By Oliver Wake
Writer: Nigel Kneale; Director: Michael Elliott
The work of Nigel Kneale is held in high regard by television drama enthusiasts, and by those with an interest in the science fiction and horror genres especially. His scriptwriting work, spanning five decades, produced a number of prophetic, macabre and disturbing pieces that have lingered long in the minds of viewers. It was these productions which made Kneale’s reputation, yet he wrote a great deal more besides. It would be a shame to ignore Kneale’s work in the discipline that we could call, perhaps pretentiously, ‘straight’ or ‘serious’ drama, much of which is as powerful and worthy of discussion as his better known material. One of these dramas is Mrs Wickens in the Fall from 1957, a play which has received little attention despite the script having been published in a 1960 compendium of television plays. This article is an attempt to redress that imbalance slightly.
Mrs Wickens in the Fall was Kneale’s first original teleplay having resigned his position as a staff writer with the BBC’s Script Unit. It was also the author’s first original non-fantasy drama for television, his only other original works being the first two Quatermass serials and 1955’s ‘yeti’ mystery The Creature. The difference in style, form and subject from all his earlier pieces is interesting, denoting a conscious effort on Kneale’s part to attempt something fresh. It is not, however, the beginning of a new era for Kneale; he would provide a third Quatermass serial the following year and continue to refine his unique brand of science fiction over the next decade. As such, Mrs Wickens in the Fall is something of an oddity in the Nigel Kneale canon.
The Radio Times synopsis for the play gives the slightly inaccurate impression that the drama is about the sterility and absurdity of the ‘special floating dimensions of the tourist’ and the culture shock experienced when the tourist steps outside those dimensions.1 The first half of the play is indeed concerned with this, but only as a build-up to the greater issues of the second. The play is really about the aftermath of war, its brutal legacy and the difficulty of people who have never experienced war to understand the lives of those who have lived through it. According to Andy Murray’s 2006 biography of the writer, Kneale had been holidaying in France when he was ‘struck by the lingering after-effects of World War II: the resentment towards former Nazis collaborators and the web of affiliations and hatred between the assorted nations of Europe.’2
To articulate these notions, Kneale places two ageing American tourists into a small French town still scarred by the German occupation of the Second World War. It is set in 1956, just a decade after the war ended. The tourists, Bob and Lyddie Wickens, encapsulate the ignorant parochial mindset that – rightly or wrongly – was thought to characterise post-war America. The Wickens’ one point of empathy with the French is the shared feeling of irrevocable loss, the couple’s son having been killed serving in Korea. This devastating grief is contrasted with the equal tragedy of a local boy, a casualty of war in a different manner. The orphan of a local girl and an occupying German soldier, he is unwanted by society and unloved by his remaining family.
Kneale’s script is unusual in its visual economy and use of language. With Kneale’s original material of the era we associate the innovative ‘televisual’ style of his usual collaborator, the producer/director Rudolph Cartier: a strong visual impact and ambitious use of filmed inserts. Mrs Wickens in the Fall uses no inserts at all, requires only four full sets, and calls for no special effects or fancy camerawork. This simplification makes for a more traditional television production than those that made Kneale’s name, though Donald Wilson, then head of the BBC’s Script Section, was quick to pre-empt any suggestions of crudity. In his brief introduction to the published script, he calls it a ‘completely non-theatrical play’, praises the author’s skill in invoking ‘the atmosphere of a French provincial town without the need for any “establishing” shots on film’, and recognises the drama as the result of ‘the complete combination of creative power and technical virtuosity’3.
The dialogue of the main characters also indicates a departure for Kneale. Previously, his main characters had been scientists and journalists speaking, for the most part, stuffy ‘BBC English’ in received pronunciation. Kneale’s occasional working class characters (as seen in the Quatermass serials) were rarely credible. In Mrs Wickens in the Fall, Bob and Lyddie, though perhaps classless, are not intellectual or articulate speakers. Kneale’s script however does indicate a compelling mode of speech which, through faltering and gabling, perfectly conveys the characters’ humble simplicity. Against convention, the script also allows the French characters to use their own language when talking amongst themselves. Kneale explains his intention:
Some of the dialogue in this play is in French. It is the story of an American woman paying her first visit to a foreign country, and meeting language and other barriers. So that the audience can share her viewpoint, strict realism is essential.
