Tony Parker: Play for Today Biography


Tony Parker’s (25 June 1923-3 October 1996) work for Play for Today fulfils two of its central aims: to reflect contemporary society (as its title implied) and to give a hearing to otherwise neglected voices. Working in a similar manner to Jeremy Sandford, but developing his techniques even further, Parker’s dramas employed journalistic research and meticulous observation to give a voice to society’s most marginalised figures. Although the writer of a handful of superb plays, Parker was primarily a hugely respected oral historian (his ears were once described as a ‘national treasure’). His published studies and television drama were underpinned by a selfless desire to act as a witness, and to resist imposing editorial devices or contrived narratives, as he sought to ‘record without comment or judgement’ the stories he was told1. Though his work was wide-ranging – he moved between unmarried mothers in No Man’s Land (1972) and lighthouse keepers in Lighthouse (1975) – he was most associated with studies of convicted criminals, both in and out of prison. Anthony Storr described him in 1970 as ‘Britain’s most expert interviewer, mouthpiece of the inarticulate and counsel for the defence of those whom society has shunned and abandoned’2.

Born into a comfortable middle-class family in Stockport, Parker lost his mother when he was only four. As a conscientious objector during the Second World War, he was sent to work in a coal mine, a formative experience to which he returned during the 1984-5 miners’ strike in Red Hill: a mining community (1986). Moving to London, he worked as a publisher’s representative at Odham’s Press, and also gave poetry readings. Disturbed by the hanging of Derek Bentley in 1953, Parker campaigned against capital punishment and became a prison visitor. According to Irene Shubik, when he learnt ‘that a prison visitor must not associate with prisoners once they have been discharged (a time when they probably need most help), Parker became a voluntary associate – a person who offers friendship and personal help to discharged prisoners’3. After an interview with a prisoner on BBC Radio was reproduced in The Listener, Parker wrote his first book, The Courage of His Convictions (1962); typically for Parker (who maintained long friendships with many of his interviewees), its subject, Robert Allerton, is credited as co-writer. For The Frying-Pan (1970), the study which inspired A Life is For Ever, Parker was given permission to interview prisoners and staff while living in HMP Grendon Underwood, Britain’s first psychiatric prison. Here he cut through politically-motivated debates on the nature of punishment and rehabilitation to get at the lived experiences of those within4. This also motivated the platform given to prisoners’ writing, conversation and art in A Man Inside (1973), and the Omnibus programme Men in Prison, described by Allerton as giving ‘more of the feel of what being in prison is like’ than most things he’d seen5. Complicating traditional sociology, such work understands that, according to one contributor, ‘Reading all the books there’ve ever been about prisons won’t bring you anywhere near [the actual experience], because they’re mostly written by people who haven’t been inside. Even those who have would only be writing about how it was to them anyway… recreating a personal experience’6.

The consequences of institutionalisation and the ways it undermines rehabilitation into society feature in several of his television plays. The Story Parade play The Unknown Citizen (BBC2, 21 August 1964) was adapted by Philip Broadley from Parker’s 1964 book of the same name. It features Charlie (Victor Maddern), who has spent 26 of his 48 years in prison, but, as the Radio Times summarises, ‘every time he is set free, after progressively longer sentences, he faces the bewildering world outside – with less chance of adapting to it’7. He wrote two scripts for The Wednesday Play, Mrs Lawrence Will Look After It (BBC1, 21 August 1969) about an illegal baby-minder, and Chariot of Fire (BBC1, 20 May 1970), which was written in the wake of his sex offenders study The Twisting Lane (1969), and portrays voluntary associate Shelley Mitchell (Rosemary Leach)’s attempts to rehabilitate Stanley Wood (Jimmy Gardner).

