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.

John Osborne

OLIVER WAKE

BTVD_Osborne_1

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.1 Following this exposure, the rest of the run sold out and the play was transferred to the Lyric theatre to meet excess demand.2 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.”3 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 1989.4 Extracts were also performed in two episodes of The Present Stage, ABC’s 1966 series exploring modern drama.5

Live from Pebble Mill (1983)

OLIVER WAKE

Five plays. Writers: Keith Dewhurst, Fay Weldon, Bernard Kops, Stephen Davis, Michael Wall; Producer: Robin Midgley; Directors: Robin Midgley, James Cellan Jones, Robert Walker, Donald McWhinnie

During the 1960s, live television drama on British screens was slowly phased out in favour of the convenience and control afforded by pre-recording on videotape. Ever since, there were murmurs that some unique, special quality inherent in live performance had been lost and occasional attempts have been made to revive the form. One of the most interesting of these attempts was Live from Pebble Mill, produced from BBC Birmingham in 1983.

Live from Pebble Mill was conceived and produced by Robin Midgley, the head of drama for BBC Birmingham, who had a background in the theatre and had worked on live television drama in the 1960s. He insisted the project wasn’t simply a nostalgic exercise in retro television production, but an attempt at forcing a more imaginative form of staging through the use of the live method: “We’re not trying to turn the clock back. Quite the reverse, in fact. Instead of going for the usual kind of ‘reality-effect’ in the studio, we’ll be using the space more imaginatively – in a sense, exploiting the live context to break with some of the conventions of naturalism.”1 Not all were impressed by his experiment, with the Radio Times reporting that one “distinguished script editor” had informed Midgeley that “you’re setting back television 20 years. Progress lies with more film, more technical sophistication, more refinement.”2

Level Seven (1966)

OLIVER WAKE

Out of the Unknown Writer: J.B. Priestley; Adapted from (novel): Mordecai Roshwald; Producer: Irene Shubik; Director: Rudolph Cartier

BTVD_Level Seven_1
Set within a survival bunker and missile control base deep underground, Polish writer Mordecai Roshwald’s 1959 novel Level Seven was a grim depiction of the spiralling cold war leading to nuclear apocalypse. The story made no reference to specific nations engaged in the conflict but was cheekily dedicated “To Dwight and Nikita” in reference to Eisenhower and Khrushchev, then the premiers of the USA and USSR respectively.1 On publication, the novel was highly lauded by the likes of Bertrand Russell and Fred Hoyle, and J B Priestley called it “the most powerful attack on the whole nuclear madness that any creative writer has made so far” and began work on a film adaptation.2

Peter Luke

OLIVER WAKE

Peter Luke was a writer, story editor and producer on several of British television’s most influential drama anthology series, working at both ITV and the BBC, during a period of particular creative development for the medium. His television work was, however, only one part of a varied life.

Peter Ambrose Cyprian Luke was born on 12 August 1919, the son of British diplomatic Sir Harry Luke. The Luke family was originally of Hungarian descent (the name Lukach being Anglicised to Luke) and Luke’s upbringing was cosmopolitan. In his younger years he accompanied his parents on his father’s postings around the world, during which he learned about language, culture, art and literature, before returning to England to be enrolled at Eton. On completing his schooling with the minimum of academic rigour, Luke decided he wanted to become a painter and went to art school in London and then studied at the atelier of André Lhote in Paris. He enlisted in the British army shortly after the Second World War began, leading him to Egypt and combat on the first day of the second battle of El Alamein, in which he was wounded. After recovering he was deployed in the European theatre of war, serving in Italy, France and Germany. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in Normandy following D-Day. He ended the war a Major, acting Lieutenant-Colonel.