It’s so long since I last watched an episode of Country Matters that I’d almost forgotten just how stunningly good they are. More than ever I am frustrated that the one and only DVD set of the series, released in Canada, contains only eight of the thirteen made. It is cruel to omit over a third of the episodes.
For ‘The Watercress Girl’, the series went for an A. E. Coppard story to adapt. Set in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, and filmed entirely on location in and around a narrow valley whose floor was almost wholly occupied by a surprisingly wide river, this was again a cool, superficially simple yet beneath it all both tragic and yet banal tale that, in keeping with other stories, dealt with the quiet undercurrents of the lives of men and women away from the urban areas, where life is a matter of hard work to scratch along on not much, financially and otherwise.
The first half of the episode arranges itself around a trial. Mary MacDowell, the Watercress Girl (Susan Fleetwood), is accused of throwing vitriol – i.e., acid – into the face of Elizabeth Plantney (Susan Tebbs), to which she pleads guilty in an almost inaudible voice. The facts of the case are established by a pompous barrister, Mr Archibold (Peter Cellier), who’s obviously looking down his nose sat these common and unwashed folk all the time, via examination of Frank Oppidan (Gareth Thomas) who was formerly walking out with Mary but at the time of the attack was engaged to Elizabeth. These facts take place as flashbacks.
It’s plain and simple. Frank comes to the lonely cottage where Mary and her father live, to but watercress. He finds her cutting it, moving around the pond with her skirt hitched up to her thighs. They start walking out together. He falls in love and wants her to marry him, but though she agrees she loves him – and she’s proved it by what they’ve done – she first withholds her answer until she’s sure he means it, and then tells him no.
Frank won’t accept it. Frank’s typical of the times: he means to have his way. He’s a wood-turner and ambitious to have his own shop, his own apprentices, call no man master, and his anger at the course of events is all about the effect it has on him with little or no heed for others’ wants and feelings, and it’s a testament to Gareth Thomas that he still comes out as reasonably sympathetic for all that. He keeps asking Mary to marry him, she keeps saying she won’t and refusing to say why, he keeps walking out on her, he keeps coming back.
Until they separate permanently. Doing so woodwork for the recently orphaned Miss Elizabeth Plunkney, a town girl, with the kind of money a man could use to set up a business, a bit more accomplihed, a bit more sophisticated, playing heavily on the silly-little-woman pedal, Frank is drawn into first walking out with her – no slap’n’tickle there, oh no, not until the wedding night – and then into an engagement.
Meanwhile, he’s pestered by letters from Mary until he writes back to announce said engagement. And one night, in the dark, walking through the woods, he and Elizabeth are confronted by Mary, who unstoppers a small bottle of vitriol and throws its in Miss Plunkney’s face, burning and scarring her for life.
The trial over, Mary sentenced to eighteen months, no explanation given for any of this though t seems plain and obvious: jealousy, the scarred Elizabeth releases Frank from his promise. Angered by what has been done to him, and by the too-lenient sentence, Frank vows his own punishment on Mary, when she gets out.
The beauty of the episode is that we know there is more beneath it. Why has Mary been so adamant that she won’t marry Frank, and that she won’t marry anyone, ever? She’ll go with him, gladly, she won’t ndever turn him away. But what is the secret? The second half of the episode gradually leads us through that, by flashback once more, but this time in Mary’s mind, as she waits to be released from gaol, a good and submissive prisoner who has earned six months remission.
And though the secret itself is perhaps as trite and banal as the rest of the incidents, if you do not have the least sympathy for people whose lives this shows, then and still now, it falls into place with an inevitability. Mary was pregnant. She refused to let her father go find Frank. Her letters refused to speak of it. She did not want to be shamed, and Frank has no high opinion of women who let themselves get taken with child but without a man and a ring. So the baby is born, prematurely, and stillborn, buried in secret at night. And Mary goes out with a bottle of vitriol, meant for Frank.
But that’s not the only secret. The other is guessable, being much more of a literary design. When Frank discovers Mary is back, after only a year, he swears revenge, in high dudgeon and in high drink. When he arrives at her home, late at night, carrying his own bottle of vitriol, either the night or seeing her again has sobered him. He cannot harm her. He just wants to know why.
She tells him of the baby. It is the first he has known of it and again his concern is not her experience, or the death of a child, but what’s been done to him. Yet he will make all right. He will still marry Mary. They are still young enough for a future. It’s her rescue, from the shame, the disgrace, the scandal. But she will not marry him. Not to shame him, but even more so not to shame her father. Who was not wedded to her mother but whose pride is such that he cannot tell his daughter the truth, no matter that she has known it since she was small. She will not marry Frank, and he must go and never come back.
Frank, being Frank, goes, but says he will come again tomorrow. The camera freezes on Mary.
Really, the story hasn’t ended. Stories are like lives: they go on after we stop watching and it’s for us to imagine what happened later. Country Matters, made in 1972 and 1973, delves into the underside of stories of the rural poor and reminds us that living in the country, among the peasant stock of England, is nothing like so simple as our own, modern lives.