories,” he used to say. “Childhood deprivation, alcohol, the double-Y chromosome”. He was sure that in 400 years people would look back on our current maps of human behaviour and find them as ludicrous as the old 15th-century maps of navigators who thought Africa was where America is.
Yet though Parker was perceived as having a basically “Christian” approach to his subjects, he himself was not altogether gratified by this perception. Though brought up in a fairly traditionally religious way, with weekly visits to Sunday school, he described himself later as an agnostic and ultimately as an atheist. He was content, he said, to be in a state of “invincible ignorance”. He even - as, for example, when he was writing about Northern Ireland - found this condition to be an advantage.
Parker wrote several television plays based on material gathered in interviews. Many were broadcast on the BBC's pithily realistic Play for Today series, among them Five Women , about female prisoners, and A Chariot of Fire, about a child molester.

Obituaries for Tony Paker, October 1996. The Guardian, Roger Graef

The Guardian 5/10/1996
Obituary, p18
Roger Graef
Courage and convictions
The oral historian Tony Parker, who has died aged 73, was an atheist “If it turns out I’m wrong and I find myself in front of God, I shan’t half have a lot to say on the subject.’ One reason Tony will have so much to say in heaven is because he spent so much of his time on earth being totally silent. I don’t just mean quiet, I mean silent. I once sat with Tony gleaning information from lawyers for a television series. He sat like a Buddha while the lawyer chatted away. The power of his silence created a vacuum which invited others to fill it. But he had not switched off; the quality of his attention made clear he was taking in every word.
His own claim to hapless interviewers that he “had no personality” was a polite fiction that convinced no one who spent more than a few minutes in his presence.
His professional silence itself was a strong statement about his determination to listen without judgment – a rare quality in itself. He regarded himself as ‘a blackboard for people to write on’. It was all the more exceptional in that he was so often listening to people who had been harshly judged by the rest of the world – murderers, terrorists, sex offenders among them. To bring limitless empathy into encounters with such violent people requires a degree of tolerance and understanding that made Tony Parker a unique observer of human behaviour.
His death comes just as he delivered a book on his only rival to that position, the American Studs Terkel. But Terkel, for all his humanity, makes his own views clear. Throughout his books on soldiers, Russians, women prisoners, residents of tower blocks, and lighthouses, Protestants and Catholics in Belfast, Tony Parker steadfastly refused to do more than introduce us to the people he captured live on his pages – and then leave us alone with them.
Many readers and critics found that experience deeply unsettling, forcing us to face the normality of people we would prefer not to recognise as fellow human beings.
In his book about Americans on Death Row, The Violence of Our Lives, he concluded his introduction with a quote from William Penn about God being in everyone. “People took that ‘God’ to mean good. But I meant that if there is a God, he is in the murderousness as well as in the goodness.”
The universality of his tolerance and the stillness of his presence as a listener – “Tony Parker’s ears are a national treasure” said one critic – belied a set of passionately held views about the world and what was wrong with it. He was born in Stockport to a middle class family – his father was a bookseller, the only family literary connection. His mother died when he was four, a loss which left him bereft even of her memory in later years. But as the only boy, he was raised almost too comfortably by his doting father and two sisters and had to ‘fight his way through’ their indulgence.
In his late teens and early twenties, his budding career as a poet-playwright led to several Sunday night staged readings in London which attracted favourable correspondence from Edith Sitwell. But his writing career was interrupted by the war: a determined pacifist, he persuaded a hostile panel to accept him as a conscientious objector, and went to work in the mines for 18 months.
After his comfortable upbringing, the experience of working eight hours a day deep in the heat and primitive conditions of the mines showed him another side of life that confirmed his socialist politics. He was also moved by the tolerance of the miners towards his pacifism. But his wartime marriage and the birth of a daughter kept him from going back to writing. To support his family, he took a job as a publisher’s representative for Oldhams Press.
In the evenings, he became a prison visitor. A chance encounter with Paul Stephenson, a BBC Radio producer, led to Tony interviewing one of his most difficult prisoners for the radio. It was a measure of Tony’s success in encouraging frank disclosures that the programme was broadcast just before midnight, in case the prisoner’s words would be a bad influence on the audience. Interviews like these won him the approval of prison officers, prison governors and the Home Office alike. The text was printed in The Listener and spotted by Hutchinson as the basis of a book which became The Courage of His Convictions.
Thus began a stream of work mining the richness of forgotten lives, amplifying unheard voices, and always remembering that the truth is in the details. His skill lay in his sense of the drama of everyday lives, no matter how unusual the settings.
At a time when most feature-length interviews are based on nothing more than the clipping files and a long lunch, Tony would spend up to 15 hours with his subjects – spread over weeks and months. He made great efforts to reassure them about the process and their future anonymity, and formed friendships which continued long after publication.
His laborious technique also involved longhand transcriptions of these many tapes – only in the past four books was this task undertaken by his doughty and loyal wife Margery – herself a former social worker. Then Tony would go through the tapes again, this time making notes under each line, and starting to feed a structure into the typewriter. The final version was the result of many more passes through the original encounters with his beloved Beethoven or Brahms symphonies blasting away in their Suffolk cottage.
Using this material Tony also wrote a number of powerful television plays, many in the neo-realist heyday of the BBC’s Play for Today; among them Five Women, about women prisoners describing their lives, and A Chariot of Fire about a child molester, based on his book A Twisting Lane.
His legacy lives on in the work of all of us who try to be what is laughably called in television “a fly on the wall”, keeping the impact of our presence to a minimum. Any such claims should be laid modestly for fear Tony’s dry wit would puncture any hint of pomposity. After all, among his favorite lines of poetry were those by his beloved Auden, to whom he turned whenever his life became interesting or difficult:
Was he free, was he happy
The question is absurd –
Had anything been wrong
We should certainly have heard
(W H Auden, The Unknown Citizen)

