The BBC’s appointment of Sydney Newman as their head of drama in 1962 was the opening act of what some perceive as a “golden age” of British television drama. However, this is not how it appeared to everybody at the time, and the alienating effect of Newman’s “new broom” should be remembered. Perhaps the most outspoken casualty of Newman’s arrival was Don Taylor, a highly successful producer/director who found himself stifled and, he alleged, blacklisted by Newman.
From humble working-class origins in East London, Taylor (30 June 1936-11 November 2003) won a scholarship to grammar school, and then to Oxford in 1955. There he studied literature and became involved with student theatre, both acting and directing. He secured the notable coup of directing the first production of John Osborne’s Epitaph for George Dillon in 1957. Graduating in 1958, he joined the Oxford Playhouse as assistant to the theatre’s director, Frank Hauser. Although he was effectively an errand boy, Taylor found the experience of the theatrical life invaluable. After six months, Hauser pushed Taylor out, telling him: “Sell your body if necessary, but find some way of your own to write and direct.”1 A spell as a supply teacher followed while Taylor failed to break into the theatre.
Taylor and his family had been avid cinema-goers until 1951, when they bought their first television set, after which he and his father became passionate devotees of the medium. As an Oxbridge graduate with a background in drama and an enthusiasm for television, it was inevitable that Taylor would find himself at the BBC. In 1960, at the age of 23, he was offered a position as a trainee director on a six-month contract. The initial six-week directors’ course was a pragmatic guide to getting a show on air, and keeping it there come what may, at a time when live drama was still common and pre-recording crude. The course culminated in a modestly resourced twenty-minute studio production for each trainee, with Taylor choosing to produce Tennessee Williams’ short play The Last of My Solid Gold Watches. He later recalled Michael Barry, the BBC’s head of drama, calling the piece “the best of its kind he had ever seen”.2
Taylor was assigned to the team of producer David Rose and allocated two episodes of his new police series Scotland Yard to direct. The series made great use of film to stage action sequences and bridge live studio scenes, something Taylor was initially unenthusiastic about. He recalled later: “I didn’t have the slightest interest in film making as a profession, or as an art, and never had done. I had a passion for dramatic poetry, for writers who used language imaginatively, rather than grainy realists who imitated the incoherence of speech.”3 Whilst he would never be won over to realism, Taylor’s aversion to filming soon evaporated after a week shooting night scenes and car chases.
His first Scotland Yard episode went well, with Taylor enjoying the buzz of live transmission.4 Michael Barry informed him that the BBC was taking up the option in his contract to keep him on for a further two years as a fully fledged director. With the confidence of success, Taylor made his second episode of Scotland Yard a far more ambitious production than the first. Including sequences of expanded time, Taylor’s camera script so severely pushed the limits of what was achievable in live transmission that some doubted he would pull it off. But, thanks largely to the expertise of his studio crew, the episode went as planned, earning Taylor a round of applause at its conclusion.5
The documentary play about bankruptcy The Road to Carey Street followed.6 Although he thought the script ‘turgid’, Taylor’s production was much admired within the BBC and its success marked the end of his period as an apprentice director.7 Taylor was now in a much stronger position to pick and choose his scripts, and was able to escape producing two that he particularly objected to. Having always held socialist beliefs, inherited from his trade-unionist father and inspired by his class roots, Taylor found some of the scripts he was offered objectionable on political grounds. One Sunny Afternoon, a play about a wealthy industrialist and his privately educated daughter, dramatised the privilege he so despised. He wrote: “I couldn’t do plays about what, to me, was the enemy, putting forward views of life which I rejected to the bottom of my being.”8
Soon Taylor found scripts that were more to his taste and with great enthusiasm set about two productions in as many months. Norman Crisp’s The Dark Man was a tale of racial prejudice in a taxi firm.9 It was one of the earliest television dramas to tackle the subject. Meanwhile, David Turner’s The Train Set appealed due to its setting amongst the working class of Birmingham and being written in their dialect. The story was about a factory worker who wants to buy his railway enthusiast son a model train set for his birthday but cannot afford to. The live performance of The Train Set in January 1961 attracted highly positive reviews, but sadly was not recorded for posterity.10 Taylor directed another three Turner plays before the end of 1961, including On the Boundary, about people in Birmingham on the border between the slums and the better life brought by building modernisation, and Choirboys Unite!, a light-hearted piece for Christmas about a Birmingham choir going on strike.11
During the production of The Dark Man, Taylor was introduced to the work of the working class Yorkshire playwright David Mercer and was instantly impressed, as he stated: “This writer clearly had a developed mind, a passionate interest in politics, and was prepared to write powerfully and thoughtfully about the lives and dilemmas of ordinary people.”12 Taylor quickly got hold of a Mercer script about the political tension between a father and his two sons. Taylor noted that “its subject matter, being educated out of one’s class, and the future of socialism, could hardly have been more congenial to me.”13 Not only the subject, but the passionate and lyrical style of Mercer’s script inspired Taylor.
