Giles Cooper

OLIVER WAKE

btvd_cooper_maigretGiles Cooper is widely recognised as having been Britain’s greatest radio dramatist. He was highly prolific, writing dozens of original plays and adaptations for radio across a period of around 13 years. He was responsible for many of the medium’s masterpieces during the 1950s and his accomplishments were acknowledged posthumously with the BBC’s radio playwriting award being named in his honour. He also wrote for the stage, having particular success with his 1962 play Everything in the Garden, a dark comedy of middle-class suburban hypocrisy and greed.

This work has unfairly overshadowed Cooper’s career as a television dramatist. Writing for both the BBC and ITV, Cooper was even more prolific in television than he was in radio, producing a large body of work in which his characteristic skill as a dramatist was evident. He would undoubtedly be better known today had he not died tragically young while at the height of his talents in 1966. Marking the fiftieth anniversary of his death, this article aims to highlight Cooper’s television career and argue that he deserves greater recognition as one of Britain’s greatest television dramatists.

The Importance of Being Earnest on television

OLIVER WAKE

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It occurred to me recently that with the obvious exception of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde was surely British television’s most performed stage playwright. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most-produced of his works has been his “trivial comedy for serious people”, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). British television has staged this nine times (including heavily condensed versions) over the years, across three channels, in addition to mounting significant extracts at least three times. It is therefore surprising that, although the play has often been welcomed as a favourite, it has also been described as a play that is not “apt for television”. In this essay’s brief survey of versions of The Importance of Being Earnest, we will see why this claim was made and also get a sense of the shifting status of stage plays on television.

BBC television turned to Wilde and The Importance of Being Earnest early in its existence. It appeared in November 1937, mounted in common with standard practices in television drama at the time: broadcast as a live performance with a ‘repeat’ in the form of a second live performance four days later.1 Royston Morley was the producer but would also have directed under this job title. The Observer’s review suggests the play translated well into the still infant medium: “To compress The Importance of Being Earnest into forty-five minutes is something of a feat, but it was done, and television adds yet another to its growing list of worth-while dramatic presentations. Oscar Wilde’s sparkling comedy lost a little by cutting, but nothing through the new medium of production.”2

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) – Myth Versus Reality

OLIVER WAKE

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The study of television drama is complicated by the regular regurgitation of inaccurate accounts and misinformation about old programmes. How and why this occurs is easily understandable: anecdotal information from interviews with programme-makers is subject to the inevitable distortions of memory over time, or of exaggeration or invention for the sake of telling a good story (many of these people are performers or entertainers after all). Other sources, such as the national press, are also known to be unreliable. The culture outside academia – and most particularly on the internet – amongst those with an interest in television drama is usually for information and anecdote to be accepted at face value. It is therefore repeated as fact and, whether accurate or not, may be subject to distortion via the ‘Chinese whispers’ process of reiteration. Primary sources of information are often either non-existent or inaccessible, leaving these long repeated accounts unverifiable or at least unchecked. However, original research and the use of reliable primary and secondary sources where available can, in some cases, challenge the flow of generally accepted but inaccurate information (what I shall call ‘myths’ here).

Charles Wood

OLIVER WAKE

An overview of Charles Wood’s television career

Charles Wood is a dramatist whose work spans the mediums of stage, television and film. The subjects and styles of his television work vary enormously, with comedy rubbing shoulders with harrowing drama, but stories about war, soldiers and militarism in general, all of which hold a particular fascination for him, recur. Although Wood is far from being simply a ‘war’ writer, it is perhaps his stories of soldiers and armed conflict in which his individual voice is most clear.

Underground (1958)

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.