Philip Saville: Play for Today Biography

OLIVER WAKE

Philip Saville is a director whose work on Play for Today cannot be easily categorised. The variety of his eight contributions is testament to the scope of both strand and director. Saville was an iconoclastic, innovative director, whose credits include many pioneering productions and notable television firsts.

Saville had a lengthy background in drama before moving into television directing. He had previously acted in theatre, film and television, and directed for the stage, on both sides of the Atlantic. Back in Britain, he joined ITV company Associated-Rediffusion in 1955, for whom he directed drama and contributed to Richard Lester comedy programmes. He continued to take occasional acting roles in film and television throughout this time, not stopping until the early 1960s. In 1956 he joined the drama department at ABC, another ITV company. He would ultimately direct more than forty plays for the company’s prestigious Armchair Theatre strand.

Although its innovation is largely credited to Sydney Newman, even before his arrival in 1958 those behind Armchair Theatre were attempting to breathe fresh life into television drama, creating a dynamic production style. Saville’s contemporary Ted Kotcheff recalled that from ‘the time that we came and started at Armchair Theatre, Philip Saville and myself and other directors wanted really to push against the limitations of the media, the way it was presently conceived’.1

Saville was a pioneer of the innovative visual style that the anthology became known for. He created a vibrant drama model, with rapid on-air camera movement. His plays included elaborate sets, unusual optical effects, and cameras that panned and tracked through the action. The roving and probing of his cameras often added a new dimension to his plays, which might otherwise have appeared static as more traditional television drama did. However, some viewers complained of the distracting effect of the seemingly incessant movement. For example, John Russell Taylor accused Saville of burying the romantic drama Duel for Love ‘under intricate camerawork of exquisite beauty and complete irrelevance’.2 Another critic referred to Saville’s need ‘to wilfully over-produce’ and caustically called him the ‘Orson Welles of Teddington Lock’.3

One of Saville’s greatest successes with Armchair Theatre was his impressive production of A Night Out which, in 1960, introduced a vast audience to the work of Harold Pinter.4 Another good example was Afternoon of a Nymph, a tale about the more sordid end of show business. Featuring trick shots, crowded party scenes (a Saville speciality), a dream sequence and heroic use of the studio’s own infrastructure, the play is indicative of Saville’s skill. It is all the more impressive that Saville managed the results he did at a time when drama was broadcast live or, as in these examples, recorded ‘as live’ with few breaks or opportunities to retake.

As well as a technical virtuosity, Saville’s early work is also notable for its expression of the director’s interest in psychological states and subjective viewpoints. In 1962 Saville commented that he was drawn to plays about the individual’s ‘fight to remain an individual, to define himself for himself’.5 A colleague more pithily noted that ‘if Philip had his way, all his plays would take place in an asylum’.6 It wasn’t long before one did, with 1963’s The Madhouse on Castle Street, Saville’s first play for the BBC. Set in the strange world of a disturbed recluse, it was an unusual piece for which Saville hired a pre-fame Bob Dylan to provide a form of musical Greek chorus. One critic wrote that the play

had all the characteristics of his most boldly imaginative work for [Armchair Theatre]: the rich chiaroscuro, the intricate camera movement …, the passion for vast, meaningful close-ups. The production also had one or two more startling touches, particularly in the brief, vividly New Wavy flashbacks in which suddenly we see what the characters are really thinking, not what they happen to be saying at the time. 7

1964 saw one of Saville’s greatest triumphs, again at the BBC. Hamlet at Elsinore was a full-length performance of Shakespeare’s play made on location using the new medium of Outside Broadcast (OB) video. The location was Denmark’s Kronborg castle, considered the play’s real setting. Made as a co-production between the BBC and the Danish television service, the play was epic in every respect and unprecedented in its scale. It was well received and critic Philip Purser later asserted that ‘Saville couldn’t have better demonstrated the infinite possibilities of location recording’.8 The same year Saville won the Television Guild award for drama production. He went on to further explore and refine the process of location video recording in 1974’s The Actual Woman – a production which saw the drama debut of new lightweight OB equipment – and 1982’s Boys from the Blackstuff.9

Although most of his work around this time was for the BBC, Saville continued to direct occasional instalments of Armchair Theatre for ABC. Perhaps most notable of these was his vivid and unusual production of Charles Wood’s Prisoner and Escort in 1964. Eschewing conventional sets, Saville recorded the drama around scaffolding and moving screens within an otherwise empty studio, with sound and lighting effects employed to help establish settings. Captions appeared thanks to close-ups on cards placed on the screens and the floor and at one point Saville directs the camera shot into the studio lighting gantry where it is seemingly fired upon by a soldier who takes no part in the rest of the drama.