In the few scenes where characters speak only French, the meaning should be quite plain to an average audience… either through strongly expressed emotions, or by the routine familiarity of the action4
Wilson concurred with Kneale’s approach, calling it ‘one answer – the best in my opinion – to a recurrent problem. It is handled so skilfully that viewers without any knowledge of the language were never at a loss.’5 Indeed, this is true and the bonus is that the viewer should never feel patronised by the play, nor alienated from it.
Mrs Wickens in the Fall was transmitted under the Sunday-Night Theatre banner on 8 September 1957, running for approximately 90 minutes from 8.00 pm. The play was produced and directed (both roles were one under the title ‘producer’ in BBC drama at that time) by Michael Elliott, a noted stage director who had joined the BBC Drama Department in 1956 and had already tackled over twenty television plays. He would work with Kneale again in 1964 on The Crunch, the opening play for ATV’s Studio ’64, a strand which aimed to pair sympathetic writers and directors to craft a play from germination to transmission with complete artistic freedom. They came together at the BBC once more for Theatre 625’s acclaimed futuristic drama The Year of the Sex Olympics in 1968. Interviewed in 2000, Kneale recalled Elliott with affection and admiration, calling him a ‘brilliant director’.6
The play opens inside a French château, the camera lingering over a medieval tapestry of knights in battle. Swords and daggers are seen next, then an armoured helmet with a human hand exploring it. The hand belongs to Lyddie Wickens, ‘a mild-faced American woman in her early sixties. Her clothes are new but not expensive – a new vacation outfit, chosen in the staider stores of a mid-Western town’7. Her face is ‘pinched with what seems to be the effort of concentration’, then she ‘glances down towards her feet with a little sigh of acute discomfort’ – the first indications of both her unworldliness and the affliction which will provide the catalyst for the drama.
Next we are introduced to a group of tourists of various nationalities and Lyddie’s husband Bob: ‘Like her, he wears a new vacation outfit, a straw hat with a patterned band. A cheap but shiny American miniature camera is slung across his chest. In his hand is a guidebook’. While the tour guide moves the group along, the American couple stay behind as Lyddie struggles with the pain of her swollen feet. Surveying a suit of armour she comments: ‘I guess these French must have been awful warlike people’. They are both amazed at the idea of a man wearing the armour to fight. The brief exchange sets up the premise of the play and reveals why Kneale went to the trouble of giving such detailed descriptions of the initial setting and props. He has economically established the location’s long history of conflict, the protagonists’ ignorance of such matters and, more importantly, their inability to comprehend the nature of a society shaped by the ravages by war.
As the couple catch up with the tour, their feeling of alienation grows. They can’t understand the tour guide and having appealed to a pair of English women, Lyddie is confused by their familiarity with French, ‘hazy about where England is’. Soon Lyddie’s feet give out entirely and she collapses into an armchair, though the tour guide is more concerned with the antique furniture than her well-being. Bob is finally able to obtain his assistance by resorting to the universal language of money.
The next scene establishes the provincial hotel setting which is to provide the backdrop for the rest of the play. The veranda and foyer are ‘the most imposing parts of the hotel’ as ‘The Charcot family, who own it, consider that first impressions are not only all-important, but all that matter.’ The twelve-year-old François Charcot enters the hotel without the maid acknowledging him, indicating something of his standing. Cutting to the hotel interior, we meet Jean-Jacques Charcot, ‘a heavy-faced young man’, whose casual lounging at the reception desk with a radio to his ear indicates that he enjoys a somewhat higher standing than François. Cecile, another maid, is also present, who curses François, before being embraced by Jean-Jacques. The pair are interrupted by the arrival of a taxi and the entrance of Lyddie and Bob, the energetic young couple effectively juxtaposed with their decrepit elderly counterparts.
