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The story of ‘The Watercress Girl’

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The Watercress Girl is a one-hour drama, made for the ITV network by Granada Television in 1972 as part of its 'Country Matters' series, and first broadcast on 17 September that year. Set in an isolated rural community in the early 1900s, The Watercress Girl recounts the story of the tortured and destructive romance between the farm girl Mary McDowell and the local woodturner Frank Oppidan.

Shot on film, and entirely on location, the drama unfolds in the valley surrounding Mary's family farm, and in the local magistrates' court — where a devastated Mary stands trial for throwing vitriol in the face of Frank's fianc้e, after the collapse of their relationship.

Produced by Derek Grainger and directed by Barry Davis, The Watercress Girl was adapted for the small-screen by Hugh Leonard from an original short-story of the same name by Alfred Edgar Coppard (born 4 January 1878), first published in 1944. Although Coppard wrote numerous stories and novels set in pre-War rural farming communities, The Watercress Girl remains one of his more well-known works (along with 'The Higgler'), and popular with enthusiasts for the genre. Coppard published his autobiography It's Me, O Lord! in 1955, just two years before his death on January 13 1957.

Monsal Dale provides nearly all of the filming locations for The Watercress Girl. As well as outdoor scenes across the valley, the interiors of the McDowell farm all appear to have been shot at Netherdale Farm. The only major location outside Monsal Dale is the courtroom. Although this could have been filmed at a local magistrates court in Bakewell or nearby, the whereabouts of this location remains unconfirmed.

Granada's evening schedule for
17 September 1972

The Watercress Girl was transmitted across the ITV network at 10.15pm on Sunday 17 September 1972.

Principal competion came from The Road to Freedom over on BBC 2, and the final of the Omnibus: Leeds International Piano Competion on BBC 1. It was immediately preceded by the fifteen-minute Ten O'Clock News, but different ITV regions had carried a range of programmes in the earlier primetime slot. Grampian had shown Sunday with the Stars, Anglia had run the Glenn Ford movie Undercover Man, HTV had opted for quiz-show Mr and Mrs, with LWT showing the 1966 film The Quiller Memorandum, starring George Segal and Max Von Sydow.

After The Watercress Girl, the ITV regions again went their separate ways, with ATV showing Spyforce, Scottish ITV running The Strange Report, HTV taking The Avengers, and Anglia opting for Department 'S'.

The full broadcast history of The Watercress Girl remains unknown — although the programme was shown early on in the life of Channel 4 (the transmission from which the screengrabs used here were sourced), it is not clear how many times the drama has been shown on British screens.

The plot

As the story opens, Mary is tending to her watercress crop growing along the riverbank close to the farm run by her widower father. She is visited by local woodturner Frank Oppidan who persuades her to begin a courtship that quickly becomes passionate and intense. Frank is anxious to settle down and set up his own business, and presses Mary to accept his proposal of marriage. She refuses, insisting that their relationship must continue outside of wedlock.

Tensions between the couple rise, and as their rowing reaches deadlock, Frank vows never to return. He soon discovers, however, that he cannot keep away — but on returning to Mary's side, their conflicts resume, and he departs once more, insisting that he will "not set sight on her no more". Working as an odd-job man, he soon finds solace in the arms of Elizabeth Plantley, a young and lonely woman grieving the loss of her father and now "all alone in the world", who quickly agrees to get engaged.

Gareth Thomas
as Frank Oppidan

John Welsh
as Fergus McDowell

Susan Fleetwood
as Mary McDowell

Unknown to Frank, Mary — whom he has not seen for months — is pregnant and carrying his child. When Mary writes to ask after him, he does not — as she hopes — turn up at the farm once more, but send news of his impending marriage. A distraught Mary loses the baby, which her father buries in an unmarked grave in the farm grounds. Inconsolable, Mary seeks out Frank and Elisabeth, and throws vitriol into her rival's face, burning her terribly. Arrested, Mary is put on trial for the "cruel and barbarous" attack, and jailed for 18-months.

The courtoom — location unknown

Locking herself away in the dark of her house, the now-disfigured Elizabeth 'frees' Frank from his commitment to marry her, and he does nothing to disuade her.

One year later, Mary is freed and an outraged Frank vows to exact revenge upon her for ruining his chance of happiness and prosperity. Pressing her father for the truth of her own past, Mary confirms what she has long suspected — that she herself had been born out of wedlock. This 'dark and shameful' secret would have been publicly revealed when her father presented her birth certificate to local officials to allow her to marry.

Director's credit over Monsal titles

Mary's refusal to accept Frank's proposal had come from a desire to protect her father from the indignity of such a revelation. She fears too that were the truth to out then: "A dog wouldn't pick up my good name."

When Frank arrives at the farm, his anger melts when he catches sight of Mary in the light of the fireside. Sensing that the time is now right, Mary tells him of their lost child — and of the reasons why she could never accept his proposal of marriage. Mary is adamant that they must not see eachother again, and that there is no prospect of them becoming husband and wife. Frank insists that a way will be found for them to have a future together, and tells her as he departs that he will return. Despite her bitterness and uncertainty, Mary makes no effort, as the story come to a close, to tell him to keep away.


The Watercress Girl is a richly atmospheric tale which makes great use of the Monsal locations to evoke the sense of rural isolation which defines the lives of its central characters. The narrative is frequently bleak, and the picture of country life which emerges through it is one haunted by poverty and governed by unforgiving social codes. This is no rural idyll, but a place where farming families must scrape a subsistence livelihood from their land, and rarely see beyond the confines of their tiny introspective communities.

The entrance to Netherdale Farm

The lives of all of the central characters are crippled by the hidden 'shame' of Mary's McDowell's 'illegitimate' birth. It is the strength of the stigma of her 'illegitimacy' that directly causes all of individual tragedies that follow her romance with Frank Oppidan. As Coppard depicts it, the hypocritical 'morality' of pre-War British society is seen to exert its baleful influence across scattered countryside communities just as effectively as in the cramped and overpopulated new industrial towns. For those without the wealth to enjoy it, Coppard's country village offers little 'recreational' respite from the squalor and smokestacks of urban life, appearing here as a hard and insular place, constricting the lives of those compelled to remain within its confines.

The interior of the family farm

The three central performances in The Watercress Girl are extremely strong. Susan Fleetwood, in particular, offers a convincing and sensitive portrayal of the character of Mary — passionate and 'headstrong'; yet deeply loyal to her father, and more vulnerable and unsure of herself than she cares to admit.

She is both the victim and the villain of the piece, and her performance reflects that ambiguity with care. Gareth Thomas also offers a rounded portrayal of her suitor Frank Oppidan — charming and attentive, yet angered by Mary's independence of spirit, and concerned primarily with bettering his own lot in life. John Welsh provides a sympathetic supporting performance as the family's fading patriarch.

The photography and direction and both excellent, and the pacing notably brisk for TV drama of the time. The Monsal locations help to bring the story of The Watercress Girl alive in a way that no studio-bound production of the time could possibly have matched, and imbue the piece with a heightened sense of realism.

Other Monsal locations

The pathway
from Monsal Head
to the valley

The riverbank
Netherdale Farm

Netherdale Farm
as shot from
Monsal Head

The Watercress Girl makes use of a number of Monsal Dale locations and vantage points not seen in Mad Dog. The opening and closing credits features shots taken from the main Monsal Head viewing point, and the story begins with a zoom-shot on Netherdale Farm filmed from the same spot. With Netherdale Farm providing such a central location throughout the story, much more of the the farm and the nearby river is glimpsed in The Watercress Girl than appears in Mad Dog.


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Page last updated:
12 January 2004