The script became Where the Difference Begins.14 In production, Mercer took Taylor to visit the deprived areas of Yorkshire that had inspired his play. Taylor shot establishing film sequences there, inserting one, depicting an old engine yard, because it encapsulated the detail of Northern working class life that was so alien to him and the majority of the play’s audience. “It had the rare vital three-dimensional quality that draws you in”, wrote The Observer’s Maurice Richardson, who thought it “the best new play of the year”.15 ‘A masterpiece of tv drama’ was The Stage and Television Today’s verdict.16 Although stagey by modern standards, Where the Difference Begins boasts some fine performances, notably from Barry Foster as the idealistic Richard, a character Mercer clearly based on himself, and Leslie Sands as the father of the divided family.
In September 1961, about three months before the transmission of Where the Difference Begins, an event occurred which was to have a massive effect on Taylor’s career: Michael Barry suddenly resigned. With no replacement lined-up, Norman Rutherford, previously Assistant Head, became caretaker Head of Drama, and Elwyn Jones, from Documentary Drama, became Assistant Head. In practice, it was Jones who dealt with the day-to-day running of the Department.
Taylor began 1962 with The Alderman by Norman Crisp, a play about a retiring old socialist town councillor.17 Although ultimately a success, the live transmission did not go to plan. Shortly before it was due to begin, a new camera mounting which allowed shots from a height of nine feet, which Taylor had planned to make great use of, irreparably broke down. Taylor’s only option was to go on air, five minutes late, managing the high shots as best as possible with his tallest cameraman using a substituted standard mounting. Viewers, unaware of the situation, apparently noticed nothing amiss, while The Times felt that “Don Taylor’s production kept an easy simplicity”.18
In a break from new drama, Taylor sought permission to produce his favourite Shakespeare play, The Winter’s Tale. His suggestion was not well received by Elwyn Jones, but Jones offered a deal that was acceptable to them both. Taylor agreed to direct an episode of Jones’s pet series Z Cars in exchange for being allowed the Shakespeare play. However, an impasse resulted when Jones refused the play the lengthy transmission slot it required, and Taylor refused to cut the script to reduce the running time. Eventually, Taylor had his way and The Winter’s Tale, played fast, went out at a length of two and a quarter hours, divided into two parts by a news bulletin.19 Several months later, Taylor directed John Hopkins’ Unconditional Surrender, the concluding episode of Z Cars’ first series.20 He dismissed it in his memoir as “left-hand work, merely an exercise of my skill and directorial flair.”21
Meanwhile, Mercer had delivered a follow-up to his first play. A Climate of Fear depicted a woman becoming estranged from her husband as she commits herself, as her student children had, to the CND cause.22 Although initially wary of such politically provocative material, Elwyn Jones was convinced by Taylor’s assertions that the play was not propaganda, but a drama of rounded characters and argument. To add verisimilitude to the concluding montage, Taylor degraded film of the play’s main character to match footage of the recent Trafalgar Square CND demonstration. Around this time Taylor was being referred to within the BBC as being amongst their “four or five best” producers.23
While A Climate of Fear was still in production, Mercer had come up with a startlingly original new play. A Suitable Case for Treatment was the comic story of the angry, disillusioned and increasingly disturbed young Socialist Morgan Delt.24 Fired up with enthusiasm for the script, Taylor was dismayed that Elwyn Jones was unimpressed by it. The two argued at length over several days with Jones eventually relenting, telling Taylor: ‘OK boy. You do it then. And it damn well better be good, or you’re for it!’25 In his memoir, Taylor honoured Jones for being ‘big enough to change his mind, to say “I might be wrong, you might be right, go ahead and see.”’26
