Trouble Half-Way on TV

Jan’s brother, Martyn Brisland, found this website and got in touch to offer his encouragement. We got chatting … and he sent me his video recording of Trouble Half-Way, adapted for TV by Michael Winterbottom in 1987. It was made for schools television as a three-part series with a fourth part where Jan and Martyn recreated the journey in the book, along with the child star, Jenni Barrand.

Finally, I’ve been able to access a VCR and so watched a grainy – but nevertheless hugely enjoyable – recording of a programme that I know many of Jan’s fans would love to see. Actually, it’s a lovely nostalgia trip for anyone who grew up with 80s children’s TV dramas and remembers when you could buy a cup of tea and a bun for 20p. (You couldn’t do it today was the refrain that ran through my mind during much of it, which added to the pleasure of viewing.)

In the documentary, Jan’s glorious mane of curly, reddish-dark hair – through which she peers to make a comment or ask a question – dominates nearly every scene.

Jan explained how years earlier, she’d accompanied Martyn on a lorry journey from Shepherds Bush, through High Wycombe and Oxford and then to Cheltenham. (Martyn explained, ‘We camped out in the back of the lorry in an overnight lorry park in Newbury which Jan faithfully described in the book and the film accurately portrayed.’) Jan made copious notes which she filed away for future use. Years later, she visited Rochdale and saw the mills and knew it was somewhere she could set a story: the lure of a journey to see your name in six-foot-tall letters on the side of a mill ignited the plot.

It’s delightful watching Jan chat candidly to Martyn and Jenni in truckers’ cafes, or striding across train concourses, and peering out of train windows – a much cleaner train; apparently, they had to make the windows dirtier.

She and Jenni Barrand exchanged notes on the process of creating character for the page and portraying character on screen. Typically, Jan was inquisitive and engaging but never once condescended on the grounds of age. As the train neared their final destination she expected Barrand to recall in specific detail where the mill was located. (The adaptation faithfully contains itemised details of transport connections which were the stuff of Jan’s fiction but would no doubt be edited out of a contemporary TV drama.)

Jan seemed genuinely fascinated by the experience of filming – such as the fact that few of the scenes in the lorry were actually filmed in the vehicle but on a low-loader trailer instead – taking Barrand’s commitment to her art as seriously as she expected others to regard her own commitment to writing.

Other admissions make for engaging entertainment. Barrand confessed that there were times when she forgot to act and delivered Rose’s lines and actions in a much more liberated manner than cautious Amy ever would have dreamed of. But she admitted that she’d have been nervous about journeying to certain unfamiliar locations, which seemed to surprise Jan who, after all, says in the book that somewhere new is ‘just another place’.

There were scenes, too, where Jan and Jenni Barrand were being interviewed by a class of school children about the book and the dramatisation. It was fun to see that even back in the 80s Jan began her school sessions with the moderately terrifying proposition that her audience could choose either to sit and listen to her talk or could ask questions – but someone would have to ask the first question…

Jan explained how the director phoned her to say that he’d inspected all the mills in Rochdale and none of them had the name Amy on them. ‘Ah, that’s because I made it up,’ said Jan. But they found Rose and that’s who Amy became.

Barrand revealed to not liking Rose very much as a character – nor any of the roadside cafes on location, particularly – and Jan more or less agreed. But that was the point of the character. When one of the school children asked Jan how she thought Amy had changed throughout the course of the story Jan conceded that she hadn’t; but what she’d learned was that you can trust people whether they are stranger or not.

Jan had only read the script by that stage, but was pleased at how faithfully it had adhered to her novel, even using some of her own dialogue. The big difference was that in the novel, Jan left Amy on the train, having seen and photographed the mill with her name on it, whereas in the TV adaptation there’s a cheerful final reunion scene with Rose safely being reunited with stepfather Richard, and walking off together, arm in arm.

Why did she make Amy a girl? Jan pointed out that people mostly asked her why she nearly always wrote about boys (which was true of her novels up to Handles). Amy’s character emerged from the fact that she was a girl – that she was overprotected in a way she’d never have been if she were a boy.

Was the reason Richard is Amy’s stepfather because Jan had grown up with a stepfather too? No, Jan’s father wasn’t around much in her childhood, but he was her father. The point in the story was that Amy and Richard had to get to know one another throughout the journey. They’d either hate each other or become friends, which was the outcome.

Is Richard based on Jan’s brother, Martyn? No and nor is Martyn’s daughter Tracy anything like Amy, although she had accompanied her father on lorry journeys before. Jan explained that she never based characters on actual people but disparate elements from different personalities she’d known.