When I wrote an obituary of the enchanting writer Julia Jones for The Independent, I said that she “quietly and assuredly told bewitching, humane stories of simple lives in crisis, always blessed with a warm, unsentimental, maternal touch”. I compared her to another of the great television playwrights of her day, coincidentally another actor-writer, Colin Welland, and said that “both were at their best writing simple, sincere and unpretentious domestic dramas set in the parlour or the pantry, and both preferred to place women centre stage”. Her typically sincere and unpretentious play The Piano was shown on BBC1 as a Play for Today in January 1971, and is a wonderful example of her work. It is a forgotten story about forgotten things, and about a woman refusing to allow “progress” to obliterate her past.
Julia had originally been an actress with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, before scoring a huge success with her first television play The Navigators in 1965. Just before The Piano, she had worked with Play for Today script editor Ann Scott on the series Take Three Girls, her contribution winning her first prize in the drama section at the Prague Television Festival. She was delighted when Scott rescued a play that had been written three years earlier but which had been indefinitely postponed because of budgetary problems, despite its modest demands.
“The Piano came about because it was an era when a lot of little streets were being torn down and some wonderful communities were being destroyed,” Julia explained to me when I interviewed her in 2003. “The instrument was a good symbol, filling the whole room and dominating this family. I usually start with a tiny thing like that, a little idea. In those days you were simply asked if you had any ideas, and if you did you went in and discussed them briefly and then were left alone and trusted to deliver the goods.
“My first question was always ‘how much filming do we have?’ and that would influence how I plotted the play. Ann was a wonderful script editor and it was an important role, making suggestions to the producer in your interests. A good director would go through the script line by line with you too to make sure he understood it. Once it was finalised, they never changed a line without consulting you”.
Like everyone on their estate, Ada and Edgar (Hilda Barry and Leo Franklyn) are content to vacate their terraced house for a modern bungalow, to allow their nephew Willie (Glyn Owen) to build on the site what he and the local council he works for believe will be “the best town in Lancashire”. Willie has dreams of high-rises and geometrical estates, and is comforted by the convenient belief that he is improving the lives of the community.
The only area of his life Willie can’t bulldoze away is his wife’s ex-boyfriend, fellow member of the local band Jeremy Plunkett (James Cossins), a decent and drippy antique shop owner who is still melancholic at losing his beloved Mabel (Janet Munro) to Willie, a grudge which is taking its toll on both his waistline and his good nature. But although Jeremy may be a fuddy-duddy he’s a man of decency and dependability, devoted to his community, and while the townsfolk admit that “Willie’s got things moving” in the area, in Jeremy’s opinion “he moves too fast for some”.
However, when the penny drops for Ada that there isn’t room for her late father’s piano in the new bungalow, she announces that she won’t move, scuppering Willie’s plans for his redevelopment and Edgar’s hopes of a garden. “Your father’s had his day and so’s that piano” he pleads, but Ada is firm. Her father “paid for it in sweat and taught the whole family. All except Willie. There were great grief when he took up with cornet.”
It’s delightful exchanges like this that exemplify Jones’ mastery of warm-hearted wittiness. Ultimately the piano creates discord between everyone in the family, Willie even having to face a choice between his bride and his pride. Ada’s house is at the very centre of his housing scheme, and he is aware that if he doesn’t solve the problem he’ll be a laughing stock.
The Sunday lunch lies uneaten at an empty table as Edgar packs and Willie and Mabel storm off. Ada resorts to staring at her father’s photograph, “such a peaceable man”, that, in a lovely moment, crossfades into a shot of Willie standing outside Plunkett’s door. He knows there is only one solution: since Edgar would choke on charity, Willie must swallow his pride and ask Plunkett for help.
It’s an adorable scene. Plunkett agrees to consider babysitting the instrument, after gloating momentarily, though not gratuitously, at the pickle Willie is in. But when they arrive at the house, Ada sitting mournfully at the piano, tells them “I’m beaten. First time in me life. Not by you and the council. But by Edgar. A man must have his pride.” Edgar’s pride reminds her of her father’s. His love for her and the piano means no money can buy it and no stranger should sell it. “It can die with the house” is her resolve.
Willie returns home to hear Mabel trying to make restitution and accept the piano, but it’s too late. Everyone has played their hand and the past which the piano represents has been given a final hearing. The rest is silence.
Julia was delighted with the production. “Hilda Barry was a brilliant actress, she was well into her seventies by then and that was a lovely performance she gave us. I remember being at a writers’ party some years ago and a writer telling me he still remembered that play, which was wonderful.”
Tragically, this was Janet Munro’s last role before he death at the age of thirty-eight. Once married to Ian Hendry, she had enjoyed great success in her twenties in Disney films including Swiss Family Robinson (US 1960).
Julia was by now a very recognisable and welcome voice to the critics, who universally found her writing charming and endearing. “Good old Julia Jones never let’s you down” wrote Peter Black in the Daily Mail. “What she gave us was a neatly constructed and amusing North country comedy in which the piano effectively but modestly symbolised the queer feminine dread of change that holds some women in thrall.” Nancy Banks-Smith noted that Julia Jones “can handle a very authentic family row, as what woman cannot”.
Jessie Palmer in The Scotsman remarked how “sometimes a play can be even more telling than a documentary in its presentation of a social problem. Julia Jones gave us such a play…a very human, very real story…and put the case of the old people with genuine sympathy. A quite beautiful performance by Hilda Barry”.
Julia remembered that “one of the nicest things someone told me after watching The Piano was ‘I always know if it’s you when I am watching a play on television, because I recognise the dialogue.” Peter Knight in The Daily Telegraph summed this skill up well: “Miss Jones has a true ear for dialogue and a sensitive touch. If the action seemed at times trivial, it is because she writes of ordinary people whose lives for the most part are trivial… The Wednesday Play used to be one of the most controversial drama spots on television. Now, as Play for Today, it has slipped into a rather cosy, comfortable rut, like some precocious youth coming late to maturity and quickly developing a middle-aged spread.” It was a left-handed compliment that had no idea what the right hand had up its sleeve, as the following week’s drama was the tough-as-old-boots Billy’s Last Stand by Barry Hines.
The Piano still survives in the BBC Archives, although the first minute was accidentally wiped, which is probably why it was never repeated. As well as its merits as a piece of honest entertainment, the play can also be seen as a homely companion piece to the work of photographer Shirley Baker, whom I wrote about here, a photographer whose work chronicled “the erosion of people by progress”.
Two equally beautiful television plays by Julia Jones were still to come: Still Waters (1972) was a warm and witty drama set one sunny Saturday in the Brecon Beacons, about a group of lost souls each finding someone to talk to. Back Of Beyond (1974) boasted a magnificent, near silent performance from Rachel Roberts as a mysterious recluse who lives in a tumbledown farm up in the hills.
When I told Julia that her dramatisations of children’s books for the BBC, most especially the eerie The Enchanted Castle, still held powerful memories for my generation, and that her fantastically eerie dramatisation of Antonia Fraser’s Quiet As A Nun for Thames Television’s Armchair Thriller in 1978 had recently won a place in Channel 4’s 100 Scariest Moments poll, she was delighted. “One sometimes thinks one’s work has been all but forgotten. It’s so nice to know that isn’t the case”.
Julia Jones died in October 2015. When preparing to write her obituary, I found a letter she had sent me after reading the essay I’d written on The Piano for a planned book on Play for Today, which this post is drawn from. At eighty, she was enjoying writing her first musical. She asked if she could give me lunch to say thank you for caring about The Piano.
I wish I’d gone.