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’. Read more... (3471 words, 1 image)
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 told. 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’. Read more... (2348 words, 1 image)
Alan Clarke was neglected for a long time by television scholars and, because all but three of his approximately sixteen screen credits between 1967 and 1989 were for television, film scholars. This has changed in recent years: see Richard Kelly’s 1998 book of interviews and my book from 2005, the first (and, I hope, not last) critical study of Clarke’s work. Best of all, in May 2016, the vast majority of Clarke’s surviving work will be made available – much of it for the first time and some of it after previously being thought lost – in the BFI DVD and blu ray releases Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC. Now everyone can find out what people have been so excited about. However, Clarke was first and foremost a television director, and as wonderful as it is that film fans are discovering Clarke, his work must be seen in the context of British television drama rather than as an aberration from it. Discussions of Clarke understandably prioritise his mid-to-late 1980s work, but this particular biography is designed to accompany the essays on this site about the dozen productions he made for Play for Today, which form around one-fifth of his total output. Read more... (3153 words, 5 images)
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.” A spell as a supply teacher followed while Taylor failed to break into the theatre. Read more... (5662 words, 2 images)
This piece was substantially revised and updated in 2013.
When people talk about the pioneers of television writing in Britain, they invariably mention those who made their reputations in the 1960s, such as Dennis Potter and John Hopkins. However, in the 1950s, Iain MacCormick was recognised as the first writer to make a name specifically from original television writing in Britain. This essay is an attempt to explain who he was, why his work was notable and why he is now so little-known.
MacCormick was born in Australia 1918 to Scottish émigré parents. He considered himself a Scot also and held a British passport. MacCormick was studying medicine when the Second World War began and he volunteered for service with the Australian army, rising to the rank of Captain. He fought in North Africa, Crete and Greece, where, in 1941, he was captured when Allied forces withdrew. He spent the next four years as a prisoner of war, during which time he took to writing, between escape attempts, and completed a number of plays. Upon his release in 1945 he was sent to Britain en route to Australia for official demobilisation, but he didn’t complete this journey, choosing to settle in London. Read more... (5147 words, 1 image)