This piece was substantially revised and updated in 2013.
When people talk about the pioneers of television writing in Britain, they invariably mention those who made their reputations in the 1960s, such as Dennis Potter and John Hopkins. However, in the 1950s, Iain MacCormick was recognised as the first writer to make a name specifically from original television writing in Britain. This essay is an attempt to explain who he was, why his work was notable and why he is now so little-known.
MacCormick was born in Australia 1918 to Scottish émigré parents. He considered himself a Scot also and held a British passport. MacCormick was studying medicine when the Second World War began and he volunteered for service with the Australian army, rising to the rank of Captain. He fought in North Africa, Crete and Greece, where, in 1941, he was captured when Allied forces withdrew. He spent the next four years as a prisoner of war, during which time he took to writing, between escape attempts, and completed a number of plays. Upon his release in 1945 he was sent to Britain en route to Australia for official demobilisation, but he didn’t complete this journey, choosing to settle in London.
Two of MacCormick’s plays from his POW years, Stairway to the Stars and Call Back the Night, were produced in London simultaneously in 1945. Having also used his time in captivity to study for a qualification in advertising, MacCormick became an account director at an advertising agency, although he gave this up in 1951 to concentrate on his writing. His 1949 stage play The Beautiful World was a tragedy set in post-war Berlin based on a true story. It concerned the political and personal conflicts which arise when the daughter of a Communist takes a Social Democrat as her boyfriend. This form of ideological melodrama, informed by the turbulent politics of the mid-twentieth century, is characteristic of much of MacCormick’s television work.1
MacCormick made a big impact in television drama in 1954 when he wrote The Promised Years for the BBC. This wasn’t a single play but an ambitious ‘cycle’ of four plays. As MacCormick explained in the Radio Times: “A ‘series’ of plays is merely a group of dramatic episodes, not necessarily related. On the other hand, a ‘cycle’ is a group of related plays and, as the word implies, the final play should return to the scene and characters of the first.”2
The cycle opens with The Liberators, set in Italy in 1945.3 The British officer Major Kent must order the destruction of the town of Canavento to impede the German retreat and the drama is built around his dilemma as to whether he can afford to allow the evacuation of civilians first. Two of The Liberators’ characters are carried through to the next play, The Good Partners, which was set around the Berlin airlift of 1948 and the plight of a fugitive eastern European scientist.4
Another pair of The Liberators’ characters appeared in the third play in the cycle, The Small Victory.5 Another three years has passed and the setting is the Korean war. The story is set around a Catholic mission overtaken by the Chinese and tyrannised by the sadistic Captain Feng, who attempts to force false confessions by torture. The quartet concluded with Return to the River, in which Kent revisits the rebuilt Canavento in the present of 1954 and finds that these promised years of peace are anything but; the sides have changed but the violence continues.6
The Liberators was called “outstanding television drama” by The Stage newspaper.7 Writing in The Observer, Ken Tynan reported that The Good Partners was a “triumph” and praised the “masterly incisiveness” of MacCormick’s writing.8 Critics were less impressed by Return to the River than by its precursors, with The Manchester Guardian finding it a “sad anticlimax.”9 Even so, The Promised Years had been a great success and MacCormick won the Guild of TV Producers and Directors’ television script award for the cycle.10 Another prize followed at the Daily Mail National Radio and Television awards a few months later.11 The script of The Small Victory was later published in an anthology of television plays and it, along with The Liberators, was produced again by the BBC in 1960, independent of the whole cycle, indicating that they worked as stand-alone plays in their own right.12
In late 1954 MacCormick was contracted to Ealing Film Studios as a writer for a period of six months, which was extended to seven before his services were dispensed with.13 The only film he is known to have worked on is The Feminine Touch, a drama about nurses’ lives based on the novel ‘A Lamp is Heavy’ by Sheila MacKay Russell, which was released in 1956.
