Celebrating Elaine Morgan on her centenary

Elaine Morgan (1920 – 2013) was a pioneer. Born into a working-class family, she was the first person from her school in Pontypridd to go to Oxford University. She went on to pursue multiple careers, first as an award-winning TV writer, then anthropologist, whilst maintaining a role in political activism throughout her life. Daryl Leeworthy, author of Elaine Morgan: A Life Behind the Screen, introduces us to this extraordinary writer on the eve of her centenary.

This informative biography restores Elaine Morgan’s reputation and establishes her significant place in writing from Wales. Richly detailed it is essential in understanding the life and work of this important writer.

“A scintillating new biographical study, impressively researched and elegantly written.” – Dai Smith

“Thanks to this book… many more can take inspiration from Elaine Morgan and a legacy that spans both arts and science. In this, her centenary year, there can be no more fitting tribute.” – Carolyn Hitt

Elaine Morgan has always been a hero of mine.

I suppose I first heard her name when I was in secondary school – we went to the same one. To me it was Coedylan Comprehensive, to her Pontypridd Intermediate School for Girls; these days Pontypridd High. One of my teachers, whose own life had been so influenced by Elaine’s iconic feminist book, Descent of Woman (1972), pointed out to me that being someone from ‘our town’ studying at Oxford not only brings great opportunities but also sets you on a path set down by one of Wales’s truly great writers. A national treasure.

Elaine Morgan at matriculation, autumn 1939 – front row, second from left.
By Kind Permission of The Principal and Fellows of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

That idea of Elaine has stuck with me over the years. When I set out to research Elaine Morgan: A Life Behind The Screen, I knew that I wanted to look more carefully at her screenwriting and her contribution to our collective sense of the valleys and their people – those aspects of her career now very much overshadowed by the aquatic ape theory and Elaine’s undoubted contributions to popular anthropology. How, I wondered, did Elaine get her break at the BBC; how did she fit into an overwhelmingly masculine world; and how did she reach the top all from a desk in South Wales – a feat that seems so impossible nowadays.

Seeking the answers to those questions took me to the BBC’s written archives near Reading, a marvellous building with truly wonderful staff, where you half expect George Smiley to wander through the corridors. Out of Elaine’s voluminous files came letters sent back and forth to producers like Donald Wilson, Michael Barry, Sydney Newman, and Verity Lambert. The Doctor Who fan in me got very excited when I saw their names! Writers such as Gwyn Thomas and Dennis Potter were mentioned with casual ease. And there were occasional tête-a-tête when Elaine felt she was being undervalued – and underpaid – because she was a woman. The writer who emerged from those files was strong-willed, determined, and keen to learn. She was every bit the feminist my teachers had told me about.

The greatest finds in those files related to Elaine’s debut serial – now lost from the television archives – A Matter of Degree. First broadcast on the BBC in 1960, it told the story of the Powell sisters, and their experiences of South Wales and Oxford. Like the producers who brought it to the screen, I could not help but read an autobiographical presentation of Elaine’s life. She had always maintained that she loved Oxford, but here was the clash of cultures so familiar to me and to many others who have gone up from the valleys to those dreaming spires. Here was a kind of sequel to Emlyn Williams’s famous play The Corn Is Green (1938) but which anticipated the famous television serials of Oxbridge life, Brideshead Revisited (1981) and Porterhouse Blue (1987), decades before they were aired. This was Elaine Morgan, then, the television pioneer.

There was, I discovered, another side to Elaine, too – her politics. She grew up in a household which read the Labour-supporting Daily Herald and her own political activity took her to the pinnacle of student activism whilst she was at Oxford and into circles which included Clement Attlee and Roy Jenkins. Then she worked for the Workers’ Educational Association, just like Gwyn Thomas and Raymond Williams. As a young mother, she kept up her public activism and at one point taught for the Extra Mural Department of Manchester University. She helped to set up the United Nations Association in Burnley and led the town’s first celebrations of International Women’s Day. She even joined the Communist Party, although later returned to the Labour fold. Her radicalism had its fullest expression in a passionate belief in nuclear disarmament, in combatting climate change and humanity’s exhaustion of the planet’s natural resources, and in the campaign to ensure the survival and vibrant future of the Welsh language.

But, of course, if we are to remember one thing about Elaine Morgan on this, her centenary, it is her contribution to the women’s movement and to the self-belief that all women, regardless of their origins, can reach the top. Though she is not traditionally remembered as a historian, her television work, her radio broadcasting, her teaching, and her activism, all contributed to the active recovery of women’s collective, historical experience. In those decades of the twentieth century when Welsh women were absent from parliament, from leadership roles, from the apex of public life, Elaine Morgan stood out. She understood this and made the most of her remarkable influence.

In many respects, Elaine Morgan was the embodiment of what I like to think of as the ‘South Walian Dream’. She took the opportunities afforded her by an education which lasted for as long as she wished, but never forgot her origins. Never lost sight of the fact that she had grown up in a small terraced house in Hopkinstown. Never lost her ear for the rhythm of the valleys and their people. Alongside Gwyn Thomas, she helped to define what Wales meant for television and radio audiences all over the world. Whether as the pensioner, the playwright, the protester, the poet’s muse, or the student politician, Elaine Morgan was determined to say to her own community, to her own people, first and foremost, it does not have to be this way.

Daryl Leeworthy

Elaine Morgan: A Life Behind the Screen is available on the Seren website: £9.99

Join us for the virtual launch of this important new biography on Wednesday 11 November at 7pm. Author Daryl Leeworthy will be in conversation with Carolyn Hitt. Register for FREE via Eventbrite https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/125898462691.

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