Remembering him from ABC as one of ‘a handful of truly individualistic directors whose technical knowledge had long since become second nature to them’, producer Irene Shubik invited Saville to direct an instalment of her BBC2 science-fiction anthology Out of the Unknown in 1966.10 It was a dramatisation of E M Forster’s 1908 story The Machine Stops, which depicts a subterranean, machine-dependent humanity reaching its end. It was a highly complex production and Shubik later recalled how Saville ‘revelled in such problems as having a fully practical monorail in the studio, duplicate sets built like honeycombs and numerous, extraordinarily complex, special effects’.11 With an appropriately Edwardian vision of the future and some eerie location sequences depicting the surface of the Earth, The Machine Stops is indeed a very impressive piece of television. The play was a critical success, drew praise from Forster himself, and won first prize at the 1967 Trieste festival of science-fiction films.

Saville’s experimental play The Logic Game, seen on BBC2 in 1965, was one of the very first television plays to be recorded entirely on film and, equally unusually, was screened at British film festivals both before and after transmission. Co-written by Saville and his wife, playwright Jane Arden, The Logic Game was an exploration of isolation and notions of subjective reality. One critic dismissed it as ‘an ineffably self-admiring magpie’s nest of avant-garde tricks’.12 Another was more positive, asserting that ‘its style and the measure of its success indicate the possible affinities of a new kind of expression in television drama’.13 Saville refined his technique with a further filmed play, Exit 19, the next year. The Stage and Television Today reported that it was ‘a successful and absorbing development of [Saville’s previous] experiments. Gone was the hint of gimmickry for the sake of gimmickry: every shot, every trick effect, had good reason for being there.’14

Another experiment was 1969’s The Mark II Wife. For this, Saville recorded the output of the electronic studio to film, rather than mixing his shots straight to videotape. This technique, a hybrid of film and multi-camera recording, allowed him to re-shoot key scenes from different characters’ perspectives, editing them together later and re-mixing the soundtrack. 1971’s O Fat White Woman for Play for Today gave Saville a further opportunity to play with altered perspective shots.

As well as giving him opportunity to expand his experimental repertoire on television, the 1960s had seen Saville make his debut as director of feature films. He began with 1966’s Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, a musical which was filmed in two weeks with an innovative system which used certain television techniques to greatly increase the speed of production.15 This was followed in 1967 with Oedipus the King and then 1968’s The Best House in London, a tale about a Victorian government-sponsored brothel. In 1971 Saville directed Secrets, which was reportedly the country’s first commercial feature made using Super 16mm film, which enabled massive budgetary savings.16

The 1970s saw Saville become involved with the BBC’s Play for Today from the very beginning, directing the debut drama The Long Distance Piano Player. That play gave Saville little scope for his characteristic visual embellishments, but the same was not true of The Rainbirds. As the central character lays comatose, the psychological pressures – such as the goading of his war-loving parents – leading to his attempted suicide are dramatised as a series of grotesque and absurd dream sequences. The producer, Shubik again, felt Saville’s ‘over-complicated technical feats … undoubtedly added to the confusion’ of an already over-loaded piece.17 Viewers wrote to the Radio Times to commend Saville’s ‘most interesting and meaningful camera compositions’ and to complain of the ‘gratuitous horror’.18 There is some truth in all of these comments, with the drama mixing inspired absurdities with repetitive and densely symbolic scenes, and the use of actuality footage of real death and mutilation sits uneasily with the fantasy (although that was perhaps the intention).

For The Foxtrot, Saville used more sedate visual devices: subtle superimpositions and captions dividing scenes. In the Beautiful Caribbean, a musical drama about the revolutionary politics in Jamaica was, according to Shubik, fraught, expensive and ‘too ambitious’ a production.19 1975’s Gangsters is one of Saville’s best remembered productions. Set amongst the criminal underworld of Birmingham, with gangs as ethnically diverse as the city, the play was a vivid tale of sex, violence and racketeering. Although making great use of location filming, the drama had a non-naturalistic edge, incorporating freeze frames, allusions to the Hollywood Western genre, and inter-cutting footage from lurid Asian violence-and-melodrama films. Albert Hunt wrote in New Society that

The play established from the beginning that we’re not in the world of ‘documentary reality’. The colour related to the garish colours of American horror comics, harsh purples, pinks and greens. Here, says the colour, is all the vulgarity of the comics plonked in the world of Spaghetti Junction.20

The News of the World reported on the controversy caused by the ‘sex and savagery film’, with complaints of misrepresentation being made by a leader of Birmingham’s Asian community.21 Saville was no stranger to controversy, having courted it regularly in his Armchair Theatre days. 1959’s Three on a Gas Ring was never broadcast (banned by the Independent Television Authority according to some accounts) due to its shocking storyline about an unrepentant single mother.22 It was one of three Saville productions of the period to be recorded and then shelved indefinitely.

