The study of television drama is complicated by the regular regurgitation of inaccurate accounts and misinformation about old programmes. How and why this occurs is easily understandable: anecdotal information from interviews with programme-makers is subject to the inevitable distortions of memory over time, or of exaggeration or invention for the sake of telling a good story (many of these people are performers or entertainers after all). Other sources, such as the national press, are also known to be unreliable. The culture outside academia – and most particularly on the internet – amongst those with an interest in television drama is usually for information and anecdote to be accepted at face value. It is therefore repeated as fact and, whether accurate or not, may be subject to distortion via the ‘Chinese whispers’ process of reiteration. Primary sources of information are often either non-existent or inaccessible, leaving these long repeated accounts unverifiable or at least unchecked. However, original research and the use of reliable primary and secondary sources where available can, in some cases, challenge the flow of generally accepted but inaccurate information (what I shall call ‘myths’ here). Read more... (7226 words, 2 images)
Writer: Nigel Kneale; Director: Rudolph Cartier
This piece was substantially revised and updated in 2014.
The creative partnership of television dramatist Nigel Kneale and producer/director Rudolph Cartier is best known for originating the three Quatermass serials of the 1950s and 1954’s adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it achieved much more besides. One of their lesser-known productions was The Creature from early 1955. The primary reason for the play’s neglect is that no recording exists so, unlike Nineteen Eighty-Four and most of the episodes of the Quatermass serials, it is no longer available to view. This article aims to challenge The Creature’s obscurity, using surviving scripts, production anecdotes and contemporaneous audience research data to present an account of the play, its innovations and the reactions it elicited from viewers and critics.
Even as the national controversy caused by Nineteen Eighty-Four’s sex, politics and violence played out in the British press at the end of 1954, Kneale and Cartier were well underway with the pre-production of The Creature. Rather than another adaptation, it was a wholly original script which Kneale had been inspired to write by the recent resurgence of interest in the mystery of the Himalayan ‘yeti’. Introducing his play for the Radio Times, Kneale wrote: Read more... (4352 words, 2 images)
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.” A spell as a supply teacher followed while Taylor failed to break into the theatre. Read more... (5752 words, 2 images)
This piece was substantially revised and updated in 2013.
When people talk about the pioneers of television writing in Britain, they invariably mention those who made their reputations in the 1960s, such as Dennis Potter and John Hopkins. However, in the 1950s, Iain MacCormick was recognised as the first writer to make a name specifically from original television writing in Britain. This essay is an attempt to explain who he was, why his work was notable and why he is now so little-known.
MacCormick was born in Australia 1918 to Scottish émigré parents. He considered himself a Scot also and held a British passport. MacCormick was studying medicine when the Second World War began and he volunteered for service with the Australian army, rising to the rank of Captain. He fought in North Africa, Crete and Greece, where, in 1941, he was captured when Allied forces withdrew. He spent the next four years as a prisoner of war, during which time he took to writing, between escape attempts, and completed a number of plays. Upon his release in 1945 he was sent to Britain en route to Australia for official demobilisation, but he didn’t complete this journey, choosing to settle in London. Read more... (5147 words, 1 image)
This piece was substantially revised and updated in 2013.
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. Read more... (6107 words, 3 images)