Always open to new opportunities, MacCormick was one of the first to write original drama for the new ITV network when it arrived in late 1955. His play The Rescue was seen in October that year and in 1956 he provided the short play Any One Day for the network.14 The same year his drama The Mother, about a Polish refugee family trying to reach Canada and the sacrifice the mother must make to enable the others to leave, was seen on ITV’s premier drama anthology Armchair Theatre (1956-74).15 It was later reported that The Mother was to be filmed to mark International Refugee Year (1960), though it’s unclear if this project reached fruition.16
Recognising a business opportunity in the threat ITV posed to the BBC, MacCormick formed International Playwrights Group Ltd. He proposed to the BBC that he and a group of other writers represented by this company could be contracted by the Corporation to provide a large number of short dramas per year, with their guarantee that they would not work for ITV. The BBC declined the proposal.17 It seems MacCormick was involved in other aspects of television dramatists’ contracts around this time, with the BBC’s script unit head Donald Wilson writing in 1960 that MacCormick was “determined that the author should not be at a disadvantage in television, either financially or artistically. He was early in the ring fighting for both causes with vigour and obstinacy.”18
MacCormick continued writing plays for the BBC throughout the 1950s. The Safe Haven (1955) was a melodrama about the daughter of a wealthy Scottish industrialist, her Canadian husband and wastrel father.19 In The Weeping Madonna (1956), two roguish Italians plot to create a fake “weeping” Madonna statue to boost tourism to their small town and make their fortunes, only for the statue to start weeping for real.20
Act of Violence (1956) was set in an unnamed central European state where a legendary revolutionary reappears to seize power.21 Although his coup is unexpectedly bloodless, violence follows in the aftermath. MacCormick called it “a frank and unashamed melodrama of the modern manner”, a description which fits much of his work.22 Another project planned for the same year concerned a Nazi resurgence, but it doesn’t appear to have been produced.23
Violence was again on the horizon in One Morning Near Troodos (1956), which took place in contemporary Cyprus. When occupying British troops hunt a local resistance leader an unscrupulous journalist plots to misdirect them for the sake of his story, ultimately leading them in to a rebel ambush.24 The Daily Express found it “gripping”, with a “neat twist” at the end, and noted its topicality.25 Less topical but also about resistance to an occupier was Marjolaine (1957), named after the Brittany village in which it was set in 1943.26 The villagers face the dilemma of whether to hide or hand over to the Germans a wounded British airman shot down nearby.
The Quiet Ones (1957) was a more contemporary piece about Communist infiltration and political agitation at the level of the factory floor.27 Ironically, the play’s broadcast was postponed as a result of what The Stage called “industrial strife”.28 Its lead character was a devout Catholic seen to be seduced into Communism by trade unionists, only to be disillusioned by the revelation that his brother was one of the eponymous “quiet ones” who control the agitation from behind the scenes. The Daily Express found it a “first-rate play” for its exposure of Communism in industry but were less keen on the domestic element.29
Later in 1957 came MacCormick’s next big project, The English Family Robinson. It was another cycle of four plays, this time on the theme of “a century of British rule in India”.30 The cycle told the story of four generations of the Robinson family, each representing a different facet of the British experience in India. The first play, Night of the Tigers, was set around the outbreak of the Indian mutiny of 1857 while the second, The Little World, concerned a potential famine following a crop change.31 The cycle continued in 1904 for The Third Miracle, about a threatened typhoid epidemic, and concluded with Free Passage Home, which concerned the spectre of seemingly inevitable violence between Muslims and Hindus on the eve of the partitioning of India in 1947.32
The Times praised the “satisfyingly compact drama” of Night of the Tigers, though The Manchester Guardian was less keen, finding it “a dull, if worthy, play.”33 The BBC’s audience sample found it “an exciting play with plenty of substance and atmosphere”.34 The Stage hoped for more plays of the quality of Free Passage Home, noting that MacCormick had “shown his near-mastery of the TV medium.”35 “A sound essay in writing for television” was The Manchester Guardian’s final summary of the whole quartet.36 The English Family Robinson doesn’t seem entirely deserving of the “cycle” description, according to MacCormick’s own earlier definition, because the passage of time prevents any of the characters of the first play returning for the fourth. Nevertheless it was another notable achievement in terms of original drama conceived and commissioned specifically for television.
Upon completion of The English Family Robinson, MacCormick was asked to turn his hand to serial writing. It proved to be harder than he’d anticipated and he reported to the Radio Times that he’d had to learn a completely new writing technique as well as jettisoning his original story idea as it would not fit into the serial format.37 The result was The Money Man (1958), a six-part “whodunit” which the author described as “the first exposé of the way in which the European currency racket sets about its business”.38 Although he would later script standalone episodes for popular series, MacCormick didn’t attempt his own serial again.
