As a producer, director and writer of British television drama, James MacTaggart (1928-1974) was responsible for numerous stylistic experiments and technical innovations in the medium from the early 1960s until the mid-1970s. In a 17 year television career, he was responsible for over 130 television plays or episodes, a number that would have been much greater had it not been for his premature death. This counts drama only, but he was also prolific in non-fiction programming for both radio and television.
James MacTaggart was born in Glasgow in 1928 and after completing his schooling there joined the Royal Army Service Corps in September 1946, rising to the rank of Captain by the time of his discharge in 1949. For at least some of this period he was seconded to the Forces Broadcasting Service and worked as a producer, with a year spent broadcasting from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He later joined the Territorial Army parachute regiment. After his army service, MacTaggart enrolled at Glasgow university, studying Political Economy and Social Economics, graduating in 1954 with a Masters degree. During his period as a student he also taught as a language assistant in France.1
While studying in Glasgow, MacTaggart had simultaneously turned to acting and producing with the University Dramatic Society. He also acted for the BBC at this time and this continued after his graduation, when he made acting and writing his full-time occupation. He worked extensively for the BBC in radio and, occasionally, television, acting and reading his own short stories, as well as publishing stories and articles. This continued until he joined the staff of the BBC radio service in Glasgow in 1956. This was initially a short-term contract of six months but was subsequently extended, and this would be the pattern for much of his BBC career. As a general programme producer, MacTaggart had responsibility for a great variety of programming, including drama and various of non-fiction formats. MacTaggart founded the contemporary affairs magazine programme Scope and researched, wrote and produced a well-regarded feature about Cyprus. His first appraisal was positive about his early contribution to the service, prophetically noting that he had “the ability to go far.”2
Following a brief secondment to London to work on Tonight (1957-65) at its beginning, MacTaggart was successful in making a permanent move into television from July 1957, initially as a production assistant back in Glasgow. As in radio, he worked on a wide variety of programming. He covered a local by-election, directed editions of magazine programme Compass, and contributed to televised news and sport.3 By early 1959, he had taken a further secondment in London, spending three months with all the departments there. Despite not technically being a producer or director, he was able to tackle both roles in drama productions, stepping in to produce the play Meeting at Night (1959) and directing parts of Para Handy – Master Mariner (1959-60) to cover colleagues’ absences.4 MacTaggart was then promoted to ‘general purposes’ television producer in early 1960 and was promptly attached to the documentary section of the drama department. This resulted in him directing an episode of Scotland Yard (1960) from London.5 In view of the later direction of his career, it’s interesting to note that immediately on being made a general producer, MacTaggart had applied for the role of current affairs producer, and later applied to be the BBC’s Representative in the US.6 Both were unsuccessful.
As full producer, MacTaggart’s drama productions from Scotland included Mr Gillie and A Family Occasion (both 1960), for the anthologies Twentieth Century Theatre (1960) and Saturday Playhouse (1958-61) respectively.7 It should be noted that when producing a play, MacTaggart directed also, as was the practice at the time, with only series and serials usually having separate producers and directors. It seems by this time MacTaggart was firing on all cylinders and impressing his superiors with his ability. His 1960 annual report stated: “in my opinion he’s a producer who will reach the top of the tree in television production.”8
In late 1960 MacTaggart produced Jack Gerson’s Three Ring Circus, the winning entry into a Scottish television play competition, for transmission in early 1961.9 It was about a man who, having lost his memory, and therefore his identity, finds himself in an absurd European police state where is claimed by a number of parties in place of their own missing persons. Veering from hallucinatory fantasy to blunt satire, the play was “a parable of the individual lost in the nightmare of the modern world”, as The Times put it.10 Gerson’s script demanded a highly stylised production, which MacTaggart gave it, using a variety of non-naturalistic tricks and often minimalistic sets to achieve the strange situations and locations required. The Listener noted that “in an always interesting and often grippingly exciting way, [it] explored the darkening maze of the world and man’s ever-increasing sense of alienation.”11 Between its recording and broadcast, MacTaggart had told his superiors that he wanted the opportunity to experiment and the success of Three Ring Circus soon made this a reality.12
When BBC staff writer Troy Kennedy Martin proposed a series of non-naturalist plays, Elwyn Jones, one of the drama department bosses, “jumped at it” and on the back of the success of Three Ring Circus invited MacTaggart to relocate to London to produce it.13 “We were going to destroy naturalism,” Kennedy Martin later recalled, “if possible, before Christmas”.14 The series was Storyboard (1961), a drama anthology which aimed to “tell a story in visual terms”, something which television, with its modest resources, was still learning to do.15 These plays used non-naturalistic techniques including narration and the mixing of shots to music rather than to dialogue, all produced live under MacTaggart’s direction.16 One instalment had 21 characters and 130 scenes across its half-hour duration, and required six cameras, more than was usually used for a 90 minute piece. One montage sequence used 20 shots, five sets, various extreme close-ups and no dialogue.17 It was the opposite of the still relatively static, dialogue-led conventional form of most television drama.
