Ian Curteis

OLIVER WAKE

Television career overview

BTVD_Curteis_Row docu 1
This piece was revised and updated in 2014 and 2015.

Ian Curteis is an fascinating figure in the world of British television drama. He achieved great success in the 1970s as a writer of plays exploring real events and historical figures but thereafter found his work sometimes frustrated, with cancelled projects and related controversies. Accounts differ as to whether these frustrations were the result of political censorship or the more mundane reasons common in broadcasting. This essay presents an overview of Curteis’s television career, incorporating material from a variety of contrasting sources, including Curteis himself, which illustrates why his work is so interesting and, sometimes, divisive.

Stalingrad (1963)

OLIVER WAKE

This piece was substantially revised in December 2014.

Festival Writer: Rudolph Cartier; Adapted and translated from: Theodore Plievier (novel), Claus Hubalek (play from novel); Director: Rudolph Cartier

The early 1960s was a transitional period for BBC television drama. New techniques, notably a move away from live transmissions in favour of pre-recording, enabled more ambitious and polished productions. Subject matter was changing too, with specially written television plays and series overcoming the BBC’s previous reliance on material drawn from the theatre or popular novels. Of course, these changes didn’t happen overnight, and a number of programmes of the period provide a snapshot of television drama in transition, containing elements of both the old and the new, sometimes uneasily colliding in the one production. One such drama is Stalingrad, from late 1963, which has roots in both a novel and its stage adaptation, but also attempts to make the material ‘televisual’, achieving mixed results.1 Here, we’ll examine the play, to see how it came to be made in a mix of styles and how critics and audiences reacted to it.

The Rank and File (1971)

JOHN WILLIAMS

Play for Today Writer: Jim Allen; Director: Kenneth Loach; Producer: Graeme McDonald

‘I go along with Trotsky, that life is beautiful, that the future generation cleanses all the oppression, violence and evil’

Most of Ken Loach’s work for television has attracted at least some critical writing because of his towering reputation in the cinema. Even so, The Rank and File has generally been overlooked in favour of the first Loach/Allen Wednesday Play collaboration The Big Flame (1969), and both writer and director seem to have mixed feelings about the piece. Allen stated that the play ‘was written in three weeks…if you get too didactic, politically or otherwise, as I probably did in The Rank and File, it can be a lantern lecture’,1 and Loach has commented that ‘the [films] we’ve done that show their age badly are the ones where you’re trying to catch the headlines and be topical…some of the films from the early seventies’.2 However Rank…, while superficially similar to The Big Flame, was written for specific reasons about a recent strike, rather than a (prophetic) vision of a political occupation. And Loach’s own reference to topicality should lead us consider that one of the strengths of the Play for Today strand lay in the ability, as in this case, to move with astonishing speed from a real-life event to a fictional representation in just under 11 months. The urgency of such a representation is not diminished just because the events that inspired Rank… have become obscure footnotes in twentieth century industrial relations, but I’d like to try and illuminate some of the historical background to the play, and also look at what it tells us about the role of politics, specifically Trotskyite politics, in the BBC Plays department at the time.

The Falklands Factor (1983)

OLIVER WAKE

Play for Today Writer: Don Shaw; Director: Colin Bucksey; Producer: Louis Marks

“I hope no-one ever needs to go to war over the Falklands, or for that matter, any writer write about them.”

The short but bloody Falklands war between Britain and Argentina played out over two and a half months in 1982. Television drama responded with a handful of plays about the conflict, most of which seemed to excite almost as much controversy as the war itself. (See Disputed Territory: Drama and the Falklands.) The earliest of these was Don Shaw’s The Falklands Factor, which was broadcast in April 1983, just ten months after hostilities in the South Atlantic had concluded.

Specialising in contemporary drama, the BBC’s Play for Today anthology was the natural home for such a recent subject, however The Falklands Factor is actually a historical drama, Shaw having chosen to dramatise a little known incident from the eighteenth century to put the more recent conflict into historic context and draw parallels between the two crises. The reader must excuse the passages which follow detailing brief parts of the Falkland islands’ convoluted history, without which the meaning of the play and this essay will be impossible to convey.

Michael Barry

OLIVER WAKE

This piece was substantially revised and updated in 2013.

Michael Barry

Although rarely discussed now, Michael Barry (1910-1988) had an important role in the development of British television drama. As a producer before and immediately after the Second World War and subsequently as the BBC’s first Head of Television Drama, he helped shape the new medium in its formative years.

After an unsuccessful school career, Barry initially studied agriculture, spending time on farms and 18 months at the Hertfordshire Agricultural Institute before deciding he wanted to work in theatre. He turned to acting and studied for a year at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before going into repertory theatre for an “exciting” year in Northampton, then moving on to Birmingham and London. With gaps in acting roles Barry also took work in other capacities in the theatre, building scenery, designing and stage managing. At the age of 23 he was appointed the director of the Hull Repertory Theatre where he spent a “superb” year before taking charge of the Croydon Repertory Theatre, where he remained for two-and-a-half years. After this he felt “a little stale, a little tired, perhaps time for a change” and, at the suggestion of a friend, applied for the post of studio manager with the new BBC television service but was unsuccessful. Undeterred, Barry then applied to be a television producer and was taken on, arriving at the BBC’s modest Alexandra Palace studios in North London in early 1938.1