Trevor Fishlock celebrates the career of Elaine Morgan
Every Friday Elaine Morgan opens the Western Mail and notes her latest column in the news section. “It’s nice to turn the page,” she says, “and see that I’m still in the land of the living.” She started this weekly stint when she was 83. “I always dreamed of being a journalist and even if it’s late in the day I’m pleased to have made it.” The column caps a distinguished career of more than 50 years as a pioneer television scriptwriter, playwright and controversial science author. Given her literary achievement and the fact that she turned 90 last November we can certainly think of her, in the modern fashion, as a national treasure.
Lord Northcliffe said that every good reporter should be able to take a trip on a bus and return with a readable piece of observation. Elaine Morgan hatches her ideas during her daily morning walks and on Tuesdays she polishes them into a thoughtful entertainment. She has ten inches of space to fill as she likes, a pocket-sized column of 480 words, a job that’s not as easy as she makes it look. Her neatly-shorn sentences are deceptively simple, engaging and conversational. Their distinctive liveliness belies the rather ponderous title the newspaper gives her column: The Pensioner.
“When I started I was afraid I might run out of material, but I’ve no fear now that there will nothing to write about; so I enjoy it all the more, and it keeps my fingers from itching.”
She has lived almost all her life in south Wales. Born in Hopkinstown in the Rhondda, daughter of a colliery pumpsman, she grew up in the bitter years of the depression. She won a scholarship to read English at Oxford and her father died at the end of her first term there. Neighbours told her mother that Elaine would have to leave the university. Her mother was notably determined. “Over my dead body,” she retorted.
Elaine was a teacher during the war, lecturing for the Workers’ Educational Association in Norfolk. In 1945 she married Morien Morgan, who had fought in Spain against the Franco dictatorship. They had three sons. For a while they lived cheaply in a remote Radnorshire farmhouse that lacked running water and electricity – “An early Good Life thing,” Elaine says wryly.
She started writing to eke out the family’s meagre income. “I wasn’t very successful. I spent three years at Oxford learning literary criticism and I found it difficult to learn to write creatively.” Then she won a third prize in an Observer essay competition. “It was a beginning because it meant letters from agents. Do you want to make money?” they asked. “Do you have anything else in the drawer?”
In the mid-1950s the writing trail led to the BBC in Wales and the black and white infancy of television drama. “I was there at the beginning, the best time. I sold three plays before I had a television set. I used to watch at someone else’s house. Plays went out live and if an actor forgot his lines the whole country saw it. It was a time when quality and reception were poor. There was no pre-filming in drama and there was only one set, two at the most, and much less camera work. We wrote full dialogue because nothing else was happening. It is amazing how much less you need to write in a television drama today.”
She had an edge, she says, because many authors were writing for West End theatre audiences whereas television was spreading to a much broader audience that few were writing for at that time. “We were doing kitchen sink drama long before Osborne and Wesker.” Audience researchers in London were astonished to discover that ordinary people enjoyed watching drama about people like themselves, seeing their own backgrounds mirrored.
There was another reason, she says, why she and writers like her were able to prosper. “When drama started in London producers lacked the studio space to keep up with demand. They asked other sources, like Wales, Manchester and Scotland, to produce plays and feed them into the network once a month so that London could cope. London depended on this. And it gave opportunities to writers and directors to project a non-London view. It was a golden time and produced a lot of good writers. I wrote for the market and about what I knew. I just wanted to convey the flavour of Wales, of people whose lives were just as dramatic and full of moral problems as any other lives.”
She wrote nine episodes of Dr Finlay’s Casebook between 1963-70, six of Maigret and drama documentaries about Marie Curie, Gwen John, Anne Frank and Lloyd George. Her adaptation of Testament of Youth in 1979 won her the Royal Television Society Writer of the Year award.
“Television changed quickly and in many ways. Some of those who wrote for the stage, like Emlyn Wiilliams, could not make the switch to television. He was asked to adapt How Green Was My Valley but the script could not be used and I was brought in at short notice to do it. But in time my stuff, too, looked old-fashioned, too wordy and out of touch with the mores of a new generation. Television became less adventurous. In the end I chucked it in. But I’d had a long run.”
She says she was always an arguer. In the 1970s she published The Descent of Woman, her feminist view of evolution to counter what she saw as the male-oriented opinion. “I wrote from indignation. I made my point and in the end it stuck.” The feminist eruption was a bigger deal in America than in Britain and she had two book tours there with appearances on numerous chat shows – “not 15 minutes but 15 weeks of fame”.
In her writing about Wales, she says, she described a people characterised by a kind of independence and self-esteem. “We were, as Kingsley Amis said, classless. We didn’t react for or against the nobs because we never saw them.”
She is disappointed in what she feels is a growing divide between burgeoning Cardiff and the Valleys hinterland. “I can see what is wrong with capitalism but I cannot see what you put in its place. It is part of the difficulty we are all in, a groundswell of anger, a politics not of envy but of outrage.”
Since 1966 she has lived in Mountain Ash in a large Victorian hillside house with a prospect of the town and the Cynon valley and, as you might imagine, a comforting abundance of books. “There’s a lot of good here, enough of the community spirit in which I grew up. So I’m relaxed. I’m not a despondent sort of person anyway. I’m in touch with people all over the world online, conducting arguments and debates. I don’t know today what will be in my next column. But I’ll know next Tuesday, when I start writing it.”