Tony Parker, oral historian, born June 25, 1923, died October 3, 1996.

Kenneth Tynan's critique of the BBC ban on Five Women: Observer, June 1968

The Observer, 9/6/68
Shouts and murmurs
Kenneth Tynan
An ancient doctrinal dispute has lately been revived at the BBC Television Centre. It has to do with Artistic Categories, and is being conducted with the hair-splitting passion that pamphleteers and polemicists wasted on the same subject four centuries ago. It arose out of ‘Five Women,’ written by Tony Parker, produced by Tony Garnett and directed by Roy Battersby for the Wednesday Plays.
The author had spent hundreds of hours tape-recording conversations with five female ex-convicts classified by the law as habitual criminals. He appears in the film as a self-effacing interviewer, gently engaging the women into delivering what emerges five sustained autobiographical monologues. The quizzed quintet are played by professional actresses, who soaked themselves in Parker’s material and improvised their answers to his questions. There are no flashbacks, and the interviews take place out of prison, mostly in shabby bedsitters. The style is naturalism pushed to its logical extreme – the total suspension of disbelief.
And this is what caused the fuss. Huw Wheldon, Controller of Programmes, refused to show the film because he felt that it blurred the dividing line between fact and fiction: viewers might be in danger of taking it for reality. In other words, it was too well acted to be tolerable as art. (I should add that there’s no parallel with ‘The War Game’, or Orson Welles’s Martian Broadcast; nobody has suggested that ‘Five Women’ might plunge the nation into chaos.
Tony Garnett, who ran into similar trouble with his productions of ‘Cathy Come Home’ and ‘In Two Minds,’ replied that the credits clearly stated the author’s name and identified the women involved as actresses. But Wheldon was adamant. He clung (and still clings) to a simplistic argument that hasn’t been seriously invoked since certain puritans and neo-classicists used it to attacked the Elizabethan theatre. It runs as follows: playwrights are essentially liars, and the cleverer they are, the more we should beware of them, because they present their perversion of reality as if it were the truth.
This is just what Roy Battersby’s actresses do in ‘Five Women.’ I saw it last week at a private screening: what chances it offers the girls, and how thrillingly they seize them! Bella Emberg as the burly lesbian who occasionally slashes her wrists ‘to let the badness out of me’; Edith Macarthur as the prim Scottish confidence trickster who always gives her real name to her victims because ‘I’m not a liar’; Cleo Sylvestre, bubbling with pure, unresentful laughter as she describes her progress from one approved school to another; Natalie Kent, stolidly knitting in middle age, incestuously seduced in puberty; Fionnuala Flanagan, as the Irish girl whose man got himself married and murdered while she was still in jail.
They blame only themselves: none of them feels inhumanly treated, either by society or the law. Its very lack of explicit indignation is what makes the film such a memorable indictment. To ban it because it violates a discredited sixteenth-century dogma would be a ludicrous impertinence.

