TVTimes talks to Janice Willett, producer of ABC’s State Your Case, in 1957

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AN attractive girl we never see on our screens is Janice Willett. But what we lack visually is made up in production technique — for, at 25, Janice Willett is one of the few women producers in TV.

As producer of one of ABC TV’s top shows, State Your Case, Janice looks forward to February 17. On that date this new and novel programme is networked for the first time.

“It will be a tremendous thrill for me,” said Janice. “My friends in the South at last will be able to see the show I have been telling them about for weeks past.”

With a huge weekly postbag, Janice expects this to assume even greater proportions with the addition of southern viewers. A great part of her working week is occupied reading hundreds of letters from viewers who all want to state their case in the hope of winning £100 [£2,380 in 2018 allowing for inflation].

Postcards, too, sent by viewer-judges roll in by the thousand. The first programme produced 1,000 replies. This has grown steadily each week until one programme last month brought in 12,000.

“I can’t get through all the correspondence during office hours,” said Janice. “It means I have to carry sheafs of letters everywhere.

“I read every letter thoroughly. After the first paragraph I just have to carry on. Many of them are moving human documents.”

In the short history of State Your Case every conceivable kind of claim has been put forward. Parents have applied to win money to visit their children abroad. Young married couples need deposits for houses and all sorts of would-be financiers want the £100 to float business ventures.

“Of course,” said the young producer, “we have naturally had a few people ‘trying it on.’ Probably the biggest example was the convincing letter from an ex-convict.

“He told us his house and furniture were being taken away from him because of non-payment of instalments. But we investigated and found that the man, although he had been in prison, wasn’t married and wanted the money to start a street bookmaking business.”

It is less than a year since Janice began producing.

Her yearning for the entertainment profession began when she was 12. She applied to Emile Littler for a dancing audition. She was successful, but her headmistress was against any of her “young ladies” going on the stage.

It was a very sorry Janice who was then persuaded to give up the idea. But, continuing her drama and music studies, she took a secretarial course and joined the BBC.

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She became secretary to Michael Barrie, head of BBC TV drama, and eventually joined Dennis Vance as his personal assistant. When Vance left the BBC, so did Janice.

Before joining ABC TV early in 1956, she worked with Vance at Highbury Studios on such shows as Theatre Royal and TV Playhouse.

At ABC TV Janice worked as production assistant on Moment of Fame and on various children’s programmes. After Vance had joined the company she helped him to organise ABC’s drama department, before being launched as a producer in her own right.

Janice has quickly steered State Your Case into a top show. She finds it exciting and stimulating.

After all, what other programmes produce the kind of request she received from a man who wanted £100 to help him build a rocket ship to fly into outer space?

 

Site editor Russ J Graham adds: This article notes the close friendship between Janice Willett (married name Janice Serjeant, later Janice Kay) and Dennis Vance (1924-1983). In 1960, Vance suffered a nervous breakdown and became obsessed with Janice. He began stalking her, helped by them both working at the Teddington studios and living nearby each other.

On 11 April 1961, Vance asked Janice to go to the theatre with him. She refused and he became hysterical, threatening to kill himself. That night she went to a friend’s flat in Knightsbridge, where Vance also turned up. She tried to leave, upon which Vance tried to throw her down the stairs. He grabbed her by the throat, leaving bruises, then found a knife and brandished it. Janice’s friend tackled him and removed the knife and Janice fled to her parents’ house. Vance followed, throwing stones at her window until chased off by Janice’s father.

As she drove to work that morning, Vance ran her off the road, got out of his car and produced another knife. She calmed him down – press reports at the time don’t state how she managed this superhuman feat – and he drove off. But he had stolen her briefcase and handbag from her car.

At the ABC Teddington studios that afternoon, Janice’s mother came to see her to check that she was alright. They settled down in her office to tea and cakes from the catering trolley. Vance appeared at the office door, sarcastically saying “Oh, how lovely, we’ll have a tea party”. He produced yet another knife, saying “this is for you” and cutting her hand. Her mother tried to stop him, but Vance knocked her down. Summoned by the commotion, a colleague entered the room and tried to take Vance down. Janice and her mother made a run for it, the colleague trying to protect her and get her out of the door.

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But the tea trolley was still in the corridor outside the office and they tripped over it. This gave Vance his chance and he stabbed her in her left shoulder before running away.

In the magistrate’s court later that month, his lawyer talked up how pathetic (and thus somehow sympathetic) a character Vance was, to apparent general agreement in the room. Vance was sent to the Crown Court, where there was even more sympathy for him, with the arresting officer, Detective Sergeant Gibbs, insisting that Vance was a man of excellent character.

A psychiatrist testified that with a guilty plea and two to three months committed to the St Luke’s Hospital, Vance would soon be well again. The judge, satisfied that this really wasn’t Vance’s fault, gave him three years probation, of which the first year, or until he was cured, should be spent in the mental hospital.

Sacked by ABC, he was back producing drama for ATV by early 1962, and was employed by Thames when they opened in 1968. His career in television remains celebrated to this day. Janice, meanwhile, left ABC in 1962 to work for the Central Office of Information and very little information about her later life is known.

