by Allan Fish
(UK 1971 91m) not on DVD
I am not the vagrant
p Irene Shubik d Ted Kotcheff w Jeremy Sandford ph Peter Bartlett ed Peter Coulson art Evan Hercules
Patricia Hayes (Edna), Barbara Jefford (Josie Quinn), Cheryl Hall (Vangi), Geraldine Sherman (Trudi), Kate Williams (Teresa), Peggy Aitchison (Lil), Freda Dowie (Mother Superior), June Brown (Clara), Jenny Logan (Doris),
How is it, in this day and age, that one of the great TV plays of all time is so impossible to see? The BFI have released DVDs of so many, from the early Ken Russell composer pieces and Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home to the Ghost Story at Christmas series. True, all are now deleted, but at least they were made available. Edna, though, lies languishing in the vaults; forgotten, gathering dust. There’s a tragic irony in that considering the subject.
Edna is a woman of around sixty. We first see her walking along a country street trying to get a bed for the night in a country hostel. She does so, and is washed and has her clothes fumigated, but is then sent on her way in the morning. Such is her existence, flitting from one night rooms to sleeping in ditches and drinking water out of rivers out of her hat. She then gets into trouble with the police for creating a disturbance and is brought up before the local magistrate. She’s persuaded by counsel to take time in a psychiatric hospital rather than get thrown on the merciless court, but she eventually even outstays her welcome there. Once well, she’s thrown out, and eventually gets a temporary reprieve when thrown into prison. She likes it there, but of course her sentence is not a long one and she’s soon on her way even from there, back on the streets, shouting and wailing at the wind. Finally she comes across a hostel where she’s taken in by an organisation known simply as Jesus Saves, looking after fallen women of all kinds; drunks, drug addicts, prostitutes, the elderly and infirm. Edna’s never been so happy, but needless to say, it doesn’t last for long. The hostel is ordered to close after complaints from neighbours and Edna’s on her way again, this time we know not where.
Homelessness on the streets was a familiar subject by then after Cathy Come Home, but this deals with an altogether different type of homeless woman, an elderly woman with seemingly nothing left to live for; no family, job, fixed residence, even no fixed name, her surname changing at every institution she tries to get money from. She has little dignity left, muttering to herself lines such as “I haven’t had a meal since yesterday.” Each of her encounters fills one with despair , not just for Edna but for those she meets, from a delusional drunk who thinks he’s God (“I was saying my prayers to the Lord and found I was talking to myself”), a young prostitute on the verge of madness who no hostel will take in, or even Dot Cotton asking after pills so she can take a monster dose and end it all.
To all intents and purposes then, Edna is a Betty Higden for the 20th century, not scared of the workhouse but simply unaware of any degree of happiness. We eventually see, through one particularly painful flashback to childhood and throwaway line to a fellow inebriate on the streets, that she not only had her only living child taking from her and taken she knows not where, but was herself taken from a brutal, broken home, whose parents were found irresponsible and she and her siblings taken into care. Any family she ever had, any love, has long since vanished. The only solace she has is not so much in the bottle as the end to that means, forgetting.
Forty years on, aspects of the play may be of their time, a certain sense of social conscience that seems dated, and many of the supports are little more than composites of various types. None of that matters, however, for it’s in the script and especially in the stunning lead performance from Patricia Hayes that this maintains its small screen classic status. Hayes is nothing short of miraculous as a relic of an age where, to paraphrase Scrooge, the ignorant, complacent general population cries “are there no prisons? Are there no hostels?” Grim stuff, but layered with a slim silver lining of humanity.