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Through the Night (1975)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Through the Night (1975)
For Play for Today, BBC, tx. 2/12/1975
80 min, colour
DirectorMichael Lindsay-Hogg
Production CompanyBbc
ProducerAnn Scott
Script EditorColin Tucker
ScriptTrevor Griffiths

Cast: Alison Steadman (Christine Potts); Jack Shepherd (Dr Pearce); Tony Steedman (Mr Stourton); Thelma Whiteley (Dr Seal); Anne Dyson (Mrs Scully); Julia Schofield (Anna Jay); Dave Hill (Joe Potts)

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A young woman is admitted to hospital for tests, and then has to undergo a mastectomy.

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Trevor Griffiths wrote 'Through the Night' (Play for Today, BBC, 2/12/1975) as a response to his wife Jan's experiences during her treatment for breast cancer. The play tells the story of Christine Potts, who undergoes an unexpected mastectomy, and struggles to cope with the aftermath and the deficiencies of her post-operative care. Although critics largely ignored the play, it achieved high audience figures of around 11 million, and when the treatment of mastectomy patients was subsequently featured in the Sunday People, the newspaper received nearly 2,000 letters from its readers. Griffiths' frank approach to a previously taboo subject clearly struck a chord with the audience, and the writer himself was swamped with mail. He later described the play as "without question... my best known piece".

Ostensibly then, 'Through the Night' is part of the long tradition of the 'single-issue' play. But the play also makes use of the conventions of hospital drama as seen in such contemporary programmes as General Hospital (ITV, 1972-79). These conventions were used both to contrast Christine's ordeal with the usual romance and drama of the hospital soaps, but also to make a virtue of the technical limitations of the studio-based drama of the time. The camera is frequently static and observes Christine from a distance on a harshly-lit set, and this objectification of her body by the camera reflects the various physical examinations she undergoes at the hands of doctors who scarcely acknowledge her presence.

Griffiths is clearly presenting an analysis of how individuals are manipulated and 'managed' within state institutions. Christine's treament reaches a grotesque point when an histologist takes the cancerous remains of Christine's breast, while complaining that he needs more tumour tissue for his research. The idea of the patient as a human being, as anything more than tissue to be processed, is lost, and this is made explicit in the final extended dialogue between Christine and Dr Pearce.

'Through the Night' is undoubtedly a harrowing play, and still maintains the power to shock. But it also presents an optimistic view that individuals can make themselves heard within an institution, and that Christine's refusal to accept the limitations of her treatment has made her stronger. The strong audience response to the play justifies this optimism to some extent, and lays claim to 'Through the Night' having the greatest popular impact of all Griffiths' plays.

John Williams

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Video Clips
1. Confusion (4:35)
2. Consultation (0:49)
3. Better off (5:32)
Griffiths, Trevor (1935- )
Play for Today (1970-84)