Making the Play

Concept and original script by Poppy Hollman, based on Joseph Bell's memoirs.

Bedfordshire bobbin lace edging

A Turvey Voice

Joseph’s hand-typed manuscript immediately stood out to me in amongst the record books, wills, tithes and marriage settlements connected with Turvey in the Bedfordshire Archives. Here at last was the voice of a real person, not the voice of officialdom or authority. It provided an immediate connection to the lives of ordinary people; although it didn’t all make sense to me, it prompted much of the research I did into the period, and was the catalyst for most of the events in the play. Joseph doesn’t write a narrative, he just recalls (sometimes only in passing) the fragments of memory which had stayed with him for 70 years. Although initially I found this frustrating (how straightforward it would have been to have a complete story to retell!) in fact it gave me a much freer hand in writing the play, enabling me to tell my own story inspired by his.

The Story in Context

I was really clear that I wanted to set Joseph’s story against the backdrop of the community, so the audience would get a real sense of wider village life. As a result, the play is quite episodic, with over 40 speaking parts representing different facets of the community. All of those parts make a contribution to the narrative of the play but to me (and I hope the audience!) they all have their own journey which tells a tale about 1850s Turvey. From Maria Dalley, bereft when her son goes to fight in the Crimean War, to William Crawley, who turns to poaching when cast out from agricultural work, to the deaf and mute Dummy Bellamy, trying to make his way in a brutal world – each character says something about an ordinary life which either did or could have taken place.

The play combines material from Joseph’s manuscript with material from other sources, along with a fairly large dollop of invention on my part. But I have tried to create plausible scenarios to show how events might have happened. For example, Joseph doesn’t say much about the annual custom of Largesse, but mentions that it did take place in Turvey after the end of harvest. I was able to find accounts of it taking place in other nearby villages, so I used those to help me imagine the scene/song as it appears in the play (with Tim’s fantastically beery song). Joseph doesn’t mention the tradition of Plough Play performances, but I read in a different source that Plough Monday celebrations did take place in Turvey, so I lifted a Plough Play from a traditional source and included that. He mentions the flood, the bread famine, the fair, the comet – all in passing rather than in detail, giving me some leeway to research and imagine those scenes.

The Rich Man in his Castle, the Poor Man at his Gate

As I wrote, the underlying themes of the play became clearer to me, so I tried to subtly draw them out (I hope you can’t see the outline!). One thing I knew I wanted to feature in the play is the frustration which Joseph expresses on behalf of all those people who had no capacity to change their lot in life. He talks, on the one hand, about the extraordinary generosity and benevolence of the Higgins family, as squires of Turvey. He mentions several occasions when they stepped in and made the difference between life and death for his own family; it’s possible they were doing the same for many other families in the village too. But he also speaks of their severity, and the fact that they expected the poorer people to be happy with their lot – ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’, as it goes in ‘All things bright and beautiful’.

In the play, I’ve tried to represent the two sides of this coin through two of the shoemakers; both characters were invented rather than drawn from the manuscript. I’d read about the fact that shoemakers were more likely than other village artisans or craftsmen to be political radicals, because they had to travel more (to get leather, or receive commissions) and so were more likely to hear the political rumblings which were happening elsewhere in the UK. The movements for Chartism and Temperance had found a strong foothold in the growing Methodist movement and in Turvey a search for a better life would drive up to 50 Methodists from the chapel in the village to emigrate to New Zealand in search of a better life. In the play, John Burdin represents this side of the coin, in opposition to the views of Reuben Cotton, an older member of the community who is a staunch defender of the establishment, as it is represented by the Higginses and all they have done for the village. Members of the audience will have to make their own minds up about where their sympathies lie, but in my mind both Burdin and Reuben represent equally plausible reactions to the social challenges of the day.

Mary's Story

I was already a long way along with my writing when I made a major discovery in the archives. I was looking through newspaper articles from the time when I found something out about Mary, Joseph’s middle sister. It made me realise that in fact her story might have been different to the one Joseph tells about her. This was a gift in many ways. It led me to change the whole thrust of the play: instead of having just one central protagonist (Joseph), I could have two. It enabled me to create a tension in the play between Joseph’s desire to stay in the village and Mary’s desperation to get away, to find something better. But it also left me with a huge dilemma. Should I stick with Joseph’s version of events, even though I now knew them to be at best incomplete? Did this cast doubt on Joseph’s other memories, or was he just ignorant about what happened to Mary after she left Turvey? In the end, I decided to show in the play what I think probably happened to Mary, but also to write an epilogue which hints that Joseph was either ignorant of her fate or else sanitised it for the sake of the family. Perhaps it’s a cop out, but I wanted the audience to decide.

The Words and the Music

The play’s content and structure was very much influenced by Tim’s input. We started to talk about the music before I’d even finished the first draft, and he patiently put up with me dithering about whether certain scenes were in or out. The words and music came together with a lot of back and forth discussion. Mostly I had an idea of where a song might fit and what it might be about, but sometimes it was the other way round and the first song that Tim wrote was the final one in the play. We’d talked about the idea of home and what it might have meant to Joseph; when Tim came up with ‘The Story and the Song’ (in about 24 hours, as I recall) it perfectly encapsulated those ideas. I went back through the play to draw out the theme further, and drive it towards the finale.

Home and Migration

The theme of home, and how we now think of it, demonstrates the fact that it’s impossible to write in a vacuum. Thinking about home, I kept make connections with stories of migration, which were regularly in the news as I was writing. They found their way into the play almost without me realising it. When Betsy speaks about the wave of persecuted Huguenot migrants who brought lacemaking to the area she wonders how they would have been received by local people (the historical accounts say they were welcomed with open arms). In a place where strangers or outsiders were viewed with suspicion, travellers and gypsies were regarded with both fascination and fear. The Turvey Methodists left behind all they knew and travelled as far away from the village as it was possible to go in search of something new; given the hardships they were leaving behind it is impossible not to sympathise. Joseph himself left Turvey of course; in the play Burdin encourages him to get away from the small closed world of the village, with its poverty of opportunity. He found himself cast out from the only community he had ever known, but by the very fact of his writing down his memories it’s clear that he took something of the village with him.


Turvey now is a village of both old timers and newcomers (I count myself among the latter). It was the idea of creating a sense of rootedness and connection between different members of the community which led me to write the play in the first place; I think a community thrives by having a strong sense of itself and its past, but also by being open to ideas and ingress. 1850s Turvey was such a hard place to live precisely because it was quite stagnant in terms of social and geographical mobility; poverty made people impervious to progress or change. I hope the play shows that many of the issues we grapple with now – about where we belong, or who belongs here with us – have been around for a lot longer than us.

Poppy Hollman, September 2017