Underground (1958)

OLIVER WAKE

Armchair Theatre Writer: James Forsyth; Adapted from (novel): Harold Rein; Producer Sydney Newman; Director: William Kotcheff

When people talk about live television drama, and in particular the disasters that can befall live productions, actors forgetting their lines and technical faults loom large. Sometimes mention will be made of the incident in which a leading actor died during a performance. It sounds like it could be a black joke or an industry myth, but it’s true. It’s a morbid story but a fascinating one.

The production in question was Underground, transmitted on Sunday 30 November 1958 as part of ITV company ABC’s popular Armchair Theatre drama anthology. It was directed by William (known as Ted) Kotcheff, one of ABC’s regular directors, then aged only 27, and produced by Sydney Newman, who had recently been given responsibility for all the company’s drama. The play was a television dramatisation by James Forsyth of Harold Rein’s novel Few Were Left, which had been published in 1955. No recording of the play exists, so this account is based on various interviews and media reports about the play. There are several accounts of what happened which, though largely consistent on the main events, differ notably on the smaller details. In this essay I’ll try to separate the reality from the myth and distortion as far as is possible at this remove from the event itself.

Peter Luke

OLIVER WAKE

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.

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.

Philip Saville: Play for Today Biography

OLIVER WAKE

Philip Saville is a director whose work on Play for Today cannot be easily categorised. The variety of his eight contributions is testament to the scope of both strand and director. Saville was an iconoclastic, innovative director, whose credits include many pioneering productions and notable television firsts.

Saville had a lengthy background in drama before moving into television directing. He had previously acted in theatre, film and television, and directed for the stage, on both sides of the Atlantic. Back in Britain, he joined ITV company Associated-Rediffusion in 1955, for whom he directed drama and contributed to Richard Lester comedy programmes. He continued to take occasional acting roles in film and television throughout this time, not stopping until the early 1960s. In 1956 he joined the drama department at ABC, another ITV company. He would ultimately direct more than forty plays for the company’s prestigious Armchair Theatre strand.

Although its innovation is largely credited to Sydney Newman, even before his arrival in 1958 those behind Armchair Theatre were attempting to breathe fresh life into television drama, creating a dynamic production style. Saville’s contemporary Ted Kotcheff recalled that from ‘the time that we came and started at Armchair Theatre, Philip Saville and myself and other directors wanted really to push against the limitations of the media, the way it was presently conceived’.1

Don Taylor

OLIVER WAKE

Dead of Night: The Exorcism

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.”1 A spell as a supply teacher followed while Taylor failed to break into the theatre.