“Come on, let’s be having you! Like a lot of good military English gentlemen!”

Major Digby-Hunter (Peter Jeffrey)
Figure 1: Major Digby-Hunter cajoles his Upton Grange charges (01:25)

Fifty years ago today, a strange, divisive Play for Today was broadcast. While not quite as out-there in its narrative or visual style as, say, The Bankrupt (1972), Steps Back (1973) or John McGrath’s two-part The Adventures of Frank (1980), it is an example of Play for Today’s abrasive modernism, reflected more widely in its incumbent title sequence, the musical ident of which was composed by Delia Derbyshire. This play is written by William Trevor, an Irish Protestant writer – like Shaw and Beckett – and a renowned short story writer and novelist, who was known as exceptionally good at delineating southern English characters. Of his novel The Old Boys (1964), Peter Porter claims: ‘This story of an obsessional school feud carried on into senility combined the grotesquery of Dickens with a scalpel-sharp awareness of the persistence of snobbery, cruelty and infantilism in English life.’[1]

O Fat White Woman (4 November 1971) is a brilliant example of Play for Today’s mainstay aesthetic form: primarily video-studio-shot, with some filmed inserts. It is directed by one of the strand’s most varied practitioners Philip Saville, responsible for the first Play for Today The Long Distance Piano Player (1970) and who would soon direct Barry Reckord’s incisive script of Jamaican inequality and geopolitics In the Beuatiful Caribbean (1972) and, later, with David Rose at Pebble Mill, Philip Martin’s incredible Gangsters (1975). It seems probable that Producer Irene Shubik commissioned William Trevor to write this, which later was published as a short-story within The Ballroom of Romance and Other Stories (Bodley Head, 1972). I am assuming then, that this was first conceived for Play for Today; please inform me, if you know otherwise! Shubik’s autobiography indicates this was shot in August 1971, which fits with the hazy summery quality of the filmed sequences.[2] Actor – and now Opera director – William Relton, who plays the key role of Wraggett, recalls it being a 3-4 week project including extensive rehearsals at North Acton and three days shooting at Television Centre at the end.[3] Relton recalls the experience very fondly, and director Philp Saville as being ‘very tanned and very kind’. However, Relton was only paid a fee of £75 for his work, which compared with £25 per week for his earlier performance in The Winslow Boy in the West End – Relton’s acting breakthrough – and £100 for Douglas Livingstone’s Armchair Theatre Competition (1971).

Trevor’s story is of Major Digby-Hunter (Peter Jeffrey), who, using his wife (Maureen Pryor)’s family fortune, has opened a boys’ preparatory school, Upton Grange. This ex-military martinet is proud of producing entrants into the major public schools of England, barring Eton – which he is targeting for Wraggett (William Relton). Digby-Hunter’s methods involve psychological and physical bullying; in Maths and Latin lessons his pupils appear a drilled, dehumanised unit. Digby-Hunter’s violence to Wraggett causes his death; this jolts Mrs Digby-Hunter into questioning her marriage.

Saville and Trevor’s Play for Today is video-studio-dominated: only 10 per-cent of its duration is filmed.[4] Contrasting with Saville’s style on The Long Distance Piano Player, the videoed sequences are faster than the filmed sequences: their mean Average Shot Lengths (ASL) are 10.6 and 13.3 respectively. Saville uses film sparingly to establish Upton Grange’s languid, festering social topography. It is unmistakably in the South of England but mythically vague as to where, in line with Major Digby-Hunter’s reeling off the names of the major English public schools – which he pushes his charges to get into – near the start. Saville uses visual and auditory effects to evoke the environment’s claustrophobia and pressure. His long, aerial take omnisciently surveys a classroom space that also includes beds, conveying that work overwhelms wellbeing within this coercive space:

Figure 2: The Upton Grange classroom (14:50).
Rounded effect is mine.

When the Major orchestrates the boys’ Latin recitations, Saville’s remorseless cutting mirrors his words: ‘This room is like a machine’. The effect remains, as William Relton says today, ‘terrifying’.[5] Later, Saville zooms slowly outwards from the Digby-Hunters’ monochrome marriage photograph, conveying Mrs Digby-Hunter’s mind-set during a party. Reverb-drenched choral music merges in the soundtrack with an organ and the indistinct hubbub of voices. A 24-shot sequence, with a rapid 2.04 ASL, mimics Mrs Digby-Hunter’s disorientation: frenzied glances at party guests including Miss Rone, who her husband is talking to; a pair of distanced statues metaphorical of her marriage (34:39-35:28).

