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Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)

Long-running, often provocative BBC drama strand

Main image of Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)

The BBC's Wednesday Play is synonymous with 1960s television. Its name evokes memories of sensational drama and controversy, but its range was much broader than that, encompassing many genres and styles.

Its origins have become obscured over the years, but The Wednesday Play was a phoenix from the flames of the BBC's under-performing drama schedule. In July 1964, BBC director of television Kenneth Adam cancelled the failing drama strands First Night (1963-64), which showcased new work for television, and Festival (1963-64), which presented highbrow adaptations. As a concession to the affronted head of drama Sydney Newman, Adam suggested The Wednesday Play, a strand which would embody the BBC's support for new television writing.

The series launched prematurely in October 1964 with a season of leftover Festival productions and imported Canadian dramas. Although often excellent plays, they did not fit The Wednesday Play's remit. The appointment of First Night producer James MacTaggart helped to steer it onto the correct course. Although his public brief was to provide a variety of "exciting and interesting and up to date" television plays, he would also realise Newman's ambition for what he would later call "agitational contemporaneity" - i.e. confrontational drama reflecting and challenging modern Britain.

James O'Connor's crime caper 'A Tap on the Shoulder' (tx. 6/1/1965) opened the new series. The commissioning of O'Connor, who had served a prison sentence for murder, was indicative of the new bold strategy. Variety was illustrated by the contrast with the following play, 'Sir Jocelyn, the Minister Would Like a Word' (tx. 13/1/1965), written by ex-Cambridge scholar Simon Raven about the conflicts surrounding the establishment of a new university.

The series was soon tackling contentious issues head-on, from apartheid and racial prejudice ('Fable', tx. 27/1/1965), to homosexuality ('Horror of Darkness', tx. 10/3/1965) and capital punishment ('3 Clear Sundays', tx. 7/4/1965). These plays demonstrated that The Wednesday Play was not only seeking to highlight social issues, but was actively attempting to influence public opinion. The BBC's audience research suggested that '3 Clear Sundays' had a marked effect in turning people against hanging, but not all plays were so successful: the satire of 'Fable' was misinterpreted by some, whose prejudices it reinforced rather than challenged.

The season also included 'The Confidence Course' (tx. 24/2/1965), the first play by Dennis Potter, who would make his name on The Wednesday Play, and established television playwright David Mercer's satirical fantasy 'And Did Those Feet?' (tx. 2/6/1965). MacTaggart opened a new season with Potter's 'Alice' (tx. 13/10/1965), a psychological portrait of Lewis Carol. Potter would also provide a pair of semi-autobiographical plays about a working-class boy's progress through Oxford and into politics as a Labour election candidate ('Stand Up, Nigel Barton', tx. 8/12/1965, 'Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton', tx.16/12/1965), among others.

This spirit of social intervention peaked with Nell Dunn's 'Up the Junction' (tx. 3/11/1965), which included a vividly realised scene of a back-street abortion that caused howls of protest. The drama was timed to coincide with a parliamentary debate on the Abortion Law Reform Bill, and as such attempted to intervene in the political process (something which 'Fable' had been rescheduled to avoid). This opened the series up to accusations that it was deliberately contravening the BBC's pledge of impartiality.

The Wednesday Play was heavily dependant on the tastes and convictions of its producers. When MacTaggart departed he was replaced by Festival's old producer, Peter Luke. Luke did not believe in using television drama for political purposes and steered the series towards "irony and humour", as he wrote in the Radio Times. Notable instalments during Luke's tenure included Clive Exton's 'The Boneyard' (tx. 5/1/1966) and John Hopkins' 'A Game - Like - Only A Game' (tx. 16/2/1966), in which two young boys blackmail an elderly woman. Under the literary-minded Luke, adaptations crept back in, including a critically acclaimed version of Aldous Huxley's atomic war satire 'Ape and Essence' (tx. 18/5/1966). By March 1966, The Wednesday Play was attracting a very respectable average audience of nine million.

Luke was succeeded by ex-theatre director Lionel Hale, who continued the series along similarly conventional lines. To shake things up from time to time, Newman allowed the politically motivated Tony Garnett, previously the series' story editor, to produce occasional instalments. One of these was to become the series' most famous example, and its most successful intervention in public life. Jeremy Sandford's 'Cathy Come Home' (tx. 16/11/1966) was an expose of housing shortages and the inadequacy of the state's provisions for the homeless. It sparked massive social and political dialogue, resulting in the introduction of new measures to combat homelessness.

Like 'Up the Junction' before it, 'Cathy Come Home' was made largely on location by Kenneth Loach using 16mm film, as opposed to being captured mainly in the electronic studio. This was part of a conscious move, spearheaded by Loach, Garnett and, earlier, MacTaggart, to take drama out of the studio and shoot in a cinema verité style for added verisimilitude. The willingness of the BBC to produce plays on film would grow over the life of The Wednesday Play and be seized upon by the strand's producers. Other examples include 'In Two Minds' (tx. 1/3/1967), David Mercer's study of schizophrenia, and 'The Big Flame' (tx. 19/2/1969), Jim Allen's socialistic drama of an industrial dispute, both of which were also directed by Loach.

