Docudrama – Notes #1: TV sets & TV Centre

DAVID ROLINSON

BTVD_Docudrama1_Castles
Near the end of Castles in the Sky (2014), the docudrama about the invention of Radar broadcast on BBC Two earlier this month, Robert Watson-Watt (Eddie Izzard) shows his colleagues a television set.1 This produces another of the little scientific breakthroughs that form the core of this quietly endearing piece. The set is at once modern and archaic: in the programme’s 1930s setting this gleaming new object is a technological marvel, proposing a solution to a challenge on which the defence of the nation rests, but in the visual rhetoric of the 2014 drama it appears almost comic. This reminded me of some of the tensions that sometimes result when television technology appears in docudramas, either in terms of sets or studios. This article runs through a few such moments in pieces including The Fools on the Hill (1986), The Road to Coronation Street (2010) and An Adventure in Space and Time (2013).

(Times and) Spaces of Television – Doctor Who: Warriors’ Gate (1981)

DAVID ROLINSON

Four parts. Writer: Stephen Gallagher; Producer: John Nathan-Turner; Director: Paul Joyce

WWA_scene_5
Warriors’ Gate was a visually inventive, conceptually ambitious and idiosyncratic Doctor Who serial, but also a fraught one for Paul Joyce, its director.1 The disagreements behind the scenes have been well documented, and are often discussed as a marker or consequence of the serial’s ambition.2 I’ve researched this serial in the BBC Written Archives Centre production file on Warriors’ Gate and the archive of writer Stephen Gallagher that is held by Hull History Centre,3 studying everything from multiple script drafts and notes on script meetings through to the specs for the set’s timber framed gimbal mirror and a list of supplementary payments for overtime and wig fittings (at productive moments in these archives it was of course difficult not to declare that “I’m finally getting something done!”4 ). However, this essay is not a blow-by-blow production history but a discussion of Joyce’s direction: partly showing how Joyce’s approach helps to convey the serial’s ideas, but mainly showing how debates about the future of Doctor Who’s production methods and the spaces of television circulated around Warriors’ Gate.

Dixon of Dock Green in the 1970s

DAVID ROLINSON

The opinion that Dixon of Dock Green (BBC, 1955-76) was a cosy anachronism throughout its existence, and in particular in the 1970s, remains pervasive. Lez Cooke’s excellent study of British television drama fairly summarises the common view that Dixon “gained a reputation as a ‘cosy’ representation of the police and their relationship with the public in the mid-late 1950s”, a representation which was “superseded” in the 1960s and 1970s “by more hard-hitting and up-to-date representations of both the police and the criminal underworld”.1 Dylan Cave goes further in Ealing Revisited, arguing that Dixon‘s long run “wasn’t due to innovation, but to its dogged refusal to acknowledge the pace of a changing Britain, as depicted in the far tougher police series Z Cars and The Sweeney. It was cherished as a reassuring reminder of apparently simpler, gentler times”.2 There is room to question the pervasive generalisation that 1970s Dixon was a cosy anachronism that was smashed up by the arrival of The Sweeney (ITV, 1974-78). As I’ve argued in my previous writing on police drama,3 this generalisation needs to be put under more scrutiny, either by putting The Sweeney in the context of the detailed study of other police and action series of the period (Cooke wisely uses the plural “representations”), or looking into the apparent anomaly that Dixon survived – indeed, was still hugely successful – well into the 1970s. Dixon makes its own use of the changing language of police drama – with its “shooters”, “birds” and “blags” and the prioritisation of the CID while former beat copper Dixon takes a back seat – and reflects the changing practices of, and attitudes towards, the police. Acorn Media’s welcome DVD release of six colour episodes gives me a chance to look more closely at 1970s Dixon to add this article as a supplement to this much longer and more detailed piece on Dixon’s place in the history of police drama.

The Singing Detective 25th Anniversary Event (2011)

DAVID ROLINSON

“in keeping with the modernist sensibility and self-reflexivity of Hide and Seek and Only Make Believe, the decision to root a view of the past in the experiences and imagination of a writer protagonist, emphasises the fact that, far from being an objective assessment, any perspective on history can only ever be subjective” – John R. Cook.1


This one-day symposium, staged by Royal Holloway University of London on 10 December 2011, celebrated the 25th anniversary of The Singing Detective (1986).2 It paid tribute to the serial’s “narrative complexity, generic hybridity and formal experimentation” and placed writer Dennis Potter’s contribution alongside the contributions made by his collaborators, several of whom were present: producer Kenith Trodd, choreographer Quinny Sacks and actors Patrick Malahide and Bill Paterson.3 Other guests included Peter Bowker (as a modern television writer inspired by Potter), plus academic speakers and, mixing practitioner and academic perspectives, Professor Jonathan Powell, who was Head of Drama at the BBC when The Singing Detective was made. This mixture of academic and practitioner perspectives has been a welcome and often rewarding feature of British television drama conferences in recent years: see, for instance, the conference proceedings published as part of British Television Drama: Past, Present and Future.4

Scene vs. Scene #1: Assassins vs. Gangsters

DAVID ROLINSON



Doctor Who: ‘The Deadly Assassin’ Part 3 vs. Play for Today: ‘Gangsters’


‘Scene v. Scene’ is a series of articles aiming to shed new light on key scenes from television dramas by comparing them with scenes from other programmes or films. This isn’t just about pointing out ‘influences’ or comparing styles or tagging intertextuality (although those things might happen sometimes), and also is a more bloggy, less academic approach than usual on this site – however, the case studies will be chosen to also raise wider issues about television drama. This is true of the case studies in this first article, two-aquatic punch-ups: the Doctor’s fight with Goth in part 3 of Doctor Who’s ‘The Deadly Assassin’ (BBC1, 13 November 1976) and Kline’s showdown with Rawlinson in the Play for Today (in effect series pilot) Gangsters (BBC1, 9 January 1975). They have a lot in common, both on- and off-screen.