Thursday, 15 October 2015

Remembering Phoebe M. Rees


The name Gertrude Phoebe Meirion Rees OBE may not be immediately familiar to many people.  Neither would the name Phoebe M. Rees, as she was more commonly known.  But if I were to mention that for more than 60 years there has been a full-length play competition known as ‘The Phoebe Rees’ you might reasonably assume that she is a noteworthy figure in the world of drama and writing.  And you would be correct. 

When recalling eventful or interesting things that have happened in my life, I often wish I had had the foresight to make some notes at the time the experiences were taking place.  The memory is often a very fragile and capricious thing.  Some elements can be recalled with great clarity (though accuracy may sometimes be a little less certain), while others may be completely forgotten.  Regrettably, I made no notes whatsoever on the day when I met Phoebe Rees at her home in (or near) Williton, Somerset (actually in Five Bells, Watchet).

I am certain that the year was 1975.  I was eleven.  I sat with my father at a plain and somehow under-burdened table in a shadowy room.  My attention was taken by what appeared to be a commonplace transistor radio sitting upon the table.  But this was not an ordinary radio.  It was designed to receive the sound from television channels; indeed, it was a television, but without a screen.  We were in the home of a blind lady.

How my father had come to know of this lady, or what circumstances had led to us being welcomed into her home, I cannot recall.  But here we were. 

Across the width of the room was a window through which only the most subdued of light was able to enter.  The area outside the window was overgrown with burgeoning foliage, but its greenery somehow softened the gloom.  Adjacent to the window was a work surface upon which rested an ageing manual typewriter. 

Somewhere between the dim window and the table at which my father and I were perched was the seated figure of an elderly woman.  This was Phoebe Rees.  It was difficult to make out any details of her appearance in the gloom, and her face was further obscured by a pair of large dark glasses.  Some lost rays from the window alighted upon her full and silvery hair, and as she turned her head it was possible to make out a slightly weeping closed eye.

As an immature eleven-year-old I found Phoebe’s image a little unsettling, but not frightening.  She certainly gave an impression of being rather ethereal, of being not quite of this world – qualities no doubt exaggerated by the unlit uncertainty of the room.  But she was, nonetheless, friendly and very open to answering any questions that I might have for her, however indelicate or outlandish.

So, what was it about Phoebe Rees that might have invited such intoxicated questions from a young boy?  Well, prior to meeting her I was aware that she was a playwright, and I had had the opportunity to read one of her plays.  Until recently I had been unable recall the title, but I now know that it was The White Dove of Bardon.  It was an historical supernatural tale which made reference to a local house on Tower Hill – and I lived at an address in Tower Hill!  (But the memory cheats; White Dove actually makes no reference to a house on Tower Hill at all, but to Tower Hill, London!) 

I had been told that Phoebe had a certain supernatural or spiritual sensitivity, that when her writing made mention of ghosts or spirits she was sometimes writing with the benefit of personal experience.  White Dove was certainly a ghostly tale, though it is hard to see how this particular play could have been inspired by her own experience; the clear inspiration is a fascination with history, both local and national.

So out poured my questions about ghosts, about how she was able to continue writing if she was blind, and so on.  The question about writing was easily answered.  She had learnt to touch-type when much younger and sighted, and with the skill being so well developed, typing with accuracy was no challenge to her as long as her fingers started on the ‘home keys’.  But when it came to ghosts or spirits, it was as if the transparency of her words became mislaid in the intangible character of her presence and the darker niches of an overcast room.

I was under the impression that her ‘spiritual sensitivity’ was something that had developed following the onset of blindness, but it is clear from the corpus of Phoebe’s work that supernatural themes were present in some of her plays while she was still sighted.  Perhaps she had became more ‘spiritually sensitive’ after she had lost her sight, or maybe an existing interest had guided interpretation of her experiences unseeing.  Both my memory and speculation fail to produce any answer.

Undeterred by Phoebe’s opacity, I began to offer my own ideas, some of them drawn from the language of science – or rather the pseudo-science of popular science fiction – rather than from the language of the paranormal or spiritual.  She listened patiently, but in the end what seemed to matter to Phoebe was experience rather than explanation.  To quote the character of William Leigh in The White Dove of Bardon,
I can offer you no scientific proof […].  Such things are matters of a deep, inner, spiritual experience which can be described but which cannot be shared.  
Did it matter whether the phenomena she experienced were the ghosts of the deceased? Some other kind of ‘spiritual beings’? Or something else entirely?  What was important was that these experiences were meaningful to her and that they informed some of her writing. 

