Stumbling down a road past oblivious traffic in the middle of the night, clad in greatcoat, floppy hat and endless skirts and cardies, stumbles Edna O’Casey (aka Johnson aka Morrison aka McLean – “Ain’t got no permanent name”), a shapeless, sexless vagrant (“I am not the vagrant!”) tramping the country’s streets and lanes in search of some kind of permanent place to stay. Passing haphazardly through lodging houses, spikes, psychiatric hospitals (she’s summarily examined and given ECT), Holloway Prison, derelict barns and assorted refuges, she bounces around society’s bilges, forever moved on (“Flitter, flitter…”) by the social services, the police (“shades”) and the unwanted attentions of other tramps (she’s friendly enough, and doesn’t avoid companionship, but in the end she needs to be alone, it seems). Only Jesus Saves, a permissive hostel in a suburban street run by the idealistic Josie (Barbara Jefford) proves welcoming, even when Edna turns up in the small hours, drunk on meths and screaming to be let in.After one too many of these incidents, the street’s middle class population take Josie to court, and, despite an impassioned defence, petty distaste wins the day and Jesus Saves is closed down, leaving Edna to tramp her way back into the night.
A deservedly famous entry in the Play for Today canon, this mammoth production gained an audience of some 9¼ million on its first showing, an unqualified success. In the manner of his earlier sensation Cathy Come Home, writer Jeremy Sandford took his subject incredibly seriously, living the life of a vagrant for weeks at a time as research, as detailed in the play’s companion volume, Down and Out in Britain. It was intended as a standard studio production, to be 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. The two subsequent plays were scrapped, however, after it was decided to “open up” Edna’s story into real-life locations, which sent the budget spiralling way beyond the usual PfT allocation (and draining cash from subsequent productions in the season).
The narrative is fragmented, as life must be to Edna’s rootless, confused mind. Sketches of scenes interrupt each other as she’s shunted from pillar to post, which disorientates but crucially never detaches the viewer. The emotional range is great, too. For every violent scene of degradation under the arches, there’s a moment of pure comedy, such as when Edna ceremonially empties a mug of tea and kippers on a fellow inmate’s head, or hands a DHSS officer a stolen identity card that turns out to be from a man, necessitating a quick lowering of her voice by a couple of octaves. These hare-brained schemes are, briefly, immense fun, but of course round the corner there’s another incident of abuse in a hostel, or a no-holds-barred trudge through a soup kitchen under some railway arches.
In the demanding title role Patricia Hayes – straight off the Benny Hill Show and into a floppy hat – is, needless to say, effortlessly funny at these moments, but she’s a revelation during the more intense moments, too. Never has the old adage about comics having an instinctive grasp of the tragic been so boldly demonstrated. It’s like Chaplin’s lovable tramp shtick shorn of the sentiment and arch pantomime – pathos is everywhere, not least in the recurring incidence of Edna desperately assuming a ringing phone in an office must be for her. Among the rest of the forty-plus cast, seasoned actors like June Brown and Talfryn Thomas mingle with real life down and outs, populating a seamless and texturally entirely convincing slice of social purgatory.
Perhaps some of the final moments are a little too pat – Josie, giving evidence in favour of Jesus Saves, turns to camera to deliver an impassioned defence of the permissive hostel, which is rather jarringly on-the-nose after the amazing picaresque of the rest of the play. However, this is clearly the most important part to Sandford, and apparently there was an acceleration in the opening of hostels like Jesus Saves in the wake of the programme (Sandford himself became director of the Cyrenians, a loose charitable organisation on which Jesus Saves was based), so such reservations are churlish at best.
The final sequence of flashbacks to Edna’s childhood, however, are similarly too obvious, and don’t really perform any task that the monotone recitations of Edna’s various co-habitees about their own terrible plights haven’t already done more economically. With Hayes underpinning the character with her mighty performance, such biographical details don’t need spelling out for us to side with her. Another aesthetic problem is the relative lushness of the film’s production. While many critics nit-picked over the perceived “exaggeration” of Edna’s misfortunes, Clive James argued it didn’t go far enough, and that the production gave a “chipper” gloss to the story. It’s something Sandford would have at least partially agreed with – he remonstrated with the BBC’s fresh ruling against “going back” to producing programmes in black and white, arguing that colour would give the film a too-pleasant photogenic quality. It’s true that Ted Kotcheff gets the best out of the photography, but today the “glamour” of the visuals has subsided massively, while the strength of the story remains as great as ever. Perhaps the only real flaw in the play is Sandford’s narrowing didacticism.
Compare Jim Allen’s remarkable The Spongers of 1978 (qv), where an uncaring society is depicted without ever foisting the blame on individual villains – social workers, bailiffs and councillors fail single mother Pauline, but not through individual malevolence, just the general inflexibility and overarching inhumanity of the welfare system. Edna, on the other hand, is all too keen to point the finger – social services are impatient and uncaring, and the residents against the hostel are straight out of a Monty Python Women’s Institute sketch. Sandford, understandably keen to show a side of society all but ignored by the usual drawing-room drama, can’t help viciously caricaturing its members when they necessarily creep into the story. It’s this oversimplification that seems too easy, which is a shame as Sandford’s achievement in not only highlighting the plight of the homeless, but giving them a convincing voice, is otherwise triumphant.