Tuesday 21 June 2022

Bedtime Stories: Jack and the Beanstalk by Nigel Kneale

A guest post by Jon Dear

The oldest hath borne most: we that are young shall never see so much or live so long.
    - King Lear, Act V, Scene 3

2022 sees the centenary of Manx screenwriter Nigel Kneale, best remembered for the Quatermass stories. There’s been panels and seasons from the British Film Institute, HOME in Manchester and Cambridge Festival, as well as a one day retrospective at the Picture House in Crouch End, London (full disclosure, that was organised by me). For this esteemed organ however, something a little more obscure is needed and so let’s have a look at Kneale’s final contribution to the BBC, his lost adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk, broadcast on 24 March 1974.

This was the fourth of six episodes in Bedtime Stories’ single season. Producer Innes Lloyd and Script Editor Louis Marks had some success with their 1972 horror anthology Dead of Night (see my piece in CBT #2) and Christmas special The Stone Tape, written of course by Nigel Kneale. That series was centred around original ghost stories in a contemporary setting, these six new dramas would reimagine classic children’s fairy tales in modern day Britain. The six stories were:

1. Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Alan Plater
2. The Water Maiden by Andrew Davies
3. Sleeping Beauty by Julian Bond
4. Jack and the Beanstalk by Nigel Kneale
5. Hansel and Gretel by Louis Marks
6. The Snow Queen by John Bowen

Episodes 2, 5 and 6 exist in full, and 1 survives as a black and white film recording. Sadly 3 and 4 are completely lost.

Recalling the story in Andy Murray’s biography, Kneale explained “there was no Jack and there was no beanstalk. It was all entirely psychological…looking for the truth behind fairy tales. I picked on Jack and the Beanstalk, which was full of symbols and things like that.”1 What we have is a domestic drama about coming to terms with trauma and the stories families tell themselves.

Jonathan (Martin C. Thurley 2) is on his way to an interview at Leeds University. The ‘cow’ here is Jonathan’s future. His career is a meal ticket for his mother, Linda (Stephanie Bidmead 3  – Doctor Who fans may know her as Maaga from Galaxy 4). Jonathan is unwittingly persuaded to abandon his trip and return home by an arrogant travelling salesman, Nethercott (Peter Jeffrey). But he isn’t ‘sold’ an alternative future by Nethercott, instead, by questioning Jonathan’s life choices he helps him understand he’s running from something unresolved: the death of his father, Duggie (Glyn Owen). He died when Jonathan was three and looms like a giant in his memories. Jonathan must learn the truth of what sort of a man his dad was before he can move on with his life.

A number of Kneale’s stories deal with generational conflict, Julian Petley calls it “a distrust in youth 4”. Kneale uses it to a greater or lesser extent in his Wednesday Plays BAM! POW! ZAP! And Wine of India, as well as Quatermass, which in part uses themes from his earlier abandoned project The Big Big Giggle. Here in Jack and the Beanstalk, Nethercott believes he’s entitled to some say in Jonathan’s future because his taxes help fund Jonathan’s degree.

“If you pay taxes. Or rates even. Then you've bought a part of him. What d'you say to that?... I'll make it easy for you. Simple terms. Bingo-- Legs—eleven, clickety—click, full house! Better still the pools, they more in your line? Treble Chance, record divvy, Miss Crumpet greets the happy winner!

And who is the happy winner? This lad here! But who put down the stake money? You bloody did! I did! All the rest of us…They've run off with all the chances we missed5.”

Of course generational conflict is nothing new. The First World War in part created a lost generation that rebelled against Victorian social norms, while the teenage culture that rose in the 1950s sought to break free of society’s conservative constructs. But these were both largely social changes. The generational conflict prevalent at the time of Jack and the Beanstalk’s writing, recording and broadcast in the early 70s wasn’t just social, it was also an economic one.

The UK began 1974 in its first recession since the Second World War, an oil crisis, caused by the Yom Kippur War, inflation breaking 17%, and the ongoing miners’ strike led to a three day working week in order to save power. The economic instability led to political turmoil, and after Prime Minister Edward Heath called an early General Election in order to try and solve the impasse with the NUM with the slogan Who Governs Britain? The electorate came back with the inconclusive answer that we’re not really sure, but it isn’t you anymore, sunshine. Although the Tories got the most seats, they didn’t win a majority and failed to do a deal with Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberal Party. Labour leader Harold Wilson was then able to form a minority government and end the miners’ strike with an improved pay offer. Cheers, Ted.

So while the older generation may be resentful of youth for taking advantage of opportunities they never had, the youth themselves blamed them in tern for messing up the world they were to inherit (it’s sounding familiar isn’t it?). Films like Whatever Happened to Jack and Jill (1972) and television series like Rising Damp (1974-1978) would highlight this conflict in terms of housing, from the youth perspective. And like Rigsby, Linda has had to take in a lodger, Marcia (Miranda Hampton), who’s young and modern (read: sexually active), and she has a boyfriend, Mike (Ian Halliburton) who often stays over.

So while this provides a standard arena of conflict for the generations and their social views, Linda also creates conflict with her son by essentially exploiting his potential for university as her opportunity to escape, essentially justifying this as a return on investment. Only 5.57% 6 of school leavers went to university in 1973-74, the academic year from when Jack and the Beanstalk was broadcast, and the vast majority of those weren’t working class. It’s not hard to have some level of sympathy with Linda, that having been a single mum for so long, having to work and bring up a child, she would feel a fair amount of frustration at Jonathan turning down so rare an opportunity. But if Jonathan doesn’t want it, should he be forced to go? Kneale doesn’t provide simple answers to complex problems.

