On July 5 2008, the National Film Theatre in London played host to a remarkable event. It was a talk given by one of the central figures in the history of British television drama, David Rose. Over the course of the afternoon, David reviewed his long career as a producer and programme maker – a career that encompassed being producer of the ground-breaking police series Z Cars (BBC 1962-78), and Head of English Regions Drama at Pebble Mill, Birmingham, for the BBC in the 1970s and early 80s. During this time he oversaw the production of such landmark dramas as Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff (BBC2 1982), which became a national political and cultural event.
When Channel 4 was established in 1982, David became the first Commissioning Editor for Film in charge of Film on Four, which forged a new relationship between television and cinema, executive producing films such as My Beautiful Launderette (1985) for both the small and large screens. (I had the privilege of organising a dry-run of the event at the Cardiff School of Creative and Cultural Industries in May, where David was joined by Welsh writer Elaine Morgan).
The BFI event was, disgracefully, largely ignored by the press. However, one writer who was present, David Hare, contributed an article to The Times, (Hare 2008) bemoaning the lack of media interest and the absence of anyone of note from the BBC (although senior figures, including the Director General Mark Thompson, had been invited). Hare, who benefited from Rose’s support in the 1970s and 1980s, used the occasion to mount an attack on broadcasters in general, and the Corporation in particular, for their lack of historical perspective. For Hare, the kind of drama that David Rose has spent much of his life bringing to the screen has been either deliberately killed off, or allowed to wither by cynical neglect. Hare took no prisoners: ‘BBC executives’ he observed caustically ‘are far too busy jargonising to each other about delivery platforms and multi-choice environments to watch the actual programmes.’ Despite some recent adventurous one-off films, and with the notable exception of Paul Abbot, Hare found little to match the heyday of BBC drama, the Wednesday Play (BBC 1964-70) and the Play for Today (BBC 1970 – 84) anthology series. In Hare’s account, the battle lines are clearly drawn: to the left, the now-defeated single play of the 1960s to early 80s (associated with the BBC), the last bastion of ‘authored’ drama, politically aware and formally innovative; and to the right, contemporary generic drama series, formulaic and conservative. It is easy for television academics to object to this argument, and Hare’s airy dismissal of most contemporary drama is perhaps predictable and reeks of unfashionable auteurism. However, his defence of David Rose suggests deeper currents.
There is more than just ‘Golden Ageism’ at stake here, even if, ultimately, Hare’s is not a helpful way to construct the history of UK television drama. The key issue is not about the single play versus the drama series, but rather of changing power relationships, which are to do with the relationships between producers and commissioners, artists and executives, broadcasters and governments and with the openness of management structures. It also has many aspects, and the one that I am most concerned with here returns us to the many achievements of David Rose: the relationship between the BBC and its satellite operations in the regions, between the London headquarters and the provinces – between the centre and the periphery . There is a way of charting the development of the ‘Play for Today’ tradition that Hare is defending that sees it as one more battle – or perhaps series of skirmishes – in the unequal struggle between the regions and London, where the regions, for once, scored a victory.
For much of the history of broadcasting, the regions have been subordinate to the centre, allowed a measure of independence, but always on terms dictated by London. As always, it is power that lies at the heart of the relationship, and rarely has London’s power been given away freely, especially where drama is concerned. From its inception, the BBC has seen television as a national service, in contrast to radio, which grew from local networks, and to commercial television, which operated on the basis of regional franchises. Added to this, regions were defined initially (until 1971) in terms of the reach of the transmitters, which bore little relationship to any existing cultural or political identities (see Briggs, 1995: 623). In the early 1960s, despite the presence of studios in several regional/national centres, most drama was made in London. It is ironic that the police series Z Cars, set on Merseyside and heralding a new kind of realism in its engagement with contemporary society, was made in London’s Shepherd’s Bush. Sydney Newman, the legendary Head of Drama at the BBC in the 1960s, did not think much of the regions. He may have defended radical drama in the Corporation at the time, but only entrusted its production to safe hands in the White City.
There is a wider cultural context to this preference for London as well. By the mid-1960s, London had truly swung into view, becoming the focal point of a new popular culture as it was already for everything else. For ambitious young people, London was the place to be, and seemed to reciprocate the attention (ironically, a great deal of ‘northern’ realist theatre and film was produced by refugees from the regions, now decamped to London). Several of the younger generation of radicals in the BBC Drama Department in London were of provincial origin – Tony Garnett (Birmingham), Ken Loach (Nuneaton) and John MacGrath (Liverpool).
