The Observer 31/8/69
‘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.