Re-recording live drama: the fallibility of the television drama record


Anyone researching live television drama will inevitably encounter the well-known obstacle that only a small percentage of live broadcasts were recorded from transmission and subsequently archived. A lesser-known obstacle for anyone trying to appreciate the quality and aesthetics of live drama is that those recordings which were made and archived are not necessarily an accurate representation of the programmes as broadcast.

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Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) – Myth Versus Reality


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).

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Level Seven (1966)


Out of the Unknown Writer: J.B. Priestley; Adapted from (novel): Mordecai Roshwald; Producer: Irene Shubik; Director: Rudolph Cartier

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Set within a survival bunker and missile control base deep underground, Polish writer Mordecai Roshwald’s 1959 novel Level Seven was a grim depiction of the spiralling cold war leading to nuclear apocalypse. The story made no reference to specific nations engaged in the conflict but was cheekily dedicated “To Dwight and Nikita” in reference to Eisenhower and Khrushchev, then the premiers of the USA and USSR respectively.1 On publication, the novel was highly lauded by the likes of Bertrand Russell and Fred Hoyle, and J B Priestley called it “the most powerful attack on the whole nuclear madness that any creative writer has made so far” and began work on a film adaptation.2

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Making enquiries in 1962, Irene Shubik, the story editor on ABC Television’s science fiction anthology Out of this World, found that the film option on the novel precluded any television version. The film version was announced in 1963, to be made by Eliot Martin and Philip Langner in association with the Theatre Guild of New York.3 It’s not clear if this was to use Priestley’s script or an alternative, but either way the project came to nothing. A few years later, Shubik was producing Out of this World’s BBC successor Out of the Unknown, when she was reminded of the novel. The film option had expired and Shubik wrote to Roshwald to express her interest in staging a television adaptation. Having re-read the novel, she told the author that she was “moved practically to tears by it. I do think it is an absolutely marvellous piece of work”.4

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  1. Mordecai Roshwald, Level Seven (London and Redhill: Ace Books, 1962), p. 2. 

  2. Quoted on rear cover of Roshwald, Level Seven

  3. John Montgomery, ‘Studio News’, The Stage and Television Today, 9 May 1963, p. 14. 

  4. Quoted in Mark Ward, Out of the Unknown: A Guide to the Legendary BBC series (Birmingham: Kaleidoscope Publishing, 2004), p. 197. 

Peter Luke


Peter Luke was a writer, story editor and producer on several of British television’s most influential drama anthology series, working at both ITV and the BBC, during a period of particular creative development for the medium. His television work was, however, only one part of a varied life.

Peter Ambrose Cyprian Luke was born on 12 August 1919, the son of British diplomatic Sir Harry Luke. The Luke family was originally of Hungarian descent (the name Lukach being Anglicised to Luke) and Luke’s upbringing was cosmopolitan. In his younger years he accompanied his parents on his father’s postings around the world, during which he learned about language, culture, art and literature, before returning to England to be enrolled at Eton. On completing his schooling with the minimum of academic rigour, Luke decided he wanted to become a painter and went to art school in London and then studied at the atelier of André Lhote in Paris. He enlisted in the British army shortly after the Second World War began, leading him to Egypt and combat on the first day of the second battle of El Alamein, in which he was wounded. After recovering he was deployed in the European theatre of war, serving in Italy, France and Germany. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in Normandy following D-Day. He ended the war a Major, acting Lieutenant-Colonel.

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Conversation at Night (1969)


Thirty-Minute Theatre Writer: Friedrich Dürrenmatt; Translated by: Robert David MacDonald; Producer: Innes Lloyd; Director: Rudolph Cartier

Thirty-Minute Theatre was a drama strand instigated by the BBC to return shorter plays, transmitted live, to the television schedules.1 It began in October 1965 with a version of Roald Dahl’s Parson’s Pleasure, and ultimately produced over 250 dramas, although by the end of 1968 the live element was had been entirely dropped. 1969’s Conversation at Night was director Rudolph Cartier’s fourth entry into the BBC2 anthology, following Brainscrew in 1966, The News-Benders in 1968, and the Hitler segment of the These Men Are Dangerous trilogy from earlier in 1969.2 It was Cartier’s last production under BBC contract as he returned to freelance work thereafter.3

The short play was written by leading post-war Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, who is best known for his full-length satirical stage dramas The Visit and The Physicists. Conversation at Night started out as a German radio play in 1952 and transferred to the Munich stage the same year. It came to Britain as a radio play first, translated and produced by Christopher Holme for the BBC’s Third Programme in 1963.4 The stage version premiered in London in 1966. For television, the play was translated by Robert David MacDonald and produced by Innes Lloyd.

The play is a duologue between a prominent liberal writer in an unnamed European dictatorship and the state assassin. Confronted in his own study, the writer attempts to defend his freedom of expression in the face of the assassin’s advocacy of the status quo. The play is more than a Platonic dialogue however, also discussing “what the executioner calls ‘the art of dying’, of accepting death without rebellion, bitterness or terror”, as The Times reported, with the writer ultimately able to accept his demise with a quiet dignity.5

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  1. Tony Aspler, ‘Thirty-Minute Theatre’, Radio Times, 30 September 1965, p. 54. 

  2. Brainscrew, tx. BBC2, 12 December 1966; The News-Benders, tx. BBC2, 10 January 1968; These Men Are Dangerous: Hitler, tx. BBC2, 27 January 1969. 

  3. Anon, ‘Guinness and Gielgud in BBC-2 play’, The Stage and Television Today, 20 March 1969, p. 10. 

  4. Conversation at Night, tx. Third Programme, 29 November 1963. 

  5. Henry Raynor, ‘A gentle executioner’, The Times, 9 May 1969, p. 16.