Our latest blog adds to our series of articles on the stories emerging from our archive of Rank Scripts on the importance of female screenwriters. Here volunteer Amelia Moran examines the work of Diana Morgan, and her adaptation of 'Lady Audley's Secret'.


I was so grateful to be given the opportunity to start volunteering at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum earlier this year. Each week, I have been cataloguing and reading through the scripts from the Rank Scripts Archive sourced from Pinewood Studios. The longer I spent leafing through the pages of scripts, noting down any points of interest and unearthing the produced and unproduced work of women in the archival collection, the more I came to realise how prolific female screenwriters were in the period between the 1930s and 1990s.  I decided to do some more investigating and was fascinated to discover that in the earliest years of filmmaking, women screenwriters outnumbered men ten to one (1). So why is it that so many female screenwriters have remained largely invisible? Our work in the  museum is attempting to shine a light on the anonymity of female screenwriters, to give them credit, with all that the pun suggests. 

On my first day at the museum I came across a Welsh female screenwriter named Diana Morgan and her screenplay Helen Audley, adapted from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret — the subject of my dissertation! Whilst every discovery is worth exclaiming ‘I found a woman!’, this screenplay in particular felt worthy of celebration, as it appears to be one of the very few adaptations of the 1862 novel written by a woman. Although the screenplay was never produced into a film, it was my first introduction to the work of a female screenwriter and I was fascinated by its content. Lady Audley’s Secret is a novel about a woman who commits bigamy, attempted murder and arson, in order to escape the poverty and misery of her former life after having been deserted by her husband. In Morgan’s adaptation, consistent with Braddon’s novel, Lady Audley expresses a strong sense of moral worth, a will of iron and regularly declares and adheres to her own moral code —a pattern of behaviour that frequently emerges in female characters written by women. It is interesting that Morgan’s only solo credit at Ealing Studios— Pink String and Sealing Wax (1946)—also told the story of a woman who murders her husband and tries to pin the crime on an innocent admirer. Themes of confinement, escape, and crime appear and reappear in the works of female screenwriters, providing a form of escapism that could temporarily transport female spectators out of their own homes and workplaces.  Morgan’s  I Capture the Castle, given to her by Moie Charles who was originally working on the script, details the coming-of-age narrative of a girl’s impoverished life in a decaying castle. Muriel Sly’s undated screenplay Juvenile Delinquent, similarly traces the trajectory of a girl trying to escape her home, in order to attend university. The glimmering dramatizations of adventure and escape could be considered rather didactic or instructional in this context, opening spaces for actual women to do the same in their own lives (without murdering their own partners of course)!


Fig 1: Diana Morgan's Screenplay for 'Helen Audley (EXEBD 94414)

Whilst some female writers captured the embodiments of the strenuous life for women, trapped in a castle or in the domestic home, others experimented with far more subversive storylines as a device to challenge those restrictions. For example, Jean Scott Roger’s Jill Fell Down details the life of a wealthy woman who is wrongly accused and condemned for being a prostitute. Lesley Storm’s The Doctor’s Story reveals similarly the sort of social stigma around sexual morality with regards to illegal abortion.  It is very apparent from my research at the museum, that female writers showcase a compelling set of characteristics for their female protagonists: ambitious, strong, smart and modern. They are almost always positioned as recognisable types, potential wives, wives, mothers, or girlfriends and at the same time, appear to be independent-minded, seeking unconventional relationships, and finding freedom in the confines of their situations—presenting characters who question the more conventional representation of women. The marked tension between the gendered expectations of women and their public/private lives is evident in much of the work of female screenwriters.


During my time volunteering, I have found a myriad of husband-and-wife teams—an avenue which would enable some women to achieve greater professional respect and recognition. After Diana Morgan married Robert MacDermot Barbour, who became the Head of BBC TV Drama in 1948, the two began writing together, collaborating on many successful stage shows and revues performed in the West End and other theatres. Muriel and Sydney Box, Janet Green and James McCormick, Margaret and Gordon McDonnell and Irene and Louis Kemp are further examples of marital partnerships recognised in the Rank Archive. It is particularly interesting that most of these women also wrote independently prior to entering into a partnership with their husbands. For example, Janet Green wrote Ghost Story, Eleven Men and True and Voices in the Dark, before she went onto be nominated for a joint BAFTA in 1962, shared with her husband, for the screenplay Victim. These partnerships represent an alternative form of visibility for women who were attempting to establish themselves in a male dominated film industry.


The screenplays written by female screenwriters show women in an unprecedented way, in motion. I’ve really enjoyed having the opportunity to uncover just some of the many female screenwriters in the archives, their work, and their collaborations with others. The work being undertaken at the Bill Douglas Museum is an inspired step in uncovering the work of female screenwriters and I look forward to what is to come, particularly in light of Helen Hanson’s new research into the important tradition of women’s creative work for the screen. The journey of female screenwriters is a tale of transformation and today marks a new chapter for women in screenwriting and filmmaking.  The creative forces of Céline Sciamma, Sofia Coppola, Michaela Coel, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Emerald Fennel are just a few examples of successful women who are making waves in the film industry. These women are not only being trusted with delivering films with huge studio budgets, but are diversifying genres, reinventing screenplay structures, and breaking down barriers—including the fourth wall if you’ve seen Fleabag! Whilst it is clear that progress is being made for women behind the screen, it is important that we continue to recognise and remember the key roles of women’s work from the margins of film history, which have helped shape the work of women in film today. By locating these women in the histories of cinema, I am often reminded that they have been there all along, hidden, in part, but there. It is our task now to find them and applaud them.



Some of the team of volunteers working on the Rank Script Collection: left to right, Amelia, Anna Rose and India.



Karnick, Kristine Brunovska. “Community of Unruly Women: Female Comedy Teams in the Early Sound Era.” Continuum, 1999, pp. 77–95. doi:10.1080/10304319909365783.  (Karnick 82)

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