Re-recording live drama: the fallibility of the television drama record

OLIVER WAKE

Anyone researching live television drama will inevitably encounter the well-known obstacle that only a small percentage of live broadcasts were recorded from transmission and subsequently archived. A lesser-known obstacle for anyone trying to appreciate the quality and aesthetics of live drama is that those recordings which were made and archived are not necessarily an accurate representation of the programmes as broadcast.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the recording of live transmissions was largely accomplished via the telerecording process, resulting in a continuous record of the broadcast on film. It has usually been assumed that this film recording was then left untouched, and only over recent years has it become clear that this was not necessarily the case. In some instances, once the live transmission of a drama had concluded, the cast and crew remained in the studio and re-performed sections of the programme that were considered to have been substandard on broadcast. These scenes were also telerecorded and could subsequently be edited into the master recording to create a more polished version of the whole programme.

‘An ideology red, white and blue in tooth and claw’: David Edgar’s Destiny (1978) – Part 3 of 3

TOM MAY

Play for Today Writer: David Edgar; Producer: Margaret Matheson; Director: Mike Newell

This essay continues from Part 2.

Part 3: Analysis of Destiny and its afterlife
Please note that, in order to explore this programme and its political context, this essay quotes racially offensive language.

Visual motifs, setting, culture and class

In its adaptation to television, the play’s text was sometimes faithfully translated, but Edgar made significant alterations and changes of emphasis. The medium is used to historicise the play with exact dates – “15th August 1947”, “20th April 1968”, “19th June 1970” and “1977” – being presented. The stage version’s text does not as clearly indicate the year of the contemporary scenes.

As on stage, the painting showing the putting down of the Indian Mutiny is a key visual motif.1 This is shown three times throughout the play: in the opening India scene, in the Northern Ireland army HQ, and in the hospitality room of the City of London merchant bank in the final scene. A gramophone is added to the India set, alongside the stuffed tiger referred to in the text. There’s much connotative period detail, but less specificity: the play text states its setting as Jullundur in the Punjab. On television, it is merely “India”.

‘An ideology red, white and blue in tooth and claw’: David Edgar’s Destiny (1978) – Part 2 of 3

TOM MAY

Play for Today Writer: David Edgar; Producer: Margaret Matheson; Director: Mike Newell

This essay continues from Part 1.

Part 2: Production and reception

Production of the Play for Today version

David Edgar has observed that, although the theatre version has been placed in the lineage of the “rather inaccurately dubbed ‘state-of-England’” plays by Brenton, Hare, Barker, Griffiths and himself, the television version reflected the influence of the school of social realist drama that was associated with Ken Loach, Roy Battersby and Tony Garnett, which was more “grittily proletarian” and which echoed the British New Wave cinema of the early 1960s.1 Neither Edgar nor Matheson can recall who first suggested that Destiny be adapted as a television play,2 but Edgar recalls that, in a script meeting with himself and Newell, Matheson asked, “So, what are we telling the nation here?” For Edgar this demonstrates what “we thought we were about in the 70s […] not asking ‘how will the viewer respond to this?’”3 This reflects its era, with producers and creative personnel having control of decision making, in stark contrast with the later Birt-era move towards pleasing the consumer. Such engaged, high-minded ambition was made possible by settled scheduling which, as Matheson argues, allowed Play for Today to build a regular audience who, for half of the year, “knew they would get something distinct and surprising once a week.”4

‘An ideology red, white and blue in tooth and claw’: David Edgar’s Destiny (1978) – Part 1 of 3

TOM MAY

Play for Today Writer: David Edgar; Producer: Margaret Matheson; Director: Mike Newell

Part 1: Background and context
Please note that, in order to explore this programme and its political context, this essay quotes racially offensive language.

For the first time since the war, extreme right-wing, racialist organisations have become significant in British politics. Movements that, ten years ago were regarded as the most lunatic of lunatic fringes, are now gaining influence in the streets and even in elections. (Press information.)1

The forces of right-wing politics are resurgent; immigration is regularly discussed on the airwaves and the phrase “foreign workers, coming over here, taking our jobs” circulates obstinately. Those on the political left seem implacably divided. It could be 2017. It is, however, 1977 as depicted by David Edgar in Destiny. This Play for Today, which he adapted for television from his acclaimed theatre production, analyses how and why the far-right National Front was becoming a genuine political force in 1976-77. Edgar portrays the intersection of politics with human lives; his Brecht-influenced dramaturgy is accompanied by a close attention to British places and voices. Part one of this three-part essay will consider Edgar’s background and Destiny’s history as a stage play and will place the television play in its historical and televisual contexts. Part two will consider the television play’s casting and production and its reception by critics, BBC management and audiences. Part three will analyse this neglected entry in the eighth series of Play for Today in relation to debates over docudrama forms and naturalism. The essays will analyse its status as an adaptation, with close readings of how emphases were changed in making the play for television. The television Destiny will also be analysed as a contribution to debates on national and class identity and for its representations of a range of British political ideologies in the 1970s.

James O’Connor

OLIVER WAKE

James O’Connor – often known as Jimmy O’Connor – wrote a number of popular and successful television plays in the 1960s and early ‘70s, regularly collaborating with director Ken Loach. He had an unusual background for a television dramatist. He was formerly a career criminal who had turned to writing while serving a life sentence for murder, having narrowly avoided being hanged.

Early life

O’Connor’s life story encompasses the sensitive subjects of deprivation, domestic abuse and criminality which would not normally be appropriate topics for this website. We do not usually make personal biography a focus of our coverage, but O’Connor himself emphasised how his early experiences informed his television plays, as did contemporary reactions to his work, and it is important for us to understand his background to understand his work. The following account of O’Connor’s life before becoming a television playwright is drawn from O’Connor’s autobiography The Eleventh Commandment.1 Aside from the basic details of his murder conviction, reprieve and release, it is not possible to independently corroborate any of his reported life story. In view of O’Connor’s early life of dishonesty and later career as a storyteller, one may be inclined to wonder how far his account can be trusted to be accurate. We leave this for the reader to determine for themselves.