The Reviews of Some Women, BBC1 - August 1969. Observer: George Melly

The Observer 31/8/69
George Melly
Beleaguered masterpiece
‘A revised version of a film previously called “Five Women”’ is how the Radio Times described Tony Parker’s play, but it was re-titled “Some Women’ and not “Four Women” which was the form the revision took. It’s a comparatively open secret, however, that the lady on the cutting-room floor is a lesbian drug addict and I’m afraid it’s difficult not to harbour suspicions as to why she is there.
The BBC have several explanations. They say the original film was ‘too long’. They say the sequence was ‘theatrical and out of key’. They say that ‘As it had to be shortened it was decided that it was better to cut out a whole sequence rather than tinker about with the rest.’
This final decision was the correct one. What we did see was flawless, without a wasted shot or word, and for all I know the other explanations may be perfectly accurate. It’s quite possible that the lesbian sequence would have unbalanced the rest, but surely that was up to the makers of the film to decide and for us to judge? The film was handed over as ‘Five Women’ that’s the point, and if the BBC genuinely believe that we, as a nation, at 10.40pm, are liable to be corrupted and depraved by an actress impersonating a Lesbian drug addict they should say so. As it is, it’s impossible not to suspect a horse deal.
Another thing: ‘Five Women’ was originally commissioned as a Wednesday Play and on completion refused. The Hill regime can’t be blamed for his, it was in 1967, but they are responsible for the bizarre decision to change the film’s status. Despite the fact that the truncated version was shown on a Wednesday it was no longer as a play, It went out very late at night described as ‘a film about four women who have been in prison’ and without a word about it in the feature pages. Were they hoping to slip it by?
The BBC offer another explanation here. It was considered too near a documentary to be presented as a play. People might have thought the actresses were real recidivists. Well, yes, they might have, but surely even more so as it wasn’t announced as a play and besides there was nothing to stop them giving a preliminary explanation as they did here. None of it will do.
But why make such a fuss? The reason is that while there have been many admirable and excellent programmes on television, there are very, very few masterpieces and in my view ‘Some Women’ is one of them. To treat it as a skeleton in the BBC’s cupboard, to sneak it out late at night, two years after it was made, and shortened by 20 minutes was despicable. It showed either a total lack of courage or judgment or both.
But it’s no good me crying ‘masterpiece’ and leaving it at that. I must try to back my claims. First, and this is very important, it could only have worked on television. The form, a series of interviews with female recidivists; the technique, a few changes of angle, and even rarer exterior shots, were those of the straight documentary interview. But it wasn’t just fake cinema vérité. There was a great deal of selection involved. Realism is never the same as reality This film, and its director Roy Battersby and cameraman Charles Stewart, managed to give the impression that they’d intervened very little, but ‘the art that conceals art’ is not only an unselfish but also a very difficult thing to achieve, and they succeeded triumphantly.
Next the acting, only it was considerably more than acting. What they did was to make the actresses read or listen to hour upon hour of interviews with the criminals they were to impersonate. Then they put the actresses in front of the cameras and Parker interviewed them. It was a tricky way of going about it and could have been unconvincing or boring. It was neither. Empathy is an over-used word at the moment but it’s the only one applicable here. Fionnuala Flanagan, Cleo Sylvestre and Edith MacArthur were all brilliant, but if anyone has to be singled out it was Natalie Kent. As the old lag who stole to be ‘safe’ in prison and who slowly revealed the reason – her molestation as a child by her father – she created an infinitely pathetic human being who yet retained a hopeless dignity. She and the others managed to convey the final proof as to what I believe made this play important: its message.
I don’t mean the obvious message – that prisons are no answer – although they did that too, but what it said beyond that. This I take to be the terrifyingly haphazard effect of chance and environment on individuals and our refusal to accept any responsibility for the victims of such effects. The Scottish con-woman might have been the schoolmistress she pretended to be; the half-coloured adolescent a cheerful, loving girl; the Irish thief a good wife; the old recidivist a comfortable body in the snug. We could, if we were prepared to spend the time and money, possibly help them to become these happier people, but we don’t. We just shut them away.
‘Some Women’ may not have been a play in the conventional sense, perhaps, but in that it changed and enlarged anyone in any way open is that challenge it was a formidable work of art.

