Secrets and Spies

8 July Harry and Mabel

Scenes from the performance at Hertford Theatre on 8 July. Rhiannon Drake as Mabel and Ken Boyter as Harry in a scene from Erin Thompson’s play Over By Christmas. October 1914: Harry has just told his fiancee Mabel that he has had to enlist, in order to protect Mabel’s teenage brother who was ordered to enlist by his employer. Mabel is not happy.

8 July Seal & King 2

Ken and Rhiannon as 13 year old Scouts Seal and King in 1914, in Emma Blowers’ play Be Prepared and Be Ware, convinced they have stumbled across German spies who are making explosives to blow up London.

8 July Seal & King 5

Seal and King four years on – Rhiannon as a Hertford Grammar School boy in a very fetching blazer!


Scenes on a Summer Evening


Two plays that have emerged from the Introduction to Playwriting Course in Hertford are getting a script-in-hand performance next week. Both writers have done a lot of work on their plays and a great deal of revising and redrafting is still going on – but it is going to be a really good evening, moving and entertaining.

Tuesday 8 July 2014
8pm – 10pm
At the River Room, Hertford Theatre

Be prepared… and Be Ware
by Emma Blowers
1914. Keen boy scout Seal is ready for the thrilling adventure of wartime, spotting German spies and training to be a hero on the streets and fields of Ware. But the reality of war forces him to learn that doing your duty can mean difficult choices.

Over by Christmas by Erin Thompson
Braughing, 1914. Harry and Mabel are engaged to be married when war breaks out. While Harry enlists to fight in the trenches of France, Mabel is left at home to take over Harry’s job on the railway. Each is changed by their experience and they become caught in a desperate struggle to find a future together in the shadow of the Great War.

Actors: Ken Boyter and Rhiannon Drake

At the mouth of hell…


Our new show Seeing It Through, about life on the home front in East Herts during the First World War, is now scheduled for Saturday 15 November 2014, at Hertford Theatre Studio.

When I started this project, I had no real idea of what daily life was like in England in that time, in contrast to the vivid and grim picture we have of life for soldiers in the trenches. There’s a vague sense that back in England the gilded Edwardian age was suddenly blighted by the loss of its young men, but otherwise things carried on.

I’m discovering that people at home wrestled with some huge changes. Some they debated and agonised over – should there be conscription? Was it right for women to work on the land? Other devastating blows literally fell on them out of the sky. Zeppelins loom very large in the wartime experience of this corner of Hertfordshire. Many people, including children, were killed in air raids. We are collecting eyewitness accounts of them for Seeing It Through. It’s not clear why Hertford and Ware suffered so much – they were hardly strategic targets. Many of the bombs were probably dropped by mistake: it is thought the Zepps navigated by rivers and one theory is they mistook the little River Lea for the Thames (!).

Hertford’s worst experience was the night of 13 October 1915, when a dozen people were killed. One household which miraculously survived the night was that of Annie Swan, a great character who will definitely figure in our drama. She was a novelist, journalist and one-woman powerhouse who did huge amounts for people’s welfare during the war, as did her daughter Effie. Her husband was a GP. He was out doing his rounds when eight bombs were dropped on their house on North Road Hertford. Amazingly, everyone got out alive.

This is how Annie Swan describes it in a letter:

“The house is entirely destroyed and about half our stuff. There were many marvellous escapes among it, as well as of us. For instance our after-dinner tea poured out in the library was not spilled, though most of the furniture was upside down.
It was an awful experience. I really felt that we were at the mouth of hell. Eight bombs fell, 3 on house and 5 on garden – only the poor cats were killed sleeping in their chairs when the kitchen was blown up. While the bombs were raining on us where we stood on the terrace Effie said quite simply, “Mummy do you think this will be the one”? But God did not take us yet. There must be more to do.”

Annie and Effie had already been working in France, near the front line. They hadn’t expected to have the war visited on them at home.

Brazil, beaches, football

A story inspired by the report, a few years ago, that homesick Brazilian footballers had sand imported to Manchester so they could play their beloved beach football.



I get back from my run and there’s Paulo, sitting around with the boys, looking like they do after a draw. I say, “what’s the matter with you lot? You look like a wet week.”

Paulo says, “si”, like he does, “si. That’s all we got in Manchester England, wet week.”

A few days later I get back from power plates and there’s this dirty great truck in the drive. “Delivery,” the bloke says, “sign here.” I say what is it? He says, “sand”. I say I haven’t ordered any sand. He says, “well your feller did. According to the docket he wants it spread on the lawn to a depth of 20 centimetres.” I say go ahead.