Of course the reason for Linda’s single mother status, the absence of Duggie, is the main theme of the story and we experience Jonathan’s confused memories of his father via a series of flashbacks. Sadly it’s not possible to view these sequences but thanks to Kneale’s detailed descriptions in the script, we get a good idea.


Everything is monstrously distorted. Huge pieces of furniture loom high above. Even the table-top is above the eye level of JONATHAN-AGED-3. The chairs are things for ogres to sit on. The ceiling is as high as the sky.7

Duggie’s world as Jonathan remembers it. But what of Duggie himself?

“The towering, terrifying figure of DUGGIE WEIR rushes out on to the landing. He is fighting drunkand bellowing oath-words unrecognisable to the cringing JONATHAN-AGED-3. Animal sounds of pure threat.

The handheld camera retreats down the stairs. JONATHAN’S small voice utters strangled cries of terror as DUGGIE stumbles down after him, huge hands outstretched, eyes bulging with fury, teeth bared.8

But he suspects these are unreliable memories, largely curated and reinforced by his mother. A mother who Jonathan knows is overbearing. Jonathan seeks out some of this father’s old drinking companions and meets Vic and Dorrie Whitaker (real life husband and wife Will Stampe and Julie May) who describe a broken man, full of drink but who doted on Jonathan until Linda kicked him out. What’s interesting here is that despite the reframing of Duggie who was loving and bereft, there’s no attempt to justify and whitewash the domestic abuse Linda suffered. Kneale merely explains: Duggie found comfort in drink to escape Linda’s rejections and then hit her when he was drunk. You don’t have to be a good man to love your son.

We also learn that Duggie loved to sing, and there’s one in particular used throughout the play:

“One night as I lay on my bed/I dreamed about a pretty maid/I was so distressed I could take no rest/Love did torment me so.9

The song is a traditional English folk balled first recorded in Dorset by Henry Hammond in 1906 10. But by the time of Jack and the Beanstalk’s broadcast, One Night As I Lay On My Bed proved popular with a number of artists of the British folk music revival including Steeleye Span (1970) and Shirley Collins (1974). It continues to be recorded to this day.

“This song has always been popular among gypsy singers of England's southern downs. It dates back at least as far as the Elizabethan era, when John Dowland adapted it as Go from My Window. It is a night-visiting song, which means it belongs to a curious genre of song which hovers between the supernatural and the erotic. The visitor, who has usually endured an unpleasant journey, is faced with practical difficulties (Mom and Dad in this case) before being admitted and spending the night. Only the enforced departure at dawn reveals his or her ghostly nature. This variant of the genre avoids being either spooky or sexy and settles for the most discreetly understated ending of any folk song.11

Songs or rhymes with deeper meanings feature in a number of Kneale scripts, from Oranges and Lemons in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) to Hufferty Pufferty Ringstone Round in Quatermass (1979). Kneale also invents an incantation for the climatic ritual in his adaptation of The Witches (1966). The erotic elements of this particular song would certainly sit uncomfortably with Linda, and there’s a subtext of sex as bad throughout the script. Linda couldn’t bare for Duggie to touch her, and resents Marcia for her carefree attitude, eventually throwing her out and replacing her with the older Miss Long (Liz Smith). There’s an interesting note in the stage direction when Jonathan fixes the lock on the new tenant’s bedroom door.

“MISS LONG seems to flinch, to avoid the male intrusion into her personal space. But she bares her teeth in a kind of smile.12

Boyfriends moving in by proxy would seem to be less of an issue here. The final revelation that Linda never wanted to have a child and that Duggie did is all the justification Jonathan needs to break away.

Ultimately, Jack and the Beanstalk is about a teenager coming to terms with where they’re from and thus talking charge of where they’re going. But it leaves more questions than it answers, indeed the final scene is a dream sequence featuring a Duggie that only exists in Jonathan’s imagination, suggesting he’s not interested in the wider, more complex truths of the circumstances of Duggie’s life and death. It also marks a transition for Kneale, not just from the BBC to ITV, but in moving towards a more intimate, focussed style of storytelling that would continue with Murrain and Beasts. The fact it’s a lost production, and coming relatively soon after the big hit of The Stone Tape makes this one of Kneale’s most overlooked stories.

Jon Dear is a writer on TV and film. He co-hosts the Nigel Kneale podcast BERGCAST, and featured on the commentary for the BFI’s recent release of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He recently wrote about Kneale for Fortean Times and curated the sold out Nigel Kneale – A Centenary Celebration in April of this year.

1 Murray, Andy, Into the Unknown – The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale 2 nd Ed. (Headpress 2017), p. 184
2 Long-term readers of Curious British Television may recall that he appears in Clive Exton’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s The Breakthrough. See the piece I wrote on The Mind Beyond in issue 4.
3 Sadly this would be Bidmead’s final role. She died in the September of that year aged just 45.
4 Murray, p.289
5 Script, p.6
6 https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/written-answers/1976/mar/29/school-leavers
7 Script, p.24-25
8 Script, p.23
9 Script, p.46
10 https://mainlynorfolk.info/lloyd/songs/onenightasilayonmybed.html
11 Nigel Schofield in the CD liner notes of Many Hands by Steve Tilston (2005).
12 Script, p.50

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