The Reviews of Some Women, BBC1 - August 1969. Sunday Times

Sunday Times 31/8/69
Maurice Wiggin
Television – True to Life
I wish to write with respect and mystification, with delight and a touch of awe, about two items of exceptional force and magnetism. They were wholly dissimilar – one charged with an intensity of tragic beauty, one suffused with irremediable pathos. Both gripped the attention irresistibly; each raised an interesting point – the identical point, for all their unlikeness of provenance and probity.
The programmes were Some Women, by Tony Parker (BBC1), and The Goshawk by David Cobham (BBC2).
Mr Parker talked with four women who had all been in and out of prison (or, in once case, reformatory). Originally there were five, and the result of Mr Parker’s investigations was to be presented as a Wednesday Play. I’m glad that someone had second thoughts. Though far more fascinating than the majority of plays, this was removed from strict documentary actuality by one dramatic device only. Though Mr Parker’s women had (and have) a real existence, though every detail of their revelations was true to fact, four actresses impersonated these victims of fate. They had no script; but, having soaked themselves in the documentary material, they reproduced it, “playing the parts” in re-staged interviews with Mr Parker.
A legitimate device? I think so. I’m always concerned about the tendency to smudge the distinction between fact and fiction, and could not have accepted this as a play, which manifestly it was not. But the alternative would have been a “Man Alive” type of recording, with that dreadful feeling one gets of eavesdropping intolerably, of gloating over private grief, and inadequacy. The reconstruction with actresses removed this inhibition and made it seem humanly decent to listen, and look. And, no doubt, by their art they eliminated the tedious tracts of inarticulacy, the repetitions and hesitations, which disfigure so much of real conversation (and which some smart-alec playwrights are so keen to drag into their scripts, under the impression that verisimilitude is a substitute for intrinsic interest).
Whatever may be the rights and wrongs of that debate, it cannot be doubted that the result was mesmeric. There is a touch of Frank Marker in Parker. Though by no means ingratiating, he plainly has the gift of sympathy, is a born listener to whom these poor women opened the secret places of the heart. He exorcised complacency. I do not share his optimism: I believe that actual wickedness exists: that it animates criminals against whom society must defend itself on behalf of the innocent. It follows that I do not find the social implications quite so clearcut as Mr Parker, who is all compassion. But how poignantly he brought out the haplessness of these habitual petty offenders – lonely, weak, pitifully inadequate; entirely without moral sense or any sense of having a relationship to society or to time. This strange experience that was not a sermon, was reporting raised to the level of art; it was a sort of ‘breakthrough’. But let all who would rush to follow ponder the indispensable integrity of the pioneer.

