A few years ago, the random access butterfly of memory alighted upon Sunday nights in the early Seventies, and the highly popular and prestigious ITV Granada anthology series Country Matters. Running for just two series and thirteen episodes, this was a series of adaptations of short stories by H.E. Bates and A.E. Coppard, set in rural areas in the period around the First World War. I remembered only one of the episodes specifically, the last episode as it turned out, but I remembered us gathering together each week to watch as the evenings grew dark.
Given the series’ quality and reputation (it won a BAFTA), I felt sure it would be available on DVD and that the only issue would be the price. However, I was shocked to discover that the only DVD release ever had been in Canada, a two-disc set that collected only eight episodes. And not the one I remembered.
Neverheless, I bought it and, on random Sundays when I had no films available, I watched five episodes before discovering to my delight that the complete series was at last to be released in the UK, in a four-disc set. Reader, I bought it.
And after some considerable delay whilst I worked through other series, it’s time to watch the missing and the remaining episodes, over the next eight weeks. Starting with the original fourth episode of the first series, which adapted Coppard’s short story ‘Crippled Bloom’, set on the North Yorkshire coast, filmed on location at Saltburn-by-the-Sea and starring Joss Ackland as Potter Jones and Pauline Collins and Anna Cropper as sisters Ruby and Nan.
The story itself is hardly unique, but that’s not in the least important when set against how it is written and how it is played by it’s brilliant cast. Ruby and Nan, the elder sister, are orphans who jointly run a dressmaking business from home, which keeps them going. Ruby, the prettier daughter, is a cripple (the story’s plain word: her condition is not defined by the iron brace she wears on her right leg suggests polio) from birth, unlikely to be wanted to marry, emotionally dependent upon her elder sister, horribly afraid of being left to live alone.
Prior to the opening and in circumstances never explained, Ruby has gained a follower, whose existence she has not revealed to her sister. This is Potter Jones, who may be as much as fifteen year older than her (Ackland was actually twelve years older than Collins). He’s a former soldier, invalided out with a knee wound that doesn’t seem to affect his movements. He runs a modestly successful bookmaker’s business. How serious their relationship is, on either side, is uncertain: Ruby will not allow even the smallest of liberties such as holding her hand. Potter, on the other hand, wants to see her home. He meets Nan.
The inevitable follows. Nan is attracted to Potter and is wiling to allow him liberties, such as kissing her on the beach in a recumbent posture. They marry. The problem of what to do with Ruby is never properly solved. The sisters’ relationship is changed, even more so when, after a year of not trying because Ruby’s presence, and the room she takes up inhibits it, Man becomes pregnant and wants Ruby out, fearing her and her disability as a malignant charm that will affect her baby. Ruby won’t go.
Potter’s bokmaking business has hit a bad patch. He stakes all on an outsider in a rce that the favourite wins. In true Chekhovian manner, the gun we have seen him using to shoot seagulls is his way out. The sisters continue to run their business, with Ruby taking care of a perfect baby daughter whist Nan sews doll’s clothes. Both are happy.
Told like that, it’s a bleak story. As played onscreen it isn’t exactly cheerful, but then that was one of the strengths of the series, that it refused to be sentimental. There was no romance of nature to it. It was about people being people and of how their feelings led to things happening. A man marries the sister of a woman he’s initially courting and moves in with both of them. Tragedy results, even if it comes from an external source. Emotions ebb and flow.
I’ve made the actual story into a bald outline. The great strength of the episode is that the full story is not that much hairier. Right from the very beginning, when we’re wondering who are these people, and what do they have to do with each other is that at no point do you feel that you really know. Though the ending is predictable, almost classical, the story and the performances never let you think that you’ve got it sussed. Its a great iceberg of a tale, with so much underwater, to be guessed at: motivations, desires, histories that you instinctively feel are vital to a real understanding,but which remain undiscovered. Almost it feels as if you could watch this episode every day for a year, until you could recire every line of dialogue, but it would be different every day.
And this was one of the ones the Canadians left out!
Next week will be the other omitted series 1 episode. My last viewing was of episode 1 of series 2 so after that it will be a straight run of the kind I’m used to. Not that the order of the episodes is of any importance save to my sense of orderliness.