When Paulo and the boys get back they go crazy. Jumping up and down on the sand like little kids. I say, “all your money and you’re buying sand?” He says, “Jessica, this is Brazilian sand, from Copacabana beach”. I say, “if you want sand we can go to Blackpool.” He says, “no, this is real sand, feel it, take your shoes off and walk on it. Feel how soft it is, how blond, how fluffy, how it soothes the soul.”

I’d never heard him talk like that before so I take my shoes off and walk on it. It was very smooth. Then – hey, something bit me. I look down and there’s a crab hanging off my little toe. I say, “Paulo, I just had a pedicure yesterday!”

He says, “suit yourself. Me and the boys are gonna play beach football anyway”. “What’s beach football?” I ask. “Beach football is real football”, he says. “Everything else is just imitation.”

I should have known it wouldn’t stop with the sand. A week later I get back from spinning and I hear a noise. A noise that doesn’t stop. I go through the patio doors and there’s Paulo, gazing out to sea. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he says. I say, “the sea! If you want sea we can…” He says, “but this is the Atlantic. Not the whole Atlantic, that would be silly. Just five or six waves”. And there they were, long, silver, rolling on to the beach, over and over.

I thought he would be happy then. For a while he was more cheerful than I’ve ever known him. His game improved. We made love on the beach in the evening and it was romantic, but a bit chilly.

“When are you going to get the Copacabana sun”? I say. “Then I can give up the spray tan”.

The sun was wonderful. It got a bit much so we had to have palm trees. I wasn’t so bothered about the pina colada stand but the boys liked that. The flying fish were good, and a flock of very pretty blue and orange macaws started roosting in the palms.

Then one day I get back from boxercise and he’s rolling in the sand with some half naked slapper. “Who’s this?” I say. “I dunno,” he says, “she come with the beach.” I kicked her bikini-clad arse out on the street and put my foot down.

“What is it to be Paulo?” I say. “Beach football or Premiership football? ‘Cos I know which one pays a hundred grand a week.”

Most of the sand went to the Manager’s house. He lets the boys play beach football there, under his supervision. His wife has a nice tan these days.

The rest of it the builders used for the foundations of our spa and wet-room extension. Sometimes I lie on my yoga mat and press my ear to the tiles. I can hear rollers breaking on the shore. It soothes the soul.

Seeing It Through

Grandpa Miller

‘Seeing It Through’ is the title of a new drama being written and researched by myself, Emma Blowers and Erin Thompson. We have set out to tell the story of life on the ‘home front’ in Hertford, Ware and the surrounding villages during the Great War, from 1914 to 1919.

We want to explore the First World War, rather than commemorate it. So much of our modern world began in that period, but that was not obvious to the people living through it, especially in a place like East Herts where ancient and modern ways of life were side by side. Getting hands in the field for the harvest was as much of a concern as sheltering from air raids.

Doing the research is a laborious but fascinating business and stories are taking shape. We aim to start off the project with an evening’s show in November, based on verbatim material from the time – letters, reports, newspaper editorials, songs and poems.

Our longer term goal is to do a full length play as a community production, with professional actors alongside local actors to tell what we think will be a moving, surprising and vibrant story.

[By the way, the handsome chap above doesn’t figure in the story. It is actually my grandfather, Raymond Miller, posing for a photograph in his new uniform and surprisingly fancy boots, before he left for the Front in 1916].

New writing ready to bloom

Seeds planted at the Introduction to Playwriting class have taken root and are starting to bear fruit (fruit, bloom, mixed metaphors… sorry).
Three of the writers – Emma Blowers, Judi Sissons and Erin Thompson now have full drafts of their plays and we’re working on them with a view to going public in July. We hope to have a script-in-hand performance of scenes from the plays at the River Room, Hertford Theatre. More news on that soon…

A poem for Spring

Alexander in the cow parsley

You want them to love what you loved.

A boy heart-deep in white flowers,
Tries to touch each umbel with his little finger
As I hurry him along the hedgerow late for school.

A love of weeds is a useful thing.
A secret cache, a wooden box
That’s a jack-in-a-box of delight
Leaping up at the touch of May.
An annual joy,
Forgotten in yellow August and grey January
To be rediscovered when you need it most.
Then you are swept up in the rush, the overspill
Of green and white:
Cow parsley, may blossom, jack-in-the-hedge
Embellishing the lanes,
Bursting forth, reaching out, vying with each other, now now
To fill the world with a froth of white
To the furthest edges of your vision.

While strimmers and hedge cutters move down the lane,
They hurry to pack seed-head, pod and fruit.
Filling their secret stores
For later, for later,
For another May,
For next year.
Another year.