The Reviews of Some Women, BBC1 - August 1969. The Times

The Times 28/8/69
Henry Raynor
Tony Parker’s Some Women, originally called Five Women and written as a Wednesday Play more than two years ago, emerged on BBC 1 last night a character short. Mr Parker wants us to admit – as we come to know his people – that there, but for the grace of God, go we. The character omitted is not, it seems, necessarily the most shocking, but the one least likely to compel this admission.
Some Women  is a series of four talks between Mr Parker and women who have been in prison. They are played by actresses who worked out their own scripts from his book. Tony Garnett’s production treated what emerged as a series of interviews punctuated by the noises outside the interviewees’ homes. The sense or reality flags only at Fionnuala Flanagan’s unexplained changes of dress in a series of meetings presented as a continuous session.
Mr Parker’s characters are defeated by life. One repeatedly commits the same crime in the same inefficient way: since she was in a prison mental hospital 20 years ago she has not seen a psychiatrist. The others were rejected by parents; one when she was 12, was the victim of an incestuous father. A half-caste girl imprisoned for repeatedly escaping from approved schools is the only one who does not accept an unhappy fate. Cleo Sylvestre failed to catch or convey the hysteria her words suggested. Edith MacArthur, Natalie Kemp and Fionnula Flanagan disappeared entirely into the parts they played.

The Reviews of Some Women, BBC1 - August 1969. Daily Mail

Daily Mail 28/8/69
Peter Black
‘A sad view of the women who can’t keep out of jail’
Tony Parker’s controversial film about women and prison, Some Women, turned up late on BBC 1 last night after being taken out of the Wednesday Play slot it was destined for.
The BBC decided that its use of real people and their words, albeit spoken by actresses, took it across the line that ought to separate plays from documentaries.
This decision was right, but not the decision to show it at an hour when it would be preaching mostly to sympathizers.
Parker hates imprisonment as a cruel, wasteful and medieval form of punishment, and his patient, gentle interviews with these women asked the question we should all ask: How much effect does putting people in prison really have?
All four had been in jail and would probably go back. One of them, an illegitimate half-coloured girl, had committed no offence other than to run away from the institutions they’d put her in: but she ended up in prison for it.
The link between them was an unlucky start in life coupled with the characteristics of all recidivists, an inability to make the connection between breaking the rules and getting punished that keeps most of us in order.
Miss McDonald, a respectable and well-spoken woman of 40, brought up fatherless, when she was 20 obtained a suit on approval, left her name and address and promptly took it round the corner and sold it. She got a month in prison and ended that year in a mental hospital.
Periodically, she repeated the offence, but does not consider herself a thief. When Parker asked if she had ever considered giving the shop a false name she was shocked. ‘Mr Parker, I am not a liar.’
Janie Preston’s last sentence (her 16th conviction) was eight years for stealing a tankard with £55 in it from a pub. Typically, she was caught because she went back to the pub a fortnight later.
She was regularly raped as a child by a man she afterwards learned was her father. She agreed with the judge that society had to be protected from women like her, thought she wouldn’t mind being deported to Java instead of going to prison.
She once saw a picture of a leper colony there and it stuck in her mind as a place where she might be of use.
The fourth, Dianne Richards, remembered her father shouting at her after her mother’s death (she was six): “Why don’t you die too?” Her speciality is in stealing savings books and cashing money from them. She is always caught.
It was wretched to think of the lives laid waste. If there is wickedness it is not so much in these women as in the system that knows how futile and unfeeling prison is as a punishment for such, and goes on sending them there because it can’t be bothered to think of a better way to render them harmless.
I realise that prison survives because punishment has to be what most people will recognise as punishment, but this sad film must have added to the  numbers of those who wonder if it isn’t the Government’s duty to lead opinion rather than follow it.