Jean-Jacques regards them ‘insolently’ as Bob attempts to solicit their aid. Fortunately Madame Charcot (‘a heavy, cold-eyed woman in her late fifties’) arrives and is able to arrange for an English-speaking physician to visit. Jean-Jacques dials for the doctor with ‘deliberate slowness’. Up in their room, the American couple begin to question their decision to take their once-in-a-lifetime holiday so far from home. Sobbing, Lyddie bemoans the attitude of the locals:
We came all this way to Europe – and what do we find? People we can’t talk to, we don’t understand! Bob – they don’t want us. They only want our money! … It’s true! You can feel it in the way they look at you! We’re kind of… We’re rich foreigners! Like we got all our pockets stuffed with money and we’re too stupid to know it’s worth anything!8
Bob too is concerned by their expenditure but reiterates their reasons for coming in a manner which, to Kneale’s credit, largely manages to avoid sound like the exposition that it is. As one of the liberating US soldiers in France in 1945, Don had developed an affinity for the country. Attempting to share his enthusiasm upon his return home, he made his parents agree to a family holiday there one day. The trip was postponed and Don went to fight in Korea, where he was killed. Now they are making the trip as a pilgrimage to their son’s memory. ‘That must have been a happy time’, Lyddie says, ‘I like to think of Don here then’.
Bob is ‘forcing it’ as he asserts: ‘We’re having good times, like he knew we would. Seeing places we only read about in books… Historic things, artistic. An experience we’re going to treasure till-’. He is stopped by Lyddie, who recognises that cameras and guidebooks are no substitute for their son’s enthusiasm and empathy. The sensitive edge of Kneale’s pen is at its most evident here and we begin to see the Wickenses as tragic characters.
The doctor duly arrives and orders that Lyddie must rest her feet for several days. The couple are horrified at the prospect of dropping out of their tour which is due to move to yet another town the following day. Although Bob stubbornly tries to discredit the doctor’s advice (“If only we had an American doctor!”), Lyddie accepts it regretfully, bemoaning: ‘We’re too old! … Too old in our bodies and too old in our minds. In every way we left it too late!’
With the departure of the tour group the next morning, Bob and Lyddie find themselves stranded, waiting for a returning bus to take them back to Paris. While his wife rests, Bob ventures out to revisit the town’s modest attractions. Having tired of bed rest by lunch time, Lyddie heads towards the lobby, interrupting a confrontation between Jean-Jacques and François, and meeting the gallant local postman. It is here that she begins to observe the real life of the location around her, rather than the sterile tourist version. On Bob’s return she is able to tell him that she has enjoyed:
Just watching people… the French people. Don was so right. They’re full of … character, he said. You’ve just got to sit and let them go by. They’re so amusing. … But you don’t really see them properly till you stop hurrying around – I’ve just been realising that. I guess it’s what’s wrong with these tours – they keep you on the move. They tell you what to look at all the time – castles and places that nobody lives in and you can’t really imagine that folk ever did.9
At lunch the couple observe a disabled elderly man whose method of eating is comic. Later Lyddie is shocked to learn that he was a member of the Resistance, maimed while committing sabotage. Mme Charcot explains: ‘You [do] not understand – you are Americans. Here we know wars. They do not end clean. They leave things crawling about’. Imagining her lost son in the man’s place, Lyddie cannot accept Mme Charcot’s suggestion that it would have been ‘better if he had died.’ Hysterically she asserts to Bob: ‘I’d have wanted him back… even like that, all twisted”. Yet this thought is even more troubling to her, and in a whisper recognises that Don ‘couldn’t have borne it’. Lyddie only now begins to understand the full horror of war, recognising that the outcome for some is not an extreme of either life or death, but a middle ground of prolonged suffering.
