Sunday 1 February 2015

High on Edna (key words – 'Inebriate', 'Woman')

Catching up with a cornerstone of TV counter-culture...

Who now remembers Edna the Inebriate Woman (a Play for Today, with Patricia Hayes in the title role, broadcast in 1971)? Wes, my favourite illegal street trader, does. He was reciting a line from it 44 years after the event. It was a memorable (and pithy) line, mind: “I am not the vagrant!” (Undoubtedly it resonates for Wes at the present time: the authorities, in the form of the City Council, regularly seize his books, and he has no running water in the house.) 

Indeed, I remember not seeing it, it was such a schoolyard succรจs de scandal among us 12-year-olds. Who was it? Spud, the bad lad of the class, had been allowed to stay up, or, more likely, had been forgotten to be sent to bed. He relived selected scenes with great gusto at playtime the next day, focusing mainly on those aspects likely to satisfy pre-teen prurience (“you saw all her bum”), but running the gamut of emotion from wonder, repugnance, rapture, sympathy, horror and delight. These were my feelings too, when I finally caught up with it last night on youtube []. 

Edna the Inebriate Woman – which follows a middle-aged, homeless woman through a succession of dosses, Spikes, nights spent roughing it in cardboard boxes with plastic sheeting for warmth, hostels, mental institutions, prison, a shelter for women – is a miracle of humanist film-making. It would be impossible to get it made today, though not for lack of homeless people. 

There’s a scene quite early on: an elderly man is being interviewed about his eligibility to stay at the Spike over winter. 

“Are you in work now?” 

[Pronounced nodding.] “Yes sah.” 

“What are you doing?” 

“I work ‘ere. I do the buckets, outside the bathroom, and I swill down the tiles, outside the, you know, the how you do.” 

“Have you tried to get work outside?” 

“Yes sah.” 


[Floundering] “Yes sah. They said I was too old. You know, aged. You know, teeth [points to mouth with three stumps]. You know, sah. Yes sah.” 

“Would you like to stay on here throughout the winter?” 

[Complete happiness, nodding.] “Oh yes sah.”  

[Benignly beaming] “Alright. We’ll keep you here throughout the winter, and we’ll turn you out for the summer. Alright?” 

[Raising to go.] “Thank you very much, sah.” 

It was here that the tears started, and they were never far from the surface for the duration. (Oh, the look of infinite tenderness with which the interviewer turns down Edna when her turn comes.) And then a peculiar thing happened. My tears of pity co-mingled with tears of laughter until the two were virtually indistinguishable. It was a very strange, and perversely rich and satisfying sensation. 

So the down-and-outs are gathered before a fire, and a sense of comradeship and revelry breaks out. An Irishman talking to Edna is valiantly trying to make sense of it all. “My mind get cloudy.” Edna nods sympathetically, is prone to distraction herself. “People take an interest,” he continues, brightening. “But,” downcast again, “it does no good.” One of their number (the great Welsh character actor Talfryn Thomas) delightedly points to the presence of Tiny Nick, who apparently thinks he’s God. Tiny Nick, stolid and large, doesn't mind having his delusions paraded for the general amusement. 

“I was saying my prayers to the Lord. I found I was talking to myself,” he says impassively, and with reason.  

Taffy is pleased. “When he goes to the public toilets, he does number two all over the floor.” Laughs delightedly. “Hey! Tell them! Tell them why you do that.” Tiny Nick obliges. “God made number two, so God can drop it where it pleases.”  

This is the miracle: truth and life brought to every living-room in the land through the medium of TV, and recreated with such integrity, such fidelity to lived experience ,that that there is no visible artifice. It’s not bleak so much as a tremendous affirmation of the human spirit, a testament to the ability to put up with the worst. A shawled homeless old woman, padded by several layers of coats, morosely silent, suddenly buttonholes Edna. “Do you know anybody who might like to publish some drawings?” she asks.

False notes? Not the burst of psychedelia in the psychiatric home (uncredited: my best guess would be The Story of Simon Simonpath by Nirvana), as danced to by the youngest, prettiest, albeit blank-faced, inmates. This, and the hippy who joins the tramps’ party, establishes common cause between tramps and hippies, both similarly outcast. It seems presciently aware that the next generation of the homeless and mentally disturbed would come from the ranks of the counter-culture. I liked Edna’s homemade folk song too. 