It is notable how between the mid-1970s and the early 1980s Saville embraced and exploited the advancing technologies of electronic effects and video editing, bedecking many of his productions in a kaleidoscope of technical wizardry. Whilst these effects were often appropriate, for example to his 1980 production of Strindberg’s fantasy The Ghost Sonata, with its ‘Discrete and fastidious use… of colour separation techniques to suggest reality’s thin veneer’, as one critic wrote, they were also sometimes misplaced.23 1978’s Rotten, about a Beatles-obsessed youth, is a disaster of superimposition, psychedelic colours, newsreel montage and discordant sounds.

For his lavish Count Dracula in 1977 Saville used electronic superimposition, picture distortion and images polarised to monochrome and blood red to help imbue the story with the required supernatural chills. The drama was highly praised, with The Times reporting that

In purely technical terms Count Dracula was a tour de force. The soundtrack … underlined the camera’s deft pinpointing of detail, a lengthening canine, a suddenly red eye. Sometimes, with a swift lurch into negative colour, the screen itself seemed to go mad, and then back we would be in pretty Whitby – graves, clouds and the sea.24

This period also saw Saville playing with genre, notably in 1976’s Meriel, the Ghost Girl. The play is divided into four sections, each imitating or parodying a different genre, as a succession of characters attempt to account for a Victorian haunting. It begins in a conventional naturalistic vein but goes on to include sections of monochrome ‘hard boiled’ detective parody and wobbly student video investigation. This blurring of television modes reached its ultimate expression in 1981. Having previously struggled to keep errant studio equipment from creeping into shot, Saville purposely brought the whole studio into view for the unconventional drama-documentary The Journal of Bridget Hitler. The production, written by Beryl Bainbridge, concerned Hitler’s alleged visit to Liverpool in 1912. As television historian Lez Cooke explains,

rather than filming the events in [a] conventional manner as a historical narrative, Saville had the action take the form of an investigation played out in a television studio, with two interviewers questioning the now elderly Bridget Hitler … about the events described in her journal, some of which are shown as flashbacks on a large video screen in the studio.25

Mocking the liability of electronic effects to misfire, and including scenes set in BBC dressing-rooms and canteen, Bridget Hitler effectively undermined the pretence of television naturalism. Whilst praising the ‘beautiful video effects’, Michael Ratcliffe felt that director and writer were ‘pulling in opposite directions: hers towards pathetic and precisely calculated farce, his towards the technology of visualisation and the drama-doc possibilities of TV.’26 The production is a testament to Saville’s ambitious and unconventional vision of what television itself can be.

Another landmark assignment followed in 1982. Alan Bleasdale’s five-part Boys from the Blackstuff followed the lives of a gang of unemployed tarmac-layers struggling to support their families and find work in the crumbling industrial north. Recorded on location around Liverpool, the series exposed the humiliation and desperation of unemployment at a time when three million were jobless. Saville was a last minute appointment as director, when the original choice proved unavailable. Producer Michael Wearing noted that

The burning problem for me was how to bring this off on OB. I knew what we needed was an incredibly charismatic and experienced director, totally regardless of personality and ability with actors… It was very important to get somebody who could bring about the effect of the irresistible force meeting an immovable object.27

To complete the serial on budget, a method of working with the latest lightweight OB video equipment was devised. Saville recorded some scenes with the usual multi-camera technique, but most he captured a shot at a time in the manner of film production. This innovation allowed for a speed and economy of work impossible with film shooting, whilst enabling the final shape of the programme to be arrived at in the less hurried environment of the edit suite. With more varied locations, and the need to record around water, the fourth episode was the only one to be completed on film.

The production made great use of Merseyside locations, with derelict docks and factories awaiting demolition symbolically encapsulating the situation of the characters. The use of OB video lent the production a hyper-naturalistic feel, rather than the traditionally disjointed faux-realism of previous ‘social issues’ drama performed on location. Boys from the Blackstuff was rapturously received; transferring from BBC2 to 1, the series was granted one of the quickest repeat runs in television history. Effectively communicating its author’s conviction that life in Thatcher’s Britain was ‘an absurd, mad, black farce’, the series stands as television’s greatest evocation of the spirit of the decade and is the crowning achievement of Saville’s career.28

Perhaps Saville’s last major success was 1986’s The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, a blackly comic adaptation of Fay Weldon’s transgressive novel. With a heavily stylised production, the serial was unconventional in the extreme, and went on to win the BAFTA best drama series award. In the 1980s Saville also directed several feature films, such as The Fruit Machine, about two gay teenagers on the run, and the peculiar black comedy Shadey.

The 1990s saw Saville’s output slow as film recording for television drama, with an extended production process, became the norm. In 1995 he added a producer’s credit to his bow for The Buccaneers miniseries. He also took several television assignments in America and contributed to the BBC’s filmed drama anthology Screen One. However, the time of experimentation and innovation in television had passed by the end of the 1980s and Saville’s productions from this point on rarely stood out from the crowd as they had in the past.