MacTaggart returned to Glasgow for only a matter of days before being seconded back to London to work on a follow-up series to Storyboard called Studio 4 (1964), which carried the same remit and, for its first series, was produced between him and Alan Bridges.18 It was named after the studio it used in the BBC’s Television Centre, then one of the most modern in the world.19 MacTaggart’s production of The Second Curtain found favour in The Times, which noted that “the whole production was a small masterpiece of compression and precision”.20 This compression was a characteristic of the non-naturalistic drama MacTaggart worked on, which tried to eliminate the longueurs of much television storytelling, often with a jumping, non-linear timeline. Following the conclusion of the first series of Studio 4 in mid-1964, MacTaggart left his position with BBC Scotland to remain in London, accepting a two year contract with the drama department with a specially enhanced salary in recognition of his “immediate merit”.21
In 1963, the BBC’s new head of drama, Sydney Newman, divided the roles of producer and director on plays and henceforth MacTaggart only performed one of these roles on each of his productions. In 1963-64, he produced the anthology series Teletale, an experimental testing ground for new directors. The series was relegated to the smaller studios of the BBC’s provincial bases, but this didn’t blunt the production team’s ambition. In an internal BBC memo, series writers Roger Smith and Christopher Williams explained that:
The stories will be told with the maximum economy and condensation. The juxtaposition of scenes and the cutting between them will be crucial to the narrative. The style of narration will be fluid, using and exploring the resources of framing, camera mobility and studio space … We hope that this method will allow us to liberate the action from the accepted necessities of naturalism, while not detracting from the interest of the story.22
An example of the unconventional style of Teletale was Ken Loach’s ‘Catherine’, which used rapid shot changes, montage, narration and had no sets, signalling a change of scene with changes of lighting.23 Speaking of the impetus behind Teletale, MacTaggart bemoaned the acceptance by writers of television’s limitations:
If only it could be regarded for a while as being a director’s medium, so that stories could be allowed to drift madly off somewhere…What we need are people who are excited by the possibilities and say ‘the hell with the limitations, we’ll break the rules’. I think we’ve got far too many damn rules. My attitude to the whole thing is that the studio is as big as your imagination and somewhere to tell a story, and you must be frank about the fact that there is a studio and you are telling a story… The time has come to write in terms of the pictures … I believe passionately that a picture can say so much emotionally. If only people would conceive stories in terms of the emotions … even if it means writing down the pictures. I’m not one of those directors who resents seeing Cut to Close Up written in a script.24
He thought Teletale had ‘pushed the studio walls back’ and saw his role on the series as creating ‘the kind of atmosphere in which these people [the directors] could respond and get excited and enthusiastic. Instead of saying to them ‘No, you can’t do that’ I’ve said ‘Yes, have a bash, that sounds exciting’’.25
Between these experimental anthologies, MacTaggart directed instalments of Z Cars (1962-78) and Second World War series Moonstrike (1963), and produced the Joseph Conrad dramatisation Freya of the Seven Isles (1963).26 He had directed Alun Owen’s You Can’t Win ‘Em All (1962) and subsequently handled Corrigan Blake (1963), its comedy-adventure serial sequel.27 Overlapping with the end of Teletale, MacTaggart was appointed producer of First Night (1963-64) with effect from mid-February 1964, when its regular producer, John Elliot, took leave.28 First Night was an anthology of “popular” contemporary television plays which had been drawing criticism for its sex and “sleaziness”.29 Newman had hoped MacTaggart would reverse the series’ flagging fortunes but it was cancelled after MacTaggart had produced only a handful of plays.30
