Play for Today Writer: Colin Welland; Producer: Kenith Trodd; Director: Roy Battersby
“When a woman looks at her wages and thinks of the hours she works and the conditions, she knows she is a slave…”
Leeds United! dramatises the 1970 dispute in which over 25,000 clothing workers, the majority of them women, went on strike across Leeds, other parts of Yorkshire and the North East.1 Katrina Honeyman, in her history of the Leeds clothing industry, argued that the strike symbolised “the response of women workers to several decades of oppression by both employers and the male union hierarchy” and showed the “talent of women for political organization, [which is] so often overlooked in labour history”.2 Leeds United! reflects this talent in its methods of retelling, and reconstructing, the strike. According to director Roy Battersby in 2009, the play’s “ambition was to try to understand” how their “courageous” action took them to “the verge of winning” and how “within a few days that was turned into […] a miserable, heartbreaking compromise”.3
Play for Today’s concern with contemporary Britain made the discussion of industrial disputes inevitable in this period, and made the strand a natural home for Leeds United! However, the play had been initially planned for Granada, and though the BBC accepted it they had reservations. Therefore, when Leeds United! featured in a recent academic journal issue on ‘Radical Television Drama’,4 John Hill discussed the BBC’s objections to Leeds United! and other Battersby dramas in order to assess the “ideological and institutional” constraints “weighing upon ‘radical’ political expression”. Hill demonstrated that, despite the understandable view that programme makers in this period “enjoyed substantial creative freedom to make work that challenged the status quo”, we must note that such work “was far from the norm” and was often fiercely contested.5 Therefore, although my essay attends to the play’s creative methods of showing the experience of women workers, I am also mindful of Hill’s warning that radical drama’s “possibilities […] cannot be understood in terms of textual features alone but must also be accounted for in relation to the political and institutional contexts in which they are both produced and received”.6 This essay therefore uses various sources to build an account of the development of Leeds United! and responses to it within and outwith the BBC, building on my own previous research into the ways in which women workers responded to their depiction.7
Leeds United! depicts the strike’s origins, motives, organisation and eventual breakdown; for my synopsis of the plot, see here. The play views the strike as a consequence of the controversial National Agreement which was implemented in 1970 after the union, without its members’ approval, had negotiated it in 1969. This Agreement gave a pay rise of 5d per hour to men and 4d per hour to women,8 a move that was described as a “miserably nominal increase in long-scandalous wages” that maintained the industry’s low pay,9 poor conditions, limited rights and gender inequality.10 In February 1970, workers struck for a shilling-per-hour increase – the “bob an hour” – which was to be equal: “all round, men and women, equal pay”.11 Discussing the programme in The Sun, Chris Greenwood observed that this strike, the first undertaken by these workers in over 36 years, “shook the Yorkshire capital of the British clothing industry”.12 However, other previewers and reviews questioned the importance of the original events: in The Guardian, Nancy Banks-Smith asked “Heard about the clothing workers’ strike in Leeds in 1970, which debagged the nation for five weeks?” and presumed a widespread negative response by answering “Nor me”.13 The difference between these two statements might indicate the events’ relative regional and national impact, though Play for Today often provided a space for the national primetime transmission of dramas about different regions, and Greenwood’s more positive piece situates the Leeds events in their national context (and in this industry, Leeds is the “capital”). Greenwood’s statement that “The women of Leeds are about to become television stars”14 supports my view in this essay that the events and the play both position women workers as actors. They were social actors in the original events and became performers in helping the play to reconstruct those events. Thousands of people who were involved in the strike participated in the play’s ambitious reconstructions of large-scale events during the strike, such as marches across Leeds and mass meetings.
