Screen • BBC • Some Women

Off-Cut: Five Women

Tony Parker was a small, unthreatening man who listened. He once told me that he’d never met anyone who bored him. I was always trying to avoid bores. He fascinated me, not least because of his methods. He would listen to his subjects for countless hours over long periods, patiently, sympathetically and without judgement, rather like a therapist would. He then distilled this material into a readable length, preserving the words and meaning of the speakers. Their real voices came through and Tony was so skilled his role was invisible.

Five female recidivists told their stories in his book Five Women and we decided to make a film by casting five actors and, instead of asking them to learn lines from a screenplay based on the book, they would be asked to read and digest the material on their characters; then talk to Tony, improvising answers with knowledge gained from their reading. I was interested in recidivism, why these pathetic women kept being sent back to prison time after time for such petty crimes. But I also saw the film as a further experiment in our exploration of naturalistic, realistic, filmmaking.

This time I managed to prise Roy Battersby from Aubrey Singer. Like the hiring of Jack Gold, it was noticed by senior management, who went out of their way to congratulate me. They thought the BBC was harmed by being organised in silos which were not porous, and some cross fertilisation was healthy. But when I teased them by assuming that meant I would shortly be invited to edit Panorama for a season, they laughed. What a droll chap I was! So much for cross fertilisation.

Roy cast some interesting women, including my old friend Cleo Sylvestre, who was by now a regular in our films. The method worked well and the actors rose to it, enjoying the opportunity. They all achieved a result close to the ideal: the acting was invisible, the writing seemingly non existent and the direction not intervening, just revealing what was going on. On camera was Charles Stewart, famous for his documentary work.

We had a problem in the editing. My policy was to chat with the director about the rushes but then not see anything else until there was a cut. This gave the director and the editor time together, but also allowed me to forget what I’d seen. Someone on the film, someone clearly rooting for it, must be a fresh, naive viewer. If you see the material and play with it every day for weeks, you tend not to know what you are seeing. You habituate to it. For instance when I would ask what happened to a very funny scene, the cutting room would say it had been cut because it wasn’t funny. Of course not, I would say, you saw it how many times? Nothing would be funny after that. Please, let’s try putting it back.

When I asked about Five Women I was told that the cut was over three hours and nothing, absolutely nothing, could go. It was tight. To cut a frame would kill it. I remembered Sydney Newman asking me if I’d honestly ever missed anything I’d cut. I went into battle. Roy is a doughty fighter, but we gradually brought it down to a manageable length. It was exhausting. Our friendship survived. The film was good.

The real battle began after I delivered it.

Huw Wheldon refused to transmit. He maintained that by having Tony Parker, a real person, interviewing actors in a fictional film, we would confuse the audience by mixing two forms. No one had objected to the interview with John Moores, the Everton chairman, so I wondered what was going on. We had a stand up row. No one lost his temper. Huw argued in a civilised way, but it was clear neither of us would give ground. This was painful because I was fond of him.

But he had form. He had refused to show The War Game, Peter Watkins‘ brilliant film about nuclear warfare. I realised in that neither case was Huw acting alone. He was the mouthpiece for the BBC top brass, especially the News and Current Affairs mandarins. The Channel Controller, Paul Fox, said it had been “rejected as a play and turned down as a documentary because it is neither one thing or another”. I said why not just call it a film? My whole life seemed to be a fight with these people.
The ban lasted. I was running out of ideas. Then Ken Tynan stepped in. I’d got to know him through Clive Goodwin. We got on well, however unlikely that seemed. His and Kathy’s apartment was an open salon and I spent much of my time there, even watching the 1966 World Cup final with him. He wasn’t interested in football but appreciated it as a theatrical event. We showed him a print of Five Women and he generously devoted his Sunday column in the Observer, Shouts and Murmurs, to a defence of the film and a vitriolic attack on the BBC’s position. Ken’s pen was notoriously venomous.

As a consequence Huw decided to lance the embarrassing boil and negotiate. I was loath to compromise, but after talking to Tony and to Roy we cut one of the women and it was shown late at night, at ten forty, as Some Women. A pyrrhic victory for both sides.

It was revealing that the character sacrificed was a lesbian drug addict. The BBC claimed the film had to be shortened. Why? The character was “theatrical and out of key”, a judgement I was rather better qualified to make than an executive who had never worked on a drama and who didn’t understand or sympathise with our intentions.

So, a film cut by twenty minutes was shown two years late and buried as an embarrassment by the BBC brass.

I was proud of it and what my colleagues had achieved. I was furious with the brass. I vowed to fight again and to win.