Resources:

  • UK: National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline 0808 2000 247
  • US: National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
  • CA: Varies by province. Visit Ending Violence Canada for more information
  • AU: 1800RESPECT – 1800 737 732
  • NZ: Are You OK? – 0800 456 450
  • SA: People Opposed to Woman Abuse – 011 642 434/6
Categories: People

10 Comments

The girl with a good case to state

  1. Janice Willett went to Border Television after ABC and was directing programmes such as Lookaround (“the background stories behind the news… in the Border region”) in 1963. How long she was there for, I’m afraid I don’t know.

  2. Hi. I am Janice’s daughter, Serena Kay. My Mother died last Tuesday and this was the first time I’d heard about the appalling attack by Vance. My Mother never mentioned it and she swore all her friends to silence about it. I am shocked to the core that Vance was not imprisoned for attempted murder. It is injustice of the highest order. My Mother’s career would have been totally different if she hadn’t felt the need to hide at Border television from all these people who sided with the mentally unstable Vance. I am desperately trying to piece together my Mum’s career as she was so modest as to not even have a biography or CV I can refer to.
    May I ask where you got all this information about Mum? I had no idea that my Grandmother witnessed this attempt on her daughter’s life! How very distressing!
    Please could you help me with more information about Janice.
    Her funeral is onDecember 4th in Richmond, Surrey and I’d love to be able to write a proper eulogy so any help would be very gratefully received.
    Many thanks Serena

    1. Hi Serena. Sorry for your loss. Janice was a television pioneer, working in factual programmes for ABC Weekend TV, the ITV company that had Saturdays and Sundays in the Midlands (with ATV having weekdays) and the North (with Granada having weekdays). ABC had studios in Didsbury, Aston and Teddington, and Janice worked at Teddington, which were the main studios and also the most technologically advanced.

      The details about the sickening attacks by Vance come from the newspapers of the time, which covered the case salaciously at first, but then joined in with general view – typical of the time – that Janice was responsible for what happened to her at the hands of Vance. In a more just world, she would’ve had the towering career in ITV and he would never have been heard from again. But we’re not in a just world and we certainly weren’t then.

      My gut reaction is that she fled to Border Television in Carlisle to get away from the toxic atmosphere at ABC in Teddington, where most of the staff were on Vance’s side. I’ve spoken to various former ABC staffers, and they all admit that she was loathed for having “led him on” and created a mess that almost – almost – ruined the career of “a good man”. However, when faced with the actual details, every one of them has admitted that they judged her by the standards of the time and would look on the matter differently now, which is progress, I suppose.

      I don’t know much else about Janice’s work, beyond this article from the TVTimes and the newspaper reports of the day, so I’m sorry Transdiffusion can’t assist further. However, for her eulogy you can confidently and accurately say she was a pioneer in television in the UK, and a pioneer in factual programming on ITV; her work at ABC was important and respected; and she opened doors for women in the television industry because of it. We television historians are grateful to her to this day.

      1. Hi Russ
        Thank you so much for taking the time to reply.
        No wonder my Mum didn’t talk about this. It must have been devastating to her. I am so proud that she carried on her career in any form. Just a hideous injustice. How trying to kill a human being can in any way be justified is mind blowing! No wonder Vance got through 6 wives!
        I know more about her time at COI and other various independents where she won many awards for her work.
        I can only imagine what her career would have been without this violent attack and deformation of character. She was a pioneer and so many women owe their careers to her bravery, though they may not know it.
        Thank you again.
        Serena

  3. Hi Serena, I’m so sorry for your loss. I may be able to give you a bit of background to some aspects of your mother’s career.

    In May and June 1956 she was at ABC Television producing ABC Family Hour, which was a wrap-around show in which actress Hazel Court introduced programmes mostly aimed at children of various ages. These other programmes weren’t things your mother would have made, just whatever kids’ programmes ABC wanted to show at the time, and would include things like the long-running The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Adventures of Noddy, the American series Wild Bill Hickok and many others. As a strand, ABC Family Hour ran for quite some time, but I’m not sure for exactly how long your mother worked on it. I think because it wasn’t quite a programme in its own right, TV Times often fails to credit any producer or director.

    In August 1956 your mother directed one Armchair Theatre play in a double-bill, hers being called “Bid for Fame” which was written by Duncan Greenwood and starred Robert Brown, Billie Whitelaw and Hilda Barry.

    By November 1956 your mother was producing and directing State Your Case, a kind of game show in which contestants had to ‘prove’ that they could make good use of £100. If they convinced the viewers after being quizzed by two ‘counsel’, who were played by actors, then they won the money. It sounds small now, but it was a fair sum then: the inflation calculator I used suggests that hundred pounds would be worth around £1750 today. The series ran for 32 weeks, through to June 1957, but your mother didn’t work on the whole run and there were other producers / directors on the show. Of course, it was during her time on this programme that that TV Times feature quoted above appeared.

    In the late 1950s and the early 1960s independent television had a style of programme known as an Advertising Magazine or ad-mag. These were generally 15 or 20 minute programmes, usually themed in some way, that would look at and promote a variety of products, in some ways quite similar to some of the extended features you get on teleshopping channels nowadays, though you didn’t get the option to ring-up and order products on the phone. Instead, they would just direct the viewer to products and services available in local shops.