That afternoon, Lyddie witnesses Françoise being pelted with stones by a gang of local children as he returns from school. On entering the hotel he faces hostility from the two elder Charcots and a slap from Jean-Jacques. Françoise disappears to the sanctuary of his small attic bedroom. Later Lyddie watches as Jean-Jacques drags Françoise downstairs and, under Mme Charcot’s watchful eye, into the back room for a private confrontation. Incensed at Francois’ treatment, Lyddie bursts into the Charcots’ living room, where the family is gathered. She questions their attitude to the boy and is met by the anger of Jean-Jacques, who calls Francois ‘a little Nazi, full of evil and savagery’, and scoffs at the idea that Françoise even has any parents. Jean-Jacques comes close to striking Lyddie, and forces her from the room with a tirade:
You don’t understand… But that doesn’t stop you interfering! You – you’re like all your people! Americans! You can blunder about the world to put it right – that means to make it the way that suits you-!… You want a world where everybody drinks Coca Cola! So they can lick your boots better! The great American way of life! But the people know you – they’re going to drive you out! Out of Europe! Out of everywhere on earth!10
Reflecting the hysterical preoccupations of its period, Lyddie accuses him of being a communist, only for Jean-Jacques to proudly to assert that indeed he is, ‘with a twisted amusement at the effect’. Overcome, Lyddie flees to the hotel foyer. Mme Charcot wishes to offer Lyddie an explanation, and takes her to a nearby side street which contains a memorial to the Resistance fighters who died there. Lyddie is puzzled that she places flowers despite having never known either of the men named. On their return, Mme Charcot relates her story.
German soldiers had been billeted in the Charcots’ hotel during the occupation, one of whom fell in love with their nineteen-year-old daughter Nicole. When the Germans retreated, Nicole was left pregnant and despised by the locals for her collaboration. Bitterly Mme Charcot recalls how after the liberation her daughter and other similar women had their heads shaved and were whipped in the streets. The fifteen-year-old Jean-Jacques was made to watch, and shamed. Records indicate that the soldier died later. ‘I hope so!’ says Mme Charcot. She goes on:
When her baby was born … she was in the hospital. Maybe they did not look after her as they should have done. Anyway, she died … You think they would have destroyed the child! Perhaps they tried, but he had the strength of his … kind! … We gave him a good French name, but Françoise is like the father. … Madame, I think we have done enough. We have clothed him and fed him and raised him – … We have done our part. You cannot ask us to love him.11
Later, Lyddie relates the incidents of the day to Bob, who is more interested in his wife’s treatment than Françoise’s predicament. He rushes downstairs to confront Jean-Jacques, but is pacified by an apology from Mme Charcot. Meanwhile, Lyddie is attempting to talk with Françoise in her room. Despite the fact that neither speaks the other’s language, the usually meek Françoise is able to convey his hatred for Jean-Jacques. They manage a basic form of communication, and Lyddie asks him if he would like to go to America. She shows him a picture of Don and her treasured possession, a pendant he had given her. On his return Bob is initially dismissive of Françoise but soon softens, giving the child chocolate.
Lyddie has been deeply affected by the plight of the young boy and is beginning to see him as a potential surrogate son. That night she wakes Bob to suggest that, since Françoise was so unwanted, they could take him back home with them. Bob is shocked and tries to dissuade his wife but, imagining it will be impossible anyway, suggests that the next day they investigate the legal position. The next scene sees them doing just that and they are indeed told that such an adoption would be impossible. However, Bourget, the official responsible, probes into the specifics of the situation, and realises he is already familiar with the case. He points out that legally nothing can be done for Françoise because he is not technically a neglected child, but comments:
I have seen that poor hated creature in the streets, and I have wondered: what shall he become? A thief? A murderer? A guard in some concentration camp of the future, taking revenge on the society that has … not neglected him? Or, if he is a strong enough, a good citizen…?12
Bob, previously only humouring his wife, comes to appreciate the importance of their intervention in Françoise’s life. The sympathetic Bourget is able to offer an alternative to adoption: with the Charcots’ consent it would be possible for them to take Françoise away for ‘A long vacation’. The pair return to the hotel in the hope of securing the necessary permission. With her new sense of purpose, Lyddie finds that her feet no longer trouble her, implying a psychosomatic link between her emotional emptiness and her pain.
Mme Charcot is understandably surprised when Lyddie makes her proposal but agrees to discuss it with her family. At the meeting, with Bob and Lyddie in attendance, it does not take long for an arrangement to be made. The Charcots are happy to be rid of Françoise and Mme Charcot specifies that he should never return. However, Jean-Jacques remains cynical about the Americans’ intentions, and attempts to discourage them by displaying some of Françoise’s few possessions. In a cardboard box he has kept relics of the father he never knew: the remains of his army tunic, a ‘battered jackboot’ and a bayonet. The assertion that Françoise had killed a dog with the bayonet shocks Lyddie, though she recognises the behaviour to be indicative of his mistreatment, not of the evil nature that Jean-Jacques suggests.