With the play over-running its allocated sixty minutes, it was Taylor’s turn to acquiesce and he removed ten minutes from the script. A Suitable Case for Treatment was pre-recorded to videotape with numerous inventive film sequences, visual jokes, dream sequences, and a soundtrack of disparate music providing a form of audio commentary. The finished play was highly praised, and Mercer won the Screenwriter’s Guild award for the best play of the year. Alan Lovell wrote in Contrast the following year that “From the first shot of the gorilla’s face, one was aware of something new and exciting happening on the television screen … Naturalism went by the board.”27 Taylor himself concurred: “a new age of television drama began that evening, and the original play on television from that night forward was permanently changed.”28
The Taylor/Mercer collaboration continued with The Birth of a Private Man, the final part of the loose trilogy that had begun with Where the Difference Begins.29 Mercer’s theme was expanded from the parochial ideological conflicts of the first two plays to encompass the whole of European Socialism. Taylor suggested to Elwyn Jones that he and Mercer make a BBC funded research trip to the real locations of the play in Eastern Europe and was astonished when he agreed. The process of arranging visas saw them interviewed at the Polish Embassy about their political convictions by a sinister character who they believed to be a secret policeman.
In Warsaw the pair met with local artists and intellectuals and experienced the drink-fuelled nightlife. In East Berlin they wandered dangerously close to the new Berlin Wall, a grim symbol which featured at the play’s conclusion. The research trip had proved fruitful, but plans to return to shoot sequences of the play in Poland came to nothing when the crew’s visas were suddenly and inexplicably withdrawn. The play went ahead with the Warsaw scenes relocated to a railway carriage at Ealing studios. Filming was also done around the unmarked paupers’ graves in a snowy Wakefield cemetery and a mock-up of the Berlin wall in a Watford brewery, on which the lead character symbolically dies at the end of the play. “Mr Taylor’s production was full of excellent shots, visual contrasts, emphases on faces or movement, and moments of telling stillness”, wrote Mary Crozier in The Guardian after its transmission.30
In December 1962, the BBC finally appointed a new head for the drama department. The Canadian Sydney Newman, previously occupying a similar post at ABC, was installed in January 1963. His initial impression of Taylor seems to have been positive, if not excessively so, with Newman listing him in his memoir as one of a handful in the department “doing good work” when he arrived at the BBC.31 Newman set about revamping the BBC’s drama output, increasing the emphasis on serials and steering plays along more populist lines. His values were the polar opposite of Taylor’s and the two were soon in conflict. Taylor particularly resented Newman’s implementation of a “producer system”, whereby directors were assigned scripts and had to work with separate script editors, rather than pursuing the work and writers they favoured, as Taylor was used to. Newman had divided out the roles of producer and director, which for plays had been combined under the producer title previously, leaving Taylor as director only for most of his productions.
Taylor’s first production to have a separate producer and script editor attached was For Tea on Sunday, another Mercer script, though they did not interfere with Taylor.32 The play was an allegorical tale dramatising the violent eruption of the tensions beneath the surface of 1960s Britain. It concluded with the disturbed character Nicholas destroying the contents of a bourgeois flat with an axe. Taylor had three sets made of all the props to be destroyed to allow for a full run-through and two possible takes. As a precaution, the run-through of the scene had been recorded and Taylor ultimately used sections of it for transmission.