If Chariot of Fire moved away from documentary visuals to a studio treatment of an individual character’s revelations, another piece – Five Women, drawn from his 1965 book of interviews with women who’d been in prison – became embroiled in the continuing hysteria over the fusion of drama and documentary. An unattributed piece in the Radio Times in January 1969 addressed ‘the viewer’, who has ‘learned to distinguish between those programmes which he knows to be fact and those he knows to be fiction by means of a series of conventions which he has come to respect’. However, this ‘simple situation has been complicated’ by plays like Cathy Come Home and Parker’s Mrs Lawrence Will Look After It, well-acted dramas’ making ‘a deliberate comment’ on social problems through use of ‘actual real-life material’. Drawing attention to the danger that ‘these new programme techniques [might] be taken too far’, the BBC reassures the reader that ‘it seeks to keep faith with the viewers’, as they ‘have a right to know what they are looking at’8. In response, eight practitioners headed by Tony Garnett interpreted this as a warning: ‘if you refuse to take our gentlemanly hints, we shall censor or ban any of your programmes which deal in social and political attitudes not acceptable to us. The odd rebel may be allowed to kick over the traces, occasionally. Provided this is an isolated event, and not part of a general movement, it only helps us to preserve our liberal and independent image’. Whilst it was okay for Alf Garnett to appear in a real football crowd without the masses being duped, the key was ‘this is an argument about content, not about form’9.

To illustrate this point, they draw attention to Parker’s Five Women, produced by Tony Garnett and directed by Roy Battersby, completed ‘over eighteen months ago’ but not yet shown. ‘The BBC has never given a clear reason for banning this show’, the letter continues, ‘After more than twelve months of conversations and correspondence with the BBC, the writer, the director and the producer are still mystified’. They can only speculate that its use of actresses was so convincing that ‘despite the end credits, and front titles identifying it as a Wednesday Play by an author and a Radio Times billing doing both, the BBC decided that viewers might be misled into thinking it was real!’ Paul Fox, Controller of BBC1, replies that Five Women was ‘rejected as a play and turned down as a documentary because it is neither one thing nor the other’.10

John Hill has recently uncovered more of the background to the production and context for the dispute quoted above.11 Director Roy Battersby was seconded from Science and Features to work on this ‘documentary-style project that Garnett appears to have rescued […] from the Drama Department’s reject file.’ Shot entirely on location on 16mm film, the production uses interviews that Parker recorded over two years, but the interviewees were – as Hill notes – unlikely either to appear on-screen or be as candid as they were in private. Therefore,

while Parker does appear in front of camera, the women he interviews are not the original interviewees but rather actresses who have previously immersed themselves in the published material. As a result, the production possesses a peculiar status. While it is in part a-selective-recreation of the original interviews, it also [… employs improvisation, which might…] invest the drama with added “authenticity”, [but] it also imports an element of overt performativity […] that positions the production somewhere between a simulated documentary and a dramatic experiment.12

Hill documents the in-house reaction – ranging from robust defence (story editor Kenith Trodd) to complaints that it was not a ‘PLAY’ (Head of Plays Gerald Savory) and was a ‘”misbegotten” hybrid’ (Controller of Programmes Huw Wheldon).13 In public, in the Radio Times, the BBC acknowledged that the programme would be shown ‘Subject to some modifications’ and with clearer labelling about it being neither a drama nor a documentary,14 a point that Paul Fox made in more detail in a letter to Parker,15 and a point that Wheldon made to the BBC some years later in terms of audiences being fooled by its ambiguous status.16 The edited version of the play was broadcast as Some Women,17 after the removal of a whole section – the most straightforward way to reduce the running time – that happened to mean removing ‘the play’s potentially most controversial character, the “lesbian drug-addict” played by Bella Emberg.18 The debate obscured Parker’s status as a ‘proponent of social reform’ as revealed in ‘the play’s emphasis upon the social and psychological factors underlying the women’s criminal behaviour (including, in the case of the programme’s most “hardened” criminal, parental sexual abuse)’ which demonstrated ‘criticism of the way in which the legal and penal system dealt with recurrent offenders.19

In this climate, at a time when Ken Loach and Jim Allen’s The Big Flame was also facing postponements and the prospect of not being shown, Julian Petley relates the BBC’s ‘cold feet and censoriousness’ towards Five Women to the fact that Parker and Battersby were also ‘both known “radicals” in BBC terms’20. Regardless of whether Garnett et al were right to see this drama-documentary ‘debate’ as a ‘warning’ against radical drama – for more coverage of Hill’s piece in relation to Roy Battersby’s experiences at the BBC, see this piece on Leeds United! (1974) – but Parker was just one of the writers who suffered from its consequences. For instance, Parker developed another play with Alan Clarke after A Life is For Ever, around the time of Clarke’s feature film remake of Scum, but as Clarke recalled, this ‘film production – concerning the life of a female psychopath was banned by the BBC before I even got past planning’21. This was, according to Clarke, ‘also concerned with the law – a story about a relationship between an ex-prisoner and a policewoman’22.

