Armchair Theatre Writer: James Forsyth; Adapted from (novel): Harold Rein; Producer Sydney Newman; Director: William Kotcheff
This piece was substantially revised and updated in 2018.
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 dark 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, the company’s drama supervisor. The play was a television dramatisation by James Forsyth of Harold Rein’s 1955 novel Few Were Left. 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.
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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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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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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.
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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.
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