Aside from its unusual production, For Tea on Sunday showcased a new form of writing. Mercer had always written eloquently and literately, but for this script he gave his characters long speeches of metaphors and similes. Although opaque to many, the allegory behind the action seems to be a joyous prediction that decadent capitalist society would be smashed in sudden and shocking violence. Taylor called it “the first television poetic drama” and thought it “one of the brightest artistic highlights of my life”. The Daily Mirror reported that the BBC had received 134 calls of complaint on the evening of its transmission, though their critic noted that Taylor had produced “with considerable talent”.33 Fifteen years later the BBC gave Taylor the opportunity to re-produce the play, for which he was able to reinstate some minor script cuts into what was otherwise a conscious attempt to replicate the original.34
Newman made his presence felt on Taylor’s next production, a play by George Target about an industrial dispute. Newman decided that the original title, Workshop Limits, a wittily metaphorical title drawn from the language of the workshop itself, had to be changed. He insisted that it became You Can’t Throw Your Mates and when Taylor refused Newman issued his own orders to the production team to supersede Taylor’s. Although a minor issue, Taylor felt this interference proved that “a new order had come to power”.35 In interview in 1977, Taylor reported that his moment of disillusionment under this new order ultimately came when a new script he wanted to produce was accepted, then given to someone else to direct.36
Hugh Whitemore’s The Full Chatter followed.37 Taylor remembered it as “the funniest new play I had ever read… it was full of all kinds of original and imaginative techniques for making people laugh, voices over, dream sequences, moments of surrealism, all handled with the lightest of touches.”38 The play is a comic story about Frederick Instance, a television-hating teacher aspiring to the life of a writer. It proved a successful use of the techniques pioneered in A Suitable Case for Treatment, with The Times writing that Whitemore and Taylor had “achieved something which belongs purely to television. Nothing happens except through the hero’s eyes, and, for all his hatred of television, Instance’s imagination works in televisual terms, converting thought into ‘commercials’, announcements and commentaries.”39
With another year left in his contract, Taylor found himself in 1963 with no productions on the horizon. Newman took this opportunity to take him away from the production of single plays, which had been his lifeblood and sole artistic interest, allocating him instead, to his horror, to series. Taylor refused producership of Newman’s brainchild children’s series Doctor Who, instead concocting with Elwyn Jones an ambitious series more to his taste. It was to be set around a new University and allow a different play each week. Taylor was enthusiastic for the project: “I would have a regular cast of both students and academic characters, and within that format I could deal with just about every serious issue likely to arise in the political, social, artistic, or any other kind of world. It could be a true microcosm, with characters of every class and every range of intelligence and sophistication, and it could tell every kind of story.”40
He commissioned scripts from the likes of Alan Plater, Malcolm Bradbury and Hugh Whitemore, and wrote two himself. Ultimately, after almost a year’s work, it did not get the final go-ahead from Newman. Taylor wrote: “There was, at bottom, an unbridgeable gulf of taste between us. He was not prepared to do what I wanted to do, and I couldn’t give him what he wanted, not with any kind of integrity… I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, fit in with his new world, and he was not prepared to tolerate mine. We had reached an impasse”.41 Taylor felt he had been allowed to nurture the project merely as a diversion. Ironically, as his happiness and security at the BBC were at their lowest, his reputation outside of it was, arguably, at its peak, following his formally experimental work and acclaimed collaborations with Mercer. Contrast, the first journal to give serious attention to television, noted in the autumn of 1963 that “Taylor remains the most reliably exciting director working at the BBC now.”42
There was however to be one more production for Taylor before his contract expired, thanks to Whitemore and producer James MacTaggart. Whitemore’s Dan, Dan the Charity Man was a comedy about advertising which was told with unusual dramatic devices, such as speeded up film sequences, silent film style captions and characters pausing the action to address the viewer.43 The drama was well received (The Guardian calling it ‘a true television event’ for example), ending Taylor’s four years as a BBC staff director on a positive note.44
Taylor didn’t entirely escape the BBC, however. After a brief stint in regional theatre, he returned in 1965 as a freelancer at the invitation of James MacTaggart, to direct Mercer’s And Did Those Feet?, a non-naturalistic script in which the writer’s lyrical, satirical style tipped close to fantasy.45 It was an elaborate production, including two weeks of night filming in a candle-lit swimming pool. With finances under Newman’s system now in the hands of the producer, Taylor found himself having to request greater resources from MacTaggart than he had initially been allocated. Taylor later recalled that he “raised a quiet inner eyebrow, but didn’t argue” when MacTaggart proved amenable.46
Taylor didn’t consider the finished play to be an unqualified success. He felt he had misjudged the pacing, partly due to the mix of filming and studio recording, and failed to realise the climax “with the right degree of baroque style.”47 The Daily Herald called it “a masterpiece”48, though The Times was less impressed: “Taylor’s direction created some delightful pictures … but could not impose pace and a sense of direction upon the scenes which Mr. Mercer allowed to stagnate.”49 There is some truth in all these comments, with the play beginning in rapid visual jokes but becoming bogged down in obscure symbolism by its conclusion. Even so, it has moments of real beauty, most notably the pool sequences and poetic monologues.
