The Revlon Girl – Footnotes
These footnotes are a follow-up to our live discussion in episode four of the podcast, including a selection of points from my researches that we didn’t happen to include, as well as follow-up on any facts and questions that came up during our conversation with Neil.
The leaking skylight
A small but potent detail is the simple opening stage direction: it is raining outside, water is dripping from the skylight onto the floor.
The rain echoes the terrible weather leading up to the day of the coal slide, and the slow drip suggests the insidious impact of the stream undermining the tip that eventually gave way. The metaphor is made all the more direct by the reminder that the landlord has previously been told about the leak in the skylight, but no one has done anything about it – warnings are being ignored.
The Political Aftermath of Aberfan
There was much anger in the aftermath of the disaster because many felt that there had been warnings about the possible threat of the tips and that the tragedy could have been avoided. At the Coroner’s Inquest three days after the disaster one man who had lost his wife and two sons called out when their names were mentioned in a list of accidental deaths: “No, sir – buried alive by the National Coal Board”. In fact the report of the official enquiry that followed stated outright that “blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board” and that it was their “strong and unanimous view…that the Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented.” Neither the NCB nor any of its employees were ever prosecuted and the organisation was not fined.
Initially the NCB offered bereaved families £50 in compensation, but this was raised to £500 for each bereaved family; the organisation called the amount “a good offer”.
The Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund (ADMF) was set up on the day of the disaster. It received nearly 88,000 contributions, totalling £1.75 million.
In 1967 the Charity Commission advised that any money paid to the parents of bereaved families would be against the terms of the trust deed, and suggested that no more than £500 should be paid. Members of the trust told the commission that £5,000 was to be paid to each family; the commission agreed, but stated that each case should be examined before payment “to ascertain whether the parents had been close to their children and were thus likely to be suffering mentally”!
Many were concerned that the remaining tips above the village remained unsafe. The residents petitioned the Secretary of State for Wales for the tips to be removed; they entered the Welsh Office and left a small pile of coal slurry on his table. The tips were removed only after a lengthy fight against resistance from the NCB and the government on the grounds of cost. The final clearing was funded by the government and the NCB, but not without an additional forced contribution of £150,000 being taken from the memorial fund. It was not until 1997 that the British government paid back the £150,000 to the fund, and in 2007 the Welsh Assembly donated £1.5 million to the fund and £500,000 to the Aberfan Education Charity as recompense for the money wrongly taken.
Those who have seen the Aberfan episode in season three of The Crown, will know the story of the Queen’s visit to Aberfan in the wake of the disaster – or rather her non-visit. The Queen did not visit the village in the days immediately following the disaster, sparking criticism in the press and questions about why she wouldn’t go. Finally, after sending her husband, Prince Philip, in her place, she came to Aberfan eight days after the disaster to survey the damage and speak with survivors. Nearly four decades later, in 2002, the queen said that not visiting Aberfan immediately after the disaster was “her biggest regret.”
The Revlon Girl Sales Copy
During the play the Revlon Girl introduces the women to the beauty products with sales talk lifted verbatim from 1960’s Revlon ad copy. Initially the sales patter seems so ridiculously incongruous as to be very funny; however it also begins to resonate with the themes of the play, suggesting some truths in the cliches. It first draws the contrast between the imagined outside world and the reality of these working class women’s lives, a contrast made all the more obvious and poignant when in her first rehearsed sales pitch the Revlon Girl says “we have some fabulous products…whether you’re a career girl or a busy mum…”!
Later when she is helping Sian, she says: “who knows the secret hopes that warm your heart … the dreams you dream” – Sian of course has hopes and dreams that her husband doesn’t know about. Finally in the romantic sales pitch there is a truth that applies for the women in this play, about their individual self-respect and aspirations: “every woman deserves to be beautiful”.
It’s Not Just Lipstick – A Footnote to our Footnotes
Following the publication of our episode on The Revlon Girl, a listener was kind enough to send us a note that resonated so strongly with the theme of our play that notwithstanding the horror of the images described, I felt compelled to share. The passage comes originally from a book called Five Days that Shocked the World by Nicholas Best:
British Lieutenant Colonel Mervin W. Gonin, commander of the 11th Light Field Ambulance, R.A.M.C. was among the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen in 1945. In his diary, he gave a more graphic description of the effect of the lipstick:
“It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick.Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering around about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post-mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tatooed on their arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at email@example.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
You might also be interested in …
Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.
Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.
Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.
A compendium of dramatic intelligence!
Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.
Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …