The Wednesday Play; Writer: Eric Coltart; Producer: James MacTaggart; Director: Ken Loach
The Wednesday Play (1964-70) is often cited in discussions of 1960s television drama, but normally with reference to only a handful of its most well-known plays. This misrepresents the series as a whole, which comprised over 160 plays. Even some of the dramas from the series’ most acclaimed practitioners, such as Ken Loach and Dennis Potter, are overlooked in favour of their bolder, more controversial plays, with preference given to those that still exist. The neglect of plays erased from the archive is understandable, but a lack of primary evidence is no reason to disregard them entirely. Their particular attributes and secondary evidence demonstrate that many of them are well worth our attention. For example, 1965’s Wear a Very Big Hat is fascinating both as an example of The Wednesday Play’s early attempts at youthful contemporaneity and as director Ken Loach’s first entry in the series.
Having launched prematurely in 1964 with “a stimulating season of international drama” – in reality, a string of orphaned productions from the cancelled Festival (1963-64) anthology and Canadian imports – it wasn’t until its first full series in 1965 that The Wednesday Play delivered on its brief for new drama reflecting life in contemporary Britain, as given it by the BBC’s head of drama Sydney Newman.1 This change was effected by producer James MacTaggart, moving over from the cancelled and near-identical First Night (1963-64), and his story editor Roger Smith. The pair brought new voices and creative talents together with more experienced personnel to create a vibrant, modern series.
Broadcast seventh in the 1965 season, airing on 17 February, Wear a Very Big Hat was the first full television play for its writer, Eric Coltart, although he had previously contributed to Z-Cars (1962-78), with the episode ‘Think On’ airing just a few weeks earlier.2 In fact, according to one press account, it had been on the strength of his script for Wear a Very Big Hat that he was asked to write for Z Cars.3 At 75 minutes, it was also Loach’s longest single production so far as well as his Wednesday Play début. Surprisingly, given the number of books, articles and essays about Loach’s career, I haven’t found any coverage of its content, presumably because no recording has survived. While it created no waves at the time and did not seek to intervene in public debate, unlike its more famous stablemates, Wear a Very Big Hat should nevertheless be of interest to students of Loach and The Wednesday Play alike.
Coltart’s play is about the young Liverpudlian Johnny Johnson (played by Neville Smith) and his reaction to a social slight. He and his wife Ann (Sheila Fearn) plan a night out to celebrate their wedding anniversary. She buys a spectacular new hat for the occasion. The evening starts well but then the hat catches the attention of bar-room joker Peter (William Gaunt), who briefly snatches it from Ann’s head. Johnny’s sense that his honour has been insulted by this joke is exacerbated by the pub bully Snapper Melia (William Holmes) and friends, who use the episode as ammunition with which to terrorise him. Johnny broods on the insult, daydreaming of getting the upper hand with these perceived enemies. He imagines himself the victor – by turns proud and arrogant, brash and bullying, and coolly sarcastic in his dealings with his tormentors – before he is ultimately able to rise above such pettiness. When Johnny returns to the scene of the original insult he find that Snapper, having just won a darts match, doesn’t even recognise him.