Next Jean-Jacques pulls out an old newspaper depicting his terrified, shaven-headed sister. The same picture is on a large poster which displays the legend ‘Collaborateuse’ and ‘Votez Communiste!’ Lyddie is unswayed, realising that it was Jean-Jacques who had initially hoarded the items while Françoise was a baby. Jean-Jacques’ final trick is to produce Lyddie’s pendant, stolen by Françoise earlier that day. Françoise denies taking it but, as a mother, Lyddie ‘knows the sound of a child’s lying’. Bob is unimpressed but, before he can move to leave, Françoise snatches up the pendant, along with the other items, and flees.
Lyddie catches up with him in his bare attic room, decorated only with the hastily replaced mementos of his parents. On the defensive and without time to barricade the door, Françoise warns Lyddie off with the bayonet. Surveying the scene, she is moved to see that Françoise has pinned her pendant around the neck of his mother’s image on the poster. ‘So these are your folks’, she says, sitting and abandoning her walking stick. Cautioning the concerned Bob to keep away, Lyddie is able to gain the boy’s confidence. Finding Françoise’s battered suitcase, she packs up his belongings with care, recognising that the items have a similar value to Françoise as her pendant has to her. Then she allows him to put the pendant into the suitcase along with the poster. Lyddie is relieved when he finally sheathes the bayonet and adds that too to the suitcase. ‘Let’s take them home…’ she says and they exit. The final shot is of an abandoned newspaper depicting Françoise’s mother, with Lyddie’s discarded walking stick lying beside it.
It’s a sudden ending, but the point is made. Lyddie’s motherly instinct wins through and her actions, inspired by her new knowledge, redeem her for her earlier ignorance. In adopting Françoise, and treating his shabby mementos with respect while letting him keep her own, she has recognised that, although important, the past should not be allowed to ruin the present and that new life must be embraced as much as the dead are lamented. By leaving her stick behind, she confirms the psychosomatic link to her grief and indicates that Françoise’s adoption will allow her to move on from dwelling on her loss.
The critical reception to the play was decidedly mixed. Maurice Richardson in The Observer argued that ‘though very uneven’ the drama was ‘much the most interesting play of the week.’13 The Times on the other hand was distinctly unimpressed:
It was with disappointment that one began to realize halfway through Mrs. Wickens in the Fall that the sentimental journey was to receive sentimental treatment. Mr. Nigel Kneale’s television play, presented last night by the B.B.C., declined progressively from a large authentic situation to a trivially artificial conclusion.14
The unnamed critic goes on to complement the ‘beautifully observed’ American tourists, but finds them ‘betrayed’ by ‘so stereotypical an ending’. J. C. Trewin, The Listener’s television critic, was equally unhappy. Having expected ‘a very quiet autumnal comedy, wavering on a hair-line of pathos’, he found the drama ‘a quite implausible anecdote’. Echoing the questions of the character Bourget, Trewin ‘kept wondering about the next chapter. The real play was untouched: the child – what would he become? A modern Ibsen would have begun five years farther on: Mr. Kneale was content to be a prologue.’15
Writing for the Daily Mail, Philip Purser gave a largely positive review, calling Kneale’s script ‘a superb and touching piece of writing”. Although asserting: ‘my only reservations of any kind are with its rather deliberate lesson’, he also criticised the forced and melodramatic’ climax and the ‘histrionic’ acting of the Charcot family.16 More positive was the Daily Mirror’s Raymond Bowers, who wrote that the play was ‘one of those rare surprises – a thoroughly sad story battling through to a heart-warming finish without any corny touches … I have seldom felt happier about a happy ending to an unhappy situation than author Nigel Kneale made me feel last night.’ He also reported that the scene in which Jean-Jacques attempts to discredit Françoise in front of Lyddie with his box of possessions was ‘one of the best I have seen on TV’.17 Felix Battle of the Daily Express welcomed Mrs Wickens in the Fall as a new play specially written for television but, despite admiring its early scenes, found its development predictable and its conclusion ‘a sticky mess of sentimentality.’18
The critics were universally impressed by Natalie Lynn and MacDonald Parke as the American couple. Purser felt they gave ‘matchless performances’; The Times thought the characters were ‘finely played’ and Trewin called Lynn ‘a good actress’, whilst Parke was ‘precisely right’ as Bob. Battle suggested Kneale would be lucky to find actors as good for his next play.19 However, Kneale himself was apparently unimpressed with Lynn, recalling her later as ‘a very tough lady… who was not going to be told what to do’. He recalled Lynn pretending to go along with the director but ‘when the live transmission was about to go out, she came over to me and she said ‘now tonight I am gonna do it my way!’ And my God, she did! The less said about that the better…’20
With no extant recording, it is now impossible to review the play as performed. However, I would like to give a few further thoughts based on the published script. Kneale’s characters are, by and large, excellent. The central couple are well drawn and, although by necessity sudden, Lyddie’s emotional involvement with the Charcots is moving. However, Bob, the more reticent of the American couple, remains largely sidelined. As the title indicates, the story is very much Lyddie’s, but a little more detail about Bob would have been welcome. Does he, for example, carry his own memento of his lost son?