Greenwood’s piece gave a sense, shared by a lot of the press coverage, that some of the play’s strengths could be attributed to the personal involvement, regional background and professional identity of its writer. Greenwood described Colin Welland as “one of the city’s favourite sons” who had been working on Leeds United! for “a large part of the last four years”.15 Observing that “Welland first heard about the strike while he was enjoying a pint in his Leeds local, The Cavalier”, Greenwood noted that the same pub had “inspired him to write” his earlier play Slattery’s Mounted Foot.16 Welland had told the Daily Telegraph that “I became personally involved because my mother-in-law was one of the strikers”.17 In a much later interview with Paul Sutton, Welland recalled that his mother-in-law was
a little forty-eight year old Irish woman working in a clothing factory in Leeds. All her life, she, and these women, her fellow workers had never said “Boo” to a goose. And all of a sudden, when they asked for a rise and are offered 5p an hour more, they regard it as an insult and go on unofficial strike. They closed the city of Leeds down. They produced their own newspaper. It was a wonderful display of natural power, workers’ power.18
However, personal involvement also had potential implications which Welland was keen to resist: for instance, he followed his above comment to the Daily Telegraph with the qualification: “But I have tried to look at the situation dispassionately. There are no villains – only victims.”19 Some of the previews and critical responses that’ll we’ll see later in this essay take place along this axis of personal involvement/professional distance.
Similarly, the distinction between the personal and the political was negotiated by the programme makers in their depiction and analysis of events. Welland recalled of his inspirational moment in The Cavalier: “Suddenly the women all round me were talking angrily about their rough deal, and singing anti-boss songs they had made up. I vividly remember one woman waving her £8.75 wages around, and saying that was all she got for sweating her guts out all week at a sewing machine.” Welland paid tribute to how the women “rocked their union, rocked the management, rocked the very establishment of Leeds” and “left their mark on history”, although one of the ways in which he stressed their achievement at the time was by rooting their identity in the domestic – “mostly mothers and housewives”.20 Of course he also stressed the political in other interviews, particularly later (“workers’ power”, as we have seen), and was quick to pay tribute to how “Women played a leading role”, but their political involvement was at times described as something new to them: “women who had never been to a union meeting in their lives; women who kept a picture of Mr Heath above their beds; women workers untrammelled by the tramlines of union procedure and bureaucracy […] these people who weren’t at all political […but had] this tremendous esprit de corps”.21 The William Ivory-scripted Faith (2005) and Made in Dagenham (2010) similarly foreground women who find solidarity and a means of expression in campaigning situations that were new to them, as – to quote Clive James on Leeds United! – “Some of the women found themselves, some of them lost themselves, as the strike dragged on.”22 However, women who already held firm political principles before the strike were key participants in the original dispute – and they do play some part in Ivory’s and Welland’s dramas. Therefore, when Welland stated that the workers “were sold down the river”,23 and “the women I asked had no idea why” they were back at work within three weeks, the statement is less an indication that the women lacked political insight and more a claim for the play’s researched insight into the mechanics of their betrayal, part of which involved this failure of communication with the workers.24
Although Welland stressed to The Guardian that “he still doesn’t know what the answer to the strike is”, he felt that “the strikers’ leadership was completely inadequate”, so “I want to say: ‘Look around and find yourself some new leaders.’”25 Peter Fiddick described Leeds United! in The Guardian as “a powerfully political play” that showed “how unions and bosses living too cosily together can leave the workers sweating on the bread-line”.26 James Thomas used interestingly loaded language in describing the play’s “account of a rowdy, desperate near-riot as these formidable battalions of angry women left their machines defying their union A.S.C.A.T” (the Association of Seamstresses Cutters and Tailors), but Thomas’s statement that we were “left in no doubt about where Mr. Welland stood”27 would be typical of some of the doubts about the play in the press and within the BBC itself, as we shall see.