However, the situation changed in 1969, prompted by the Corporation’s review of its activities, Broadcasting in the Seventies (BBC 1969), which led to a significant investment in regional production facilities, including £7m for Pebble Mill, Birmingham accompanied by a brief to promote regional identities and themes. Pebble Mill was asked to specialise in drama, and David Rose – yet again at the centre of a key moment in the history of television – was appointed Head of English Regions Drama (ERD). Rose and his team saw their task as being to promote drama that was regionally-produced, allowing the local production skills-base to develop, and using regionally-based writers whenever possible. The point here is that ERD brought new talent to the screen, especially writers, achieving a distinctive presence on the network for its outputs that were – at least partly – the product of its regional identity and its separation from London. From the outset, Rose enjoyed a rare independence from the metropolitan centre, securing permission to rehearse, as well as produce, drama in Birmingham. He also refused to attend Drama group meetings in London, arguing that he did not want to know what they were doing, and certainly did not want them to know what he was up to (Cooke 2008: 102). As Barry Hanson, who was his script editor in the early 1970s, remarked: ‘The feeling that it was the rest of the country against London was strong’. (Hanson, 2000: 60).
ERD produced drama for a number of network slots, including Play for Today, and gave opportunities to established writers such as Alan Plater, Jack Rosenthal and David Rudkin, alongside writers in other media, such as novelists Ian McEwan and Malcolm Bradbury and the playwright David Hare, who were persuaded to work for television. It also supported early plays by Mike Leigh. Additionally, there is a long list of directors, some now more famous for their cinema work, who directed ERD plays – for example, Mike Newell, Stephen Frears, Roland Joffe and Alan Clarke. The work was varied and frequently challenging. (Some television trivia: it is thought that the first lesbian kiss in British television drama occurred on Brookside in the 1990s, however it actually happened in a play called Girl by James Robson, an ERD produced drama from 1974, and occurred between Alison Steadman and Myra Frances – thanks to Lez Cooke for this nugget). Some of the most critically-regarded and best remembered Plays for Today were produced by ERD, including David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen (1974), Philip Martin’s Gangsters(1975), Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May (1976) and David Hare’s Licking Hitler (1978) and Dreams of Leaving(1980).
Gangsters is a particularly good example of a drama that was both distinctive, in the sense of being very different from anything else on television at the time, and very much of its place of production. Its writer, Philip Martin used the genre of a film-noir gangster-thriller to explore the multi-racial and ethnically diverse reality of contemporary Britain through a story that involves violence, revenge and the cynical exploitation of illegal immigrants in Birmingham. The one-off Play for Today spawned two series that became increasingly experimental as they progressed. Looking more like a B-movie than a social realist drama, Gangsters explodes with an energy that makes it a precursor to some later experiments that hitch contemporary social problems to genre fiction, but this is just one reason why it is worthy of interest.
The circumstances in which Gangsters came to be made are indicative of the informal relationships that Rose established at ERD. The writer, Philip Martin, was given a grant that allowed him to live in Birmingham for three months to research ideas for a possible play, with no strings attached: if there were no ideas, then no play and no hard feelings. Martin proposed Gangsters, which Rose immediately liked because it was regional in its setting and dealt with the new realities of multi-ethnic Britain in a style that was more reminiscent of The French Connection (1971) than social realism (Rose admired that film, seeing in it a model for a new kind of contemporary drama) (Cooke 2008: 134). As script editor Barry Hanson noted, one of Gangsters principal attractions was that it did not resemble a Play for Today and was a ‘”first” in that it used every ethnic minority in the city’ (Hanson 2000: 63).
Different times require different histories: in our own era in the UK the air is thick with promises of devolution, of regional and local autonomy on the one hand (at the BBC), and of retrenchment, redundancy and retreat into London on the other (at ITV). I am writing this as someone who lives and works in Cardiff, a city that is eagerly awaiting a significant increase in production at BBC Wales, especially drama production, whilst nervously anticipating the near-certain abandonment of dedicated regional ITV news. Faced with declining advertising revenues and a faltering in its content-led expansion plans, ITV is axing 192 jobs in Yorkshire and ‘mothballing’ two of its most popular drama series made there, Heartbeat and The Royal. Clearly, when recession bites it is production beyond the M25, London’s orbital motorway, that is hit first. The example of ERD under David Rose’s guidance is that it is often from the regions that the real energy and innovation comes.
I am indebted to Lez Cooke for his research into regional television drama, which draws attention to the importance of English Regions Drama.
Stephen Lacey is Professor of Drama, Film and Television in the Cardiff School of Creative and Cultural Industries at the University of Glamorgan. He has published widely on post-war British theatre and television drama, and is the author of British Realist Theatre: The New Wave in its Context 1956-65 (Routledge 1995) and Tony Garnett (MUP 2007). He is also co-editor of Popular Television Drama: Critical Perspectives (MUP 2005) and British Television Drama: Past, Present and Future (Palgrave 2000). He is currently writing a monograph on Cathy Come Home for BFI/Palgrave and co-directing a research project on representations of Wales in BBC drama, with Dr Who and Torchwood as case studies, in partnership with the BBC Trust in Wales. He is also a founding editor of Critical Studies in Television.
This is adapted from Prof Lacey’s inaugural lecture:
Title: Plays for Today? BBC television drama in the 1960s and 70s revisited.
Date: Tuesday 10 February 2009
Venue: the ATRiuM, Cardiff School of Creative and Cultural Industries, University of Glamorgan