Back in the realm of plays, The Uninvited (1958) was about a Russian woman who turns up in a London newspaper office looking for her American serviceman husband, having recently been released from one of Stalin’s labour camps.39 Her plight is taken up by the newspaper but the husband, once located, refuses to be reunited with his war bride, having remarried in the intervening years. The Observer‘s Maurice Richardson found it “intelligent and viewable” while the Daily Mirror thought it “an entertaining short story”.40 In 1959 MacCormick moved into series television, writing six episodes for The Third Man (1959-65), a BBC/MGM co-production spin-off from the film of the same name.
MacCormick’s next television play was Nightfall at Kriekville (1961), in which a prejudiced mayor of a small South African town uses a minor prank (perpetrated, it transpires, by his own son) as a convenient pretext to demolish the homes of the native Bantus people in an attempt to drive them away.41 The Guardian wrote that it was “a credible and exciting play of the clash between black and white, without moralising or propaganda either way.”42 The Times went further, finding it “a vigorous, harsh and exciting piece of work” and pondering whether
it is the immediacy of its theme that gives it its unusual strength or whether Mr. MacCormick has this time cut deeper than in the past… If the play actually does go deeper than its predecessors it is because the author finds something in the perverted fanaticism of the mayor independent of the situation … It seems as if Mr. MacCormick has gone beyond his temporary pretext for his play to a permanent sore on human character.43
Less than a month later, The Hunted (1961) was broadcast.44 Concerning a half-French, half-Algerian girl on the run and the American novelists she meets late at night, it was a “tough, efficient thriller,” according to the Radio Times, set in “the underworld of modern Paris, where political differences are settled at pistol-point.”45 The Times was impressed, noting that “during the play’s tightly packed 50 minutes we were never left in any doubt … that we were in the presence of rounded, believable human beings, however extraordinary the situation in which they found themselves.”46
In 1959, when he was living on Jersey, MacCormick had been part of a group who founded the company Channel Communications (Television) Ltd, to compete for the ITV licence for the Channel Islands. The bid proved successful and in 1962, as Channel Television, the company went on-air, where it has remained ever since. However, his level of hands-on participation in the running of the station is unknown, though his family report his involvement was financially disastrous for him. He later lived for a period in Spain before returning to England.
Around this time MacCormick found that the market for television plays had become much more competitive than when he had first made his name, with the effect of driving down the fees he could command for plays. Despite plays being his dramatic lifeblood he concentrated instead, solely for financial reasons, on more lucrative work writing for popular series. He scripted four episodes of ITV’s filmed crime and espionage series The Saint (1962-69), for broadcast in 1964, under the pseudonym John Graeme, which he had used once before on his final episode of The Third Man.47 John was the English equivalent of the Gaelic Iain and Graeme was his middle name. He used the pseudonym to make a distinction between the writing assignments he took simply for the money and the plays about which he most cared. It was also reported that he’d been able to sell some of his plays to German television.48
MacCormick’s last known television credits were an episode of the co-produced UK/US series Court Martial (1965) and several instalments of Gideon’s Way (1964-66), a police series based on the characters and themes of John Creasey’s Gideon novels, in 1964, ’65 and ’66, for which he reverted to being credited under his own name. Several of these episodes were broadcast posthumously as Iain MacCormick died following a two-year battle with cancer in October 1965, aged 47. His headstone read: ‘The Promised Years’.
As early as the mid-1950s, within a year of his big splash with The Promised Years, MacCormick’s unique position in television was being recognised. The Times noted in 1955 that he was “a writer who has made television his speciality.”49 The following year the Radio Times wrote that “MacCormick is a rare creature – a serious playwright whose name has been made by television and who is writing on commission especially for the medium.”50 In 1959 he was noted in an Armchair Theatre book to be “the first major playwright to make his reputation from British television”.51
MacCormick was already celebrity enough to appear on the BBC storytelling panel game Once Upon a Time between the third and fourth of The Promised Years plays.52 The BBC commission for The English Family Robinson reportedly came with a fee “greater than any yet paid by the Corporation”.53 These comments indicate not only MacCormick’s level of recognition for his original television work but the rarity of dramatists at the time choosing television as their primary outlet, which makes him all the more remarkable.