In March 1964, Kennedy Martin published ‘Nats Go Home’, an impassioned attack on television drama’s prevailing naturalistic style. He proposed ‘a working philosophy’ for a new television drama, involving ‘a new idea of form, with new language, new punctuation and new style’.31 His manifesto’s originality is often overstated and it should be noted that others at the BBC had been experimenting on these lines, albeit with less impact, and Newman himself had championed less naturalistic drama at roughly the same time.32 This was, of course, also what MacTaggart had been doing on his three experimental anthologies.
Putting all his theories into practice, Kennedy Martin wrote, in conjunction with John McGrath, the six-part serial Diary of a Young Man (1964).33 MacTaggart produced, with Loach and Peter Duguid, both graduates of Teletale, directing. MacTaggart explained to Newman that it was ‘taut, condensed and utterly devoid of flabby realistic fill in stuff’.34 For viewers, he introduced it as ‘a new kind of writing for television, exploring the possibilities of the medium in a rather more extreme way than we’ve tried before.’35
The serial used voice-over, sequences of still images, tricks with chronology, surreal and absurd sequences and, at times, archetypes in place of characters. Newman was impressed, calling the serial ‘a major breakthrough in television story telling … this is television of the first order’.36 Diary of a Young Man was, however, generally unpopular with its viewers and its sexual content concerned some, with a vicar complaining loudly in the press about its ‘filth and depravity’.37 One critic noted that it seemed ‘to have been written and directed as an illustration of a thesis rather than as an independent work’, which isn’t far from the truth.38
The axing of First Night led, in part, to the creation of the BBC’s new flagship drama anthology, The Wednesday Play (1964-70), which had much the same remit.39 After a run of plays ‘orphaned’ from another cancelled series, Newman made MacTaggart producer for The Wednesday Play’s first proper series, in 1965, to get the series back on track. MacTaggart rapidly reinvigorated it into a showcase for new and often controversial contemporary drama, employing innovative young writers and directors. Dennis Potter had his first television production on MacTaggart’s series of The Wednesday Play, as did James O’Connor, who was a particularly brave choice given that he held a murder conviction.
As an anthology, the series had room for all styles of production but it’s noticeable that non-naturalistic devices, such as narration and montage sequences, were common during MacTaggart’s year as producer. Ken Loach directed some of the most famous instalments of The Wednesday Play, though his work rapidly moved towards realism rather than the less naturalistic work he had previously done with MacTaggart. Another director employed was Don Taylor, who shared MacTaggart’s interest in non-naturalism and used a variety of established and new techniques in directing Dan, Dan, the Charity Man (1965), including mock-silent film sequences, captions, speeded-up chase scenes, slow motion and characters addressing the audience while the rest of the action is paused.40 He also directed David Mercer’s And Did Those Feet? (1965), which was satirical, cartoonish and beautifully lyrical.41
Given a remit for what Newman would later, famously, call ‘agitational contemporaneity’, MacTaggart was unafraid of producing plays about some of the taboos of the 1960s.42 Amongst many other subjects, MacTaggart’s Wednesday Plays tackled class, race relations, capital punishment, homosexuality and abortion (the latter two still illegal at that time). The controversy that invariably followed each transmission was such that the production of the plays themselves constituted a wilful intervention into public (and parliamentary) debate on the subjects.43 It is for these plays which The Wednesday Play became famous, though MacTaggart’s year in charge also included traditional comedy, mystery and suspense plays, plus biography, science fiction and a musical.