Philip Saville’s television work helped to achieve a less static, more three-dimensional style in the 1950s, and created new, often hybrid, methods of working in the following three decades. Embracing all the possibilities offered by new technology, Saville experimented his way through thirty-odd years of television production, forging new methods. As John McGrath wrote in 1983, it is to Saville’s ‘enormous credit that he has weathered the storms of philistine abuse poured on his constant need to experiment with form, pushed forward the frontiers of TV drama, and kept his own, and our, imaginations alive.’29

After Philip Saville passed away in December 2016, Lez Cooke posted this tribute and interview over at Forgotten Television Drama: this tribute and interview over at Forgotten Television Drama.

Originally posted: circa 2007 the old Hull University version of this site.
Updates:
2009: transferred to new Play for Today mini-site initially separate from the British Television Drama site.
January 2010: revised while on the mini-site.
4 November 2010: transferred to main Play for Today site, with different URL.
7 January 2013: substantially revised, with new material (including coverage of Prisoner and Escort), amendments and deletions.
5 February 2017: added link to Cooke tribute.
4 March 2017: standardised presentation of ‘Updates’ legacy information (2003, 2006, 2009, 2010) in line with current site practice; corrected coding error in Cooke link.



  1. Ted Kotcheff in And Now For Your Sunday Night Dramatic Entertainment, Channel 4 documentary, 8 February 1987. []
  2. John Russell Taylor, Anatomy of a Television Play (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962), p. 208. For further exploration of the differing views of Saville’s style, see the article on this site covering the 1971 play The Foxtrot. []
  3. Anonymous, ‘Drama Behind The Scenes’, The Stage and Television Today, 6 September 1962, p. 11. []
  4. The staggering figure of 20 million is commonly cited for the size of the play’s audience. []
  5. Quoted in John Russell Taylor, Anatomy of a Television Play, p. 121. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Anonymous, ‘Bold Camera Work and a Savage Setting’, The Times, 14 January 1963, p. 12. []
  8. Philip Purser in Leslie Halliwell, Halliwell’s Television Companion, Third Edition (London: Grafton Books, 1986), p. 257. []
  9. See Bob Millington and Robin Nelson, Boys from the Blackstuff: The Making of TV Drama (London, Comedia, 1986), p. 41. []
  10. Irene Shubik, Play for Today: The Evolution of Television Drama, Second Edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), p. 26. []
  11. Ibid, p. 126. []
  12. Anonymous, ‘A Blind Eye on TV Plays of Merit’, The Times, 20 February 1965, p. 6. []
  13. Anonymous, ‘Television Drama and the Visual Image’, The Times, 3 April 1965, p. 12. []
  14. Marjorie Norris, ‘Absorbing development from previous experiments’, The Stage and Television Today, 11 August 1966, p. 26. []
  15. See Gerard Fay, ‘Pinewood letter’, The Guardian, 20 November 1965, p. 8. []
  16. See Derek Malcolm, ‘Raising the ghost of the Bogie Men’, The Guardian, 9 December 1971, p. 10. []
  17. Shubik, Play for Today, p. 151. []
  18. ‘Two views of The Rainbirds‘, Radio Times, 4 March 1971. See an earlier version of this website for a reproduction of this page here. []
  19. Shubik, Play for Today, p. 136. []
  20. Albert Hunt, ‘Television’s Real Life’, New Society, 30 January 1975, as reproduced in the programme notes for the National Film Theatre’s screening of Gangsters in August 2001. []
  21. Anonymous, ‘Gangs Film Shocker on TV Starts a Storm’, News of the World, 12 January 1975, as reproduced in the NFT’s programme notes on Gangsters, August 2001. []
  22. It was banned by the ITA according to ‘Bates Beats the Jinx’, Picturegoer, 19 March 1960, reproduced at the Alan Bates Archive. However, a less sensational account is given in Anonymous, ‘ABC-TV and the Press’, The Stage and Television Today, 18 February 1960, p. 9. []
  23. Michael Church, ‘The Ghost Sonata’, The Times, 24 March 1980, p. 9. []
  24. Michael Church, ‘Count Dracula’, The Times, 23 December 1977, p. 7. []
  25. Lez Cooke, British Television Drama: A History (London: British Film Institute, 2003), p. 134. []
  26. Michael Ratcliffe, ‘The Journal of Bridget Hitler’, The Times, 7 February 1981, p. 9. []
  27. Wearing, quoted in Millington and Nelson, p. 48. []
  28. Alan Bleasdale, quoted in Ibid, p. 21. []
  29. John McGrath, ‘The boys are back’, The Listener, 13 January 1983, p. 28. []