The Reviews of Some Women, BBC1 - August 1969. Daily Mirror

Daily Mirror 27/8/69
Jack Bell
Women behind bars break out
It has taken more than two years for the BBC to get round to screening “Some Women” (BBC-1, 10.40 tonight), writes Jack Bell.
This controversial programme is about four women who have been in prison. It is produced by Tony Garnett, who was responsible for “Cathy Come Home.”
Garnett, who is now producing plays for the rival channel through his Kestrel Productions’ tie-up with London Weekend TV, had intended “Some Women” to be seen in the Wednesday Play slot.
Originally called “Five Women,” it is based on Tony Parker’s book of the same title, featuring interviews with the women.
Garnett and director Roy Battersby dispensed with a script.
Instead, they asked five actresses first to read the interviews, meet the ex-prisoners who provided them – and then give their own dramatized versions of these true-life stories in front of the cameras.
But then BBC chiefs decided not to screen it as a Wednesday play. They felt it ‘blurred the border between fact and fiction.’
Now, after two years, the programme has been taken over by the Features Department and now goes out as a documentary.
Playing the parts of the four ex-prisoners are Fionnula Flanagan, Edith MacArthur, Cleo Sylvestre and Natalie Kemp.

The Reviews of Some Women, BBC1 - August 1969. Daily Express

Daily Express 28/8/69
Martin Walsh
Who listens when the judge passing sentence asks the prisoner in the dock: “Have you anything to say?”
Prison visitor and social worker Tony Parker did – and he took his tape recorder to listen for hour upon hour to what women who have spent lives in and out of prison had to say.
But for nearly two and a half years the television re-creation of his interviews, “Some Women,” made but  never shown as a Wednesday Play, gathered dust in a BBC vault while programme controllers argued if it was drama or documentary, or indeed fit ever to be screened at all.
Last night the debate finally concluded. It was shuffled on at the end of the evening’s viewing, cut by 20 minutes – and I suspect somewhat emasculated in the process – and with an apologetic introduction by Mr Parker hurriedly attached.
It was easy to understand the BBC’s predicament. This was no programme that could be safely pigeon-holed and labeled. With actresses playing the parts of real women prisoners, it fitted neither the Wednesday Play nor the Tuesday Documentary. The programme was a moving, often harrowing, commentary on society’s need for scapegoats.
The women just sat there in a Balham bed-sitter, and talked. It was hard to remember that they were actresses – the effect was of the real dramatic truth. The offences were tragically petty; some shillings from the stolen Post Office book, a few pounds from pawning unpaid-for goods.
They seemed to will themselves to be caught. One aging woman who stole for beer money thought she ought to be deported to a leper colony, another always gave her right address when committing fraud because, “I’m no liar.”
Yet it told only half the story of crime and punishment. These women were the little failures, not the big villains, the sad rather than the bad people.
And of the original five interviews one was left behind on the cutting-room floor. The BBC explained it was because of time. But it also just happened to be the one with the least sympathetic character, a lesbian drug-taker.
Get the feeling we were being got at?

The Reviews of Some Women, BBC1 - August 1969. Guardian

Guardian, 28/8/69
Robert Waterhouse
Some Women
“Some Women”, shown on BBC1, was made in those heady days two years ago when Tony Garnett and Roy Battersby were creating a new kind of TV verité. Conceived, like “Cathy Come Home” as a Wednesday Play, it was originally held back because of internal BBC objections that it crossed the borderline between drama and documentary. Recently a new introduction was added by Tony Parker, on whose book it was based, and one of the five interviews with women “criminals” was dropped.
In fact Parker’s interviews with the women (played by actresses who had read his book and then tried in their own words to relive the true stories in it) were anything but heady. Parker goes as near as any social worker to thinking aloud for the subject simply by staying around, listening carefully and asking primary, unchallenging questions. In this way he has won the trust of a naturally distrustful breed, and got as near as anyone to recording experiences that actually happened. Even in the slightly bastard form of “Some Women” the integrity of the operation was never in doubt.
Shot in deliberately flat, anonymous surroundings, the film demanded a great deal from the four actresses to re-live these parts of the lost, detached women they represented. The four cases chosen were habitual petty criminals, who had all done time, and could most probably look forward to doing more – and the actresses responded credibly to Parker’s serious manner, filling the pauses he is prone to as best they could. Because of his dry sympathy, his unwillingness to ask leading questions, we had to be content with repetitious life histories and to draw our own conclusions about the kind of society which produced them – probably the point of the exercise. Like verbatim court reporting it was incontrovertible, yet somehow unsatisfactory.

