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The Television Play

The rise and fall of the single drama

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Time was when the TV play, or 'teleplay', was the jewel in television's crown. Strands like ABC's (later Thames') Armchair Theatre (1956-74) and the BBC's The Wednesday Play (1964-70) and Play for Today (1970-84) were held in high esteem by broadcasters, writers and critics, and regularly attracted huge audiences. During the 1980s and '90s, however, the form went into decline as broadcasters favoured series or serials set in police, medical or period settings - the dependable 'cops, docs and frocks'.

Early drama on television consisted largely of existing stage plays - classical or contemporary - either performed live in the studio or filmed on stage; the remainder consisted mostly of adaptations of classic literary sources. By the 1950s, as the medium's audience began to mushroom, the demand for original material grew. In 1951 the BBC, for the first time, established a unit of staff writers. Among its first intake was Nigel Kneale, who found himself at the centre of one of British TV's first major controversies with his adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954), starring Peter Cushing as Orwell's hapless hero, Winston Smith. The brutality of the torture sequences led to outrage and questions in parliament.

In the early days, broadcasts were live, and the inability to record transmissions meant that if a repeat was called for, cast and crew had to be reassembled for a second live performance. Because TV drama in this period was so dependent on stage actors, Sundays, when the theatres were closed, became its natural home: well into the 1960s, Armchair Theatre was still describing itself as "your Sunday night dramatic entertainment".

A product of the early days of ITV - and a manifestation of the new channel's anxiety to demonstrate its cultural credentials - Armchair Theatre heralded a new kind of television drama. Sydney Newman, lured from Canada in 1958, took steps to encourage new talent, and the series was soon home to young directors like Philip Saville and Ted Kotcheff and writers like Alun Owen ('Lena, O My Lena', 1960; 'The Rose Affair', 1961), Clive Exton ('The Trial of Dr Fancy', 1964) and Robert Muller ('Afternoon of a Nymph', 1962), whose early works chimed with the 'angry young man' school then so influential in film and theatre. In 1960, Armchair Theatre broadcast Harold Pinter's first work for television, 'A Night Out'.

After Armchair Theatre suffered scheduling changes, Newman left ABC in 1963 to become the BBC's Head of Drama. One of his early innovations was The Wednesday Play, which likewise became a breeding ground for new talent, including directors Ken Loach and Alan Clarke, producers Tony Garnett, Jimmy MacTaggart and Irene Shubik, and writers Jeremy Sandford, David Mercer, Tony Parker and Dennis Potter. The series coincided with a push by programme makers to persuade a reluctant BBC to let them leave the studio and film on the streets.

'Up the Junction', directed by Loach from a script by Nell Dunn, drew critical acclaim, but this was nothing to that of 'Cathy Come Home' (1966), a powerful drama about homelessness - shot largely on film using handheld 16mm cameras and directed by Loach from a script by Sandford - which was a sensation in its day and has had a lasting impact: in 2000, it was voted Britain's greatest ever television programme. Other standouts included Potter's 'Nigel Barton' plays and Mercer's 'A Suitable Case for Treatment' (1965).

But one of the most innovative BBC dramas of the early 1960s was commissioned not for Drama but Documentary. Peter Watkins' Culloden (1964) was a powerful recreation of the massacre of the Jacobites at the hands of the English in 1746, and the subsequent ransacking of the Highlands. Watkins mixed dramatic reconstruction with pseudo-documentary techniques, including 'vox pop' interviews with soldiers and civilians. This blurring of drama and documentary forms became one of the hallmarks of progressive television drama, further explored in Watkins' next venture, The War Game. An explosive evocation of a nuclear attack on Britain and its consequences, it was so powerful that the BBC refused to show it for 20 years.

As the '70s began, The Wednesday Play moved to Thursday and became Play for Today. Alongside now familiar names like Loach and Potter, Play for Today introduced new names like Mike Leigh and Jack Rosenthal. Highlights included Leigh's 'Nuts in May' (1976) and 'Abigail's Party' (1977), Sandford's 'Edna, the Inebriate Woman' (1971), Rosenthal's 'Bar Mitzvah Boy' (1976), Potter's 'Blue Remembered Hills' (1979) and John McGrath's passionate and very distinctive 'The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil' (1975). Roy Minton's bleak and angry 'Scum' suffered a similar fate to The War Game, and was eventually remade for the big screen.

By the mid '70s, single drama had largely disappeared from ITV, although there were a few exceptions, notably Philip Mackie's poignant The Naked Civil Servant (1975) and Jack Rosenthal's witty The Knowledge (1979).

In the early 1980s, the genre went into decline with the end of Play for Today, hastened by its comparatively high cost and the decision of writers like Dennis Potter to embrace the relative freedom of a four or six-part serial format - what Potter described as the 'TV novel'. Many hoped that the arrival of Channel 4 in 1982, with its remit to cater to minority tastes, might revive the genre, and early offerings like Walter (1982) and its First Love strand - which included the acclaimed 'P'Tang Yang Kipperbang' and 'Those Glory, Glory Days' (both 1983) - seemed to confirm this. But the channel's decision to move into feature film production, particularly after the surprise success of My Beautiful Laundrette (d. Stephen Frears, 1985), appeared to sound the death knell for the TV play.

