Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
On the Margin (1966)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of On the Margin (1966)
1 series of 6x30 min episodes
Written byAlan Bennett
Production CompanyBBC TV
DirectorSydney Lotterby
ProducerPatrick Garland
Music DirectorRonnie Hazlehurst

Cast: Alan Bennett, Yvonne Gillan, Madge Hindle, Roland MacLeod, John Sergeant, Virginia Stride

Show full cast and credits

Comedy series offering a mixture of sketches, songs and poetry.

Show full synopsis

After achieving fame in the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe (1960), Alan Bennett had little difficulty moving into television, though this initially took the form of contributing one-off sketches (as writer and performer) to occasional episodes of Ned Sherrin's satirical magazine programmes, Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life (BBC, tx.1964-65) and BBC-3 (BBC, tx.1965-66) plus the latter's feature-length spin-off My Father Knew Lloyd George (BBC, tx. 18/12/1965).

The BBC was impressed enough by these to commission an original Bennett project as both writer and star, which eventually became the six-part On the Margin (BBC, tx. 9/11-14/12/1966). Besides Bennett, the core performers were Yvonne Gillan, Madge Hindle, Roland MacLeod, Virginia Stride and John Sergeant (who would later achieve fame in a far more serious role as the BBC's chief political correspondent) together with guest appearances by the better-known John Fortune and Jonathan Miller.

Each instalment featured a mixture of sketches (some foreshadowing Bennett's subsequent television dramas, others mocking television clich├ęs, such as documentaries about working-class Northern writers and discussion programmes featuring pretentious critics), the quasi-soap 'Streets Ahead: Life and Times in NW1' (about a supposedly upwardly mobile Camden couple) and, more unexpectedly, serious poetry and music slots incorporating readings by Michael Hordern and Prunella Scales and archive footage of music-hall stars. This personalised nostalgic element distinguished On the Margin from other sketch shows, with Bennett's satirical swipes at contemporary Britain integrated with his entirely genuine love of its cultural heritage.

On the Margin was such a critical success that it was repeated twice in 1967, still on BBC2 in January but transferring to the more populist BBC1 in May. This second repeat proved controversial, with Mary Whitehouse (amongst others) protesting about a perceived insult to the city of Norwich ("knickers off ready when I come home") and scoutmasters taking umbrage against an innuendo-ridden sketch about them. But this did Bennett's profile no harm: three months later he was a guest on Radio 4's prestigious Desert Island Discs.

Despite its high profile, On the Margin became one of the most notorious victims of the BBC's tape-recycling policies, with the only copy of the entire series wiped shortly after its third and final broadcast. Some soundtrack excerpts survive (including the 'Norwich' sketch), but much of the rest seems irretrievably lost. In 1990, Bennett reconstructed one of the original sketches for Channel Four's A-Z of TV compilation (tx.1/1/1990).

Michael Brooke

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Production stills
Bennett, Alan (1934-)
Fortune, John (1939-) and Bird, John (1936-)
Hordern, Sir Michael (1911-1995)
Miller, Jonathan (1934)
Scales, Prunella (1933-)