by David Rolinson
Play for Today Writer: Colin Welland; Producer: Kenith Trodd; Director: Roy Battersby
“When a woman looks at her wages and thinks of the hours she works and the conditions, she knows she is a slave…”
Leeds United! dramatises the 1970 dispute in which over 25,000 clothing workers, the majority of them women, went on strike across Leeds, other parts of Yorkshire and the North East. Katrina Honeyman, in her history of the Leeds clothing industry, argued that the strike symbolised “the response of women workers to several decades of oppression by both employers and the male union hierarchy” and showed the “talent of women for political organization, [which is] so often overlooked in labour history”. Leeds United! reflects this talent in its methods of retelling, and reconstructing, the strike. According to director Roy Battersby in 2009, the play’s “ambition was to try to understand” how their “courageous” action took them to “the verge of winning” and how “within a few days that was turned into […] a miserable, heartbreaking compromise”. Read more... (5340 words, 3 images)
by Ian Greaves
Playhouse Writer: Philip Martin; Producer: Peter Ansorge; Director: Michael Custance
There isn’t a gag within a mile of this. On the face of it, the BBC-2 schedule for the evening of 16 May 1980 is a pretty unforgiving affair. Working back, we have the late-entry Outer Limits episode ‘Counterweight’ at 11.30pm, a fifty-minute wave of paranoia as an extraterrestrial light invades the passengers one-by-one on a long-haul space flight. Newsnight doubtless explored the political hotbed of an Afghan settlement, and as an appetiser, Louis Hellman’s cartoon Boom at 10.40pm chilled the unsuspecting viewer.
The centrepiece, however, was this evening’s Playhouse, The Unborn, forming part of the single play strand’s sixth series and another entry from the rogue BBC Birmingham drama department headed by David Rose. Placed in direct competition with Starsky & Hutch on BBC-1 and The Gentle Touch on ITV, viewers were confronted with the unique choice of Huggy Bear, Jill Gascoine or nuclear annihilation. Read more... (830 words, 1 image)
by Oliver Wake
Armchair Theatre Writer: James Forsyth; Adapted from (novel): Harold Rein; Producer Sydney Newman; Director: William Kotcheff
When people talk about live television drama, and in particular the disasters that can befall live productions, actors forgetting their lines and technical faults loom large. Sometimes mention will be made of the incident in which a leading actor died during a performance. It sounds like it could be a black joke or an industry myth, but it’s true. It’s a morbid story but a fascinating one.
The production in question was Underground, transmitted on Sunday 30 November 1958 as part of ITV company ABC’s popular Armchair Theatre drama anthology. It was directed by William (known as Ted) Kotcheff, one of ABC’s regular directors, then aged only 27, and produced by Sydney Newman, who had recently been given responsibility for all the company’s drama. The play was a television dramatisation by James Forsyth of Harold Rein’s novel Few Were Left, which had been published in 1955. No recording of the play exists, so this account is based on various interviews and media reports about the play. There are several accounts of what happened which, though largely consistent on the main events, differ notably on the smaller details. In this essay I’ll try to separate the reality from the myth and distortion as far as is possible at this remove from the event itself. Read more... (3865 words, 1 image)
by David Rolinson
Four parts. Writer: Stephen Gallagher; Producer: John Nathan-Turner; Director: Paul Joyce
Warriors’ Gate was a visually inventive, conceptually ambitious and idiosyncratic Doctor Who serial, but also a fraught one for Paul Joyce, its director. The disagreements behind the scenes have been well documented, and are often discussed as a marker or consequence of the serial’s ambition. I’ve researched this serial in the BBC Written Archives Centre production file on Warriors’ Gate and the archive of writer Stephen Gallagher that is held by Hull History Centre, studying everything from multiple script drafts and notes on script meetings through to the specs for the set’s timber framed gimbal mirror and a list of supplementary payments for overtime and wig fittings (at productive moments in these archives it was of course difficult not to declare that “I’m finally getting something done!” ). However, this essay is not a blow-by-blow production history but a discussion of Joyce’s direction: partly showing how Joyce’s approach helps to convey the serial’s ideas, but mainly showing how debates about the future of Doctor Who’s production methods and the spaces of television circulated around Warriors’ Gate. Read more... (7970 words, 13 images)
Posted in David Rolinson, Essays
Tagged Alan Clarke, Dennis Potter, Doctor Who, Don Taylor, Jean Cocteau, John Nathan-Turner, Paul Joyce, Spaces of Television, Stephen Gallagher, Tony Garnett, Waris Hussein, Warriors' Gate
by Oliver Wake
With his 1956 play Look Back in Anger, John Osborne (1929-1994) famously kick-started the theatrical trend for “Angry Young Men” and drama which explored the grimmer side of contemporary life, putting society’s discontents centre-stage. Amongst a body of further stage plays, Osborne also produced a clutch of screenplays for cinema and, more pertinently for us, television.
Television had played a modest part in the success of Look Back in Anger. The play was at break-even point when an extract was broadcast from the Royal Court theatre by the BBC close to the end of its run. Following this exposure, the rest of the run sold out and the play was transferred to the Lyric theatre to meet excess demand. Six weeks after the excerpt was televised, the full play was broadcast by Granada, directed by its theatre director Tony Richardson. Writing in The Manchester Guardian, Bernard Levin found that the play made “tremendous television.” Look Back in Anger was produced for television in Britain again twice, by the BBC in 1976, to mark the play’s twentieth anniversary, and as an ITV/Channel 4 co-production of Judi Dench’s stage version in 1989. Extracts were also performed in two episodes of The Present Stage, ABC’s 1966 series exploring modern drama. Read more... (3591 words, 3 images)
Posted in Biographies, Essays, Oliver Wake
Tagged Charles Wood, David Mercer, John Osborne, Late-Night Theatre, Lindsay Anderson, Look Back in Anger, Luther, Oscar Wilde, Play for Today, Play of the Month, Playhouse, Royal Court, The Entertainer, The Present Stage, The Sunday-Night Play, The Wednesday Special, Theatre on TV
by Ian Greaves
Five parts. Writer: Troy Kennedy Martin; Adapted from (novel): Angus Wilson; Producer: Jonathan Powell; Director: Stuart Burge
In all the myriad apocalypse dramas produced in the UK, what matters most is where the bomb drops. The drip-drip of radio bulletins in the suburban daily lives of Threads cut straight to the contemporary fear of nuclear war, and the 1984 film’s unfussy depiction of local authority admin echoes the staccato, functional, inevitable nature of Peter Watkins’ The War Game. As a narrative device the anticipation of Armageddon can create real tension, the strike clearing away characters in a single bound and providing a fundamental gear change in a long storyline. After which it’s either about the journey back or, more likely, an acceptance of the new order.
The Old Men at the Zoo, a 1983 serial for BBC2 based on the novel by Angus Wilson, leaves the flashpoint unfashionably late. Although the threat of war is ever present the focus is very much on preparation, propaganda and domestic politics. Curiously, and rather more indicative of the age in which it was adapted, the nuclear bomb that arrives four fifths of the way through was not even present in the novel. Read more... (1483 words, 1 image)
Posted in Essays, Ian Greaves
Tagged Angus Wilson, Peter Netley, Royal Court, Simon Rogers, Stuart Burge, The Naked Civil Servant, The Nation's Health, The Old Men at the Zoo, The War Game, Threads, Troy Kennedy Martin