Figure 3: Subjective truths in section of montage (34:47-34:51)

Saville’s point-of-view shots of a lamp going in and out of focus evoke Wraggett’s failing vision following Digby-Hunter’s violence, underscored by Delia Derbyshire’s cold, metallic drone (35:44-35:59). Later, Saville uses flashbacks, while looped fragments of previous dialogue echo amid Derbyshire’s eerie electronic soundscape (44:38-45:23). After Wraggett stumbles down to the kitchen, out-of-focus and doubled shots of Dympna (Susannah Williams) and Sgt Wall (Martin Boddey) mimic his faltering vision, underscored by Derbyshire’s pulsing, alienated drone (45:23-45:42). As Irene Shubik details, the double vision effect as ‘achieved by putting mirrors on the sides of the camera and through the use of special lenses.’[6] These modernist aesthetics impressionistically evoke narrative crisis and Mrs Digby-Hunter and Wraggett’s tragic subjectivities.

Figure 4: Philip Saville’s modernist style (35:34-45:36)

After Wraggett tells Mrs Digby-Hunter ‘your husband takes pleasure from hurting people’, the camera imperceptibly zooms into a CU of Pryor, punctuated by a monochrome flashback to the Digby-Hunters in bed on their wedding night seen from above.

An exemplar of slow VS pacing is Mrs Digby-Hunter’s climactic monologue to Miss Rone (Alethea Charlton), who her husband is cheating with. This sedate two-hander (49:40-56:18, 56:33-61:54), with its ASL of 28.8, foregrounds the performances. Four shots exceed a minute, including a 204-second take, which zooms out and back into a violently tormented Pryor who comes to a rational realisation: ‘A boy’s been murdered… By my husband’. Derbyshire’s treated, submerged piano notes recur with finality as Pryor repeats the noun ‘death’. Daringly, Trevor historicises the Major’s brutal violence: Digby-Hunter compares her previous passivity to wives who ‘just went on knitting’ when their Nazi husbands sent Jewish victims ‘to another kind of oven’.

Figure 5: The lengthiest shot (52:13-55:37) begins…

The pacing on video slows whenever the setting shifts to Mrs Digby-Hunter’s illusory safe haven: the set of her hothouse. As Shubik explains: ‘Design, style of shooting and sound once more played an important part in conveying the inner life of the central character, who surrounded herself with fuchsias and food to obliterate the reality of the horrible goings-on around her at the school.’[7] Saville’s slower cutting pace in this set gives the viewer time to observe its details and become immersed in its sickliness as a hiding place. Saville’s use of video may be associated with Talking Heads (1988- date) or close to Gerald Savory’s generally theatrical production style. It is especially sedately paced during Pryor’s aforementioned intense monologue where she opens up about her unhappy life with the Major.

Despite the twin advents of season openers Edna, The Inebriate Woman (1971) and Dennis Potter’s Kim Philby-inspired Traitor (1971), subsequent Series 2 Plays for Today did less well. Average audiences fell to an admittedly still impressive 5.3 million. Trevor and Saville’s Play for Today received 4.24 million viewers – a 29.4 per-cent audience share – perceived as low by BBC management and ‘hindered by a poor title which few would have recognised as a quotation’ from a Frances Cornford poem.[8]

While not quite amounting to the brickbats that greeted The Long Distance Piano Player, critics mostly regarded O Fat White Woman with antipathy. Sean Day-Lewis saw it as ‘below par’ for Trevor and lacking character development.[9] Michael Le Moignan discerned a lack of compassion for the characters, bemoaning ‘seventy minutes of almost unrelieved Jacobean gloom.’[10] Virginia Ironside felt ‘a slight sense of disgust’ at its representation of sadism.[11] Alan Brien and James Thomas saw it as ‘dated’ and ‘a play for yesterday’, themselves not exactly using a fresh discourse.[12] Notably pre-echoing Dominic Sandbrook, Brien likened it to a ‘propaganda exercise’ programmatically ‘tailored to a thesis’. Thomas saw its representation of prep schools as ‘implausible’, a criticism later echoed by BBC Head of Plays Gerald Savory.[13] While Alan Brien praised Saville’s ‘allusive, melting, poetic style’, he privileges what he perceives as the ‘real’ and complex over the fantastical and polemical: a fairly typical critical discourse where Play for Today is measured, positively or negatively against the individual critic’s yardstick of realism. Similarly, James Thomas attacked O Fat White Woman on ‘realist’ grounds; though, bizarrely – and unlike Brien – he didn’t perceive any coherent ‘message’. Of course, ‘realism’ is a moveable feast, as something subjectively perceived by each viewer based on their perceptions of the world or indeed conditioned by expectations of ‘realistic’ drama based on previous TV drama viewing.