Tony Garnett, who had been a story editor on The Wednesday Play (and, later, would produce it), recalled that such provocative programming was possible only because MacTaggart was ‘a BBC Establishment-stamped, trusted person. The hierarchy could feel comfortable with these wild lads [directors and story editors] around provided Jim was there to handle them. At the same time, he was extremely innovative, open-minded and, again, allowing. He was also a very fine human being and an underestimated man’.44 In July 1965, MacTaggart’s annual review attributed the success of The Wednesday Play to him and concluded: “To my mind, in the course of the year he has done a great deal to give the whole conception of the single play in television a considerable face lift.”45
Although a number of Wednesday Plays used non-naturalistic techniques to greater or lesser degrees, the series as a whole ultimately became known for its productions which strove for realism. Although this shift can be attributed largely to those who came later, its origins lie in MacTaggart’s year in charge, with an increased use of location filming, most notably with Ken Loach’s Up the Junction (1965).46 This play made extensive use of 16mm filming and included montage sequences to create a documentary effect. Even so, Garnett reports that the play’s inception came about while MacTaggart was away on holiday.47
Under MacTaggart’s tenure, The Wednesday Play became a popular and critical success. MacTaggart concluded his producership at the end of 1965, with 34 new plays behind him. He chose at this point to resign from the staff of the BBC to work on a freelance basis and was immediately contracted by the Corporation as a guest director. He worked for the BBC extensively over the next few years and directed a number of dramas for The Wednesday Play, including The Boneyard (1966), the first of his successor’s plays, a legal-themed trilogy by barrister Nemone Lethbridge and Charles Wood’s colourful satire of racial integration, Drums Along the Avon (1967).48
In 1968 MacTaggart was recruited, along with David Mercer, by his Wednesday Play colleagues Tony Garnett and Kenith Trodd to be a partner in Kestrel Productions, Britain’s first independent television drama production company.49 This necessitated all involved taking their leave of the BBC, though this was not problematic for MacTaggart, who for the past six years had worked for the Corporation on a series of short-term contracts and on a freelance basis.50 MacTaggart took on an executive producer role, shared with Garnett, and also directed plays, including Dennis Potter’s compelling psychological portrait Moonlight on the Highway (1969).51
As well as a producer and director, MacTaggart was also a talented writer. He often wrote adaptations of novels or short stories for his own productions and contributed scripts to BBC series such as Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-76) and Detective (1964-68). Following his stint with Kestrel, he returned to the BBC as a freelance writer and director in late 1969. The following year he gained his one feature film credit, directing All the Way Up, a comedy of social advancement based on David Turner’s stage play Semi-detached.
In the early-1970s MacTaggart directed a number of instalments of The Wednesday Play’s successor, Play for Today (1970-1984). Perhaps most notable of these were the eerie and unsettling Robin Redbreast (1970), and Orkney (1971), a trio of short plays set and filmed on the eponymous Scottish islands, where the hauntingly bleak scenery matched the lives depicted in the drama.52 MacTaggart’s continuing interest in Scotland was evident throughout his career. In 1968 he addressed a television seminar run by Scottish TV and in 1970 filmed sequences for an episode of Menace (1970-73) on the streets of his native Glasgow.53
Scotch on the Rocks (1973) was a BBC Scotland serial adapted by MacTaggart from the novel by Andrew Osmond and future Home Secretary Douglas Hurd.54 Set in the near future, the serial depicted Scottish nationalism, fuelled by North Sea oil wealth, lead to political unrest and insurrection. It was an incendiary subject and the Scottish National Party complained that they were portrayed as being involved in extreme left-wing agitation and political violence, which amounted to damaging propaganda against them. The BBC Programme Complaints Commission upheld the complaint, specifically criticising a scene of MacTaggart’s own invention.55
The advancement of electronic effects in the early 1970s, notably the development of the Colour Separation Overlay (CSO) superimposition effect, allowed MacTaggart to expand his range of non-naturalistic techniques. This was apparent on his impressive Candide (1973), which he had adapted from Voltaire’s satirical novella.56 His production was entirely studio-bound, with his protagonist’s globe-trotting adventures being largely realised by superimposing his characters against a variety of cartoon backdrops, and having Frank Finlay as Voltaire wander in front of them to narrate, and through the use of models and voiceover.
