The difference between commemoration of the fiftieth anniversaries of Doctor Who last year and The Wednesday Play in 2014 could hardly have been more marked. I feel as though I have lived through general elections that got less press coverage than the Doctor Who anniversary, while the only attention given to The Wednesday Play was half a dozen BFI screenings; no repeats, no books, no documentaries.
I’ve always found the preponderance of anniversaries in media discourse a bit tiresome myself – while the fiftieth birthdays or golden weddings of living people are events worth celebrating I don’t see why, for instance, A Hard Day’s Night, Herzog or Inadmissible Evidence should automatically become more worthy of my interest now just because they first appeared in 1964. But if we do have birthday parties for television programmes then there cannot be a better candidate than the cycle of single plays broadcast under the series banner of The Wednesday Play (BBC 1964-70) and its successor Play For Today (BBC 1970-84). Without overstating their case, it’s fair to say that these series are considered to have been the highest profile and most ambitious site for original (usually) television plays in British television history, with the full resources of the BBC used to support a diverse range of dramatic approaches, the presentation of uncomfortable and surprising themes, and the distinctive writing, direction, production and performances of disparate talents.
Talk of ‘golden ages’ of British television drama is best avoided, encouraging reductive historical readings, and offering provocative advocacy that often serves to irritate at the expense of analysis. Also, even the most cursory research into contemporary reaction into The Wednesday Play and Play For Today tends to show that most people – audiences, critics and television-makers – didn’t think that they were living through an especially golden age at the time. But I feel that part of the reason why the normally anniversary-happy BBC have ignored this anniversary (beyond the usual systematic avoidance of quaint-looking and sounding old television) is that the value of the idea of The Wednesday Play/Play For Today cycle and the scale of the enterprise (469 productions!) is something that hasn’t been attempted since 1984. If the transmission of a diverse selection of 30 or so freestanding original plays or films in a regular slot on BBC1 were announced for 2015, then this news would excite me. Especially if the productions seemed to arise from the imaginative instincts of interesting contemporary playwrights and filmmakers, even though many would be liable to be failures and disappointments, ideas that didn’t come off.
Working on the ‘History of Forgotten Television Drama in the UK’ project at Royal Holloway, I’ve been surprised at how often our thoughts go back to The Wednesday Play and Play For Today, and how uncontentious this concentration should be, that the best remembered single drama series should turn out to be such a fertile hunting ground for forgotten plays. Because, unlike what survives of Doctor Who, these plays are hard to get to see!
I’ve tried to work out how much of The Wednesday Play and Play for Today is available to view, and what which type of plays gets included or excluded tells us about which TV drama is remembered. 129 plays currently don’t survive in the archives. Of what’s left, a good yardstick for judging canonical status is to note what has been made available commercially. Although the BFI Mediatheque does great work, access is limited and TV programmes that leak out onto YouTube can often vanish back into unavailability. Although many titles are now deleted, 36 of the plays have been released on DVD, 10% of the surviving series. They are:
The Wednesday Play
07 Apr 1965 Three Clear Sundays (w. James O’Connor d. Ken Loach)
13 Oct 1965 Alice (w. Dennis Potter d. Gareth Davies)
03 Nov 1965 Up The Junction (w. Nell Dunn d. Ken Loach)
17 Nov 1965 The End Of Arthur’s Marriage (w. Christopher Logue/ Stanley Myers d. Ken Loach)
08 Dec 1965 Stand Up, Nigel Barton (w. Dennis Potter d. Gareth Davies)
15 Dec 1965 Vote, Vote, Vote For Nigel Barton (w. Dennis Potter d. Gareth Davies)
16 Nov 1966 Cathy Come Home (w. Jeremy Sandford d. Ken Loach)
01 Mar 1967 In Two Minds (w. David Mercer d. Ken Loach)
19 Feb 1969 The Big Flame (w. Jim Allen d. Ken Loach)