It’s also interesting to note the style of MacCormick’s work. The Stage reported that The Liberators seemed to “belong” to television, which sets it apart from the more theatrical presentation of drama which dominated television then.54 However, other sources suggest this may have not been typical for MacCormick. For The English Family Robinson, he restricted himself to only one set each for three of the plays, with one being allowed a second. He decreed that there would be no film inserts used, with the whole drama occurring live in the studio, without a glimpse of Indian exteriors.55 Presumably, therefore, these plays were aesthetically more conventional and theatre-like. In the absence of recordings it is impossible to know for sure, but at least one viewer complained that the background of the first of The English Family Robinson plays was “rather restricted in scope”.56 Tellingly, the Daily Mirror noted that The Uninvited “could have been broadcast on sound to advantage”, suggesting a lack of visual interest.57 These comments indicate that while a talented writer of drama, MacCormick wasn’t interested in innovating a particularly ‘televisual’ style or pushing the technical limitations of the medium, as some of his successors were.
However, interestingly, Donald Wilson reported in 1960 that “MacCormick set his heart against the subordination of the writer to a junior rank among the production group, and trained as a television producer in order to equip himself to talk on equal terms with the producers and designers of his plays.”58 His only producer’s credit was for 1956’s Act of Violence and, given he was never to our knowledge on the BBC’s staff, one assumes MacCormick’s training was informal, via his presence at production meetings and performances. Even so, it does seem unusual that he kept his plays so stylistically simple when he must have known how much more was possible.
Perhaps the most notable characteristic of MacCormick’s work was its topicality, with many of his plays being based around contemporary events or political movements. Noting its topicality, the Daily Express found One Morning Near Troodos “as fresh as this morning’s Page One headlines”.59 In their review of The Hunted, The Times reported that MacCormick was “almost alone among our television dramatists in finding his inspiration consistently in the political and social problems of the day… it is his particular talent to demonstrate abstract issues in properly human terms”.60 However, this was not always to his work’s advantage, with The Times later writing in relation to Nightfall at Kriekville that MacCormick “creates his plays neatly and with admirable precision from an impassioned involvement in the world’s troubles, which change rapidly enough to rob the plays they inspire of a certain immediacy.”61
Prior to his death, MacCormick had written another play cycle, called The Last Adventure. It was in a similar vein to The English Family Robinson, but dealing with English settlers in Kenya, from the earliest days of the Mau Mau uprising to a prophecy of a fascistic all-African nation emerging. Television producer Irene Shubik later recalled that it was never made “because of its very specific political allusions”.62 She suggested that in some respects the political topicality of MacCormick’s work acted against it, quickly making it dated. She recalls that when his widow suggested in both 1966 and ‘69 that the BBC produce The Last Adventure and repeat some of his earlier plays, “all were found to have values and attitudes belonging to another era.”63
Although his choice of contemporary subjects was a new approach for television drama, MacCormick’s “values and attitudes” were conventional and conservative. For example, he depicts the political left-wing as shady and sinister. Unsurprisingly, given the Cold War period in which he was writing, Communism is shown as a malign presence or influence, but even British trades unionism is tarred with the same brush in The Quiet Ones. Conversely, British imperialism is celebrated as a paternalistic force throughout The English Family Robinson cycle.
Faith is a subject drawn upon in a number of MacCormick’s plays, perhaps unusually as he did not practise any religion himself. In his writing MacCormick seems to have a particular fascination for Roman Catholic characters and themes, from the erring but devout protagonist of The Quiet Ones to the miraculous events of The Weeping Madonna. The Small Victory gives us perhaps the most extreme example. A small group of prisoners of the Chinese in Korea undergo torture and eventually execution, largely willingly, instead of allowing the Catholic priest amongst them to sign a false confession. This is presented as a moral victory, as the title makes clear, despite the great and unnecessary human tragedy it entails for no tangible benefit.
