Live from Pebble Mill (1983)

OLIVER WAKE

Five plays. Writers: Keith Dewhurst, Fay Weldon, Bernard Kops, Stephen Davis, Michael Wall; Producer: Robin Midgley; Directors: Robin Midgley, James Cellan Jones, Robert Walker, Donald McWhinnie

During the 1960s, live television drama on British screens was slowly phased out in favour of the convenience and control afforded by pre-recording on videotape. Ever since, there were murmurs that some unique, special quality inherent in live performance had been lost and occasional attempts have been made to revive the form. One of the most interesting of these attempts was Live from Pebble Mill, produced from BBC Birmingham in 1983.

Live from Pebble Mill was conceived and produced by Robin Midgley, the head of drama for BBC Birmingham, who had a background in the theatre and had worked on live television drama in the 1960s. He insisted the project wasn’t simply a nostalgic exercise in retro television production, but an attempt at forcing a more imaginative form of staging through the use of the live method: “We’re not trying to turn the clock back. Quite the reverse, in fact. Instead of going for the usual kind of ‘reality-effect’ in the studio, we’ll be using the space more imaginatively – in a sense, exploiting the live context to break with some of the conventions of naturalism.”1 Not all were impressed by his experiment, with the Radio Times reporting that one “distinguished script editor” had informed Midgeley that “you’re setting back television 20 years. Progress lies with more film, more technical sophistication, more refinement.”2

Philip Saville: Play for Today Biography

OLIVER WAKE

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’.1

Don Taylor

OLIVER WAKE

Dead of Night: The Exorcism

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.”1 A spell as a supply teacher followed while Taylor failed to break into the theatre.