Writer Jeremy Sandford made his name with the acclaimed Cathy Come Home (BBC, 1966), perhaps Britain's most influential television drama. In 1968, Sandford was beginning work on a trilogy, to be called In the Time of Cathy, on the theme of intolerance. The first part was to focus on the plight of Britain's gypsy population and the second on unmarried mothers, while the third, originally titled The Lodging House, would show a women's doss house for vagrants and alcoholics.
By 1970, The Lodging House, now retitled Edna, the Inebriate Woman, had become a broader and much more ambitious piece, shot entirely on film, with the doss house reduced to just one of several locations, and with the focus on just one character. Broadcast as a BBC Play for Today (tx. 21/10/1971), the play, like Cathy Come Home, is an indictment of society's treatment of its poor and dispossessed.
As part of his research, Sandford had lived the life of a tramp - "For two separate occasions of two weeks I submerged myself in that nether world" - and this helped to give the play the feel of authentic experience. The play's rambling plot, with little sense of chronology, reflects Edna's own aimless, wandering existence. Viewed by society as an embarrassment and an inconvenience, Edna is shunted from doss houses to hospitals, psychiatric wards, even prison. When she seems finally to find a stable environment, in the 'Jesus Saves' refuge, the house is forced to close thanks to a campaign by neighbouring residents.
But although we certainly sympathise with Edna, the play makes no attempt to smooth over her rough edges. Edna is rude, aggressive and fiercely proud. She is also, often, very funny.
To bring out the comic elements in Sandford's script, producer Irene Shubik and director Ted Kotcheff decided they needed an actress with comedy experience. Patricia Hayes was, at the time, a regular on The Benny Hill Show (ITV, 1969-89). Shubik and Kotcheff had to negotiate with the show's producers to release her for filming, but the pleading was worth it for Hayes' brave and moving performance, which won her the best actress award from the Society of Film and Television Arts. The play was voted best production at the same awards, and won the best original television production award from the Writers' Guild and the Critics' Circle award for best television play.