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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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