Among critics, the acting was widely praised; Pryor especially, with smaller numbers mentioning Peter Jeffrey, Alethea Charlton, Roger Hammond, Susan Penhaligon or William Relton. In her otherwise negative notice, Rosemary Say claimed that it is pulled out of the ‘banal’ by Pryor’s ‘brilliant’ acting.[14] Bernard Davies devoted a whimsical – verging on patronising – paean to Pryor’s performance as the ‘fat woman’, seeing her as akin to a subject for the seventeenth-century artist Peter Paul Rubens.[15] Davies also saw a refreshing realism in how director Philip Saville had not used ‘adenoidal cockney’ child actors to play upper-class boys, as in many other recent TV productions. Phillip Whitehead praised Peter Jeffrey for capturing the Hitler-like sadism of Digby-Hunter ‘to perfection’. Whitehead was Labour MP for Derby North from 1970-83.[16]

Oddly, Alan Brien wanted more ‘real concern for its sadistic headmaster’! This call for a more shaded, sympathetic portrayal of a violent sadist is humanism taken to a questionable extreme and totally against the grain of Trevor’s and Saville’s troubling vision, just as much as, in a different way, Virginia Ironside’s desired, Mary Whitehouse-like sanitisation would have been. More appreciative of this play’s abrasive modernism were Bernard Davies and Michael Le Moignan who specifically commended Derbyshire’s ‘remarkable’ electronic soundtrack. Mary Holland, while lamenting ‘some clichés’, joined Brien in praising Saville’s direction which evoked the palpable ‘terror and tension’ felt by the prep schoolboys. Stanley Reynolds saw Trevor ‘cleverly’ utilising clichés for a ‘subtle and difficult’ message about love while Phillip Whitehead approved of its polemical attack on ‘Horrid little prep schools’ which ‘are miniature totalitarian societies’.[17]

Among BBC managers in their Television Weekly Programme Review weekly meeting, there was minimal discussion of Trevor and Saville’s Play for Today compared with The Long Distance Piano Player, which suggests relative indifference, perhaps also linked with its being the fourth in its series rather a ‘blockbuster’ opener.[18] Gerald Savory said it was ‘perhaps dated, as some had pointed out’ but defended a ‘very good production with a fine performance by Maureen Pryor’, also stating that ‘the boys had also been excellent’. Showing the power and influence of Fleet Street in 1971, Head of Plays Savory basically synthesises recurring strands in the press comment!

Audience reaction was similarly mixed. A fairly sizeable minority thought O Fat White Woman ‘horrid’, ‘repulsive’, ‘weird’, ‘sordid’, ‘incomprehensible’, or ‘pointless’ and echoed Thomas’s ‘dated’ discourse.[19] Its audience Reaction Index score was 58, slightly below Play for Today’s higher-than-usual Series 2 average of 62.[20] While a few echoed Virginia Ironside’s moralism, more were concerned that it had ‘no plot, sense or conclusion’ and how it was characteristic of many recent plays in its open-endedness and ‘confusing flashbacks’. Of Saville’s experimental doubling and out-of-focus shots, ‘one viewer mistook the former for interference for a time’.

While some criticised the music and camera shots as ‘too clever by half’, others admired Saville’s ‘imaginative and effective camera-work’ and Derbyshire’s ‘evocative music.’ Some ‘had to admit that the play had held their attention’ and provided food for thought even if it hadn’t entertained. For ‘a quarter of the sample’, the characters, especially Mrs Digby-Hunter, were seen as ‘interesting’ and a ‘difficult’ theme was ‘well engineered and the atmosphere was perfect’. Beyond isolated claims of ‘over-acting’ there was wider agreement that the acting – Pryor, Jeffrey, the boys – was ‘excellent’. One viewer, who we might perceive as part of the Play for Today vanguard audience, claimed it was ‘great stuff’, exceeding the usual ‘trite nonsense’. 68% watched O Fat White Woman all the way through – according to BBC managers, ‘only’ 68 per-cent [my emphasis] – while 21 per-cent either switched off or viewed a bit. This, however marked an improvement from Saville’s The Long Distance Piano Player, which only 61 per-cent had watched all of – while 34 per-cent had switched off or tried just a bit.

