Sheila Hodgson, who died recently, was a stalwart of BBC radio drama for over thirty years. Her first play was NIGHT WITHOUT SLEEP, included in 'Saturday Night Theatre' in 1959, and her last, in 1992, was THE BOAT HOOK, one of a series written from ideas for ghost stories left by M.R.James. Most of the James plays are known to us (VRPCC) but disappointingly few of the long series of more than thirty titles broadcast in her name over three decades. Her work includes the first in the "Just Before Midnight" series, BAG AND BAGGAGE, and a six-part serial broadcast in 1969, A FLAME ON THE WATER.
Three first-rate thrillers give a taste of Sheila Hodgson's quality: THE LONG DRIVE HOME (1967), INTER CITY INCIDENT (1975) and SEA FEVER (1989), her first full-length play. THE LONG DRIVE HOME is splendidly tricky, a village mystery in the finset tradition of the detective story, which appears to be telling one story while actually telling another. The action involves an all-male club under threat of incasion by the female of the species, but there is more to it than that. The listener is led most adriotly up the garden. INTER-CITY INCIDENT is also very clever. Four friends commute between Brighton and London, enjoying their communal card-games but otherwise knowing very little of each other. The action of the play involves them personally for the first time, with a great deal of complication and unexpected revelation. The fate of a small boy is at the centre of the tangle, but fortunately this never becomes harrowing, so that the play remains to the end both gripping and amusing. SEA FEVER is a brilliant piece of work, in ingenuity and high spirits far superior to most things on radio 4 nowadays. John Moffat plays a failed financier who plans to assume a new identity. To effect this his death must be established - and how better to achieve it than to be lost at sea? The scam, predictably, goes hilariously wrong. Moffat is wonderful, of course, and so is the play.
A fourth play, grimmer than these, also survives: THIS LINE IS NOW CLOSED, first broadcast in 1978 and repeated in 1981 to mark the passing of its star, Grizelda Hervey. She played an elderly woman, browbeaten and cheated by a contemptible young couple, of whom she is worth ten. The play shows Shelia Hodgson in a darker mood, with scant comfort for the listener.
The ghost-plays are uniformly excellent. Most involve M.R.James in the action, but occasionally he acts as narrator. David March played him with impeccable donnish precision - until the final play, THE BOAT HOOK, when he was replaced by Michael Williams.
In TURN, TURN, TURN the action is set in the past and framed by a light Jamesian sub-plot, in the course of which he tells the story. Steve Hodson is remarkable in this one, that tortured patrician utterance exactly matching the damn-your-eyes recklessness of his character, caught up in turbulent events that quickly move beyond his control. He is also the hapless young man in THE WHISPER IN THE EAR, infatuated with a dangerously wrong widow and suffering accordingly. James goes to France for this one, to encounter sinister goings-on in a garden and Grizelda Hervey as a baleful mother-in-law.
ECHOES FROM THE ABBEY is a lighter piece, dealing with a failed attempt by an old acquaintance to exploit and hoodwink Dr. James. THE LODESTONE and THE BOAT HOOK both deal with hauntings. The former concerns a young graphic artist who finds himself under a compulsion to draw repeatedly a headstone commemmorating a 17th-century witch; and the latter a Norwegian professor driven to his death by a model of the boat in which his first wife died.
This entire series constitutes distinguished radio. BBC7 should revive it.
SATURDAY NIGHT THEATRE
MRJ = M.R.James play; JBM = Just Before Midnight
# Barry says first broadcast 29.12.82
THE LONG DRIVE HOME....1967
THIS LINE IS NOW CLOSED....1978
THE HUMAN CHORD....1985
THE BOAT HOOK....1992
Jack Adrian's obituary for Sheila Hodgson (INDEPENDENT, 22 March 02) contained the following information: she was born in Beckenham in 1921; her father was editor of a left-wing newspaper. She trained at the Michel St-Denis Stage School. During WW2 she toured with ENSA. Her first plays were performed in London theatre clubs. She worked for TV and was a writer for "Emergency Ward 10", a medical serial. She wrote "Stranger on the Shore", a children's thriller serial, for ATV, and it made one of Acker Bilk's clarinet pieces famous.
Like many writers, she is not well-represented in the BBC archive, but quite a lot of her plays are known to exist in VRPCC collections.
Nigel Deacon / Diversity website
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