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Armchair Theatre (1956-74)

Hugely influential ITV anthology drama series

Main image of Armchair Theatre (1956-74)

In its first year on air, ITV began to trump the BBC with populist programming like Sunday Night at the London Palladium (1955-67; 1973-74), Double Your Money (1955-64), and imported sitcom I Love Lucy (1955-64). But stung by sneers that commercial television would drive down broadcasting standards, ITV wanted prestige, too, and the tried and tested route to that was 'serious' drama. Rediffusion's opening night roster had included fragments of Oscar Wilde and Nöel Coward, while ABC 's first weekend schedule included a televised Dickens episode, 'Bardell v Pickwick' (tx. 25/9/1955), in the 30-minute Theatre Royal (1955-56) strand. Theatre Royal was produced by Harry Alan Towers' independent Towers of London company, as, at first, was the more substantial TV Playhouse (1955-63).

A more lasting impact, however, was made by ABC's Armchair Theatre, the first of the major TV drama anthologies, which made its first appearance in July 1956 with an adaptation of Dorothy Brandon's 1920s stage play 'The Outsider'. 'The Outsider' was directed by Dennis Vance, a former actor and BBC producer who since joining ITV had worked on both Theatre Royal and TV Playhouse, as well as the more populist The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1955-56). Vance produced Armchair Theatre for two years, but his contribution has been downplayed by comparison with that of his successor, Sydney Newman. With the bulk of Vance's productions lost, it's difficult to reassess his contribution, but one prevalent view, that the series under his tenure was dominated by classic adaptations, is unfair. Although early presentations drew on perhaps surprisingly highbrow writers - Strindberg, Maupassant, Ibsen, André Gide - literary and stage adaptations were matched from the beginning by new works specifically for television, most by British writers.

Like almost all TV drama of the time, Armchair Theatre was transmitted live. This presented profound technical challenges for the ambitious director and writer. It was common in early television drama to adopt a static, more or less front-on approach, with the camera occupying the position of the 'fourth wall' or proscenium arch of stage drama. Such practice, however, was awkward and aesthetically unsatisfying, and created an impression of a medium in thrall to the stage. At the BBC, producer Rudolph Cartier, in work such as Nineteen Eighty-Four (tx. 12/12/1954), had pointed the way to a television liberated from such theatrical baggage, with expressive use of close-ups and voice-over, moving camera and controlled cutting.

On ITV, Armchair Theatre became the spearhead of live drama innovation, and one play from the Vance era that does survive suggests that it was already reaching for a more 'televisual' approach. Adapted for television by cult American author Terry Southern and directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, Eugene O'Neill's 'Emperor Jones' (tx. 30/3/1958) was marked by an unusually fluid camera style, elaborate tracking shots, point-of-view and other techniques impossible in a theatre.

But such ambition brought problems of its own - multiple moving cameras meant the risk of cameras or microphones appearing in shot; sets had to be large enough to allow cameras and actors to move freely - while, perhaps, convincingly evoking a confined terrace house. The anthology provided one of the most striking demonstrations of the perils of live television drama when, in 'Underground' (tx. 30 /11/1958), the actor Gareth Jones collapsed and died during transmission. Director Ted Kotcheff was forced into a hasty rewrite, redistributing the actor's lines to other members of the cast.

Meanwhile a drama revolution was underway, kickstarted from the stage by John Osborne's 1956 Look Back in Anger. New voices were demanding to be heard, and time was being called on the relentlessly suburban, middle-class, living-room dramas that had dominated the West End stage. The new drama was energetic, contemporary and spoke with a regional accent, concerning itself with the lives of ordinary working-class or lower-middle-class people. Sydney Newman saw Look Back in Anger shortly after he arrived in Britain in April 1958, poached from the Canadian Broadcasting Company to head up ABC's drama department. Inspired by Osborne's play, Newman determined that Armchair Theatre would henceforth reflect a changing Britain with dynamic, socially relevant drama written specially for television.

It took some time for the plan to become reality. In the meantime, Newman programmed adaptations and imported works from North American writers like Mordecei Richler and Gore Vidal while he assembled his new team, built around directors like Kotcheff, Philip Saville and Charles Jarrott, and young writers new to television, including Alun Owen, Ray Rigby, Clive Exton and Angus Wilson.

Dixon of Dock Green (BBC, 1955-76) creator Ted Willis, whose 'Woman in a Dressing Gown' (TV Playhouse, tx. 28/6/1956) captured the new zeitgeist only a month after Look Back in Anger's London premiere (though the play was probably inspired not by Osborne but by the raw American TV drama typified by Paddy Chayefsky's 1953 Marty), set down a marker for Armchair Theatre's new direction with the powerful 'Hot Summer Night' (tx. 1/2/1959), which tackled interracial romance - five years before ATV's Emergency - Ward 10 (1957-67) caused a storm with the same subject.