O Fat White Woman, a modernist Play for Today of electronically-scored ‘Jacobean gloom’ was repeated on BBC1 on 16 July 1973, but has remained obscure since. This Play for Today’s occasional samizdat emergences on YouTube should be superseded by inclusion within a BFI BluRay release and/or BBC Four repeat.

The great socialist cultural thinker Raymond Williams once praised Alan Plater’s Wednesday Play Close the Coalhouse Door (1969) for its use of folk and music hall techniques to show working-class people to themselves in a way that they would recognise as broadly true.[21] This contrasted with what he saw as TV playwrights’ more detached, anthropological positioning vis-à-vis their characters: he cites William Trevor as one exemplar of this.[22] Now, Trevor is a fine conveyor of human malice, which certainly exists in some people. Williams wanted (working-class) people to be able to recognise themselves on screen; well, surely that doesn’t preclude evil among people of all classes? It’s come to a bland, limiting pass whereby certain human characteristics or groups can only be represented positively, and that surely wasn’t what Williams wanted, even if people may prefer to see their reflections on screen flattered rather than dissected. Role-model representation, with characters idealistically representing how we would like the world to be can be a false circumscription of storytelling, given all we know about humanity, past and present. After re-watching the play before we talked in March this year, William Relton perceived O Fat White Woman as an ‘interesting period piece with a very clear historical perspective on what went on then’ at prep schools and in women’s lives.[23]

Relton feels that William Trevor ‘always […] wrote fantastically good roles for women’. In addition to Pryor and Charlton, younger women cast members have vivid roles. Perhaps as a deliberate red herring, but definitely deepening the social milieu, Trevor presents two apparently sharp-tongued, spiteful young Welsh ladies Barbara (Susan Penhaligon) and Dympna (Susannah Williams), who work in Upton Grange’s kitchen and who badmouth Mrs Digby-Hunter. In their first appearance, the girls both spit in the sandwiches they bring her. Their coarse worldliness may be a rational reaction to their environment. Early in the drama, Mrs Digby-Hunter is distant and inattentive. Of course, there’s nowt wrong at all with gossip and talking about sex, as Barbara and Dympna amply do. While they do anticipate some of the bullying teenage girls at the comprehensive school in Trevor’s final, disturbing Play for Today Eleanor (1974, theirs isn’t clear-cut wickedness.

Figure 6: The irreverent Barbara and Dympna (10:56).

Barbara and Dympna’s impudent attitude is in counterpoint to far worse actions from the bullying Major Digby-Hunter. That great character actor of middle-class parts Peter Jeffrey plays Digby-Hunter as a cold, coiled man, personality totally subordinated to the role of sadistic martinet. Sadly, Barbara and Dympna aren’t deeply fleshed out; however, they appear as plausible objects within Trevor’s scheme, while Wraggett is genuinely a victim of the terrible Major. Mrs Digby-Hunter’s monologue, so unobtrusively shot by Philip Saville in the studio, conveys a harrowing subjectivity. Yes, using Williams’s words, William Trevor here was still recording ‘the weaknesses of his fellow creatures’, but with astonishing depth, imbued with heart-rending power by Pryor’s performance.

Furthermore, O Fat White Woman has an ending unusually radical for a William Trevor play. After Pryor’s last words: ‘Love… can be a monster’, we cut to the dormitory-classroom, which is now empty. On the soundtrack is Delia Derbyshire’s eerie, gadding take on ‘Boys and Girls Come Out to Play’. The Upton Grange pupils enter and begin a pillow fight and upend the desks and chairs in a righteous outbreak of anarchy against a cruel, repressive system. It is left profoundly open as to what will happen next to this ‘crammer’ school.

