The Observer, 9/6/68
Shouts and murmurs
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.