Tradition, faith, British resolve and imperial beneficence are undoubtedly the values of MacCormick’s drama which Shubik noted to be outdated by the mid/late-1960s. Indeed, it’s almost a surprise to learn that The Small Victory had a second production as late as 1960 and it’s hard to imagine many of his earlier dramas being made again beyond that point. In light of this, it is more understandable that around the beginning of the 1960s, as politically progressive writers like David Mercer and Alun Owen were becoming prominent in the medium, MacCormick found himself no longer able to compete effectively in the sphere of television plays.64
Despite his deservedness for recognition as one of the earliest writers of serious original television drama, it’s easy to understand MacCormick’s present obscurity. He chose to work in television when it was considered to be an entirely ephemeral medium and, because of such attitudes, very little of his work was preserved for posterity.65 In addition, the topicality and ideologically conservative standpoint of much of his work limited its longevity in a period defined by rapid social progress. Finally, his premature death in 1965, just as what is now perceived by many as a ‘golden age’ for television was getting under way, meant that his contribution to television pre-dated the period which attracts most retrospective interest.
(C) Oliver Wake
The author wishes to acknowledge a debt of gratitude to the family of Iain MacCormick who took time and effort to provide significant new biographical information for this revised essay. Thanks also to the BBC’s Written Archives Centre for assistance with research.
Iain MacCormick credits
Television writing credits:
All productions BBC except where noted as ITV. Some of the ITV programmes were seen on different dates in different ITV regions. The earliest transmission date we’re aware for each is used here.
23/05/54 The Promised Years: The Liberators
27/05/54 The Promised Years: The Liberators
13/06/54 The Promised Years: The Good Partners
17/06/54 The Promised Years: The Good Partners
11/07/54 The Promised Years: The Small Victory
15/07/54 The Promised Years: The Small Victory
15/08/54 The Promised Years: Return To The River
19/08/54 The Promised Years: Return To The River
24/04/55 The Safe Haven
15/10/55 Playhouse: The Rescue [ITV]
08/01/56 The Weeping Madonna
09/02/56 Act of Violence
08/04/56 Theatre Royal: On Any One Day [ITV]
30/09/56 Sunday-Night Theatre: One Morning Near Troodos
28/10/56 Armchair Theatre: The Mother [ITV]
16/06/57 Sunday-Night Theatre: The Quiet Ones
27/10/57 Sunday-Night Theatre: English Family Robinson: Night of the Tigers
03/11/57 Sunday-Night Theatre: English Family Robinson: The Little World
10/10/57 Sunday-Night Theatre: English Family Robinson: The Third Miracle
17/11/57 Sunday-Night Theatre: English Family Robinson: Free Passage Home
05/04-10/05/58 The Money Man
23/11/58 Television Playwright: The Uninvited
02/10/59 The Third Man: One Kind Word
04/12/59 The Third Man: The Importance of Being Harry Lime
22/01/60 The Third Man: Dinner in Paris
04/03/60 The Third Man: The Girl Who Didn’t Know
22/04/60 The Third Man: The Tenth Symphony
29/07/60 The Third Man: Harry Lime and the King (as John Graeme)
21/08/60 Summer Theatre: The Liberators
28/08/60 Summer Theatre: The Small Victory
25/09/61 Nightfall at Kriekville
16/10/61 The Hunted
02/01/64 The Saint: The Wonderful War [ITV] (as John Graeme)
09/01/64 The Saint: Noble Sportsman [ITV] (as John Graeme)
05/03/64 The Saint: The Gentle Ladies [ITV] (as John Graeme)
31/10/64 Gideon’s Way: To Catch a Tiger [ITV]
19/11/64 The Saint: The Loving Brothers [ITV] (as John Graeme)
09/01/65 Gideon’s Way: The Nightlifers [ITV]
24/04/65 Gideon’s Way: The Alibi Man [ITV]
11/11/65 Court Martial: Flight of a Tiger [ITV]
03/02/66 Gideon’s Way: The Thin Red Line [ITV]
27/02/66 Gideon’s Way: Boy with Gun [ITV]
28/07/54 Once Upon a Time [appearance on BBC panel game]
09/02/56 Act of Violence [produced play for BBC]
1956 (release) Ealing Film: The Feminine Touch [script work, extent unknown]
Originally posted: 13 March 2010.
22 April 2012: revised and updated.
2 October 2013: substantial rewrite with new material; addition of credits
3 October 2013: minor corrections to editor’s mistakes and omissions
21 January 2014: added material from BBC Written Archives