Sunday Times 31/8/69
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.