Thursday, 7 May 2015

Edna, The Inebriate Woman (1971)

Edna, The Inebriate Woman was a much celebrated and fondly remembered Play For Today from the 1971 season which gained an audience of some 9¼ million on its first showing and won a raft of awards including the best play and best actress award from the Society of Film and Television Arts for Patricia Hayes in the title role, the best original television production award from the Writers' Guild and the Critics' Circle award for best television play.

Written by Cathy Come Home writer Jeremy Sandford, it is another look at the homeless situation from the point of view of a destitute woman completely and utterly failed by the system around her. The writer took his subject incredibly seriously and, in order to research the story, he lived too the life of a vagrant for several weeks, an account of which appears in the play’s companion volume, Down and Out in Britain. The play was originally to be called The Lodging House and serve as part of a trilogy along with Till the End of the Plums, about hostile local attitudes to a gypsy settlement, and Arlene, about an unmarried mother. When both these productions were scrapped, it was decided to expand Edna’s story into something more ambitious and shoot on location and on film. It meant the budget escalated wildly, and some of its contemporaries suffered as a result, but the success and plaudits it received must have more than made up for it. 

The wider scope made for a more rambling, fragmented plot which, to some extent, perfectly complimented and reflected Edna's own aimless existence. Sandford presents her way of life matter of factly to the viewer and we see for ourselves how a woman like Edna is viewed as an embarrassment, an inconvenience or worse, a nothing - something which Edna fears and loathes the most - by society in general. Passed from pillar to post by a variety of towns, doss houses, hospitals and dole offices Edna finally finds a stable environment in the shape of the 'Jesus Saves' refuge, run by Barbara Jefford's idealistic and capable character, but when the house is forced to close thanks to a campaign by neighbouring residents who are up in arms about the riff raff on their own doorstep, Edna finds herself back on the road and back at square one.

Like Cathy in his previous groundbreaking, conscience raising piece, Sandford created a sympathetic character in Edna but in the hands of Patricia Hayes, an actress who was more known for comedy than straight drama, there is no attempt to smooth out the rough edges of the rude, funny, occasionally fiery yet utterly proud Edna. It's a brave and deeply affecting performance and Hayes' flair for comedy ensures the more light hearted moments ate handled with great flair and skill - something which more traditionally dramatic actors may have struggled to convey. Like the very best comedians Hayes proved to be utterly in tune with the other side of the coin; the tragedy and, getting the best from Sandford's writing, she ensures the viewer is never detached from the story; we're with Edna every step of the way from scenes of abuse and pathos to her hare-brained schemes to get by. Never once does the performance, or the piece, descend into sentimentality or pantomime. 

The rest of the cast, whilst clearly not in the limelight, are just as strong, including the aforementioned Jefford and a plethora of seasoned, experienced actors playing similar lost souls and down and outs, alongside genuine dispossessed people - and it's often hard to tell which is which. 

As with Cathy Come Home which, following its broadcast, saw the charity Shelter come into existence, Sandford's message here - that the country needed more hostels - was immediately taken up and permissive hostelries like Jesus Saves depicted here began to pop up around the UK, with Sandford himself becoming a director of the Cyrenians, the charitable organisation on which his Jesus Saves had been based upon.  That is the power of these strong single plays, they addressed what was occurring in society and helped change things for the better. It is utterly tragic now that we have nothing in place to challenge the status quo in the same manner now. 

Surprisingly, the play remains unreleased to VHS and DVD and hasn't been repeated for a good many years now. It is however available to watch in instalments on YouTube.

To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic Play For Today's please sign the petition I started here

1 comment:

  1. I remember this from the time, but not seen it since. Equally unforgettable was Liz Smith as the downtrodden, put-upon mother in an early Mike Leigh: HARD LABOUR. Alan Bennett also made capital and engrossing drama about that woman who parked her caravan in his drive for 12 years: THE LADY IN THE VAN, which has now been filmed with Maggie Smith reprising her stage role, so a lot more will get to see it.