But the genre never quite went away. Although it has never had a long term slot since the Play for Today, and the word 'play' is about as fashionable as wide collars and tank tops, the single drama still turns up in the schedules, and still has the power to surprise and impress. Jimmy McGovern's Hillsborough (1996), about the 1989 football stadium tragedy, demonstrated the unique impact the form can achieve when dealing with a specific issue, as did the more recent Gas Attack (Channel 4, 2001), about racist attacks on Glasgow asylum seekers, and the award-winning Out of Control (BBC, 2002), a harrowing exposé of Britain's young offenders' institutions which was at least as powerful as 'Scum', a quarter-century earlier.

In the past, the TV play has spawned several successful series and serials: Callan (ITV, 1967-72), Rumpole of the Bailey (ITV, 1978-79; 1983; 1987-88; 1991-92), The Sweeney (ITV, 1975-78) and Boys from the Blackstuff (BBC, 1983) all had their origins in one-offs. But it has been more than a testing ground for other, 'higher' forms of drama. The long-running strands, particularly, gave opportunities to numerous young writers and directors new to television, while the 60-90 minute format allowed them to develop a distinctive voice without the pressure of sustaining a multi-part drama. Perhaps most importantly, the TV play, at its height, encompassed a huge diversity of themes and styles, beyond the endlessly reworked formulae that have come to dominate mainstream TV drama today.

Mark Duguid

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of 'It is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer' (1953)

'It is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer' (1953)

Oldest complete surviving TV play, a tense drama set in French colonial Africa

Thumbnail image of Abigail's Party (1977)

Abigail's Party (1977)

Memorable Mike Leigh drama about a disastrous middle-class soiree

Thumbnail image of Afternoon of a Nymph (1962)

Afternoon of a Nymph (1962)

A young actress learns the dark side of showbiz

Thumbnail image of Black Christmas (1977)

Black Christmas (1977)

Understated drama about a West Indian family Christmas

Thumbnail image of Cathy Come Home (1966)

Cathy Come Home (1966)

Classic Ken Loach-directed drama about homelessness

Thumbnail image of Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, The (1974)

Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, The (1974)

Controversial, hard-hitting dramatised history of Scotland

Thumbnail image of Day Out, A (1972)

Day Out, A (1972)

Alan Bennett's first TV play, a period drama about a Halifax cycling club

Thumbnail image of Edna the Inebriate Woman (1971)

Edna the Inebriate Woman (1971)

Powerful drama about society's indifference to the destitute.

Thumbnail image of Fable (1965)

Fable (1965)

Controversial TV drama imagining Britain under black rule

Thumbnail image of Fear of Strangers, A (1964)

Fear of Strangers, A (1964)

A policeman tries to convince a suspect that he committed a murder

Thumbnail image of Go Now (1995)

Go Now (1995)

Touching romantic drama about a young man beset by MS

Thumbnail image of Hillsborough (1996)

Hillsborough (1996)

Powerful drama about the 1989 football stadium tragedy and its aftermath

Thumbnail image of Lee Oswald - Assassin (1966)

Lee Oswald - Assassin (1966)

Ambitious drama-documentary about the man who shot JFK

Thumbnail image of Lena, O My Lena (1960)

Lena, O My Lena (1960)

Alun Owen-scripted TV play about a naive young factory worker

Thumbnail image of Let's Murder Vivaldi (1968)

Let's Murder Vivaldi (1968)

Taut David Mercer play about relationship conflicts

Thumbnail image of Lover, The (1963)

Lover, The (1963)

Tense Harold Pinter drama about an unusual middle-class marriage

Thumbnail image of Made in Britain (1983)

Made in Britain (1983)

Tim Roth's incendiary debut as an intelligent but nihilistic skinhead

Thumbnail image of Naked Civil Servant, The (1975)

Naked Civil Servant, The (1975)

John Hurt's breakthrough role as the flamboyantly gay Quentin Crisp

Thumbnail image of Night Out, A (1960)

Night Out, A (1960)

Harold Pinter's first television play, about an oppressed 'mother's boy'

Thumbnail image of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Highly controversial - in its day - Orwell adaptation by Nigel Kneale

Thumbnail image of Nuts in May (1976)

Nuts in May (1976)

Mike Leigh play about a couple on a camping holiday

Thumbnail image of Oi For England (1982)

Oi For England (1982)

Compelling TV play about fascism and disaffected youth

Thumbnail image of Out of Control (2002)

Out of Control (2002)

Hard-hitting drama about three boys' experience of borstal

Thumbnail image of Season's Greetings (1986)

Season's Greetings (1986)

Biting Alan Ayckbourn drama about a disastrous family Christmas

Thumbnail image of Trial of Dr Fancy, The (1964)

Trial of Dr Fancy, The (1964)

Absurd satire about conformism and a strange medical practice.

Thumbnail image of Vote, Vote, Vote, for Nigel Barton (1965)

Vote, Vote, Vote, for Nigel Barton (1965)

Second of Dennis Potter's dramas sees Nigel trying to enter politics

Thumbnail image of War Game, The (1966)

War Game, The (1966)

A memorably realistic depiction of a nuclear attack on Britain

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