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Building The Brenda Line


A woman answering a phone

The Brenda Line playwright, Harry Mould shares her inspiration for the intriguing and little known historical subject

Harry Mould (playwright). Image: Fraser Band

My mum tells this story about her first night shift volunteering for the Samaritans in a tiny call centre in Rhyl, north Wales. The story goes that there was only her and one other person, a much older lady, manning the lines, and when someone phoned for Brenda, mum was shocked that this woman brightly took the call. Brendas were volunteers who were trained to listen to callers masturbate, and while mum did know these volunteers existed, she had yet to come face to face with one. At the time, mum was the youngest Samaritan in Wales, and I had always found the image of her queasy teenage horror hilarious.

Poster for Brendas

Mum is an excellent storyteller. She’s also a great listener, unsurprisingly, and when I became really sick a few years back, she spent hours on the phone consoling me through my pain, fear and boredom. It got me thinking about her time as a Samaritan, again. Which of course, got me thinking about the Brendas.

The rest is history. Literally. The Brendas were shut down in the mid-eighties, and when I started telling people I was writing a play – my very first play – about them, few knew they had existed at all. Reactions ranged from understanding to disgust at what these women endured, with some lamenting the loss of the system and others appalled that it had ever existed.

Not only had it existed, I told them, there had been a manual! Written by Samaritans founder Chad Varah, it was titled Telephone Masturbators and the Brenda System for Befriending Them, and of the snippets I’ve seen, it’s a fascinating – if problematic – read.

The Brenda Line's Charlotte Grayson and Fiona Bruce

Harry Mould (playwright) and Fiona Bruce (Anne). Image: Fraser Band

I get asked a lot, now, what I think about the Brenda system and the men (it was always men) who used it. But honestly, the more I looked into it all, the less it became about them. My interest lies with the women who – particularly at a time when sex was still such a dirty subject – took on such a complex task with determined compassion, who sat and listened and have since all but been forgotten – as women in history so often are.

I’ve no idea if the Brenda system was a good thing, honestly. But it existed. These women existed. And for once, I’d like for them to be heard.