“I wish I could write a book. I can’t, but if I could she would be the subject.”
When one thinks of ‘British prison reformers’, it conjures up images of ‘God-fearing’ Victorian philanthropists such as Elizabeth Fry who were noted for their altruism. But if British history has shown us anything, it’s that change never spontaneously emerges from the Establishment. It’s prompted by ‘outsiders’ challenging the status quo with words and actions…
Written by Harriet Madeley and directed by Jessica Edwards, The Other Tchaikovsky is a collaboration between Madeley and the Prison Radio Association – the charity that invented and runs the world’s first national radio station for people in prison, National Prison Radio. At the centre of the play is Chris Ryder-Tchaikovsky – a woman whose life was extraordinary because of the counterintutive way that being true to herself led to her passion for helping others.
Performed by Sheila Atim, Harriet Madeley, Jenna Russell, John Madeley and Victoria Ebun, the format of The Other Tchaikovsky is in some ways like a documentary, with the way it covers the breadth of Tchaikovsky’s life, and the different facets and opinions regarding mutual personal history. All the dialogue is from verbatim interviews, with Ebun performing as Tchaikovsky, and the rest of the cast playing the friends and family that knew her.
People are often said to be complicated, but in Tchaikovsky’s case, this is doubly true and explains so much about her ‘non-comformist’ nature. Tchaikovsky’s adult life can be split into three main phases: a) her days as an ‘outlaw’ in Plymouth and London b) the period immediately following her release from prison when she sets up a ‘women-only’ taxi firm and the inception of a ‘Women’s City’ community and c) her undivided attention on helping women in prison and ex-offenders.
While it may be surprising that someone with a ‘criminal’ past would end up developing a ‘social conscience’, we can deduce that the ‘qualities’ that are associated with Tchaikovsky’s ‘rebellious’ streak in the first place are the very same ones that are responsible for her tenacity when working to bring about social change.
Born in 1944, Tchaikovsky grew up in a world where men and women’s ‘roles’ were cleary defined. In the case of her upbringing, women weren’t expected to talk about anything deep or meaningful, instead to concentrate on ‘feminine trivialities’ and finding a husband. As an adult, Tchaikovsky would indulge in ‘petty crime’ involving fraud. By all accounts, she considered her behaviour to fall outside the ‘standard’ reasons for criminal behaviour: (lack of) intelligence, poor mental health or environmental factors. Perhaps though, she subconsciously had a disdain for the patriarchal monopoly of financial independence and her father’s treatment of women. Her attitude towards him changed following his death, but grief can be a double-edged sword, either bringing events to sharp relief or obfuscating clarity… In any case, Tchaikovsky’s tall, androgynous appearence and – in the Kipling sense – her ability to “walk with kings”, yet not lack “the common touch”, kept her in good stead with all walks of life.
As the head of a group of counterfeiters known as ‘The Happy Firm’, it was just a matter of time before Tchaikovsky’s luck ran out and was sent to Holloway Prison in north London. But far from being a ‘fruitless’ experience, it opened her eyes to something that Fyodor Dostoyevsky talked about: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Tchaikovsky observed that the inequalities surrounding women in everyday life are magnifed exponentially within prisons. She was also appalled at the absence of duty of care from some prison staff, with regards the physical, mental and emotional well-being of those incarcarated.
Tchaikovsky was eventually released, but her time in prison proved to be ‘road to Damascus’ moment – opening her eyes to behaviour manipulation inside prisons and understanding that ex-offenders with no economic support are ‘set up to fail’ in perpetuity. Galvanised by her experiences, Tchaikovsky found what was missing her whole life – a purpose, an avenue to channel her passion and ability to ‘shake things up’ constructively.
The latter half of the play notes the different ‘hats’ Tchaikovsky wore post-prison: running a lesbian-friendly disco in Kings Cross, helping other ex-offenders in practical ways upon release, as well as championing fair treatment of women while they’re detained ‘at Her Majesty’s pleasure’. And while the play is very much about Tchaikovsky herself, it is her relationships – both private and public – that define the best parts of her. For Tchaikovsky, ex-offenders weren’t ‘damaged goods’ because they didn’t fit in with society’s mores. In her own words: “They are my tribe.”
© Michael Davis 2020
The Other Tchaikovsky was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 28th August. The radio play can now be listened to on the BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds until 2025