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
The series of five 50 minute plays opened with the least naturalistic of the quintet, Keith Dewhurst’s The Battle of Waterloo, a historical drama without sets or extras.3 “What I have attempted with The Battle of Waterloo is to re-create warfare imaginatively rather than realistically,” Dewhurst said, “I have tried to pump back into television the energy of the theatre.”4 In a piece of bad timing, the Sunday Times Magazine had declared the live TV play to be “a lost art form” just as the play was going into rehearsal.5
Directed by Midgley himself, The Battle of Waterloo begins with a sequence that had the whole studio, cameras and all, in view, and with hordes of soldier “extras” being shown to be dummies and two-dimensional cut-outs, as the cast took their marks. Then the cameras move in and nearly all of the rest of the play is seen in mid-shot and close-up. The story is simple and almost without plot, being based around character. A group of British infantrymen, including veterans and raw recruits, the cannon fodder of the army, spend a freezing and doom-laden night anticipating the next day’s battle, in which each are then seen to perish while the officers give their orders from a safe distance and sip champagne.
The impression of raging battle is well created through the skilful use of lighting and a layered soundscape, while the camera focuses on the terrified faces of the men. Minor pyrotechnics for incoming cannon shot are occasionally used to good effect, as is makeup, with one character suffering a bloody facial wound on-camera thanks to some slight-of-hand with fake blood. The whole spectacle is very impressive and indicates that there must have been very extensive technical rehearsals. The only element of the production that could be criticised is the script, which at times attempts to cram in too much background incident. As if only to ensure the cast was not wholly male, it is revealed that a new young officer is a woman who has disguised herself and enlisted to follow her lover, and there’s a lot of melodrama with two of the women from the soldiers’ camp who storm onto the battlefield in a dispute over the affections of one of the soldiers.
The Listener’s critic John Naughton called the whole series “an exercise in gratuitous and suicidal brinkmanship”, only then to dismiss The Battle of Waterloo as “a bit of a damp squib” exactly because it was, he felt, “so straightforward” it could avoid an almighty first night botch.6 Michael Church, writing in The Times, thought the play “disastrous”, which seems overly harsh.7 “Depending on your viewpoint, this was either a gallant 20-year step backwards, or a breakthrough allowing actors once more to draw helpful energy from the possibility of public failure”, noted Julian Barnes in The Observer. He continued: “Probably there’s a case for it (just as there is for records of both concert hall and studio performances), though it was hard to judge given the tearaway pace of Keith Dewhurst’s play.” Barnes thought that “The play itself was decent, but very routine” and found it “admirably directed”.8
Despite a few brief unintentional glimpses of studio equipment, it was considered “a technically faultless exercise” by Poole, in The Listener.9 He concluded that “the live context undoubtedly did generate an energy and an immediacy rare in television drama”, though he was not watching at home but from the energised environment of the studio itself. Shortly after transmission, Henry Kelly implied on Radio 4’s Midweek programme that the play hadn’t actually been live at all, but was forced to issue a correction when an “enraged” Robin Midgley made what was described as an “irate” call to the programme.10
The critics were more impressed with the second play. Fay Weldon’s Redundant! Or the Wife’s Revenge was a comedy about a domineering businessman husband who is made redundant at work and at home.11 It was more naturalistic than The Battle of Waterloo in that it employed conventional sets, but it also used artificial framing devices and was told largely in flashback, in an exaggerated, larger-than-life style. James Cellan Jones’s direction was almost faultless, including some form of camera trickery which enabled two characters to enter a lift in the studio set and emerge, from the same lift door, into a different set.
The first play had avoided notable mishaps, but the second was not so lucky. Part-way through a scene between husband (Leslie Phillips) and wife (Judy Parfitt), the studio lights failed, plunging them into darkness. Obviously taken aback, Phillips nervously repeats his berating of his wife’s sock-darning until a few seconds later half-light and then full lighting is restored. “The whole thing had us on the edge of our seats but perhaps not entirely for the right reasons”, wrote Marcus Prince in an introduction to the British Film Institute’s 2009 screening of the play, “In this sense it provides a fascinating example of live drama on the edge of a precipice.”12
Naughton, presumably happy to see that this time something had gone wrong, found it “a complex, fast-moving, pithy piece replete with flashbacks, rapid scene changes and other directorial nightmares. The result was an absolutely brilliant, taut production which called forth memorable performances… If this is what doing it live is all about, then let us have more of it”.13 Church was in agreement, noting that it “seemed to derive some real electric charge from the technical risks it was taking”.14 Whilst the play was technically impressive, this viewer found that Weldon’s story of a worm-that-turned downtrodden wife became tedious in its predictability and slow development, though that’s from a modern perspective and this view clearly wasn’t shared at the time.
