Ingmar Bergman’s The Lie (1970)

JOHN WHEATCROFT

Play for Today / The Largest Theatre in the World Writer: Ingmar Bergman; Translated by Paul Britten Austin; Producer: Graeme McDonald; Director: Alan Bridges

‘The truth will tear us apart’

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There has been much talk recently about contemporary television producing drama superior to anything that the cinema currently has to offer. Any vestiges of snobbery about the supposed inferiority of the small screen have been snuffed out with directors such as Martin Scorsese and David Fincher choosing to work in television. Jane Campion, the New Zealander who directed An Angel at my Table and The Piano, said in an interview for The Times that TV is now producing the more pioneering work. Campion, who has directed a six-part crime thriller for television which was launched at Sundance and received its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, said after seeing HBO’s Deadwood: ‘Who is commissioning this stuff? This is a revolution, something is really happening in television.’1 It does not follow of course that revolutionary film directors will have a big impact (Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire had mixed reviews) when they transfer their attentions to TV.

Traitor (1971)

DAVID ROLINSON

Play for Today Writer: Dennis Potter; Director: Alan Bridges; Producer: Graeme McDonald
John le Mesurier with Dennis Potter (photo © Radio Times)

“I had to turn my back on all that I had been brought up to love…”

Western journalists visit Moscow to interview Adrian Harris (John Le Mesurier), a former controller in British intelligence who was also a Soviet agent passing on vital information, and who has now defected. Harris believes in both Communism and Englishness – he believes that he has betrayed “my class, yes… my country, no” – but the press find these beliefs incompatible, and want to find out why he became a “traitor”. Harris is plagued by anxieties over his actions and his upper-class childhood, and drinks to a state of collapse. Describing Traitor by using a synopsis gives the misleading impression that the play has a straightforward attitude to Harris’s psychology, just as its staging can be too easily seen as conventional – apart from a few filmed scenes and flashbacks, much of the play is based around dialogue-heavy confrontation on one set, which led some reviewers to find it “heavy going”, a “static and verbose” piece “long on self-conscious speeches and dialogue tussles which depended for their effectiveness upon liberal use of literary quotations”.1 It is no surprise that it was later remade for radio.2 However, Traitor is one of the most thematically ambitious of Dennis Potter’s early plays, tackling family psychology, patriotism and, through nuanced use of literary quotation, the way culture and institutions reinforce political values.

James MacTaggart

OLIVER WAKE

As a producer, director and writer of British television drama, James MacTaggart (1928-1974) was responsible for numerous stylistic experiments and technical innovations in the medium from the early 1960s until the mid-1970s. In a 17 year television career, he was responsible for over 130 television plays or episodes, a number that would have been much greater had it not been for his premature death. This counts drama only, but he was also prolific in non-fiction programming for both radio and television.

James MacTaggart was born in Glasgow in 1928 and after completing his schooling there joined the Royal Army Service Corps in September 1946, rising to the rank of Captain by the time of his discharge in 1949. For at least some of this period he was seconded to the Forces Broadcasting Service and worked as a producer, with a year spent broadcasting from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He later joined the Territorial Army parachute regiment. After his army service, MacTaggart enrolled at Glasgow university, studying Political Economy and Social Economics, graduating in 1954 with a Masters degree. During his period as a student he also taught as a language assistant in France.1