Thanks for reading! As part of and extending beyond my PhD study of Play for Today (BBC1, 1970-84), I am gathering a range of oral histories. So, if you were involved in this or any other Play for Today production and are happy to talk about your memories and experiences, please email me at tommay270982@gmail.com

Figure 7: Me while interviewing William Relton via Zoom.

Disclaimer: Quotations, and screenshots in Figures 1-6, from O Fat White Woman are used in accordance with the fair dealing provisions set out under Sections 29 and 30 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 – being for the purposes of research as well as criticism, review and quotation.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Juliette Jones for her sterling work in transcribing my conversation with William Relton.

BBC copyright content reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

[1] Porter, P. (2016) William Trevor obituary, Guardian, 21 November [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/21/william-trevor-obituary [accessed: 01/11/2021]

[2] Shubik, I. (2000) Play for Today: The evolution of television drama, 2nd edn. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 127.

[3] Relton, W. (2021) Interview with Tom May. 15 March. Transcribed by Juliette Jones.

[4] Whereas 11.8 per-cent of TLDPP was filmed on location in Skipton. See Simon Farquhar’s historical account of the play here and my very formative analysis here from way back in 2011!

[5] Relton, W. (2021) ibid.

[6] Shubik, I. (2000) ibid, 127.

[7] Shubik, I. (2000) ibid, 127.

[8] Television Weekly Programme Review minutes, 17 November 1971, 3. [BBC WAC, micro film] [accessed: 16 January 2020]

[9] Day-Lewis, S. (1971) Gifted writer’s play below form, Daily Telegraph, 5 November, 10.

[10] Le Moignan, M. (1971) Play For Today: O Fat White Woman, The Stage and Television Today, 11 November, 13.

[11] Ironside, V. (1971) Last Night on TV, Daily Mail, 5 November, 19.

[12] Brien, A. (1971) Bird’s eye viewing, Sunday Times, 7 November, 38; Thomas, J. (1971) ‘Please sir! Teach about a boarding school of fun’, Daily Express, 5 November, 17.

[13] Television Weekly Programme Review minutes, 10 November 1971, 6. [BBC WAC, micro film] [accessed: 16/01/2020]

[14] Say, R. (1971) Goodbye Mr. Kops, Sunday Telegraph, 7 November, 19.

[15] Davies, B. (1971) One man’s television, Television Mail, 12 November, 18.

[16] Whitehead, P. (1971) Television: ITV 2, Listener, 11 November, 668.

[17] Reynolds, S. (1971) O Fat White Woman, Times, 5 November, 9.

[18] Television Weekly Programme Review minutes, 21 October 1970, 5-6 & 10 November 1971, 6. BBC WAC, micro film [accessed: 16/01/2020]

[19] Audience Research Department, BBC Audience Research Report – Play for Today: O FAT WHITE WOMAN, 24 November 1971. BBC WAC, VR/71/452 [accessed: 18 August 2017] All subsequent audience comments cited come from this document.

[20] From October 1970 to July 1973, no specific Reaction Index scores are specified within the audience research reports: curiously, given that all Wednesday Play reports had these percentages. However, I have calculated figures for those 1970-73 episodes which specify figures for audience responses to the same five-point opinion scale on four sets of binaries: ‘Thoroughly entertaining’/’Very boring’, ‘Very easy to understand’/’Very difficult to understand’, ‘Excellent plot’/’Poor plot’, ‘Definitely out-of-the-ordinary’/’Just ordinary’. Thus, for O Fat White Woman I have calculated a mean average for these which corresponds exactly to the A+/A-/B/C+/C- scale used from series 4 on.

[21] Williams, R.; O’Connor, A. ed. (1989) Raymond Williams on Television: Selected Writings. Abingdon: Routledge, 78-79. Williams’s piece on Plater’s Wednesday Play was originally in the Listener, 30 October 1969.

[22] Williams, R. (1989) ibid. 68-69. This was a piece in the Listener (10 July 1969) on Trevor’s Wednesday Play A Night With Mrs Da Tanka.

[23] Relton, W. (2021) ibid.

VERSION 1: published 04/11/2021, excluding material cited from the BBC Written Archives Centre, as I’m awaiting their formal approval.

VERSION 2: re-published 05/11/2021, including material cited from the BBC Written Archives Centre following their formal approval; I have used the form of words to credit this BBC content.

VERSION 3: re-published 11/11/2021, including amendment to information concerning William Relton’s pay for his acting roles following email correspondence with WR.

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