The characters and trappings of Wear a Very Big Hat were consciously contemporary for 1965. In the terminology of the time, Johnny and Ann are ‘mods’. They are working-class and young, as was the trend for heroes in British fiction at the time, and stylish. Along with the attention-grabbing hat itself, they represent the upwardly mobile youth of a newly-affluent Britain and their conspicuous consumption on objects of fashion. Johnny uses youthful slang of the day (telling Ann that her hat is “gear”) and the Radio Times boasted that the play’s dialogue has “real regional authenticity – the author Eric Coltart, is a Liverpool toolmaker”, a phrase which hints at class identity as well as location.4 Liverpool was then a fashionable city, associated with youth culture because of its vibrant popular music scene. Loach drew upon the association of location and musical genre, using what The Times called “incidental music of a rather nondescript “pop” type”, later specifying: “the twang and jangle of electric guitars”.5 Loach would build upon this use of pop music as a soundtrack in several of his later Wednesday Plays. Several press previews also specified that the play’s title derived from a Liverpudlian idiom: “If you can’t fight, wear a big hat. The brim might protect you.”6
Prior to Wear a Very Big Hat, Loach had directed a short play in the experimental Teletale (1963-64) series and episodes of the non-naturalistic serial Diary of a Young Man (1964). Those early endeavours called for unusually expressionistic techniques which would rarely be seen again in Loach’s work, as he would come to favour an almost-documentary aesthetic. Whilst Wear a Very Big Hat was a more conventional production than these early experiments, its use of subjective daydream sequences suggests it may not have been entirely naturalistic although because the play is lost it’s sadly impossible to tell how far Johnny’s flights of fancy went. Equally, a contemporary comment, again from The Times, commending Loach for “risking sequences of unusual slowness for the sake of truthfulness rather than for the degree of suspense they might carry”, could be taken to hint at his striving in the direction of realism in the deployment of ‘truthful’ longeurs.7
Wear a Very Big Hat seems to have been a modest success. The BBC’s Audience Research Report estimated the play was seen by 18% of the UK’s adult population, beating ITV’s 12% share.8 However, Wear a Very Big Hat scored a Reaction Index of 48, which fell well short of the average of 61 for The Wednesday Play series so far.9 Even so, the bulk of the viewer sample made enthusiastic comments, although the report notes that “less than a third can be said to have enjoyed the play wholeheartedly.” It was noted to be “an unusual and well written piece which really captured the moods and feel of life in a big city”, with believable characters and incident. A Sales Representative reported: “This is a breakthrough at last – no involved Freud, no nuclear conscience, no misunderstood youth. Just a very human problem”. The acting was commended and, in general, the quality of production praised.
However, the report also noted that “well over a third of those reporting derived very little enjoyment” from the play. With drinking, swearing, brawling in pubs, a scene set in a gents’ toilet and “yet another unsavoury picture of Liverpool”, some of the viewers questioned “found it too sordid to be in any way entertaining”. It was noted that the use of background sound and music, particularly at the beginning, and the Liverpudlian accents, made the dialogue hard to follow. As a Mill Manager pithily put it: “Half the dialogue I couldn’t hear – the other half I couldn’t understand”. This criticism about intrusive music seems to have been common; another viewer wrote to the Sunday Mirror to suggest: “It was a hare-brained idea to drown the opening dialogue … with a barrage of twanging, monotonous guitars.”10 One professional critic felt “the Liverpool sound does not translate into very good drama: the high-pitched nasal whine of Beatle-land’s pop singers is much too close to the surface for comfort.”11
According to the Audience Research Report, some viewers also felt that the daydream sequences weren’t adequately defined, leading to confusion as to which scenes were supposed to be fantasy and which reality. It was felt by some that the play was “slow and long drawn out, with a rather trivial story” and the characters unlikable. The report concluded: “The majority of those reporting, in fact, approved both acting and production – it was the play itself that came in for most adverse criticism.”
The professional critics were in broad agreement with the BBC’s sample viewers. The Daily Telegraph and Morning Post’s critic noted the authentic accents and praised the “good human situation” created by Coltart.12 Writing in The Stage and Television Today, Bill Edmund was highly taken with it: he praised Coltart’s script for its “genuine characters” and their “real words and real actions”, and Loach’s direction, which he felt “set the atmosphere perfectly.”13 The Sun’s Adrian Mitchell was also impressed, noting that the play “carried a powerful punch” and prophesising that “the team of Eric Coltart as author, James MacTaggart as producer, and Kenneth Loach as director, have an exciting future because their imaginations appear to work in very close harmony.”14
Edmund also found merit in the acting, commending the male cast but, alas, damning Sheila Fearn with the sexist faint praise of being “always very easy to look at, with or without a big hat.”15 The Times’ anonymous reviewer praised the “unassailably truthful performances” of both Smith and Fearn.16 Loach himself later recalled that Smith had been “very good and very funny”, and the pair worked together again several times, with Smith as both actor and writer, most notably on The Golden Vision, a 1968 Wednesday Play.17 Laurence Shelley of The [Crewe] Chronicle took issue with the storyline itself, seeming to find no point in the daydream sequences that were the meat of the play. He felt the theme “was altogether too slight for a full length play”, that the play was consequently “padded out” and that it “dragged on for 75 unbelievable minutes, 60 of which were superfluous.”18 This, however, appears to have been a minority view amongst the critics.