Tony Parker died in Suffolk in 1996, shortly after completing a study of Studs Terkel, an American oral historian he greatly admired, though with a different style. As Colin Ward wrote in the Independent, Parker’s ‘own triumphs were the result of his gentleness and modesty, which led the most taciturn or suspicious of people to open up with confidences they would not dream of revealing to more self-assertive questioners’23. Speculating on whether a successor could emerge as Parker did in the early 1960s, Keith Soothill has observed that ‘publishing has changed, the media generally have changed, the various institutions who opened their doors to Parker have changed and certainly criminology has changed’24. To this, inevitably, can be added the single play. Though his contribution to television drama (including the Walrus Plays for children) has been somewhat neglected, his three contributions to Play for Today epitomise some of its most impressive characteristics. Speaking about A Life is For Ever, Irene Shubik concluded that Parker’s plays were generally well reviewed and, most strikingly, tended to attract large audiences. Never a ‘propagandist’, Parker ‘showed all sides of the story and left the audience to think and draw their own conclusions’25. Though self-effacingly keen to stress that he had ‘no personality’, Parker’s efforts to give a voice to others represents a distinctive voice of its own, and his loss has left a profound and lasting silence.

Originally posted: 1 July 2003 on the old Mausoleum Club version of this site.
2006: transferred to the old University of Hull version of this site.
2009: transferred to new Play for Today mini-site initially separate from the British Television Drama site
4 November 2010: first appearance of this essay on the main British Television Drama site, moved from a different URL, as all the pieces from the old mini-site were transferred to the main site.
18 November 2014: added quotations from Hill (2013), incorporating them into (and amending) pre-existing text such as the Radio Times quotations.
4 March 2017: standardised presentation of ‘Updates’ legacy information (2003, 2006, 2009) in line with current site practice.

  1. Times obituary, 11 October 1996. 

  2. Sunday Times, 15 February 1970. 

  3. Irene Shubik, Play for today: the evolution of television drama (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), p. 78. 2nd edition. 

  4. Tony Parker, The Frying-Pan: a prison and its prisoners (London: Hutchinson, 1970). 

  5. Tony Parker (editor), A Man Inside: An Anthology of writing and conversational comment by men in prison (London: Michael Joseph, 1973), p. 7. 

  6. Ibid, p. 17. 

  7. Tony Aspler, preview, Radio Times, 13 August 1964, p. 47. 

  8. ‘Talking Point: Keeping Faith with the Viewer’, Radio Times, 16 January 1969, p. 4. For more on this, see Dave Rolinson, Alan Clarke (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). 

  9. Letter jointly signed by Tony Garnett, Jim Allen, Roy Battersby, Clive Goodwin, Ken Loach, James MacTaggart, Roger Smith and Kenith Trodd, Radio Times, 13 February 1969, p. 2. 

  10. Paul Fox, postscript to above letter. 

  11. John Hill, ‘From Five Women to Leeds United!: Roy Battersby and the Politics of “Radical” Television Drama’, Journal of British Cinema and Television, Volume 10, Number 1, 2013, pp. 130-150. 

  12. Hill, p. 133. 

  13. Ibid, pp. 133-134. 

  14. Paul Fox, postscript to above letter. 

  15. Letter, 14 March 1969, discussed in Hill, p. 134. 

  16. Wheldon to the BBC’s General Advisory Council in 1975, discussed in Hill, p. 135. 

  17. Some Women, tx. BBC1, 21 August 1969. 

  18. Ibid, p. 135. 

  19. Hill, p. 136. 

  20. Julian Petley, ‘Factual fictions and fictional fallacies: Ken Loach’s documentary dramas’, in George McKnight (editor), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 1997), pp. 38, 57. 

  21. Cas Cassidy, ‘Men Behind Scum’, Irish Times, 1 August 1979. 

  22. Jennifer Selway, ‘Terms of Confinement’, Time Out, 21 September 1979, p. 18. 

  23. Colin Ward, Independent obituary, 11 October 1996. 

  24. Keith Soothill, ‘Opening Doors and Windows for Tony Parker’, The British Criminology Conference: Selected Proceedings Volume 4, papers from the British Society of Crimonology Conference, Leicester, July 2000, reproduced here.  

  25. Shubik, Play for Today, pp. 85-86.