    One of ABC’s was Where Shall We Go?, a seasonal offering running weekly in December and January for a few years, looking at the kinds of holidays that were on offer. The series seems to have had different producers and directors in each new ‘season’, and your mother seems to have been in charge of it during its December 1957 / January 1958 run.

    After that she moved on to two other ABC ad-mags, the long-running What’s in Store? as well other titles including Let’s Go Shopping and Looking Around. While she’s working on What’s in Store? in TV Times there’s a very nice photograph of your mother surrounded by female colleagues. I don’t think I can post pictures and attachments here, but if there is a way I can get this to you, I’d be very happy to do so.

    That takes this up to the end of 1958.

    In early 1959, she was the director of ABC’s The Sunday Break, described by TV Times as “The Sunday Club for Teenagers” and “A window on the world of young people, and their approach to religion and living.” This was another long-running programme on ABC, and your mother took over from Ben Churchill as the series’ director in March 1959, and continued with the series until September of that year. Because there are many gaps in my knowledge, I can’t swear that this was the definitely the first, but this may have been the first fully-networked series (i.e. one that was shown across the whole of the ITV network, not just locally by ABC) that your mother was responsible for.

    From November, your mother became the studio director on a new Saturday afternoon sports and entertainment programme Let’s Go – something of a forerunner to World of Sport, if you remember that. This was jointly produced by ABC and ATV from their studios in Birmingham.

    After two or three months on Let’s Go, your mother returned to The Sunday Break and directed most new editions of that series until October-ish. She took a break from this to direct a couple of episodes for ABC’s annual ‘Preview’ series of pilot episodes for potential new series. Both of her episodes are for an academic sit-com entitled Mortarboard which was written by Leonard Webb and starred Mary Peach.

    From October or early November 1959 she re-joins Let’s Go as studio director and again stays with the series for two or three months before returning to direct more editions of The Sunday Break from late January 1960.

    However this run on The Sunday Break is quite brief and in March 1960 your mother makes a move into music and variety. She directs and Ernest Maxin produces Make A Date for ABC. Maxin had been producing and directing light entertainment shows for both the BBC and ABC for some years. This series was one of the first, if not the first, to put Maxin in front of the camera, which is presumably why he felt he needed to work alongside an experienced television director – your mother – and not produce and direct himself.

    After the six editions of Make a Date, your mother directed a couple of editions of the religious features programme Living Your Life (there’s a TV Times feature on this series too, with a picture of your mother at work). After these, she returns to The Sunday Break and this seems to occupy her fully all the way through to April 1961, and the attack by Dennis Vance.

    I’m not sure how quickly she moved to Border Television, I only have a copy of one TV Times from that region during the right period. As well as Lookaround, which I mention above, she also directed Time for Sport, a round-up of the weekend’s sport.

    In December the same year, she directed a Border production which was, unusually for Border, taken by the whole ITV network. This was No Star on the Way Back. According to TV Times, this was an allegory in verse, music and narration designed to convey the feelings of contemporary man when brought face to face with the story of the Nativity. The Wise Men represent three ways of life, three continents, three outlooks, and each is motivated by his own personal reason to follow the star. Maurice Lindsay produced this programme, the script was by Norman Nicholson and cast included, as the Wise Men, Wolfe Morris, Ronald Hines and Mark Heath.

    One last programme I can find was Lighthouse a filmed documentary on “the life and work of men in a lonely lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway in Scotland”. This was another production for Border Television, this time from 1964.

    That’s the last thing I can find in TV Times, so I’m not sure how much of a gap there was between that and her arrival at the Central Office of Information which Russ mentions.

    If I can help with any further information on the above, please don’t hesitate to ask. I’ve had to input an email address in order to post this and I’m quite happy for the people running this site pass it on to you so you can take any further conversation off-line if you’d prefer.

    1. This is absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much for taking the time to produce such a detailed biography. It is fascinating to read. I have no doubt that Mum would have continued to climb the London ladder if Vance hadn’t ruined her career. Somber musings.
      This information is so useful to me as I write obituaries etc. I am so sad that Mum could not bring herself to write an autobiography or to revisit her early career. Clearly if was all too painful for her.

      I would love to have the TV Times photos you mention. I’m happy to give you my email address, but presumably I shouldn’t post it here?
      Thank you again most sincerely.

      1. I’m glad that was of some help. With the assistance of a friend I’ve found a few more bits and pieces, most of which are probably easier to email than transcribe. I’ve created a temporary email account sc.abcatlarge@invisible-technology.co.uk, if you want to email me there, I’ll then reply back from my proper email account. At some point I’ll delete the temporary mailbox so that it won’t matter if any spammers spot it.

      2. I’m glad that was of some help. With the assistance of some friends I’ve found a few more bits and pieces, some with pictures and most of which it would certainly be easier to email than transcribe. Yesterday I did try posting a reply which included a disposable email address in the text, but it hasn’t appeared. It may be that the website filters out such messages as spam. I shall endeavour to find a way…

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