Further striking examples of Armchair Theatre's emblematic social realism (which earned the series the unappetising soubriquet 'Armpit Theatre') included Clive Exton 's 'Where I Live' (tx. 10/1/1960), in which a brother and sister fight over the care of their unwanted father, and Alun Owen's 'No Trams to Lime Street' (tx. 18/10/1959) and 'Lena, O My Lena' (tx. 25/9/1960). The latter, in which a young student discovers his detachment from his working-class roots, stands as perhaps the archetypal television drama of the period.

Armchair Theatre's young writers and directors could enjoy huge audiences for their work, thanks in part to generous scheduling: the series immediately followed Sunday Night at the London Palladium, one of ITV's most consistently popular programmes. Harold Pinter's 'A Night Out' (tx. 24/4/1960), his first work for television, topped the TAM ratings for the week, an unprecedented achievement for a single drama. A typically intense and claustrophobic work, with Tom Bell as a tormented 'mother's boy', 'A Night Out' helped establish Pinter at a time when his first stage works had alienated critics.

But even at the height of the 'kitchen sink' era, Armchair Theatre presented a broad mix, including comedy, thrillers, romance and science-fiction. Newman proudly boasted that Donald Giltinan's astronaut drama, 'The Man Out There' (tx. 12/3/1961), "scooped Gagarin by four days". Exton's adaptation of a John Wyndham short story, 'The Dumb Martian' (tx. 24/6/1962), launched the sci-fi anthology Out of This World (1962), presented by Boris Karloff, while another successful spin-off was Armchair Mystery Theatre (1960; 1964-65).

In 1962, Newman announced, "no more plays about 'kitchen sinks', unless they are brilliant". That wasn't the end of the series' social realism, but the architects of the form had already begun to move on. Alun Owen's 'The Rose Affair' (tx. 8/10/1961), was a fantastical update of Beauty and the Beast, with Anthony Quayle as a disfigured oligarch softened by feminine beauty and guile. Clive Exton's 'The Trial of Dr Fancy' (tx. 9/8/1964) - held back from transmission for two years by the Independent Television Authority for fear it might cause offence - was a bizarre courtroom drama about an unusual medical treatment for tall patients embarrassed by their height. David Perry's 'The Trouble with Our Ivy' (tx. 19/11/1961) escalated a neighbours' feud to an absurd botanical conclusion. Robert Muller's 'The Night Conspirators' (tx. 6/5/1962) imagined a senile Hitler still retaining a sinister influence after surviving WWII.

In 1963, Newman departed for the BBC, to be replaced by Leonard White, previously producer of both Out of This World and Armchair Mystery Theatre, as well as the early The Avengers (1961-69). Like Vance before him, White is all-too-readily overlooked in the Armchair Theatre story, eclipsed not just by Newman's ABC legacy but by his BBC work. By the mid-1960s, Newman's The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70) had supplanted Armchair Theatre at the cutting edge of British television drama.

Nevertheless, White continued to produce notable plays - including David Mercer's 'A Way of Living' (tx. 29/12/1963), Donald Churchill's 'The Hothouse' (tx. 13/12/1964) and Fay Weldon's 'Poor Cherry' (tx. 9/9/1967) - and to attract writers of the calibre of Jack Rosenthal, John Hopkins, John Mortimer and Allan Prior. The cult spy-drama Callan (1967-72) grew from James Mitchell's 'A Magnum for Schneider' (tx. 4/2/1967), while Vince Powell and Harry Driver's rag trade comedy 'Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width' (tx. 18/2/1967), begat a six-series sitcom (1967-71).

In 1970, by which time ABC had given way to Thames, White handed over to Lloyd Shirley. In the face of routine pessimistic prophecies of 'the demise of the TV play', Armchair Theatre was, in name at least, an unwelcome reminder of a stage influence that television had outgrown. The series struggled on until 1974, when its 18-year run finally came to an end. But the story didn't quite end there. With ITV increasingly embracing filmed drama, the strand had a brief afterlife as Armchair Cinema (1974-75), whose first series included Ian Kennedy Martin's 'Regan' (tx. 4/6/1974), from which sprang one of the 1970s' most iconic dramas, The Sweeney (1975-78). In 1978, Thames revived the Armchair Thriller name (first used for a brief series in 1967) for a modest but fondly-remembered anthology of multi-part suspense dramas (1978-80).

Mark Duguid

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