So were Phoebe’s spectral experiences real?  Yes!  At the very least they were real because they had a real effect on the world through her writing.  Beyond that, who can judge the privileged experiences of another person? 

And so, in due course, my meeting with Phoebe Rees came to an end.  She gave me a slim volume in a plain pale blue cover.  It was a copy of her play Tell Mother – The Butterflies, one of her more recent plays with some supernatural content.  I took it home and enjoyed it, just as I had enjoyed White Dove.  But what endures most is the knowledge that I had the good fortune to meet such a unique, talented and affecting person.


Some of Phoebe M. Rees’ Works
in alphabetical order

The Answer. (1956). London: J Garnet Miller.

Blinds Up. (1939). London: T Nelson.
Note: A ‘modern drama’.

Breaking The Barrier. (1983). London: Steele's Play Bureau (J Garnet Miller).

The Dream. (1963). London: Steele's Play Bureau (J Garnet Miller).

Hide And Seek. (1937). London: H F W Deane & Sons.

Idols. (1937). London: J B Pinker & Son.

Incorruptible, or the First Dictator. (1935). London: J Garnet Miller.
Note: An historical comedy drama with chorus!

The Last Straw. (1947). London: H F W Deane & Sons.
Note: A ‘farcical comedy’. About country life.

Marriages Are Made In Heaven. (1946). London: Steele's Play Bureau (J Garnet Miller).
Note: Television version produced by Westward TV (ITV), circa 1968-69.

The May Tree. (1939).
Notes: A supernatural radio play based on A College Mystery by A P Baker.   
Radio play broadcast on the BBC Regional Programme (Western), 11 April 1939.

The Miraculous Year, or Dorothy Wordsworth In Somerset. (1971). London: Steele's Play Bureau (J Garnet Miller).

Mix-Up-Atosis. (1955). London: H F W Deane & Sons.
Note: Comedy.

The New Jerusalem. (1966). London: J Garnet Miller.
Note: About Glastonbury legends.

Pushion and Pests (Rats). (1938).  London: H F W Deane & Sons.
Note: Comedy.

Rats. (1936).  London: H F W Deane & Sons.
Notes: Comedy. About country life.

Sanctuary. (1934). London: H F W Deane & Sons.
Notes: Historical. About a plot to assassinate Napoleon.

Second Wedding. (1940). London: T Nelson.

The Summons. (n.d.). London: Steele's Play Bureau (J Garnet Miller).

TV Thriller. (1959). London: H F W Deane & Sons.
Note: A ‘burlesque comedy’.

Tell Mother - The Butterflies. (1969). Watchet: Rees.
Notes: Supernatural. Story suggested by some events recounted in the book Things I Cannot Explain by Margaret Gordon Moore.

That Freedom. (1962). London: Steele's Play Bureau (J Garnet Miller).

That There Dog. (1931).  London: H F W Deane & Sons.
Notes: Comedy. Was given radio broadcast under title Thic Thare Dawg, BBC 5WA Cardiff, 18 June 1931.

Time Is Money. (1958).
Notes: Prose. Broadcast as a Morning Story on the BBC Light Programme, 9 January 1958.

The Trumpet Shall Sound. (1947). London: Steele's Play Bureau (J Garnet Miller).
Note: About Saul of Tarsus.

White Dove Of Bardon. (1951). London: Steele's Play Bureau (J Garnet Miller).
Notes: Historical, supernatural.  An earlier version (shorter than the published stage version) was produced by Owen Reed and broadcast on the BBC Home Service, 12 July 1948. A second radio production by Brandon Action-Bond was broadcast on the BBC Home Service, 17 October 1956.


Further Reading/Reference Materials

Allen, S. (2013, September). The Phoebe Rees life story. Spotlight: The magazine of the Somerset Fellowship of Drama, p. 6. Retrieved from
http://www.somersetdrama.org.uk/images/spotlights/60.pdf

Chidgey, M. & J. (2003). The book of Stogumber, Monksilver, Nettlecombe & Elworthy. Wellington, Som.: Halsgrove.

Pardoe, R. (2005, September). A P Baker and A College Mystery. The ghosts & scholars M R James newsletter, 8. Retrieved from
http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~pardos/GSNews8.html

Phoebe plays in Minehead... fifty years ago.  (2013, December). Spotlight: The magazine of the Somerset Fellowship of Drama, p. 12. Retrieved from
http://www.somersetdrama.org.uk/images/spotlights/63.pdf

Phoebe Rees listings on BBC Genome. (n.d.). Retrieved from
http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/search/0/20?order=asc&q=phoebe+rees#search


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Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press
ISBN 978-1-906628-21-5

For more information visit www.davidaustin.eu

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