10 Dec 1969 The Vortex (w. Noel Coward d. Philip Dudley)
Play For Today
10 Dec 1970 Robin Redbreast (w. John Bowen d. James MacTaggart)
20 May 1971 The Rank & File (w. Jim Allen d. Ken Loach)
04 Dec 1972 Just Your Luck (w. Peter McDougall d. Mike Newell)
12 Mar 1973 Hard Labour (w./d. Mike Leigh)
09 Jan 1975 Gangsters (w. Philip Martin d. Philip Saville)
20 Feb 1975 Sunset Across The Bay (w. Alan Bennett d. Stephen Frears)
13 Mar 1975 Just Another Saturday (w. Peter McDougall d. John Mackenzie)
16 Dec 1975 Rumpole Of The Bailey (w. John Mortimer d. John Gorrie)
13 Jan 1976 Nuts In May (w./d. Mike Leigh)
14 Sep 1976 Bar Mitzvah Boy (w. Jack Rosenthal d. Michael Tuchner)
12 Oct 1976 The Elephants’ Graveyard (w. Peter McDougall d. John Mackenzie)
00 Ooo 1976 Brimstone & Treacle (w. Dennis Potter d. Barry Davies)
11 Jan 1977 The Kiss Of Death (w./d. Mike Leigh)
15 Mar 1977 Spend, Spend, Spend (w. Jack Rosenthal d. John Goldschmidt)
01 Nov 1977 Abigail’s Party (w./d. Mike Leigh)
00 Ooo 1977 Scum (w. Roy Minton d. Alan Clarke)
17 Jan 1978 Red Shift (w. Alan Garner d. John MacKenzie)
07 Nov 1978 Dinner At The Sporting Club (w. Leon Griffiths d. Brian Gibson)
30 Jan 1979 Blue Remembered Hills (w. Dennis Potter d. Brian Gibson)
05 Feb 1979 Who’s Who (w./d. Mike Leigh)
08 Nov 1979 Just A Boy’s Game (w. Peter McDougall d. John Mackenzie)
06 Dec 1979 The Slab-Boys (w. John Byrne d. Bob Hird)
09 Dec 1980 The Flipside of Dominick Hyde (w. Alan Gibson & Jeremy Paul d. Alan Gibson)
16 Mar 1982 Home Sweet Home (w./d. Mike Leigh)
19 Oct 1982 Soft Targets (w. Stephen Poliakoff d. Charles Sturridge)
14 Dec 1982 Another Flip For Dominick (w. Alan Gibson & Jeremy Paul d. Alan Gibson)
I can identify several different criteria that have aided the canonical status of the plays in this list. The most preponderant is directorial status, which applies to the seven Ken Loach and six Mike Leigh productions (as well as Alan Clarke’s Scum). This derives from the film careers of the two men, whose direction is appreciated as formed of bodies of work, a cinematic ‘oeuvre’ perspective that also encompasses their television plays and films. This approach is not one ever afforded to television directors. The closest that you gets to it in TV drama is through the writer’s status, found here in the Potter, Rosenthal and Bennett titles. The four Peter McDougall plays and the Slab Boys were a highly anomalous DVD release because of their National status, issued by the short-lived John Williams Productions, a company who specialised in releasing hard-to-find Scottish films. Another genre category is cult TV. Robin Redbreast, Red Shift and the time-travelling Dominick Hyde plays were all rare Play For Today excursions into telefantasy, while the stylised crime film Gangsters developed into an exceptionally bizarre BBC series. Beyond these four categories are a handful of miscellaneous releases published because of the star status of John Thaw and Helen Mirren, a wholly exceptional Wednesday Play contribution to the BBC’s celebrations of Noel Coward’s seventieth birthday and the pilot episode of Rumpole of the Bailey.
Having identified the criteria for plausible commercial release, I feel pessimistic about the possibility of many further DVD releases of Wednesday Plays or Plays for Today. I expect that the BFI will eventually add Penda’s Fen (1974) to its highly successful ‘cult’ TV range, but that’s probably the last telefantasy one left. There is a real case for doing Dennis Potter and Stephen Poliakoff sets to the definitive standards of the Loach and Leigh collections, plus a second Alan Bennett set that includes the wealth of interesting material infuriatingly omitted from the current one. Otherwise, I can’t see much left that has much commercial possibility.
As a part of the ‘Forgotten TV Drama’ season at BFI Southbank in February, ‘Rediscovering British television’s neglected plays’, a further ten or so long-unseen Play for Today titles will be added to the archive of the BFI Mediatheque. We hope that you might like to watch some of them when you visit the South Bank next year. It’s likely to be the only way that you’ll get to see them.
Billy Smart is Research Officer at the AHRC-funded ‘Forgotten British Television drama: 1946-1982’ project at Royal Holloway ( http://forgottentelevisiondrama.wordpress.com/ )