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3 Clear Sundays (1965)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of 3 Clear Sundays (1965)
For The Wednesday Play, BBC1, tx. 7/4/1965
90 minutes, black & white
DirectorKen Loach
ProducerJames MacTaggart
ScriptJames O'Connor

Cast: Tony Selby (Danny Lee); Rita Webb (Britannia Lee); Glynn Edwards (Prison Officer Johnson); George Sewell (Johnny May); Kim Peacock (prison governor); Finuala O'Shannon (Rosa)

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A naive, hot-headed young market trader finds himself in prison for a minor assault, beginning a spiral of events that will lead him into the hangman's noose.

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In 1965, the BBC's Wednesday Play (1964-70) was fearlessly dramatising the burning issues of the day in a conscious attempt to intervene in public debate. Abortion, homosexuality, class and apartheid all became material for drama over the course of the year, and it was perhaps inevitable that capital punishment - then subject of a newly introduced moratorium and the cause of much debate - would be added to the list.

There could perhaps be no more appropriate author for a play about hanging than James O'Connor, who himself had been condemned to hang in 1942 and was only reprieved at the eleventh hour. His experiences as a career criminal, long-serving convict and condemned man inform '3 Clear Sundays' and lend it a disturbing verisimilitude. Yet, it is not O'Connor's own story on screen as one might expect it to be. Danny Lee is a hot-tempered but essentially honest man and makes for a more sympathetic protagonist than one suspects a version of O'Connor himself would have done. The history of minor character Mickey Carney does reflect that of O'Connor exactly, but he provides only colour, appearing very briefly.

That Danny should be a likable character is important to the play's message that capital punishment is wrong. He is not a vicious criminal who society might reasonably feel better off without, having only committed his murder after being misled by gangsters while in prison for a minor offence. The play campaigns against hanging at every stage of the process it dramatises, from its portrayal of the way Danny's naive honesty at his trial condemns him, to the genteel banality of the hangmen as they practice their art. It ends with Danny's execution and documentary evidence in the form of three quotes about the nature of hanging, two drawn from the 1950 Royal Commission on the subject. The whole effect is that hanging is brutal, immoral and unnecessary.

O'Connor's message wasn't lost on his audience. One viewer, previously undecided on the issue of the death penalty, was typical of newspaper letter-writers, stating that "Now I am convinced that this barbaric act of ending human life is better abolished." However, despite its undoubted impact upon transmission, suggestions that '3 Clear Sundays' had any influence on the eventual abolition of hanging in Britain, which followed in 1969, are fanciful, with contemporary surveys indicating that public opinion on the subject wavered very little throughout the 1960s.

Oliver Wake

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Video Clips
1. Request refused (2:54)
2. 'Film star money' (5:19)
3. Carrying out the plan (2:06)
4. Witnesses to a murder (2:12)
5. A public service (3:45)
Loach, Ken (1936-)
MacTaggart, James (1928-74)
O'Connor, James (1918-2001)
Ken Loach: Television Drama
Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)