He made further good use of CSO for Alice Through the Looking Glass (1973), basing his artificial backdrops on the book’s original illustrations and using three cameras to achieve some of the composite shots.57 The Stage and Television Today’s critic praised MacTaggart’s ‘imagination, understanding, technical skill’ and noted that ‘esoteric settings and productions techniques were employed not for their own sake, but to create an atmosphere of dreamlike fantasy’, enabling Alice to interact with a variety of imaginary characters.58 The production was nominated for the Society of Film and Television Arts’ single play award and was entered for the Prix Italia.59
MacTaggart died suddenly in May 1974, having just returned from Tobago where he was filming Robinson Crusoe for the BBC.60 Aged 46, he was at the peak of his career, switching happily between writing, producing and directing. In a tribute broadcast by the BBC, his colleagues praised the easy affinity he had with his audience, his calm, unhurried temperament, and his technical brilliance.61 Just two months before his death he had been awarded the Society of Film and Television Arts’ Desmond Davis Award for outstanding creative contribution to television, and in February 1975 was posthumously a co-recipient of the Press Guild’s equivalent in recognition of his ‘technical adventure’.62 Shaun Sutton, then the BBC’s head of drama, wrote that MacTaggart:
was astonishingly good at everything. As a producer he had authority and taste; as a director he was a joy for he combined a marvellous technical knowledge with the ability to understand actors … As a writer he was pure professional, sure and uncomplicated … I and hundreds of others will miss his cheerfulness, his shrewd humour, his honesty. Perhaps the saddest thing of all is to think of the host of major projects he left undone … We are the poorer and drama is the poorer. We have lost one of our best friends.63
In 1976, a retrospective of MacTaggart’s work was organised by the BBC in association with Granada Television and the Edinburgh International Film Festival. As part of this, John McGrath delivered a ‘James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture’ entitled ‘TV Drama: Case Against Naturalism’.64 The following year, the Edinburgh International Television Festival began and the MacTaggart Lecture became an annual fixture, being given by leading figures in the industry, including Dennis Potter, Michael Grade, Verity Lambert and Greg Dyke. Although the lecture now has no connection with MacTaggart’s work, covering instead a broad canvas of television-related subjects, it has become the regular highlight of the festival and attracts much attention with media industries.
MacTaggart’s experimental work in the first half of the 1960s broke new ground in the presentation of television drama. His year of The Wednesday Play made drama into headline news and the spark of public debate. His further non-naturalistic work tested the bounds of television staging. Beyond his experimental work, MacTaggart was also the producer or director of numerous more conventional but polished and popular dramas. Though television drama now occupies near-exclusively naturalistic ground, suggesting that his legacy may be less than we might have hoped, MacTaggart’s career proved the scope of what television drama could achieve and originated some outstanding examples of the medium.
With thanks to the BBC’s Written Archives Centre for access to research materials.
Originally posted: 19 February 2010.
15 January 2014: Major revisions including BBC documentation; new and revised paragraphs; also minor revisions.
Oliver Wake has also written a different biographical piece on James MacTaggart for Screenonline.