The Fifteen Minute Drama: ‘Journal of a Joskin’
by Fred Kitchen adapted by Stephen Wakelam
Broadcast: 11-15 March 2013, BBC Radio 4
Thirty years ago, while making a film for television about a Yorkshire farm labourer called Fred Kitchen (who was born in 1890) Fred’s surviving family arrived on location with a large cardboard box, containing some thirty neat volumes of diaries covering near fifty years of his life, up to his death in 1969. I was the writer of the film, having suggested Fred’s autobiography ‘Brother to the Ox’ to Yorkshire Television. John Willis, then best known as a documentary director (‘Johnny-go-Home’) was the director, and about our only problem with the shoot was the paradisal autumn weather that year. Every sequence had the golden glow of a ‘Hovis’ commercial. Fred’s young life on the farms had been tough; he had escaped to the developing railroad where life and working conditions were brutal. My script showed the 13 year old Fred propelled onto the farms on the death of his father (as the only boy a wage earner was badly needed in the family), his unhappy period as a navvy, and his return to agricultural work. The final shot of the film showed him, aged 16, at a hiring fair, waiting and hoping for a job that would tie him – in little more than slave conditions – to a farmer for a year. But the diaries (which I read and noted during a memorable week) dealt with his adult life, which he had skated over in his autobiography. I found them very moving – I taped extracts - felt privileged to be reading them: little red bound Memo notebooks, in neat legible handwriting. I have one of them in front of me as I type this. I didn’t consider them suitable for a television dramatisation, however. I was busy with other scripts, other films, and then my notes and tapes of them went into storage along with other research materials for a number of years. I never forgot them but couldn’t see how to proceed. And then, a few years ago, having turned to radio and written a couple of what are now known as 15 minute dramas - and enjoyed the experience - I heard, in that same ‘Woman’s Hour’ slot, a serial from the recent past about a young gay man from Nottingham – diary form, low key, and, to my ears, riveting. I’d not clocked this strand ‘Writing the Century’ before. I listened again to my tapes of Fred’s diaries. Though read in neutral style, and interrupted with many clicks from the tape recorder’s on/off button, I could see the shape of a five part week long serial. I would take Fred’s life from the dramatic beginning of the diaries - in 1924, with a young family, he is evicted from his house for non-payment of rent – to the triumphant publication of his autobiography in 1940. The big advantage of the five part weekly slot, as I’d already discovered, is that you can cover a long stretch of time, the gap between the episodes allowing you to elide months or years. My difficulty was where to go for permission to dramatise the diaries. All I had, after thirty years, was an address – a grandson, Rod Roe. No postcode. No phone number. I decided to write an old fashioned letter, without high hopes. But, a week or two later, up popped an e-mail: ‘Hello, Stephen. Long time…’ He apologised for the delay in replying but he’d been on holiday in the Canaries. Fred, his grandfather, we reflected, had never got any further than London. On a fine Sunday last Spring, with the commission agreed, I drove to Rod’s house to pick up the diaries again. They were more elegantly packaged than before, in a modern zipped nylon bag: a near complete record of a working man’s life during the middle part of last century, by turns funny and bleak. What I realised this time was how Fred, in diarising, had developed that prose style which caused H.E. Bates to write, in his review of Fred’s autobiography: “Mr. Kitchen writes as the grass grows and Brother to the Ox will take its place, for exact and simple beauty, with the best interpretations of the countryside.” The rule of thumb for these radio dramatisations is 8 minutes drama to 6 minutes diary. I had no hesitation at all in drastically reversing these proportions. Fred’s writing needs little help from the dramatist.