Development, from Granada to the BBC
The play was commissioned by ITV company Granada. While collaborating on Roll on Four O’ Clock, Welland, Trodd and Battersby discussed their next project, and Welland suggested a piece on the strike.28 According to press interviews and reports, Welland spent “six months [in Leeds] researching the situation, talking to the workers, the factory bosses, the union men”,29 then “three weeks tucked away in Ireland writing the script”.30 Trodd felt that it would “put our collaboration with Granada up several notches”: this “real and very recent” story “had everything – northern setting, heart-tearing and pyrrhic struggle by little people against mighty bosses”.31 However, the script sat with Granada “for six months”,32 as – in Trodd’s phrase – “mysteriously the project did not thrive”.33 Given that Welland, Trodd and Battersby were “firming up contracts with sweatshops and back-to-backs” and “Most of Leeds was already making the film with us”, it was worrying that “in Manchester its future was beginning to look indefinite”. Eventually pinning down the Head of Drama (Peter Eckersley), they discovered that “though they loved us, they loved Leeds United less, though they could not explain why (they never did)”.
Trodd later told Colin MacCabe that “Granada bottled out, so we took it to the BBC”.34 Granada’s decision was described as a response to the expensive nature of the production: the Daily Express reported that “Granada were interested but were put off by the scale of the operation […] It was easy to see why producers flinched […]: Welland had presented them with a formidable challenge.”35 However, as Trodd’s comment about bottling out shows, others saw it as a political issue. Lez Cooke has compared the fate of the “political” Leeds United! with Granada’s support for more “personal” Welland/Trodd/Battersby pieces like Roll on Four O’ Clock to suggest “a fundamental difference between Granada and the BBC as ‘public service’ broadcasters at the time”.36 Therefore, although “Granada saw itself as a liberal company”, the decision “indicates where Granada felt it needed to draw the line” given the “tension between [its] public service ambitions and its commercial obligations”. Granada had a strong reputation for investigative, “political” docudramas, but in Cooke’s view the political scope of Leeds United! made it more problematic for Granada than the “international” address of I Know What I Meant (1974) and Invasion (1980), because Leeds United! was “a play about contemporary class politics in Britain”.37
Leeds United! was offered to the BBC. In a memo dated 12 May 1972, Head of Plays Christopher Morahan recommended purchasing it, finding it “a splendid script for a filmed Play for Today”.38 Morahan recounted the origins of the play, stressing Welland’s family circumstances and local knowledge: how Morahan had met Welland’s mother-in-law and had sat in The Cavalier listening to the women’s songs.39 Morahan argued that the play was committed to “the humanity and strength of the women of Leeds”, but explained that “I’m stressing this human commitment of Colin’s and his absence of political guile because […] this subject, at first sight, is contentious.” Morahan paid tribute to “Colin’s care in his research and his desire to tell the truth as he sees it” but was aware that those qualities could lead to difficulties.
Morahan noted that the words attributed to people such as the Union secretary were accurate: therefore the negotiation of docudramatic space here depended in part on the visibility of evidence, a direct indexical relationship between dramatized statements and the reality such statements dramatize. Therefore, the programme makers constantly stressed that the piece was drawn from many interviews and much investigation – as producer Kenith Trodd put it, “Colin, as he did with everything, researched it thoroughly”.40 However, this negotiation of space also depended on the visibility of drama/fiction. Certain names and details were changed, as was noted by Daily Express reviewer James Thomas and Guardian previewer Geoffrey Sheridan respectively: “the names of official and bosses were fictitious”41 and the “multiple tailors” whose association kept wages “in line” were “household names, although they’ve been changed in the film.”42 Morahan wondered whether it might be necessary to disguise the names of manufacturers and Union representatives even further than Welland had already done (to which Welland was amenable) and thought about the challenges of filming in Leeds when one factory was so recognisable locally that its use “might jeopardise the fiction that we’ve attempted”. Therefore the specificity of the local is also a feature of this docudramatic negotiation, the drama’s success depending on the ability to convincingly reproduce events in the regional space – Morahan explained how the programme makers’ contacts and research could help to gain access to premises and large crowds – whilst also partly disavowing some of the details.43 These negotiations of space arguably turned on questions of advocacy – the importance of “the absence of political guile” in the representation of political events and debate. These questions were the subject of serious concern elsewhere within the BBC, as we shall see later.
