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Turning an idea into a drama

Updated Wednesday 25th February 2009

The concept for Writing The Century was devised and originated by Polly Thomas, drama producer for BBC Radio 4, and myself, Vanessa Rosenthal, freelance writer.

George Cole and Gladys Henson in a 1954 BBC drama Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

It grew out of several years of association and a background of similar work together as producer/ writer, most notably my ten episode dramatisation of the medieval Paston Letters for Woman's Hour. The Paston Letters are the oldest sizeable collection of domestic letters in English, covering the fate and fortunes of a Norfolk family from around 1400 to 1520.

Working on them provided many keys to the nature of a successful dramatisation of this kind of material. Fundamental is a need to understand the world and society from which the diarist or correspondent springs, through wide reading of the social and political history of the period.

In due course this will prove invaluable, especially where gaps in the chronology necessitate the invention of dramatised vignettes, whilst a complete familiarity with your chosen protagonist's material should enable you to speak in their 'voice' where necessary.

The idea with Writing The Century from early on was that this was to be a dramatised history of the twentieth century told through unpublished diaries and letters - making it into a very exciting challenge.

At the same time, Polly Thomas also conceived of the series as being interactive, with a public appeal going out to the media and to listeners to ask for material.

The response to this, which was launched almost simultaneously with the first week's broadcast, has been generous, exciting and continuous.

There is now an archive of material which has been cross-referenced by a part-time researcher to provide a catalogue that lists each decade from roughly the 1930s onwards with details of who sent it in and an outline of the scope of its contents.

But, for 1900 - which was obviously where I intended to start - there was no such source material and the challenge was to find where, other than in attics, the letters and memoirs might be.

That I was after unpublished material made it harder.

By trial and error, and visits to many libraries and archives over several months, it became apparent that what I was looking for – the letters of ordinary people - would be housed in a collection that roughly confined itself to a specific issue. The Working Class Movement Library, Salford being a good example of this as well as The Women's Library, London; The Mass Observation Archive, Sussex and The People's History Archive, Manchester.

In The Liddle Collection of The Brotherton Library, Leeds, an archive devoted to ordinary people's experience of the First World War, I found exactly what I was looking for in the diaries of Ada Reece.

These covered fully the years from 1900 to 1930. Here was a woman of keen intelligence who wrote with a wry sense of humour of such things as Queen Victoria's funeral; the coronation of Edward VII and the outbreak of the First World War - as well as of the trials and tribulations of bringing up an Edwardian family.

Ada Reece became my unpublished source for both the first and second weeks of drama.

For the third week, I began a fresh search for my unpublished source, again looking through library catalogues. By now we were in the 1920s and, by preference, I wanted someone who might write about the General Strike, the Miners Strike, the Jarrow marches.


Again I contacted likely sources - the National Union Of Miners and the Jarrow Museum - before narrowing my search to West Yorkshire and in particular to the County Archive where I came across the diaries of one Horace Holmes.


Horace was a South Yorkshire Miner and union activist who later, in turn, became a Wakefield Councillor and MP, ending his career as Sir Horace Holmes.

Again, like Ada Reece, he wrote vividly and perceptively of the troubled times he lived through as well as of his family life.

Alongside his story ran the remarkable and painful tale of Mary Morris and her twenty-year search for her son. In 1912, he had been forcibly emigrated to Canada as a twelve year old boy. Polly Thomas had come across the Morris family letters as a direct result of the public appeal she made on Radio Merseyside.

By the fourth set of programmes, excitingly, the material from the public was starting to come in steadily. We were now up to the 1930s - the Spanish Civil War, the depression and threat of German rearmament on the horizon.

Flora Judd, an upper-class spinster living in considerable affluence in Stoke Poges became the first diarist to be used from the public appeal. Her caustic self-awareness of her life of privilege contrasted well with the unpublished diaries of Sir Linton Andrews, the then editor of The Leeds Mercury and (eventually), of The Yorkshire Post. Andrews was a sombre man, dealing with the economic realities of hardship in an industrial area.

The end of this week took us up to 1938 and from this point onwards the programmes, with other writers, have solely used material that has been so generously donated to the BBC from the public appeal.

Writing The Century is now on a roll and the richness of the stories brought to life has proven that there is no such thing as 'an ordinary life'.


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