Re-recording live drama: the fallibility of the television drama record


Anyone researching live television drama will inevitably encounter the well-known obstacle that only a small percentage of live broadcasts were recorded from transmission and subsequently archived. A lesser-known obstacle for anyone trying to appreciate the quality and aesthetics of live drama is that those recordings which were made and archived are not necessarily an accurate representation of the programmes as broadcast.

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James O’Connor


James O’Connor – often known as Jimmy O’Connor – wrote a number of popular and successful television plays in the 1960s and early ‘70s, regularly collaborating with director Ken Loach. He had an unusual background for a television dramatist. He was formerly a career criminal who had turned to writing while serving a life sentence for murder, having narrowly avoided being hanged.

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Experiments in colour and electronic film systems: George’s Room (1967)


Half-Hour Story Writer: Alun Owen; Producer: Stella Richman; Director: Alan Clarke

BTVD_George's Room_1How and why is George’s Room in colour? Anyone coming to George’s Room knowing the rest of director Alan Clarke’s plays for Rediffusion’s Half-Hour Story strand thanks to the BFI’s Alan Clarke at the BBC set might wonder why this is the only one in colour and why it looks so different from the others.1 In comparison with the inventive compositions, fast cutting (vision mixing) and ambitious camerawork of plays like Stella, George’s Room seems highly conventional in its largely static compositions and its alternation between mid-shots, close-ups and wide two-shots: a reviewer at the time said that the play ‘has almost no movement’ and ‘could easily pass as a radio play’, watching characters ‘speaking or listening’.2 In the circumstances this is perhaps unsurprising. Clarke directed this colour version at Wembley Studios, using the same electronic multi-camera set-up as his black and white Half-Hour Story plays. However, George’s Room adapted this set-up in order to use ‘E-cam’, a system designed to make filmed drama in television studios. There were similar attempts to combine television and film technology elsewhere in the television and cinema industries – as we shall see – but Rediffusion were pioneering the integration of film and the electronic multi-camera studio. George’s Room was the main pilot experiment to test ‘E-cam’, which makes it a fascinating moment in British television drama, a stepping stone to possible futures in the use of colour and the convergence between television and cinema. This essay is the most detailed exploration of George’s Room to date. This might not be surprising, given that those studying Clarke could only access an incomplete version,3 until, as the BFI’s Sam Dunn explained, ‘the missing half […] was discovered hiding in the deep recesses of the National Archive’.4 This essay provides information on different stages – from commissioning to overseas sales – but its main focus is on the play as an experiment in colour and electronic film.

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  1. George’s Room appears on both DVD and blu-ray versions, while the others appear only on the blu-ray. 

  2. Henry Raynor, ‘Radio play for television’, The Times, 31 August 1967, p. 5. 

  3. Half of the play, joined with the published script, form the basis of the analysis in Dave Rolinson, Alan Clarke (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005. 

  4. Sam Dunn, quoted in James Oliver, ‘Sam Dunn, producer of Dissent and Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC’, available at Moviemail here. 

Stella (1968)


Half Hour Story Writer: Alun Owen; Producer: Stella Richman; Director: Alan Clarke

BTVD_Stella_11The BFI’s superb new Alan Clarke box sets contain many treats – they at last make most of the director’s surviving BBC work available to everyone and do so with such loving remastering and restoration that even those of us who have seen these pieces many times have never seen or heard them like this – but I’m particularly pleased with the bonus DVD on the main blu ray set Dissent and Disruption: The Complete Alan Clarke at the BBC.1 This collects several of Clarke’s early plays for the ITV strand Half Hour Story (1967-68), including pieces that were thought lost from the archive.2 I say more about Half Hour Story in my new essays for the blu ray booklet, and more about this and Clarke’s other early ITV work in my book Alan Clarke (2005);3 however, this website essay revisits Stella (1968), one of my favourite Half Hour Story plays, to study it in more detail.4 Clarke is rightly being celebrated by film critics for his filmed drama, but we should not forget that he was also a master of the electronic multi-camera studio. This results in such impressive studio experiments as Danton’s Death (1978), Psy-Warriors (1981) and Baal (1982), but there are signs of his qualities in Stella and the other plays that he made at Wembley Studios in his early days at Rediffusion.

