Normal for Norfolk or NFN – a pejorative shorthand allegedly used by local GPs to explain medical peculiarities that were deigned unexceptional for the county – has since, for some at least, become a term of endearment used to encapsulate the eccentricities of the region and its kin. As one of its progeny – making a gruelling twenty mile, forty-year journey from Great Yarmouth to Norwich from birth to education, career and marriage – I feel somewhat ambivalent about the term. Television has been ambivalent on the matter too: from prodigal son Alan Partridge to local celebrant Stephen Fry’s Kingdom and, most recently, BBC’s weary retirement sitcom Boomers, recent TV continues the long-tradition of fetishizing the sleepiness of Norfolk life, stressing that it is well worth a visit but not a place for a long-stay. In 1966, however, Anglia Television initiated a far more ambitious project to establish Norfolk in the nation’s heart as a year-round destination.
On 2 April 1966 the TV Times declared ‘a village comes to life on Thursday. Its name is also the title of this twice weekly series.’ The village and series referred to were Weavers Green, Anglia’s only attempt at a soap opera which ran twice weekly on Thursdays and Saturday from April to September 1966. Envisioned as a TV version of The Archers, and hoped to replicate Granada’s success with Coronation Street, this ambitious and pioneering serial attempted to bring the ‘life of the region’ to a national audience. Pre-empting Emmerdale Farm (launched in 1972) this ‘drama of country life’ introduced soap queens Wendy Richard and Kate O’Mara, whilst employing local talent, accents and a strong sense of local identity. What is more it was one of the first programmes to be shot on location using videotape and outside broadcast equipment. The Norfolk village of Heydon, north of Reepham, was used for the main outside filming, and has subsequently become somewhat famous for its role as the fictitious Norfolk village.
However, despite Weavers Green’s big budget, formal innovations and large technical crew, Anglia encountered a lack of interest from the Big Four who, allegedly through concern over competition, sabotaged the programme through inconsistent scheduling and refusal to grant a simultaneous transmission time across networks. Resultantly, despite Anglia’s intention, like Corrie, to project the life of its region to the rest of the nation, it had difficulty performing on the national stage and was cancelled after 50 episodes. But to what degree was the show’s ‘failure’ resultant of the actions of the National Networks and to what extent did its regional specificity simply not travel across the Norfolk border? This was the key motivating question that inspired me when I went into the East Anglian Film Archive to watch all 50 episodes of Weavers Green in preparation for a paper for UEA’s 2008 Anglia Television and the History of ITV conference. A few episodes in and my key motivating questions swiftly changed to: will Colin’s dog get better? Will Celia have an affair with the local farmer? And who burnt down the barn?
Weavers Green emerged as a response to The Pilkington Report (1962) and the Independent Television Authority’s subsequent call for ITV companies to propose more programmes that possessed both a local flavour and a national appeal. It was originated from an idea by Head of Regional Programming Dick Joice – drawing on his experience with regional programmes including Farming Diary and Portrait of a Village – and with considerable finance and talent on board, appeared a good bet for meeting the aforementioned demands of locally-generated production that commanded a national following. In order to achieve this goal it was felt that careful scheduling across the national ITV network was required, but Anglia was unable to obtain two networked weekday slots for the serial. One episode was shown on Thursday, the other on Saturday or Sunday depending on the region, ‘thus denying the serial the opportunity to achieve continuity and gain momentum’ according to Anglia TV’s Chairman Marquees Townshend of Raynham. Many at Anglia and within the trade presses felt that this was deliberate sabotage by the metropolitan Big 4 who wanted to maintain their dominance and prevent Anglia from getting a foothold in the primetime market.
This clash between the local and national at the level of production and syndication also played out in the serial itself, anticipating the difficulties nationwide audiences might have settling down in Weavers Green. Whilst this constituted some sophisticated, self-reflexive, even politically astute scriptwriting by an impressive roster of talent including Troy Kennedy Martin, it perhaps hampered audiences’ identification with the characters and their perspectives. One key clash between local and national perspectives was political. From episode one – aired one week after the landslide re-election of Harold Wilson’s popular Labour government – disaffection at political intervention and capital investment in rural and agricultural life is vigorously stressed, none more so than in the Fat Ox pub, where national influence and local interests converge. As farmer Jack Royston complains, outsiders are ‘paying up more for the land than it’s worth and pushing up the prices. These amateur should be kept out of farming. Now that’s something the government could control instead of interfering with people like us.’