According to Taylor’s account, when he visited MacTaggart shortly afterwards to talk of future productions, he was told “you’ll never work for this organization again, not while I’m here.”50 Taylor reports that the later, official explanation was that the drama department could not afford his chronic overspending. Taylor felt that whilst it may be fanciful to suggest he had been “set up” by MacTaggart over And Did Those Feet?, “the overspend on that huge production became a useful stick to beat me with after the event.”51 MacTaggart’s own performance review for 1965 confirms that And Did Those Feet got “out of all financial control owing to the irresponsibility of the director in question”, for which MacTaggart ultimately “had to take responsibility.”52 A further, more general, comment that MacTaggart insisted on “working with the best creative minds, some of whom are nigh on impossible to control”, could, in this context, be taken as a further reference to Taylor.53 Taylor became only too aware that he had become persona non grata within the drama department.
It was seven years before Taylor would work again in the BBC drama department and he suggested, first in The Times in 198254 and later, in more detail, in his memoir, that this was due to him being “blacklisted” by Sydney Newman.55 Newman replied that the allegation was “arrant nonsense. The notion the article put forward that a blacklist existed at the BBC when I was its Head of Television Drama Group, and that Don Taylor suffered because of it, is contemptible and not true.”56
Taylor was able to continue working for the BBC, but in a different department. Stuart Hearst of the Corporation’s Arts Features department recognised Taylor’s potential and took him in. For Arts Features, Taylor directed instalments of the arts magazine Look of the Week57 and film essays about the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey, including dramatised sections.58 Between his television work during this period, Taylor spent time in the theatre, both directing and writing. He had struggled with his own writing since leaving Oxford, and had finally had his first play, Grounds for Marriage, performed in 1967. Many more followed, including The Roses of Eyam, which has remained popular since its first production in 1970.
Taylor’s work for Arts Features also gave him the opportunity to write and he scripted many of his own productions, often for the illustrious Omnibus strand. Paradise Restored, his 1972 biographical film about John Milton, was considered a great success.59 The Times wrote that “Mr Taylor gave us a searing study of the giant in chains… The thing was splendidly written and movingly performed.”60 The Guardian called it “a triumph for imagination”.61 Similar pieces about Wordsworth, Eliot and the like followed. One of Taylor’s most interesting television scripts was Prisoners, which he directed as an Arts Feature in 1971.62 It was an intelligent duologue about repression and the place of the artist in society, subjects close to Taylor’s heart.
