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Plater, Alan (1935-2010)


Main image of Plater, Alan (1935-2010)

In an article written for Theatre Quarterly in 1977, 'Twenty-Five Years Hard: a Playwright's Personal Retrospective', Alan Plater acknowledged two early influences on his work. One was James Thurber, the American writer whose clever and comical stories appealed to the young Plater: "Thurber was and is the only writer I set out consciously to imitate." The other was Joan Littlewood, the theatre director, whose suggestion that "You can walk the streets of Hull and hear the people talking poetry" was taken to heart by the aspiring playwright. In his plays for radio, television and the theatre Plater did indeed turn the conversation of ordinary people into poetry: "I discovered what as a native Geordie I should have known all along - that in everyday speech there is a richness and music that makes the voice the most powerful and sensitive instrument for human emotion: and that this exists as a tool for the dramatist at its most useful when the voice speaks with a local accent or dialect."

Born in Jarrow on 15 April 1935, Alan Frederick Plater was one of Britain's most prolific, original and entertaining writers, whose work for television, radio, theatre and the cinema, not to mention his six novels, constitutes an unparalleled body of work. Plater's family moved to Hull when he was three, but he frequently returned to Jarrow to visit his grandparents and spent four years in Newcastle in the 1950s studying architecture at the university. His affinity with Hull and Newcastle had a lasting influence on him as a writer, most obviously in plays such as Close the Coalhouse Door and Land of Green Ginger. A regional affinity with the North, even in series produced in London such as Z Cars, was the hallmark of much of his work, together with a predilection for comedy and a gift for writing dialogue.

Plater's first television play, The Referees (tx. 2/10/1961), was written for BBC North and produced at the Dickinson Road studios in Manchester, once the home of Mancunian Films, the small company that produced the George Formby and Frank Randall films in the 1930s. Like much television drama of the period the play no longer exists, but Alan Plater remembered it well: "It was a slightly surreal piece. It was about a young man in a strange town - we never find out why he's in a strange town because we never see the town because it was all shot in studio - getting a job from this boss man. We don't find out what the work is, what the job is, except he's been given the job. Then as he's leaving the office the boss says 'and you'll let me have your references in the morning, I'll need to see your references,' and he realises he hasn't got any references, and it's about getting three references from total strangers. So it's an absurdly simple little plot. Finally, from memory, he gets drunk, winds up in a doss house, where a lunatic dosser forges the references for him, played by Harold Lang, who was a great, slightly manic actor and it was a weird, funny little play when I think about it."

Plater's next television play, A Smashing Day (BBC, tx.17/8/1962), featuring Alfred Lynch and John Thaw, was performed for television, radio and the theatre, but it was the television version which came first. It was described in one review, much to Plater's delight, as "The voice of Coronation Street with the spirit of Chekhov" (Plater, 2003: 205). Other early plays, such as 'Ted's Cathedral' (First Night, BBC, tx. 28/3/1964) and 'Close the Coalhouse Door' (The Wednesday Play, BBC, tx. 22/10/1969), were first staged in the theatre and subsequently made into radio and television plays: "I think it was Henry Livings always said that's what a proper professional writer should do. He said if it's a good idea give it a whirl and maximise your earning potential." (Cooke, 2004)

In 1963 Plater wrote his first series episodes when he was asked to write for Z Cars (BBC, 1962-78): "At that time being invited to join the Z Cars team was like a papal blessing. I mean the show had been on a year and it was the biggest thing that had ever hit British television" (Cooke, 2004). He wrote 18 episodes for the series between 1963 and 1965 and followed it with another 30 episodes for spin-off Softly, Softly (subsequently Softly, Softly - Task Force, BBC, 1966-76).

While writing for Z Cars Plater also wrote his first scripts for ITV, with two episodes for Crane (1963-65), an action-adventure series featuring Patrick Allen, a play called 'Fred' (tx. 18/5/64) for the Granada anthology series A Question of Happiness, the opening credits of which were notable for including a picture of the writer alongside his name (a sign of the preferential treatment given to writers at this time) and 'Three to a Cell' (tx. 15/1/1965) for the Granada crime series The Villains. The latter was the first of 14 Plater scripts televised in 1965 - a sign of an increasing productivity and versatility as a television dramatist that he was to sustain for many years. Of the other scripts, ten were Z Cars episodes, one was an episode for Front Page Story, an ATV drama series set in the newspaper world, another was a play called 'The Nutter' (tx. 5/12/1965), and the other was a surreal play for ABC's Armchair Theatre called 'The Incident' (ITV, tx. 24/5/1965): "It was one of my first overtly political dramas, The Incident. The proposition was that because of the growing unemployment and deprivation in the north of England they'd actually built a kind of wall across the country and this was about people who were trying to infiltrate over the border. It was very strange and weird..."

