article written for this website by Martin Jameson.
Copyrighted to: Martin Jameson and the "Edith Nesbit and The Railway Children" Website April 3rd 2005.
For permission to re-print this article please contact Martin Jameson via this: e-mail address. and I will pass it on for his consideration.
The Story of Roberta, Peter and Phyllis
By Martin Jameson
Many people - as this website proves - hold a deep, and indeed passionate, affection for E Nesbitt’s original novel. My love for The Railway Children goes back to the early 1960s. I was 4 years old and for painful personal reasons, shortly after my mother died, my father upped sticks from North London and we moved into a tumbled down farmhouse in the remotest part of Dartmoor.
It was 1964, and the tiny hamlet of Hexworthy was one of the most desolate places in the country - more than worthy of the hex in its name. The house had no gas or electricity. It had a corrugated tin roof; the timbers were rotted to the point of collapse; it was infested with mice ...and we had no money.
There was me, and my older brother and sister. My father was often absent and we were looked after by a very loving and wise stepmother - not a million miles from the Mrs Waterbury who underpins the book. And just like the Waterbury children, we wandered the moors, nice middle class city children, in turns enchanted and but more often intimidated by the bleak Devon landscape.
All we lacked was a railway. Even pre-Beeching, Hexworthy was too remote for that.
So as the years rolled by, The Railway Children took on a special significance for the three of us. Sometimes at Christmas, as young adults, we would return from university (we had moved back to the town by then) and sit round the telly, weeping buckets at the Lionel Jeffries film.
I mean ‘buckets’.
Yes, of course, there are few who can honestly claim to be untouched by the film’s charm and pathos, but I would wager big bucks that we could clear more boxes of Kleenex than most families watching that movie. Our tears were almost Pavlovian - if that term can be applied to tears. It seemed to sum up the essence of a special and painful time in our personal family history. To this day I can’t get through ten minutes of the film, or five pages of the book without reaching for the tissues...
So the years rolled on, and when my second daughter was born in 1994, we were name hunting as couples do, and I suggested Roberta. I’ve always loved the name, and it struck me that if our Bobby could stop a few trains with her petticoats (metaphorically speaking) in the course of her life, then she would be doing all right.
So, as you can see, my passion for the book, the story, the film, the characters - it is life long and heartfelt.
A couple of years ago, I was reading the novel again to Bobby (having to take breaks to blow my nose... the Pavlovian response hasn’t declined with repetition) and it occurred to me that if the book is roughly set around 1905/6 - then those characters would grow up and live through the Edwardian era, the suffragette movement, the Russian Revolution... and the First World War. What effect would it have on them?
It was the simplest of ideas, and now a writer for television and radio, I approached BBC Radio Drama in Manchester (where I have worked both as a producer and as a writer over the years). I really didn’t have a story - just the basic idea: The Railway Children grow up.
The play was commissioned on the strength of that.
I am mostly busy writing mainstream TV shows such as Holby City, EastEnders, The Bill and such like, so it’s hard to find time to slip such projects in. But radio drama is a real passion too. It is one of the few places in British media where a writer is truly free to explore their own ideas. It offers an imaginative landscape unfettered by the budgetary restraints of television. It has an intelligent audience - knowledgeable about literature and willing to be challenged. I love it. And - plug plug - it is only because of the license fee that such a fantastic resource for writers and audience exists. It is unique.
So when I got back from my summer hols last year, I ring-fenced a month to research Roberta, Peter and Phyllis. I started by reading the book again and making copious notes. This was a tough task as I kept bursting into tears, which slowed down the whole process. And when I tried to do it in public places (eg on train or in restaurants) it got somewhat embarrassing. People were very sympathetic.
I made a simple decision. We would meet the children, now grown up, in 1919. The intervening years would have had a terrible effect on them all. The Waterbury family would be fractured, almost destroyed, but returning to the village, and to the railway would heal them. That was my ‘emotional arc’.
I also decided that the play had to satisfy purists who loved the book, people who had only seen the film, and also those who had a passion for both.