In 1972 Taylor made his return to the BBC drama department (from which Newman had long since departed) with a studio version of his own play The Exorcism, which can only be described as a socialist ghost story.63 Although never as prolific within the system as previously, Taylor continued to direct occasional productions for the drama department, as well as Arts Features, throughout the rest of his career. His seven-year sojourn in Arts Features had not only allowed him to remain a creative force in television but had proved a valuable learning ground. He later wrote: “I can never fully express the debt of gratitude I owe to Stephen Hearst. He saved my career, and also gave me the opportunity to develop as a television writer and film maker which I would probably never have had in Drama Department.”64
Despite a deep personal aversion to commercial television, Taylor directed several plays for ATV in the mid-1970s. He began in 1974 with Visitors and The Person Responsible, both by his playwright wife Ellen Dryden.65 Two years later he directed two instalments of the Nigel Kneale anthology Beasts.66 A few years later he was set to direct Kneale’s slave drama Crow, also for ATV, but it was cancelled due to its expense. At the BBC he produced another film, Mercer’s Find Me, about a Polish ex-partisan literary figure67, and a studio drama about DH Lawrence by Fay Weldon, which could not ultimately be transmitted due to a copyright problem.68 In 1976 Taylor wrote and directed Dad for BBC2.69 The Stage and Television Today’s critic was highly impressed, praising Taylor’s “imaginative realisation in words of an idea, and his faultless direction.”70 Writing and directing again, he created the abstract studio play Flayed a few years later.71 The Stage and Television Today didn’t consider Flayed entirely successful, but observed how it “seared across its audience with merciless intensity.”72
In 1980 Taylor directed In Hiding73, which he described as the “first single camera video film”74, before returning to the more familiar multi-camera studio method for versions of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible75, Sheridan’s The Critic76 and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard.77 He wrote and directed another unusual studio drama in 1981, called A Last Visitor for Mr Hugh Peter.78 This concerned the life and death of the eponymous historical figure and included a scripted studio discussion. In 1986 he directed Sophocles’s trilogy of Theban plays, in his own new translations79, with Iphigenia at Aulis following in 199080, along with a version of Edward Bond’s Bingo.81
In 1990 Taylor took his final leave of television when his project to produce new versions of three Euripides plays was cancelled. He continued to work in theatre and radio, for which he had written numerous plays since the early-1970s, and published a memoir of his time in television called Days of Vision. Taylor continued to watch television drama after his own association with it ended, particularly following the work of writers Alans Plater, Bleasdale and Bennett. However, he considered modern drama from the 1990s and 2000s, which tended to be produced in the manner of films with an emphasis on the pictures over words, as distinct from the genre he had worked in. Although it’s not normally associated with Taylor, he followed comedy closely with a connoisseur’s eye which took in everything from Hancock and the Goons to The Fast Show, People Like Us and the work of Chris Morris.82
Don Taylor died of cancer in 2003, aged 67. He had been working up until the end, writing and translating, having forsaken morphine pain-relief until his last two weeks in case it restricted his talents.83
Taylor was an outspoken advocate of the power of television drama. In Days of Vision he wrote passionately and eloquently of the unique qualities of studio drama as a medium for creative expression, free from the conventions of naturalism imposed by other methods of production. Taylor subscribed to the most socialistic view of Public Service Broadcasting, believing in television as a great force for the advancement of culture, and steadfastly refused to alter his views to fit changing media trends. He detested the effect of commercial principles on television and was dismayed to see television being wasted on quiz shows and American imports, despising the process of cultural erosion which is now commonly referred to as “dumbing down”. Taylor concluded Days of Vision with a plea that was sadly rhetorical:
Television does not have to be cheap, depressing and second-rate. It is a beautiful, beautiful medium, capable of anything and everything the human imagination can conceive. It can be whatever we want it to be.
Why are we throwing it away?84
When looking back at the history of television drama, Taylor is a figure easily overlooked; overshadowed by the reputation of Mercer, sidelined through much of the perceived “golden age”, and dismissed by some academics for his cultural “snobbery”.85 He developed a literate, poetic drama while realism was becoming fashionable, and it was the latter school which ultimately proved to have the greater influence. Yet to forget Taylor is to lose from television history an accomplished director and a loud voice of dissent from within the ranks of television drama’s creators. With alienation and rebellion the themes of many of Taylor’s greatest productions, it is perhaps appropriate that his legacy may be to represent the cry of protest against the shifting values of a rapidly evolving broadcasting age.
With thanks to the BBC Written Archives Centre for access to research materials.
Originally posted: 15 April 2010.
[This piece first appeared in Live from Mars issue two in 2008. It is reproduced here in revised and updated form.]
14 January 2013: addition of a few new sentences (with information from December 2012 correspondence); minor revisions.
11 February 2014: added material from BBC Written Archives.
27 July 2018: added material on Newman memoir; added accompanying endnote; minor amendments: removed two endnotes, amended presentation of tx in some endnotes, one amendment to paragraphing.
18 March 2022: added sentence relating to Contrast “reliably exciting” comment; in same paragraph, changed presentation of quotation to remove blockquote.