Wear a Very Big Hat was repeated on BBC2 later the same year, on Friday 22 September, under the Encore banner. At some subsequent point its master videotape was erased, as was customary at the time. It’s not known whether any film recordings of the play were made before the tape’s wiping, but if they were none are now known to survive.
Coltart didn’t contribute to The Wednesday Play again but did write further television plays, including Doran’s Box for the series’ successor, Play for Today (1970-84), and continued to write for Z-Cars and its spin-off Softly Softly (1966-70), amongst other series. Loach went from strength to strength within The Wednesday Play, and his later career is happily better documented than its early days.
(c) Oliver Wake, 2013
With thanks to the staff of the BBC’s Written Archives Centre for their assistance with research for this essay.
Originally posted: 15 February 2012.
11 April 2012: Minor revisions.
4 July 2013: Added or amended Daily Telegraph and Morning Post and Sun quotations.
9 July 2013: Minor revisions.
15 January 2014: Added section on Audience Research reports; minor revisions elsewhere.
16 April 2021: Corrected year of Mitchell piece to 1965; minor revisions (added “the” before “daydream” and italicised Encore).
11 March 2022: Added new material relating to Think On or quoting Liverpool and Crewe regional newspapers and the Davis and Merrick material; to accommodate this new material, added new sentences, added one new paragraph, and split one paragraph into two with new words (According to the Audience Research Report) to introduce the now-second paragraph.
- Peter Luke, ‘A Crack in the Ice’, Radio Times, 22 October 1964, p. 43. [↩]
- Z Cars: ‘Think On’, BBC1, tx. 6 January 1965. [↩]
- Bill Amos, ‘Very Big Day-Dreams’, The Liverpool Echo and Evening Express, 6 February 1965, p. 2. [↩]
- Anonymous, ‘Wear a Very Big Hat’, Radio Times, 11 February 1965, p. 35. [↩]
- Anonymous, ‘Mod’s Honour at Stake’, The Times, 18 February 1965, p. 16. [↩]
- This was reported in, amongst others: Clifford Davis, ‘A one-man family called Bill..’, Daily Mirror, 17 February 1965, p. 14. [↩]
- ibid. [↩]
- Audience Research Report: ‘Wear a Very Big Hat’, from BBC Written Archives Centre, file R9/7/73. All quotes and statistics in this and the following paragraph are drawn from this report. [↩]
- The Reaction Index was a score out of 100 calculated from the grading (from A+ to C-) given to the programme by the sample viewers. [↩]
- H. Merrick in a letter published in the TV section of the Sunday Mirror, 21 February 1965, p. 20. [↩]
- Laurence Shelley, ‘Television’, The [Crewe] Chronicle, 27 February 1965, p. 2. [↩]
- L. L., ‘Good Human Situation in BBC Play’, The Daily Telegraph and Morning Post, 18 February 1965, p. 19. [↩]
- Bill Edmund, ‘Genuine characters with real words and actions’, The Stage and Television Today, 25 February 1965, p. 14. [↩]
- Adrian Mitchell, ‘A good play . . right to the last clinch’, The Sun, 18 February 1965, p. 14. [↩]
- Edmund, ‘Genuine characters with real words and actions’. [↩]
- Anonymous, ‘Mod’s Honour at Stake’. [↩]
- Loach in Graham Fuller (ed.), Loach on Loach (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), p. 25. [↩]
- Shelley, ‘Television’. [↩]