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Brief Encounter - the writer confesses

Thursday 7 February 2013, 19:10

Nawal Gadalla Nawal Gadalla Archers scriptwriter

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The clock at Carnforth station As featured in the film Brief Encounter

You may have noticed more than a passing similarity between tonight’s episode of The Archers and Noel Coward’s film Brief Encounter. Here’s the inside track from the scriptwriter, Nawal Gadalla.


Writing a set piece in The Archers is a sweet responsibility. So when our editor Vanessa Whitburn suggested an episode for Paul and Lilian based on Brief Encounter, my creative motor started running.


The immediate image that sprung to my mind was of Celia Johnson with a piece of grit in her eye. I knew I wanted Lilian to experience the same. And I needed a third person to act as a foil to Paul and Lilian. The obvious choice was the Dolly Messiter character, who cuts into Laura and Alec’s poignant last meeting like a blast of unwelcome steam. I called her Connie and gave her the same chatty, intrusive role. She is the express train to their two local trains.


It’s easy to forget that in the film Laura and Alec meet at many locations. We tend only to place them at Milford Junction because those scenes are iconic. Their two trains pull away in different directions, symbolising their lives ultimately moving in different directions.




We’d already established that Cheltenham was one of Paul and Lilian’s special places. But I had typical Archers logistics to think about. Would Lilian need a platform ticket?  Was there a platform level café at Cheltenham Spa?


Paul couldn’t come from the west towards Paddington when he alighted from his train, because Connie would have boarded the same train to go on to London, and I needed her for the rest of the episode. So I had Paul’s first train coming from the north, en route to Cardiff Central.


Why was Connie forced to sit at their table? I had to invent a large party of tourists, in order for the café to be busy at that time in the afternoon.


I’m not sure that TV soap writers would lose sleep over these details, but Archers listeners are sharp.


Compare and Contrast


Aside from how they sounded, the other obvious difference between then and now is the sense of social shame that Laura, in particular, felt. She can’t bring herself to be unfaithful. Paul and Lilian are already lovers, so instead I tried to create a kind of inhibited longing in their dialogue.


A parallel between the two couples could be the underlying sense of hopelessness in an affair, in which no one wants to leave their partner.


Spot the homage


You may recognise these direct quotes:


  • Lilian: “No, I’ve got something in my eye.” 
  • Connie: “Try pulling your eyelid out as far as it will go, and then blowing your nose.”  (I had to get that one in!)
  • Lilian, about her eye: “It was agony”.
  • Lilian “You suddenly look much younger”
  • Paul: “We’ve still got a few minutes.” 


I was also delighted to squeeze in the following exchange, before Connie bursts in:


Paul: “Are you all right darling?” 

Lilian: “Yes, I’m all right.” 

Paul: “I do love you (Lilian). With all my heart and soul”


And I referenced:


  • Churley – Alec’s station in the film
  • Johannesburg – where he plans to go and work as a doctor with his brother
  • The grit in the eye
  • Bath buns
  • A boating lake
  • Dolly (Messiter in the original). She is Connie’s friend who has been looking after her cat


And of course Lilian dashing out of the café at the end – not to throw herself under a train, but to get away from Connie. In the film, Laura comes back in to the café, and Dolly buys her a brandy. In the scene, I have Connie saying, “What I really need’s a brandy!” 


I hope you enjoyed the episode. While writing it, I assiduously avoided looking up Victoria Wood’s spoof, where Laura carelessly rams a mince pie into her eye!


Nawal Gadalla is an Archers scriptwriter


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  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    25 Minutes ago

    Difficult to believe that anyone would have the gall to "recreate" such a memorable scene and slip it into an episode of TA. It just goes to show how how arrogant and out of touch with TA listeners the SWs and Editor have become.

    Kempsford - I cannot understand how you think this required "gall".

    And it seems to me very much in touch with TA listeners. All posting here seem to have got the reference - even if it gave some of you conniptions.

    Anyone would think they had got TVOA saying a Black Mass at St Stephens.

    ....now THERE'S an idea?

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Brief Encounter is my all time favourite film and I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing whilst listening to last Sunday's omnibus of The Archers. It all contained too much of a passing resemblance to the lines of my adored vintage romance! I have to say I found it laughable and totally annoying. I think it is a real cheek of the script writer to think they can simply take a classic script and regurgitate it in this ridiculous fashion. What do I hear? Noel Coward and David Lean turning in their graves! Come on Radio 4, your listeners deserve much better!

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    I thought it was quite cool - texted my daughter, "this episode is a rip-off from Brief Encounter!" when I picked up on it. I'm from Cheltenham, so know the station well. I wanted to shove Connie under the train - just wondering though, would a complete stranger ask who you're waiting for, on a station platform?

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    I listened daily to The Archers for decades but the ridiculous storylines put me off several years ago.

    The episodes are clearly being written and edited by people with no empathy or real understanding of village and country life, nor of The Archers.

    Indeed, when I have listened recently to give the series the benefit of my doubts I have cringed not only at the appallingly crass writing but also at the so-called acting too. Clarrie on Sunday evening was even more wooden than the fondly remembered Woodentops.

    Thank goodness for the OFF button.

    I understand the BBC is closing this forum down.

    They might as well switch The Archers off too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    I really enjoyed this episode, well done Nawal!

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Re comment 91: Craftybird - Connie was played by Carolyn Pickles.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    No objections to referencing BE. Could have been a funny and touching homage to a beloved film classic. But this was just so incredibly badly written. Embarrassing, awful, clunky and trite! What on earth were you thinking of?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Thought this was a bit laboured; it's not a bad idea but better saved for a Christmas comedy special. I'd like to see The Archers move back to agricultural issues: Countryfile is beating Dancing on Ice in the ratings so why not? At the moment there are only a handful of farming references scattered among the adultery. This happened to Emmerdale (Farm) which is now a bit of a joke. Don't let it happen to TA. Bring it back to its original purpose. It would make for a more interesting research job than these rather boring affairs. Or, if you're desperate for novelty, how about a couple that stay both alive and faithful to each other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    My reaction was bemusement, and - weirdly this - embarrassment. It was so obvious an attempt at a parody or a pastiche that it embarrassed me, the listener. Or was it meant to be a spoof? If so it went very badly wrong. The original was fine, so why reproduce it. I think it was a big mistake and the writer was just self-indulgent. I wouldn't say it was 'carp' but it was defniitely excrutiating!

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    As many others have said. Cheap rubbish you should be ashamed of writing. Did you train at the Ed Reardon School of Writing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    I'm on the side of the Misery Guts. It was lazy writing and poorly played. I felt sorry for the actors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Nawal Gadalla, you say in your article "Writing a set piece in The Archers is a sweet responsibility", but when VW suggested this parody, the bitter-sweetness of the original was lost in a cloying confection of sugar and artificial colours and flavours. I suppose you tried, and hearing that it was suggested from on high does explain why it was not done with a more light touch, a few plangent references, the "smut in the eye", the bath buns, perhaps, which to my mind would have been much more effective.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    It was a truly cringe making episode and after 50 years of Archer listening I have stopped. I have never heard such rubbish - it wasn't funny or clever it was just plain dreadful. The whole Lilian/Paul saga is beneath the Archers - former writers will be embarrassed -


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