Morahan noted that Granada owned the script, but Welland “has their spoken agreement to release it”. Morahan recommended purchasing it, but needed to agree a budget, which could be drawn up by Trodd if the BBC hired him.44 Morahan’s suggested schedule involved agreeing this budget by July, hiring Battersby as director in August, starting shooting in September and finishing by November. It was already established that the play would, unusually, be shot in black and white.45 On 26 May the Head of Copyright was briefed to purchase the script with the intention that a revised version would form a 90-minute Play for Today, as per Morahan’s memo, though the play’s eventual running time would be much longer. The purchase would be treated as a commission – paying the fee in two halves – and an enhanced fee was recommended to reflect Welland’s “extensive research beyond that normally expected from an author”.46 (Welland’s fee was mentioned in later press coverage: according to The Guardian’s Geoffrey Sheridan, Welland “estimates that his […] fee represents a return of approximately 0.5p an hour for the time he spent. ‘I was just delighted that the BBC would do it.’ Granada held the script for six months and didn’t.”47 ) On 31 May, an agreement was sent to Welland’s agent, noting that the revised script had a delivery date of 14 July and asking for Welland’s attention to be drawn to the clause pertaining to defamation and the fact that acceptance might depend on vetting by the BBC Solicitor’s Department.48
The length of the play was a challenge for programme makers and broadcasters alike. Welland recalled coming out of the research process with “a long script that in the end the BBC costed at £300,000. So then Trodd, Battersby, and I went through it again. I cut it, re-wrote it, fought for the bits I really felt important, and in the end we still had a big, two-hour, very detailed script. It still costs £150,000.”49 The budget was a constant reference point for previewers and reviewers: the Daily Mail called it “the BBC’s most expensive drama production”.50 In October 1973, the Daily Telegraph reported that “The BBC is to spend up to £150,000 producing a television play about a strike in a Northern clothing factory which the ITV channel rejected as too controversial.”51 John Hill recently noted that the play’s budget would have been “relatively modest” for a British cinema film at the time, but that it was “three times the cost of the average Play for Today and almost double the cost of The Operation”, a Roger Smith-scripted Play for Today produced by Trodd and directed by Battersby.52 Hill quoted the “waspish” reaction of Alasdair Milne to the Board of Governors in 1974: the “whole production had been rather like Concorde […] it would have cost as much to stop as it would to go on to the end”.53
Post-production dispute: television workers
In October 1973, the Daily Telegraph mentioned Leeds United! in advance promotion of a new batch of 26 Play for Today productions, with the strand about to be restored to Thursday nights after its move to Mondays had resulted in lower ratings.54 However, the completion and broadcast of Leeds United! were delayed. In The Guardian in March 1974, Peter Fiddick reported that the play “was filmed on location in Leeds last October running into November” and “needs now just to be edited”, but it has been “stuck all these months, because two departments within the BBC cannot agree” about who the editor should be.55 Welland stated that Battersby “wants to do it with someone he’s worked with before”,56 and Trodd was later reported as having been “very anxious that everyone on the production team should have had previous experience of working with Roy Battersby and there were no staff editors in the BBC who fulfilled that condition.”57 Battersby wanted to use the freelance Tom Scott-Robson.58 However, as Fiddick noted, “The BBC’s own film department, based at Ealing Studios, which controls and allocates the corporation’s own army of staff cameramen, editors, and other technicians, says the production must be handled by one of their own editors; no outsiders.”59 For Fiddick, the situation reflected “strains not only between ‘creative workers’ and ‘craftsmen’ but between the staff men and the freelances” at a time when the industry was moving from permanent staff to short-term and medium-term contracts “for specific jobs”, with costs being cut and “the concept of independent producers [becoming] fashionable”. (In May 1974, Film and Television Technician