Then I projected myself into the lives of the three central characters. Peter would have fought in the war. It occurred to me that he is exactly the same age and class as Captain Stanhope in R.C. Sherriff’s stage masterpiece, Journey’s End. And it seemed to me Stanhope had many of Peter’s characteristics: honesty, bravery, but a certain vulnerability too. He was the sort of man who might well survive, but would struggle so hard to reconcile what he experienced with his expectations of life, that the damage to his inner self would be acute. I re-read Journey’s End - to use Stanhope as a model for the adult Peter - I read up on shell shock, studied the wonderful volume of first hand accounts of trench warfare Forgotten Voices of the First World War, re-read Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy.
Then... confession: I know nothing about trains.
So I contacted the GNR website for help researching the railways of the time. A gentleman there tipped me off to the use of Narrow Gauge in the trenches. There are only four books written on this subject in English. I’ve now read three of them. I was expecting to be a bit bored by this, but found myself absolutely fascinated. It is a piece of incredibly important but almost forgotten history: the Railway Network that was set up to supply the front after the debacle of the Somme. And, as I indicate in my play, these Narrow Gauge networks were indeed used by the special detail to disperse mustard gas on the enemy. It seemed absolutely plausible to me that Peter might well have found his way into one of these now little known army companies, manned, as the play implies, by soldiers with civilian knowledge of railways. His story rolled out from this extensive research.
I took more of an imaginative leap with Phyllis. In the novel, she is the carefree, flibbertigibbet... but she is also struggling to be taken seriously by her older siblings. So I imagined that she had grown up with a faddish desire to latch on to which ever cause or craze came her way, Women’s suffrage, Bolshevism, and... heretically... motor cars. More research followed... extensive reading on the Pankhursts and several of the prominent northern suffragettes, a wonderful book - All Quiet on the Home Front - about life back in England during WW1, and more help from another website, this time about vintage cars. A nice chap there tipped me off to the Galloway Motor Car - made entirely by women. Just the car for a young woman with something to prove, I thought.
And as for Roberta. Well, as Nesbitt herself writes, I had grown rather fond of Roberta (with the help of Jenny Agutter, of course)... but it seemed to me that like many older daughters she was already in the role of carer, and with a heavy heart, I imagined that she had got stuck there.... frustrated, lonely, and really rather angry.
Well... now I had a lot of research - but only 45 minutes to tell my story. So unfortunately I had to dispose of mother and father (I had material for them too, plus plenty of stuff for Perks, had there been time).
Writing the play was a joy. I couldn’t imagine anywhere I’d rather be, but in the village and Three Chimneys and in the minds of three characters who, it seems, have been with me for most of my life.
Obviously I was painfully aware that The Railway Children is close to the hearts of millions of readers, and to attempt to write a sequel could well be seen as an intrusion, as an arrogance. I tried very carefully to approach it in a way that the audience should feel that I was only suggesting a possibility. I wouldn’t want anyone who heard the play to think I was trying to have the last word on it. I certainly hope those that heard it were moved and gripped by my story - but I would be equally happy if they finished listening and found their heads full of their own ideas about what might have happened to the Waterbury children.
Gary Brown at the BBC did a lovely job with the casting, direction and production, and special credit should go to the sound engineer Steve Brooke, who weaves sound textures so subtly and like no one else I know. Finally I have to thank my partner Julie Wilkinson who made a throwaway comment to me about Richard Beeching, helping to inspire a sweet little twist at the end of play, which I won’t spoil, in case Radio 4 repeat the play (which hopefully they will in a few months) and any of you out there get a chance to listen in...
What of the response I’ve had.... mostly very positive. I can honestly say I had more calls and personal emails about this one radio broadcast than any of the TV programmes I write that regularly play to eight, ten, twelve million plus. And, yes, some producers at Granada TV did hear it... and we are currently in discussions about developing the idea in a much longer form for TV (there’s certainly more material there that I didn’t use in my little 45 minute slot on Radio 4).
But I never get too excited about things like that... they don’t call it ‘development hell’ for nothing.
© Martin Jameson
3 April, 2005
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