Night Kids, by Bernard Kops, was a bleak piece about disaffected youngsters drawn to living on the streets of London, and featured a chorus in folk-punk-style songs played by a live band in the studio.15 In publicity for their 2009 screening of the play, the British Film Institute called it “A plea to conscience in the Thatcherite 80s, [which] remains relevant today.”16 However, whilst its intentions may have been honourable, the drama was not impressive, giving the impression of a rehearsal for a worthy-but-dreary school play put on by a “trendy” teacher. One brief moment of amusement is afforded by the cast member who confuses his counties: “I’m from Bridport, in Devon. Sorry, Dorset.”
Stephen Davis’s Cargo Kings was about anthropology, “cargo cults” and contemporary rioting.17 Beginning with a British anthologist arriving on a paradise island, and concluding with the natives of the island living in his London flat and masterminding a campaign of rioting so as to create a vast stockpile of looted “cargo”, the play was probably too clever for its own good. For all its comedy, the thrust of its rather obscure intellectual argument was likely lost on most viewers. Directed by Donald McWhinnie, Cargo Kings’s first half continued Midgley’s intended non-naturalistic path, with a beach setting build on studio rostra without sand or water, though its second half, based in a small London flat, allowed less room for unusual staging. Michael Church found it “adroitly-written but broken-backed”, though felt it had benefitted from the excitement of its live performance, as Weldon’s play had.18
The series concluded with Michael Wall’s Tokyo-based culture-clash comedy Japanese Style, about a young man and his girlfriend travelling in Japan.19 He becomes infatuated with the country’s people and culture, but she simply wants to go home. The production was kept simple, with minimal settings consisting of just floor markings and sliding screens. Japanese music was played live, with the musicians in view. Writing in The Guardian, Peter Fiddick was highly impressed, admiring the play’s “restraint and understatement” and noting how the music became “a vibrant theatrical element of the drama.”20 Church wrote in The Times that Japanese Style “was performed with an ardour which would certainly have been dimmed had a cutting room managed to interpose itself between actors and audience.”21
Ironically, the cutting room could have interposed, as Japanese Style was not transmitted live, having been recorded as a trial-run for the series the previous summer. In July 1982, Midgley had reported to the industry press that the pilot recording – which was taped without breaks, as if live – had been “a great success … There was a sense of excitement among the technical crew as well as the cast and I really believe that we achieved extra quality because of the sense of occasion.”22 For transmission it was billed as just From Pebble Mill, so as not to mislead, and it was promised in publicity that no editing to the recording had occurred.23 Live became “as live” again, as it had in the early days of videotape recording in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, when editing was difficult.
Noted television critic Philip Purser was unimpressed with the whole experiment of the series, writing it off later as just “Another attempt to recapture the thrill of live drama, mostly confusing that elusive quality with the brightly lit studio settings and pert, voluble dialogue of all the crummy, run of the mill scripts of the live era that have long since been forgotten.”24 On the other hand, Fiddick recognised some merit in the experiment, if only for its emphasis on technical preparation, noting that “Live or recorded, at least these dramas have had the benefit of thought and rehearsal. The Pebble Mill camera crews and technicians have risen to the occasion, often as though an occasion never existed.”25
Live from Pebble Mill certainly proved that live drama was not “a lost art form”, as the Sunday Times Magazine had suggested, after all. However, although some critics felt they could discern an added excitement derived from the live context, there is little evidence that the viewers recognised any extra value in the series, bar perhaps the expectant thrill of waiting for an on-air disaster. Ultimately, it’s hard not to agree with Michael Poole, who concluded his thoughts by “wondering just what the much-vaunted series has in the end achieved, beyond a sort of technical kudos.”26 That no further series was commissioned would seem to confirm that the BBC thought the same way and it was another 22 years before they staged a further live television drama experiment.
Originally posted: 30 September 2013.
[This piece first appeared in This Way Up issue 27 in 2010. It is presented here with minor revisions.]