Poppyland revisited

They don't make critics like that any more. "Do you know who I am?", asked Clement Scott in tones of resounding indignation on reaching the Norfolk town of Cromer and being affronted in that the citizens did not greet such an extraordinarily important arrival with a properly reverential hush. "I am the dramatic critic of The Daily Telegraph and its leading travel writer," he proclaimed.


The great man was soothed by a walk along the coast to the then isolated fishing village of Overstrand, heightened through his flowery 1880s prose into Poppyland (BBC2) recreated last night through William Humble's screenplay for "Screen Two".

A century later, Scott is remembered for his splendidly offended response to the arrival in London of Ibsen's "Ghost". He saw the play as "an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly; a lazarhouse with all its doors and windows open .......... candid foulness ....... offensive cynicism .... absolutely loathsome and fetid .... gross, almost putrid indecorum ...... literally carrion, crapulous stuff" and etc.

This handsome film in which director, John Madden made the most of a strong cast and Nat Crosby's loving photography, help to explain the famous review. His friendship with contemporary luminaries of the English theatre, persuaded to follow his footsteps to Poppyland, appeared so close that he must have felt obliged to reserve his spleen for foreigners.

He was also shown to have an overwhelming sentimental yearning for an ideal world of unspoiled, peaceful innocence, which was intensified by his clamorous second wife. Just the kind of fantasy Ibsen was concerned to explode. And around which Scott was able to envelope the meadow-framed, pebble-dashed Overstrand millhouse and the "simple, perfect, incorruptible" daughter-of-the-house, 19-year-old Louie Jermy.

The ache of their unconsummated, unacknowledged love-affair was tellingly represented by Phoebe Nichols as Louie and Alan Howard as Clement. Victorian morality kept them apart and kept their love alive. If they had succumbed in the modern manner they would soon have been disappointed, her stage-struck dreams as easily dispersed as his desire that she should always be the unspoiled, perfect daughter.

As it was he only spoiled Poppyland, his influential column in this newspaper ensuring with the help of the poet Swinburne (John McEnery greatly posturing) that the village should be ravaged by the holiday industry.

There was some similarity between the black-dressed outward dignity manifested by Scott and that maintained by King Charles I (Jeremy Clive) before losing his head in the latest John Hawkesworth episode of By the Sword Divided (BBC1). ....................................

Sean Day-Lewis

Daily Telegraph, 14.1.85.