James O’Connor

OLIVER WAKE

James O’Connor – often known as Jimmy O’Connor – wrote a number of popular and successful television plays in the 1960s and early ‘70s, regularly collaborating with director Ken Loach. He had an unusual background for a television dramatist. He was formerly a career criminal who had turned to writing while serving a life sentence for murder, having narrowly avoided being hanged.

Early life

O’Connor’s life story encompasses the sensitive subjects of deprivation, domestic abuse and criminality which would not normally be appropriate topics for this website. We do not usually make personal biography a focus of our coverage, but O’Connor himself emphasised how his early experiences informed his television plays, as did contemporary reactions to his work, and it is important for us to understand his background to understand his work. The following account of O’Connor’s life before becoming a television playwright is drawn from O’Connor’s autobiography The Eleventh Commandment.1 Aside from the basic details of his murder conviction, reprieve and release, it is not possible to independently corroborate any of his reported life story. In view of O’Connor’s early life of dishonesty and later career as a storyteller, one may be inclined to wonder how far his account can be trusted to be accurate. We leave this for the reader to determine for themselves.

Wear a Very Big Hat (1965)

OLIVER WAKE

The Wednesday Play; Writer: Eric Coltart; Producer: James MacTaggart; Director: Ken Loach

The Wednesday Play (1964-70) is often cited in discussions of 1960s television drama, but normally with reference to only a handful of its most well-known plays. This misrepresents the series as a whole, which comprised over 160 plays. Even some of the dramas from the series’ most acclaimed practitioners, such as Ken Loach and Dennis Potter, are overlooked in favour of their bolder, more controversial plays, with preference given to those that still exist. The neglect of plays erased from the archive is understandable, but a lack of primary evidence is no reason to disregard them entirely. Their particular attributes and secondary evidence demonstrate that many of them are well worth our attention. For example, 1965’s Wear a Very Big Hat is fascinating both as an example of The Wednesday Play’s early attempts at youthful contemporaneity and as director Ken Loach’s first entry in the series.

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.

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