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  1. The only BBC piece that is not included in the set despite surviving in the archive is Horatio Bottomley, a 1972 play in the series The Edwardians, but this is already available in the DVD release of The Edwardians. The Half Hour Story plays are a bonus item and the set does not claim to be complete in terms of his ITV work. Although Fast Hands (1976) was released by Network in the Plays for Britain set and Made in Britain has been released several times, most effectively alongside the rest of its original play strand Tales Out of School (1983), there are several surviving Clarke ITV productions – drama and documentary, broadcast and non-broadcast – that still await release. Achilles Heel is currently available online on the BFI Player [information correct as of July 2016], where some Half Hour Story pieces – including Stella – can be found, as well as films and his episode of The Edwardians

  2. The Gentleman Caller (1967), Thief (1968) and the second half of George’s Room (1967); some are also available to watch online at BFI Player. Even more impressively, elsewhere in the DVD/blu ray sets can be found a complete version of Clarke’s documentary Bukovsky. In other words, ‘new’ Alan Clarke that even those of us who’ve been studying him for decades have never seen! 

  3. Dave Rolinson, Alan Clarke (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005 [paperback reprint 2011]; David Rolinson, ‘Stella‘, Dissent and Disruption: The Complete Alan Clarke at the BBC (British Film Institute, 2016). 

  4. Half Hour Story: ‘Stella’, tx. ITV, 19 June 1968, 9.00pm. This was the slot for broadcast in the Associated Rediffusion region but there were regional variations, as was often the case in the regional structure that at this stage comprised ITV. The following information comes from listings magazines, though is as-yet unverified. Channel Isles showed the play first, on 8 June 1968; the 19 June broadcast was shared with Border, Grampian, Midlands, Tyne Tees and Ulster; the play was also shown on the same day but in a 10.30pm slot by Granada. Scotland and Southern broadcast the play at 10.30pm on 20 June. It appears that Anglia, Harlech and Teledu Cymru did not broadcast the play, but this has yet to be confirmed. Thanks to Ian Greaves for listings magazine research for the 2005 book. 

Conversation at Night (1969)


Thirty-Minute Theatre Writer: Friedrich Dürrenmatt; Translated by: Robert David MacDonald; Producer: Innes Lloyd; Director: Rudolph Cartier

Thirty-Minute Theatre was a drama strand instigated by the BBC to return shorter plays, transmitted live, to the television schedules.1 It began in October 1965 with a version of Roald Dahl’s Parson’s Pleasure, and ultimately produced over 250 dramas, although by the end of 1968 the live element was had been entirely dropped. 1969’s Conversation at Night was director Rudolph Cartier’s fourth entry into the BBC2 anthology, following Brainscrew in 1966, The News-Benders in 1968, and the Hitler segment of the These Men Are Dangerous trilogy from earlier in 1969.2 It was Cartier’s last production under BBC contract as he returned to freelance work thereafter.3

The short play was written by leading post-war Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, who is best known for his full-length satirical stage dramas The Visit and The Physicists. Conversation at Night started out as a German radio play in 1952 and transferred to the Munich stage the same year. It came to Britain as a radio play first, translated and produced by Christopher Holme for the BBC’s Third Programme in 1963.4 The stage version premiered in London in 1966. For television, the play was translated by Robert David MacDonald and produced by Innes Lloyd.

The play is a duologue between a prominent liberal writer in an unnamed European dictatorship and the state assassin. Confronted in his own study, the writer attempts to defend his freedom of expression in the face of the assassin’s advocacy of the status quo. The play is more than a Platonic dialogue however, also discussing “what the executioner calls ‘the art of dying’, of accepting death without rebellion, bitterness or terror”, as The Times reported, with the writer ultimately able to accept his demise with a quiet dignity.5

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  1. Tony Aspler, ‘Thirty-Minute Theatre’, Radio Times, 30 September 1965, p. 54. 

  2. Brainscrew, tx. BBC2, 12 December 1966; The News-Benders, tx. BBC2, 10 January 1968; These Men Are Dangerous: Hitler, tx. BBC2, 27 January 1969. 

  3. Anon, ‘Guinness and Gielgud in BBC-2 play’, The Stage and Television Today, 20 March 1969, p. 10. 

  4. Conversation at Night, tx. Third Programme, 29 November 1963. 

  5. Henry Raynor, ‘A gentle executioner’, The Times, 9 May 1969, p. 16.