Her run-ins with authority figures, usually wheedling for money, are absurd and doomed encounters between mutually uncomprehending systems. She invariably comes a cropper at the first hurdle, muddling her aliases and identities – once trying to pass herself off as ‘Mr Tute’ – and confusing the phrase “permanent address” with “permanent name”. Her surname changes from one scene to the next. Homeless people, it seems, weren’t entitled to benefits in the seventies(are they now?), although they could apply for a special payment if they could prove “dire need”. This required lots of hoop jumping. Bypassing the receptionist and pushing past the client and shouting full in the office clerk's face, ‘I’M IN DIRE NEED!” is evidently not the way to do it. At other times, Edna’s natural resources win through. Angling to prolong her stay in the psychiatric ward, and interviewed to have her soundness of mind tested, Edna is asked the date. A long pause. “The 32nd,” she replies sweetly. 

The drinking, proclaimed in that ‘Inebriate’ of the title, is understated and ever-present. If anything, the film is more fascinated with pills and drugs than alcohol. The stoner getting high at the tramp’s spree is typical. Pills are everywhere in the psychiatric ward. “Everybody wants pills, dear,” says Clara (played by June Brown of EastEnders renown). “I’m on sixty or eighty a day” says the psychedelic girl dancer in the nut-house. “Let’s hope your stay in here won’t be long,” says Edna. “Oh I hope it will be,” says the girl blearily. “I don’t know what this country is coming to. Everybody is smashed. I think we’re going to be overwhelmed,” says the girl on the stairway at Jesus Saves, clearly out of her head. If, like me, you’re viewing on youtube [] you might wish to freeze the frame at 14:37 of Part 3, on a close-up of a raffish-looking young tramp, in attendance as the nuns distribute  food and soup to the homeless. This is is a rare cameo by Vivian MacKerrell, the actor credited as the real-life inspiration for the character Withnail in Withnail and I (books have been written about him). Edna is quite as fascinated and careless about drugs and alcohol as Withnail.  

But Edna the Inebriate Woman contains everything. Everything! Edna’s companions of the road variously include a transgender type – “I dress and I live like a girl, but I’m half and half. My girlfriend, she got pregnant.” To which Edna replies with one of her favourite lines, expressive of acceptance and puzzlement, “Well, that does take some sorting out.” Later, a fellow guest at Jesus Saves, a shelter for women in a smart suburban street, tells her story: abused by her father; her child taken from her and put into care. Another occupant, vulnerable, sex obsessed and semi-deranged, jumps on top of Edna’s bed and exposes herself, as Edna kicks and screams. No pulls are punched either, in a flashback collage that briefly sketches in Edna’s childhood. “I have no daughter,” says her put-upon, literally beaten mother.     

There’s a good chance, of course, that all this would have constituted rather too much reality for my 12-year-old self. Not many years later I remember walking out of a screening of Family Life by Ken Loach. It was so grim and relentless. And only last month, I gave up on another youtube find, The Whisperers, a raw slice of life with Edith Evans in her dotage. 

These were dour odes to miserabilism. Edna the Inebriate Woman is not that. Unflinching as hell, it’s also wickedly, scabrously funny and as surreal as life with no safety-net can be: in places, it suggests a Bunuel let loose in the British counter-culture. The director is Ted Kotcheff. But Jeremy Sandford gets more prominence as the writer (and the primacy of writer over director is another quaint, topsy-turvy touch). 

No words are adequate to convey the brilliance of Patricia Hayes’ central performance. She captures Edna’s complexity: the self-destructiveness, affection and remoteness wrapped together, the bristling, often misdirected energy, the simple honesty and low cunning. “Is she a proper actress or is is this a documentary?” someone asked me, paying Patricia Hayes, and the film, the highest ever compliment. Just like Maria Falconetti is Joan of Arc and David Bradley is Billy Casper, Patricia Hayes is Edna the Inebriate Woman. But we are all Edna the Inebriate Woman.    

Odd that I can weep buckets over the plight of homeless people in a drama of 44 years ago, but I would never, ever buy a Big Issue from a homeless person today. That, as Edna would say, takes a lot of sorting out. 

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