Television career overview
This piece was revised and updated in 2014 and 2015.
Ian Curteis is an fascinating figure in the world of British television drama. He achieved great success in the 1970s as a writer of plays exploring real events and historical figures but thereafter found his work sometimes frustrated, with cancelled projects and related controversies. Accounts differ as to whether these frustrations were the result of political censorship or the more mundane reasons common in broadcasting. This essay presents an overview of Curteis’s television career, incorporating material from a variety of contrasting sources, including Curteis himself, which illustrates why his work is so interesting and, sometimes, divisive. Read more... (4778 words, 7 images)
After passing away in late April, writer John Sullivan (1946-2011) was paid tributes by many people from different walks of life, who reminisced about his great shows and great moments. Inevitably the long-running Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003) was central to those tributes, as so many of us remember visits to the Nag’s Head like reunions with friends, and can trace our lives with memories not just of the show but of the circumstances in which we watched it. Sullivan wrote some of television’s finest and most popular comedy series, but even that isn’t high enough praise. Sullivan’s best work belongs in the lineage of the great writers who inspired him, such as Johnny Speight and Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. Like them, Sullivan reflected everyday life back at his audience with respect for their experience and intelligence, and the audience’s recognition of truth produced not only laughs for his one-liners and set-pieces but also an emotional commitment and sense of social awareness of the kind critics usually associate with genres other than this less critically-respected popular form. He was a television writer in its purest sense, and in the ways by which we define key television playwrights: he mastered a genre whilst refining its capabilities and playing to his audience’s awareness of its functions, and for a while became as visible a “name” – whose credit on a programme produced certain expectations – as any more vaunted auteur. At his peak – surely the 1980s, given that unbroken run of success that included the early years of Only Fools and Horses plus Just Good Friends (1983-86) and Dear John (1986-87) – he changed the way we speak to each other. Read more... (3362 words, 5 images)
Philip Saville is a director whose work on Play for Today cannot be easily categorised. The variety of his eight contributions is testament to the scope of both strand and director. Saville was an iconoclastic, innovative director, whose credits include many pioneering productions and notable television firsts.
Saville had a lengthy background in drama before moving into television directing. He had previously acted in theatre, film and television, and directed for the stage, on both sides of the Atlantic. Back in Britain, he joined ITV company Associated-Rediffusion in 1955, for whom he directed drama and contributed to Richard Lester comedy programmes. He continued to take occasional acting roles in film and television throughout this time, not stopping until the early 1960s. In 1956 he joined the drama department at ABC, another ITV company. He would ultimately direct more than forty plays for the company’s prestigious Armchair Theatre strand. Read more... (3839 words, 1 image)
Tony Parker’s (25 June 1923-3 October 1996) work for Play for Today fulfils two of its central aims: to reflect contemporary society (as its title implied) and to give a hearing to otherwise neglected voices. Working in a similar manner to Jeremy Sandford, but developing his techniques even further, Parker’s dramas employed journalistic research and meticulous observation to give a voice to society’s most marginalised figures. Although the writer of a handful of superb plays, Parker was primarily a hugely respected oral historian (his ears were once described as a ‘national treasure’). His published studies and television drama were underpinned by a selfless desire to act as a witness, and to resist imposing editorial devices or contrived narratives, as he sought to ‘record without comment or judgement’ the stories he was told. Though his work was wide-ranging – he moved between unmarried mothers in No Man’s Land (1972) and lighthouse keepers in Lighthouse (1975) – he was most associated with studies of convicted criminals, both in and out of prison. Anthony Storr described him in 1970 as ‘Britain’s most expert interviewer, mouthpiece of the inarticulate and counsel for the defence of those whom society has shunned and abandoned’. Read more... (2348 words, 1 image)
Alan Clarke was neglected for a long time by television scholars and, because all but three of his approximately sixteen screen credits between 1967 and 1989 were for television, film scholars. This has changed in recent years: see Richard Kelly’s 1998 book of interviews and my book from 2005, the first (and, I hope, not last) critical study of Clarke’s work. Best of all, in May 2016, the vast majority of Clarke’s surviving work will be made available – much of it for the first time and some of it after previously being thought lost – in the BFI DVD and blu ray releases Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC. Now everyone can find out what people have been so excited about. However, Clarke was first and foremost a television director, and as wonderful as it is that film fans are discovering Clarke, his work must be seen in the context of British television drama rather than as an aberration from it. Discussions of Clarke understandably prioritise his mid-to-late 1980s work, but this particular biography is designed to accompany the essays on this site about the dozen productions he made for Play for Today, which form around one-fifth of his total output. Read more... (3153 words, 5 images)