The other tourists we briefly meet are stereotypes: prim and prudish English women, the polite Indian, etc. They exist merely to flesh out the backdrop and provide a contrast to the American protagonists. They are not intended to be characters in their own right, so perhaps Kneale’s use of stereotypes can be forgiven. Jean-Jacques is a little one dimensional, very much the stereotypical fanatical young communist. It is also easy to wonder whether, having housed and fed him for twelve years, the Charcots could really care so little for François. But, of course, that’s the point of the play. The characters live in a different world from ourselves. We haven’t lived through what they have and we can’t judge them by our normal moral standards. On this level the play is a success. It confronts us with a situation which is alien to us, but which was all too real for some at the time of transmission, and worthy of dramatic exploration. It also has some relevance today, with Jean-Jacques’s views of Americans as ignorant and empirical as prevalent now as then.
As some of the critics noted, the play is sentimental, but with such a delicate and sensitive storyline, it is hard to imagine how it could have been otherwise and still engage an audience, and without resorting to the documentary style which was then not yet fashionable in television drama. Equally, I have some sympathy with Trewin’s comment regarding the limitations Kneale placed on his own narrative. There is enough back-story and scope for future drama to sustain several plays. I can’t help imagining how Kneale could have developed his play in the style of Iain McCormack’s popular 1954 ‘cycle’ of teleplays The Promised Years, which began in wartime Italy, then followed its various characters into the Korean war and the Berlin Airlift, before returning to the original location to explore the aftermath of the earlier events. It’s intriguing to imagine what could have been if Mrs Wickens in the Fall had been conceived as the second in such a cycle, which could begin concentrating on Françoise’s mother and the child’s birth, then later depict his acclimatisation to America, before finally returning him to France as an adult to effect some form of closure with his family.
In 1958, the script of Mrs Wickens in the Fall was purchased by American television network ABC and produced as part of their sponsored drama slot The United States Steel Hour. Lois Jacoby significantly reduced Kneale’s script to make it run less than hour and was credited as ‘writer’, with Kneale receiving a ‘story by’ credit. It was retiled The Littlest Enemy. It was directed by Don Richardson and starred Mary Astor as Lyddie, with Frank Conroy as Bob. Kneale with disgusted with the way his script was treated, telling his biographer how he felt at the time: ‘to be treated to the humiliation of having your play ripped to bits, and practically thrown in the waste paper basket, in order to get sponsorship from some probably now bankrupt company, United States Steel: yuck, yuck, yuck! It as enough to put you right off America.’21
But to return finally to the play as Kneale wrote it. The original script is both fascinating and highly effective. It is imperfect, but remains an intriguing oddity, and worthy of continued interest, amongst the body of Kneale’s better-known television work.
This article © Oliver Wake 2006 and 2009
Originally posted: 16 November 2009.
[This piece was first written for the internet in 2006. It is presented here in amended and updated form.]
27 September 2013: added Battle quotations; minor phrasing revisions