The final three seasons of The Wednesday Play, between 1967 and 1970, were produced largely by newcomers Irene Shubik and Graeme McDonald, whose productions would roughly alternate. They were joined on occasion by Pharic Maclaren and the returning Garnett and Harris, among others. These years concentrated on variety, with McDonald handling the strand's established and reliable writers like Mercer, Simon Gray and Potter, while Shubik pursued new talent.

Mercer's continued contribution was particularly notable, with four further plays, including a complex trilogy about politics and personal memory with 'On the Eve of Publication' (tx. 27/11/1968), 'The Cellar and the Almond Tree' (tx. 4/3/1970), and 'Emma's Time' (tx. 13/5/1970). Potter's 'Son of Man' (tx. 16/4/1969) was a secular retelling of the story of Christ, ending with his crucifixion. It generated much pre-transmission publicity but - despite some headlines like "Storm over TV Christ" - the audience response was muted, indicating that by 1969 such provocative drama was expected and accepted of The Wednesday Play.

Shubik had notable success drawing stage writer David Rudkin and popular novelist William Trevor to the strand. Other distinguished commissions included John Mortimer's legal fantasy 'Infidelity Took Place' (tx. 8/5/1968), whose central character would later be reinvented as Rumpole of the Bailey (ITV, 1978-92).

Social problem plays still featured, notably two by Tony Parker: 'Mrs Lawrence Will Look After It' (tx. 21/8/1968), about unregulated childminders, and 'Chariot of Fire' (tx. 20/5/1970), which painted a sympathetic portrait of a paedophile. 'There is Also Tomorrow' (tx. 19/11/1969) dramatised a family divided by their views on nuclear weapons. It also marked the point at which The Wednesday Play moved over to colour production.

Although they would occasionally peak higher, the viewing figures for the last year of The Wednesday Play hovered around five to six million, dropping to approximately four-and-a-half by the time the ninth season concluded in May 1970. In an attempt to reinvigorate the series for its autumn return, the new head of drama, Shaun Sutton, shifted its day of transmission and renamed it Play for Today, emphasising its contemporary credentials. Under this guise it would run for another fourteen years.

Oliver Wake

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of 3 Clear Sundays (1965)

3 Clear Sundays (1965)

Black, powerful drama that lent force to the campaign against hanging

Thumbnail image of And Did Those Feet? (1965)

And Did Those Feet? (1965)

Complex satire on the decline of the upper classes

Thumbnail image of Auto Stop (1965)

Auto Stop (1965)

Recovered Wednesday Play featuring a young David Hemmings

Thumbnail image of Big Flame, The (1969)

Big Flame, The (1969)

Incendiary drama about a dockers' strike turned workers' takeover

Thumbnail image of Bond, The (1965)

Bond, The (1965)

A young married woman mourns her lost independence

Thumbnail image of Cathy Come Home (1966)

Cathy Come Home (1966)

Classic Ken Loach-directed drama about homelessness

Thumbnail image of Chariot of Fire (1970)

Chariot of Fire (1970)

Unusually complex portrait of a child abuser

Thumbnail image of Coming Out Party, The (1965)

Coming Out Party, The (1965)

Poignant but comic tale of a 12-year old boy searching for his jailbird mum

Thumbnail image of End Of Arthur's Marriage, The (1965)

End Of Arthur's Marriage, The (1965)

A real Ken Loach curio: a musical satire on money and property

Thumbnail image of Fable (1965)

Fable (1965)

Controversial TV drama imagining Britain under black rule

Thumbnail image of Golden Vision, The (1968)

Golden Vision, The (1968)

Witty Ken Loach drama-doc about obsessive Everton fans

Thumbnail image of Horror of Darkness (1965)

Horror of Darkness (1965)

Bleak Wednesday Play about an uncomfortable love triangle

Thumbnail image of In Two Minds (1967)

In Two Minds (1967)

David Mercer and Ken Loach's controversial study of schizophrenia

Thumbnail image of Last Train Through the Harecastle Tunnel, The (1969)

Last Train Through the Harecastle Tunnel, The (1969)

A trainspotter's day trip becomes a voyage of discovery

Thumbnail image of Let's Murder Vivaldi (1968)

Let's Murder Vivaldi (1968)

Taut David Mercer play about relationship conflicts

Thumbnail image of Mad Jack (1970)

Mad Jack (1970)

Poignent drama about the anti-war campaign of poet Siegfried Sassoon

Thumbnail image of Son of Man (1969)

Son of Man (1969)

Potter's typically provocative retelling of the Crucifixion

Thumbnail image of Stand Up, Nigel Barton (1965)

Stand Up, Nigel Barton (1965)

A coal miner's son wins an Oxford scholarship in Dennis Potter's play

Thumbnail image of Tap on the Shoulder (1965)

Tap on the Shoulder (1965)

Ken Loach's first Wednesday Play, a tale of villainy and corruption

Thumbnail image of Up the Junction (1965)

Up the Junction (1965)

Ken Loach's powerful drama about young women in Clapham

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

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