As farming methods changed in the early 1960s, many rural working-class farm workers – the countryside residents most likely to vote Labour – were forced to move to urban areas to find jobs. (This is represented in Weaver Green by Brian Kant’s character who has to move away to become a lorry driver as a result of the effect of new technologies on employment). Partially because of this, rural East Anglian seats which had been Labour in the 1950s actually started to lean towards the Tories by the 1964 and 1966 elections, the complete opposite of the national trend. So here we have a key divergence between the regionally-specific political dissatisfaction of Weavers Green and a wider national outlook. The Fat Ox regulars’ desire to ‘keep out the London lads’ in order to maintain the rural idyll is also confirmed by the serial’s central love triangle, when a London lady threatens to destroy the village’s serenity.
The pivotal entry point for national audiences was the character of Celia Toms (Georgia Ward), a well-to-do ‘sixties chick’ who in the first episode moves from Knightsbridge to the titular Norfolk village with her vet husband Geoffrey (Eric Flynn). Celia represents the modern liberal ideals, cultural mores, fashion, perhaps even emergent feminism, associated with city life in the mid-1960s and is also the main focus for much of the programmes politics of the private sphere. She is at the heart of what Dorothy Hobson refers to as the vital ‘emotional, romantic and sexual angles’ of soaps or ‘the whiff of illicit romance gently wafted into certain scenes’ as the Guardian reviewer suggests in 1966. As the TV Times explained:
She led the aimless life of so many rich ex-debs who hang about in Chelsea, Tangiers and the Costa Del Sol. A number of vague entanglements with young men left her disillusioned […] Celia was faced with the task of turning herself into a country vet’s wife. She is still trying. (2 April 1966)
Celia’s disruptive influence is the key narrative drive of Weavers Green, but her ongoing difficulty in acclimatising to the slower pace of village life means that even the few urbanites who were able to identify with the super posh Celia’s proto-Made In Chelsea lifestyle, are ultimately sent packing. Whilst Geoffrey, who wanted to move back to his home village of Weavers Green, feels that it is ‘up to us to fit in’ with the ideas and traditions of the village – including those on women’s roles – Celia continues to push for ‘educating the backwards farmer’. Her proclivity for fashion is also aligned with her sexual desires. As she protests to Geoffrey after he asks her to dress more respectably for church, ‘does the simple life really necessitate such strict self-denial?’ Several episodes in, Celia decides to make a go of it and takes a job as a tractor driver on Jack Royston’s farm. This is initially scandalous to the Norfolk villagers, and instead of changing Weavers Green’s outlook on gender, leads to her having an affair with maverick farmer Jack that threatens to destroy both couples’ marriages.
Rather than fit in, Celia remains the outsider – there is no place for her ideas, or her frocks, in Weavers Green – and with their marriage on the dung heap, Celia and Geoffrey decide to return to Knightsbridge in the final episode. This is not before Geoffrey reveals that he has always been in love with childhood crush Mick (played by O’Mara), daughter of the elderly local vet and his wife Alan and Dotty Armstrong. Also trained at Cambridge to be a vet, Mick would have been Geoffrey’s perfect match and would have allowed him to stay in Weavers Green and take over the family business. Celia has disrupted the cyclical structure of village life but all is not lost. Dennis Waterman (oh yeah, he’s in it too) turns up and proposes to Mick at the end of the episode, and Alan and Dotty embrace saying ‘Well. We’re right back where we started’, cueing the final credits to roll.
Rather than feel we have wasted 25 hours in front of the telly (or in the archive) we are reassured that village life will continue and Celia, who will never be viewed as Normal for Norfolk, has fashioned her escape.
Tim Snelson is a lecturer in media history at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. His research addressing the relationship among media, cultural, and social history, has been published in a number of edited collection and journals including Cultural Studies and Media History. His forthcoming book, Phantom Ladies: Hollywood Horror and the Home Front is published by Rutgers University Press in October 2014.