reported that the Leeds United! case had involved “tensions not only between [the unions] ABS [the Association of Broadcasting Staff – renamed the Association of Broadcasting and Allied Staffs in 1974 – representing technicians in the BBC] and ACTT [the Association of Cinematograph Television and Allied Technicians, representing technicians in cinema and ITV] but also between ACTT freelances and the BBC staff members.”60 ) Describing the pros and cons of staff and freelance work, Fiddick noted that full-time crew moved between productions as required – “a 90-minute star-laden drama one week, and a ten-minute trip round a museum the next” – and enjoyed “security” while freelances preferred “working on things that interest them”, “being reliant on their reputations for their work”, and benefited in terms of wages and different tax arrangements when working. However, it would be problematic if “staff men feel the plum jobs are going too much to the freelances”, rather than their bosses “guaranteeing them interesting work”.61 Trodd later noted a similar situation when Granada refused him and Battersby the use of freelance cameraman Tony Imi on a project, with Denis Forman telling him: “You two are birds of passage […] you’ll be flying onwards. We have to look after 700 people who are with us for good”.62 However, as Fiddick noted, allowing people to “[choose] their technicians just as they would choose actors” was one way to “keep room for the creative spark” by “letting the creators work the way they work best”.63
“Why should Leeds United suddenly become the problem?”, asked Welland,64 who gave his own Kisses At Fifty,65 and the Brian Clark-scripted Easy Go,66 as examples of how Play for Today regularly used freelance editors.67 Fiddick reported that the dispute was “referred up” to director of programmes Alasdair Milne at the start of 1974. There were brief discussions of whether to have a junior staff editor working alongside Scott-Robson, or whether Scott-Robson “might come back onto the staff” despite him having worked freelance on other BBC programmes.68 Don Fairservice, who was on secondment to the National Film School, seemed to be the solution, but at first he too was blocked.69 Tony Hearn, general secretary of the union, the Association of Broadcasting Staff, told Fiddick that “If the management offered serious talks on the general problem, a single programme would not be the issue, and the blacking could be lifted.” This follows Fiddick’s concern that “managers and unions” needed “to face up to the new realities with rather more urgency.”70
In May 1974, Film and Television Technician reported that the BBC Joint Shops Committee, having “firmly stated that they will not have […Leeds United!] cut by an outside editor”, rapped “the knuckles of the freelance producer and director”, having been “annoyed by the attempt to push this and other issues in the press.” But equally, “BBC-elected representatives are not happy about a trade union pressing the management to refuse a producer and director a say in which staff editor should cut their film.” The Committee urgently requested a meeting with the Freelance Shop “to discuss a policy on non-BBC personnel.”71
In June 1974, the Daily Mail reported that the “who-does-what row” had been settled as “Agreement has now been reached on a BBC editor, Don Fairservice, and the play will be in the BBC-1 schedule, taking over most of an evening viewing, later this autumn.”72 Later that month, CinemaTV Today reported that the row “has ended with a climb-down” by Trodd and Battersby. Although Fiddick called Fairservice “the one other BBC editor Battersby had worked with”,73 Trodd is quoted here as saying that, “Although Roy hasn’t worked with Don before, he knows him personally. He was on a year’s attachment to the National Film School but we persuaded the film school to let him go and the BBC to recall him. It is a compromise solution but we are very satisfied.”74 The piece expresses Trodd’s hope that Leeds United! will be shown “in early November […] according to a novel transmission plan – the first half before the 9 o’ clock news and the second half afterwards”. It would ultimately be shown on BBC1 on 31 October 1974 between 9.25pm and 11.20pm.
This essay continues in Part 2: the play and Part 3: the debate.
Originally posted (Part 1): 28 February 2014.
24 June 2015: Small number of minor changes to expression in main body; in endnotes, minor typographical corrections and additional Greenwood citation to clarify a stray ‘Ibid’.