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John David (1982)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of John David (1982)
For Play for Today, BBC1, tx. 23/11/1982
80 minutes, colour
DirectorRodney Bennett
ProducerBrenda Reid
ScriptPaula Milne

Cast: Dearbhla Molloy (Judith); James Hazeldine (Patrick); Gwen Watford (Cynthia)

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After giving birth to a Down's Syndrome baby, Judith decides she doesn't want to keep him. Obliged to register the birth she arbitrarily chooses John David as the name. A few months later she learns the baby has died.

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Adapted from the novel she wrote after giving birth to a Down's Syndrome baby, 'John David' was clearly a very personal subject for Paula Milne. Like Judith in the play, Milne let her own Down's Syndrome baby be taken into care, and he died five months later. Speaking about the experience in 1982 Milne said, "I refused to allow myself to feel anything for him: it was a battle for survival between the baby and me. My quality of life or his quality of life: I felt relief when he died".

The drama explores the struggle Milne obviously went through in making such a difficult decision, dramatising her real-life experience to explore social attitudes towards 'mongol' children and the ethical issues involved in rejecting Down's Syndrome babies and putting them into care. As she said of the novel on which the play is based: "I felt that... by fictionalising the experience I could broaden the debate".

Consequently a range of views are represented, from the doctors and nurses in the hospital (one nurse criticises her decision, saying that some people would consider it a privilege to have such a child), to friends and relatives. A relative writes to Judith, "You can't return imperfect children like a pair of shoes that don't fit". More controversially, Judith's sympathetic mother proposes to adopt the baby with the apparent intention of killing him, in order to relieve her daughter of the guilt she feels at rejecting him.

No other drama in Milne's long and prolific career so profoundly interweaves personal experience with social and ethical concerns. The encounters with doctors, nurses, social workers and the registrar of births and deaths, and the experience of attending the funeral of the baby she had rejected, are all portrayed dispassionately. Indeed Judith's unequivocal decision to reject the baby is rather chilling, until she finally allows her grief at the loss of her baby to emerge.

Lez Cooke

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Video Clips
1. The decision (6:05)
2. 'John David' (3:19)
3. The consequences (2:59)
Sudden Wrench, A (1982)
Milne, Paula (1947-)
Play for Today (1970-84)