A letter to the editor, Radio Times Feb 13, 1969, p2

"Readers of RADIO TIMES may be puzzled by the recent article (Jan 16) 'Keeping Faith with the Viewer.' For many people who work in television it is also very disturbing. Because beneath its bland, sweet reasonableness, which is the house-style of BBC bureaucracy, there is a warning.

The warning is this: if you refuse to take our gentlemanly hints, we shall censor or ban any of your programmes which deal in social and political attitudes not acceptable to us. The odd rebel may be allowed to kick over the traces, occasionally. Provided this is an isolated event, and not part of a general movement, it only helps us to preserve our liberal and independent image. But enough is enough.

The important thing for the viewers to understand is that this is an argument about content, not about form. We are told that 'what he sees must be true to fact or true to art' but there is no acknowledgement of the fact that the screen is full of news, public affairs programmes and documentaries, all delivered with the portentous authority of the BBC and riddled with argument and opinion. It is a question of which argument and what opinion. Some are acceptable; some are not.

And the gloves are really coming off in the traditionally safe area of drama. Why? If we go back to our article we are told that it is a question of the techniques used, the conventions established. 'Throuh a different set of conventions the viewer knows ... that this kind of programme (drama) will not be a photographic record of real events. It will be art presented as art.'

Over eighteen months ago a Wednesday Play called Five Women was completed. Everyone who has seen it (a very privileged few because the BBC won't allow viewings of material that it bans - despite a written request from twenty-five writers, directors and producers) agrees that its artistic merit is beyond doubt. But it used actresses to tell the stories of women who had been in prison. Used them so convincingly, that despite the end credits to artists, and front titles identifying it as a Wednesday Play by an author and a RADIO TIMES billing doing both, the BBC decided that viewers might be misled into thinking it was real! And worse, that the style might be imitated until viewers wouldn't know whether to believe even the News (good point: should viewers believe the News?)

The BBC has never given a clear reason for banning this show. After more than twelve months of conversations and correspondence with the BBC, the writer, the director and the producer are still mystified. Was it the form, were the actresses just too convincing (but what else do we ask of art?) or was it the possible uses to which this approach might be put?

What is clear is that the objection to mixed forms is only introduced when the content is found offensive by our guardians. Much humdrum television drama contains some example of 'real events' in the use of stock film and sound effects. In fact the BBC regularly exploits so-called fiction as a matter of policy - the Archers constantly peddle hints to farmers from the  Ministry of Agriculture and it is, after all, some years since listeners sent wreaths to Grace Archer's funeral. When Till Death Us Do Part filmed Alf Garnett and his son-in-law in the middle of a real football crowd no-one in the BBC was worried that this was not keeping faith with the viewer.

A documentary called Hit, Suddenly, Hit was also banned last autumn - again with no public explanation. Its form was conventional but its argument was not. It contained people like Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Stokeley Carmichael, Allen Ginsberg and Adrian Mitchell. The BBC found it 'unbalanced.' So it's not just form. It appears that the poor viewer shall only be selectively protected - and the areas selected are sensitive ones where social and political assumptions might be upset. This is spelled out almost innocently in the finger-wagging pay off to "Keeping Faith with the Viewer.'

'In the history of protest about broadcasting trouble' (ah, yes, trouble) 'has most frequently been caused when the audience got - not what it did not want - but what it did not expect.' Are the quietists not aware that the worst thing about most television is that you get exactly what you expect? It is as predictable as the grave. 

Tony Garnett, Jim Allen, Roy Battersby, Clive Goodwin, Ken Loach, James MacTaggart, Roger Smith, Kenith Trodd, London, W8"