The common ingredient in all these scripts was their 'northernness': Z Cars was set in Lancashire, The Villains was set in the North West, The Nutter was one of a trilogy of plays called Portraits From The North for BBC2's Theatre 625 (1964-68), and 'The Incident', which explicitly dramatised the north/south divide, was made for ABC, the regional ITV company which provided the weekend service for the Midlands and the North.

In 1968 his trilogy To See How Far It Is was shown as part of Theatre 625 (BBC, 1964-68), and in the same year he created and wrote a series called The First Lady (BBC, 1968-69) featuring Thora Hird as a crusading local councillor. David Rose produced the series, and when Rose was appointed Head of BBC English Regions Drama at Birmingham in 1971 he became an important patron for Plater, commissioning distinctively 'regional' drama such as 'Land of Green Ginger' (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 15/1/1973), set in Plater's home town of Hull, the six-part Trinity Tales (BBC, 1975), an updating of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales featuring a group of rugby league supporters travelling to a cup final at Wembley, the six-part Middlemen (BBC, 1977), featuring Frank Windsor and Francis Matthews, and The Fosdyke Saga (BBC, tx. 20/7/1977), a northern parody of The Forsyte Saga adapted from the stage play written by Plater with the cartoonist Bill Tidy.

As if he didn't already have enough to do, Plater wrote his first film scripts in the 1970s, beginning with D.H. Lawrence's The Virgin and the Gypsy (d. Christopher Miles, 1970), followed by Juggernaut (d. Richard Lester, 1974), for which he was called on to write additional dialogue, and It Shouldn't Happen To A Vet (d. Eric Till, 1976), based on James Herriot's books about a Yorkshire vet. While Plater did not abandon single plays or series, serials began to feature more in his writing from the mid 1970s. In the same year that he wrote Trinity Tales he also adapted A.J. Cronin's novel about industrial unrest in the north east in the early years of the 20th century, The Stars Look Down (ITV, 1975), as a 13-part serial. Another major adaptation, this time for BBC2, was The Barchester Chronicles (1982), a seven-part dramatisation of two novels by Anthony Trollope.

Alongside these adaptations, Plater began to create his own original serials in the 1970s and 80s. Get Lost! (ITV, 1981), about two teachers who get involved in missing-person mysteries, was a trial run for the Beiderbecke trilogy, three serials featuring Trevor Chaplin (James Bolam) and Jill Swinburne (Barbara Flynn), schoolteachers-cum-amateur detectives who get caught up in mysterious plots involving political corruption and state secrecy, with Trevor's enthusiasm for the music of the 1920s jazz band leader, Bix Beiderbecke, the initial catalyst for the events that follow.

Music has always been an important element in Plater's work. On some occasions it is central, as in the political musical 'Close the Coalhouse Door'; the Beiderbecke trilogy; the musical drama Curriculee, Curricula (BBC, tx. 22/5/1978), on which Plater collaborated with the musician Dave Greenslade; Misterioso (BBC, tx. 25/7/1991), which takes its name from the late 1950s jazz album by Thelonious Monk; 'Doggin' Around' (Screen One, BBC, tx. 16/10/1994), in which Elliot Gould plays an ageing American jazz musician playing gigs in the north of England; and The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (BBC, tx.3/9/2000), in which a saxophonist (Judi Dench) resurrects the all-female band she used to play in during the Second World War.

Even where music is not central to the plot, the influence of musical rhythms and structures can often be detected in Plater's drama. As he suggested in his 1977 Theatre Quarterly article, he finds music in the cadence and dialect of the human voice. His scripts, which are character-based rather than plot-driven, are invariably loosely structured, developing and progressing like jazz improvisations rather than composed scores: "I think increasingly, over the years, I cultivated an instinctive approach which is probably akin to that of a jazz musician, improvising. I know I've got to fill 12 bars, like in a 12-bar blues, I know what the tune is, I don't know exactly what notes I'm going to play."

