Cheer Up. It Might Never Happen: The Unborn (1980)

IAN GREAVES

Playhouse Writer: Philip Martin; Producer: Peter Ansorge; Director: Michael Custance

There isn’t a gag within a mile of this. On the face of it, the BBC-2 schedule for the evening of 16 May 1980 is a pretty unforgiving affair. Working back, we have the late-entry Outer Limits episode ‘Counterweight’ at 11.30pm, a fifty-minute wave of paranoia as an extraterrestrial light invades the passengers one-by-one on a long-haul space flight. Newsnight doubtless explored the political hotbed of an Afghan settlement, and as an appetiser, Louis Hellman’s cartoon Boom at 10.40pm chilled the unsuspecting viewer.

The centrepiece, however, was this evening’s Playhouse, The Unborn, forming part of the single play strand’s sixth series and another entry from the rogue BBC Birmingham drama department headed by David Rose. Placed in direct competition with Starsky & Hutch on BBC-1 and The Gentle Touch on ITV, viewers were confronted with the unique choice of Huggy Bear, Jill Gascoine or nuclear annihilation.

John Osborne

OLIVER WAKE

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With his 1956 play Look Back in Anger, John Osborne (1929-1994) famously kick-started the theatrical trend for “Angry Young Men” and drama which explored the grimmer side of contemporary life, putting society’s discontents centre-stage. Amongst a body of further stage plays, Osborne also produced a clutch of screenplays for cinema and, more pertinently for us, television.

Television had played a modest part in the success of Look Back in Anger. The play was at break-even point when an extract was broadcast from the Royal Court theatre by the BBC close to the end of its run.1 Following this exposure, the rest of the run sold out and the play was transferred to the Lyric theatre to meet excess demand.2 Six weeks after the excerpt was televised, the full play was broadcast by Granada, directed by its theatre director Tony Richardson. Writing in The Manchester Guardian, Bernard Levin found that the play made “tremendous television.”3 Look Back in Anger was produced for television in Britain again twice, by the BBC in 1976, to mark the play’s twentieth anniversary, and as an ITV/Channel 4 co-production of Judi Dench’s stage version in 1989.4 Extracts were also performed in two episodes of The Present Stage, ABC’s 1966 series exploring modern drama.5