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News-Benders, The (1968)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of News-Benders, The (1968)
BBC2, tx. 10/1/1968
30 min, colour
DirectorRudolph Cartier
ProducerGeorge Spenton-Foster
ScriptDesmond Lowden
DesignerNorman James

Cast: Donald Pleasence (J.G.); Nigel Davenport (Robert Larkin); Sarah Brackett (secretary)

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An idealistic young television producer is approached by the representative of a clandestine agency offering an unusual job: creating the news - before it happens. And a refusal, it seems, is not an option.

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BBC2's Thirty-Minute Theatre (1965-73) was an attempt to reintroduce live drama to British television at a time when most programme-makers had - gratefully - put the method behind them. However, the live element didn't last long, being phased out in favour of the convenience of pre-recording. Even so, a handful of the series' plays remained live until 1968, 'The News-Benders' being one of the last.

'The News-Benders' is directed by Rudolph Cartier, who had made his name in the 1950s with ambitious live productions. The story is essentially a two-hander, performed entirely within a handful of sets but, for all its simplicity, Cartier's direction is stylish and assured. The continuity of the action is disturbed only once, with a brief cutaway shot of JG's secretary covering the actors' move from one set into another.

The live production method may be backward looking, but Desmond Lowden's script is prophetic in several respects. Although its predicted date of the moon landing significantly overshoots the reality, it strikingly pre-empts subsequent conspiracy theories which suggested the event was faked in a film studio. It also prophesies the rise of politically powerful global media organisations and the surveillance culture that inspired many later conspiracy dramas.

With its themes of extreme surveillance and television as tools to control the masses, Lowden's drama also echoes Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, a television version of which Cartier had previously produced (BBC, tx. 12/12/1954; with Donald Pleasence in a supporting role), extending its themes into the world of 1968. This is made explicit when JG (presumably a sly nod to sci-fi visionary J.G. Ballard) refers to a 'Ministry of Morality', whose name recalls Orwell's ministries of Truth, Love and Plenty. Whereas Orwell's novel depicts an overtly oppressed Britain, Lowden suggests that in 1968 similar control could be effected invisibly via manipulation of the media.

At the time the play was written, Vietnam had emerged as the first 'television war', and the extent of the medium's influence on the public, particularly in political and commercial arenas, was just beginning to be recognised. In this context, Lowden's extrapolation is as astute as it is grimly playful. With media manipulation now a routine feature of regimes such as China, North Korea and Iran, and increasing concern at the agenda-setting political power of certain partisan news services in Europe and the US, 'The News-Benders' is perhaps even more pertinent now than it was in 1968.

Oliver Wake

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Video Clips
1. Surgical transmitter (3:18)
2. The news for 1973 (4:07)
3. International collaboration (3:50)
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)
Cartier, Rudolph (1904-94)
Davenport, Nigel (1928-2013)
Pleasence, Donald (1919-1995)
Live TV Drama