Plater continued to combine writing for television, radio, theatre and the cinema in the 1980s and 1990s. A seven-part adaptation of Olivia Manning's Balkan novels saw him taking the Second World War as his subject in Fortunes of War (BBC, 1987), featuring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, while the three-part A Very British Coup (Channel 4, 1988), adapted from the novel by Chris Mullin and featuring Ray McAnally, was a contemporary political thriller. Meanwhile Plater wrote another three screenplays for feature films in the 1980s. Two were about D.H.Lawrence: Priest of Love (d. Christopher Miles, 1981) and Coming Through (d. Peter Barber-Fleming, 1985), while The Inside Man (Slagskämpen, Sweden, 1984) was based on a real-life incident during the Cold War when a Soviet submarine was spotted in Swedish waters.

There was no discernable falling-off in Plater's prolific output in the 1990s. As well as the jazz-influenced Misterioso and 'Doggin' Around', he wrote Frank Stubbs: Mr Chairman (BBC, tx. 8/8/1994), the five-part Oliver's Travels (BBC, 1995), a three-part adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel, Simisola (ITV, 1996), episodes for popular drama series such as Maigret (ITV, 1992-93) and Dalziel and Pascoe (BBC, 1996-2007), and a screenplay for Keep the Aspidistra Flying (d. Robert Bierman, 1997), from the novel by George Orwell, who was the subject of an earlier television play by Plater, Orwell on Jura (BBC, tx. 20/12/1983).

The Last of the Blonde Bombshells, an episode of Midsomer Murders (ITV, 1997-) and the single drama Belonging (ITV, tx. 12/9/2004), based on a novel by Stevie Davies saw Plater's television work enter a fifth decade, without abandoning the themes and interests of his previous work. He also continued to write for radio and the theatre - a five-part BBC radio series, Abandoned Projects (2005), humorously documented his many unrealised projects. He received the Dennis Potter Award at BAFTA in 2004 and a CBE in the 2005 New Year's Honours List.

Among his final works, The Last Will and Testament of Billy Two-Sheds (tx. 17/1/2006) was a highlight of BBC Birmingham's Afternoon Play series (2004-07), and he wrote four feature-length episodes for Lewis (ITV, 2007-10), the last of which, 'Your Sudden Death Question', was transmitted just a month before Plater's own death. Lewis's star, Kevin Whately, was to feature in the posthumously transmitted Joe Maddison's War (ITV, tx. 19/9/2010), as a Geordie shipyard worker who joins the Home Guard in 1939 with his friend Harry (Robson Green). It was perhaps fitting that Plater's final television drama should be set in the North East, his birthplace and an area which had a lasting influence on the career of one of Britain's most distinctive and prolific television dramatists.

Cooke, Lez (2004), Unpublished interview with Alan Plater, 11 June
Sean Day-Lewis (1998), 'Alan Plater', in Talk of Drama: views of the television dramatist now and then (University of Luton Press)
Plater, Alan (1977), 'Twenty-Five Years Hard: a Playwright's Personal Retrospective', Theatre Quarterly, No.25, Spring
Plater, Alan (2003), 'Learning the Facts of Life: Forty Years as a TV Dramatist', New Theatre Quarterly, 19:3, August
Plater, Alan (2006), Doggin' Around (Northway)

Lez Cooke

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Barchester Chronicles, The (1982)Barchester Chronicles, The (1982)

Beautifully-observed adaptation of Trollope's church intrigue

Thumbnail image of Beiderbecke Tapes, The (1987)Beiderbecke Tapes, The (1987)

Alan Plater-scripted comedy thriller about two school teachers

Thumbnail image of Fortunes of War (1987)Fortunes of War (1987)

Romantic wartime drama starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson

Thumbnail image of Land of Green Ginger (1973)Land of Green Ginger (1973)

A young woman is torn between her Hull home and her ambitions in London

Thumbnail image of Last of the Blonde Bombshells, The (2000)Last of the Blonde Bombshells, The (2000)

Uplifting 3rd age jazz musical starring Judi Dench

Thumbnail image of Shoulder To Shoulder (1974)Shoulder To Shoulder (1974)

Dramatisation of the struggle for women's suffrage

Thumbnail image of Trinity Tales (1975)Trinity Tales (1975)

Lively, inventive update of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Thumbnail image of Very British Coup, A (1988)Very British Coup, A (1988)

A radical Labour government provokes the wrath of the Establishment

Thumbnail image of Z Cars (1962-78)Z Cars (1962-78)

Groundbreaking cop drama introducing new grit and realism

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