Friday, June 17, 2022

Play for Today: The Evolution of Television Drama, by Irene Shubik

The Wednesday Play was a prestigious anthology of (mostly) one-off plays, 182 of them broadcast by the BBC between 1964 and 1970. The series then moved to a different day of the week and, as Play for Today, a further 306 (mostly) one-off plays were broadcast between 1970 and 1984. One of the producers, Irene Shubik published this memoir in 1975 (and produced a revised, updated edition in 2001), detailing how and why plays were put on.

One reason for writing such a book is to have a permanent record of the plays at all. As Shubik says at the end of the book, the most noteworthy episodes were repeated - but usually just once. There was no facility to buy episodes for home viewer or to see them screened anywhere else. In many cases, episodes weren’t kept by the BBC anyway. The British Film Institute, with a remit to collect and preserve key bits of screen culture, lacked the resources to do much.

“All it [the BFI] can do is send its recommended lists to the BBC in the hope that the programmes will not actually have been wiped or junked. Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that a student in a hundred years time, hoping to make a study of English television productions in the 1970s will have sufficient material to do so; most of these ‘chronicles of our times’ will have vanished into the ether, condemned by the sheer weight of their numbers, to oblivion.” (p. 182)

She provides a long list of all the plays broadcast in the series up to 11 December 1972 - a valuable resource in the days before the internet made such things readily available - and then another, shorter version of those plays that she herself oversaw. She divides these plays into chapters based on type or style, and provides us with her insights - how they were commissioned, anecdotes about production, responses they received from the press and public. There's an engaging mix of gossip and technical detail, just the sort of thing I like.

There is a brief history of television drama prior to 1964: BBC Television began in December 1936; in 1937 some 123 plays were broadcast, an “astonishingly high figure” though many “were repeats and most were very short in length, from 10-30 minutes”. The majority were adaptations from stage and prose works,

“But even in 1937 there were two pieces put out which were original commissions for the medium: The Underground Murder Mystery by J Bissell Thomas (lasting ten minutes) and Turn Round by SE Reynolds lasting thirty minutes. These were the first two pieces of original English TV drama.” (p. 33)

Though there continued to be original works in the years that followed, Shubik marks 1953 as a pivotal moment in television drama.

“The reason why certain names keep recurring from that year [1953] Wilson, Kneale, Philip Mackie, John Elliot, and Anthony Stevens, among them, was that a policy had been adopted of putting certain promising writers on the staff, to form a sort of writer’s workshop. The idea was that by adapting and story-editing other people’s scripts, and working close to the productions, this nucleus of writers could best learn about the medium. Hierarchically, the structure of the department was Head of Drama (Michael Barry) and Head of Script Department (Donald Wilson), with a group of writers and directors working on all types of drama (plays, series and serials) under their supervision. … Nigel Kneale was the first writer to be put on this scheme, in 1951 [having] convinced the BBC drama department to give him a contract (at £5 a week), first to adapt one of is own [prose] stories and later (eventually at £15 a week), to become a staff writer and adapter.” (p. 34)

She remarks on how little this was.

The next pivotal moment in her history is the ITV network ABC (covering the Midlands) making Canadian producer Sydney Newman its head of drama in 1958. Two years later, Newman gave Shubik a job as script editor. In 1963, he began as Head of Drama at the BBC and gave Shubik a job there the following year.

There is a lot of Newman’s character, behaviour and appearance. Shubik quotes fellow story editor Peter Luke’s assessment of Newman as “a cross between Genghis Khan and a pussycat”, refers to his “Groucho-Marx-like sense of humour” and thinks him “undoubtedly one of the most dynamic men who ever worked in English television.” (p. 9). She’s good on why Newman had such an impact, too.

For example, “probably the first controversial piece”, or play, broadcast in the UK under Sydney Newman was Ray Rigby's Boy With a Meat Axe. Shubik quotes from the review by Norman Hare in News Chronicle on 22 November 1958: the play “included a murder accusation, a young girl getting drunk, and a street fight … as well as using a lavatory as one of the settings” (p. 25).

Newman wanted contemporary, revenant drama, yet for all his dramatists tackled the issues of the day, Shubik says Newman also “wanted as much variety as possible on the programme and a few plays starring ‘blondes with big boobs’ to temper the gloom” (p. 19). And while ABC drama anthology series Armchair Theatre did well,

“The size of the audience, as Sydney was always modestly reminding us at script meetings, was undoubtedly helped greatly by the fact that the programme followed [variety show] Sunday Night at the London Palladium” (p. 31)

Given this last point, it’s odd that when Shubik devotes a chapter to audience response, she doesn’t think there’s much to be gained from comparisons across genre. This is her on the merits of knowing numbers of viewers and their percentage score for a given programme (the “appreciation index”):

“Within the framework of his own programme, therefore, the producer can get some idea from programme research as to which plays were most watched and most liked; to compare one’s own programme with other types of programmes, for example comedy or documentary or sport, is a useless occupation as it is accepted that audiences for different types of viewing will differ.” (p. 180)

Newman recognised that this simply wasn’t true: a significant number of those watching a variety show would stay on to watch contemporary drama, even if only because they didn’t make the effort to switch off or over. Likewise, when Newman devised Doctor Who, he wanted a new, made-for-television drama that would retain the audience from sports show Grandstand and appeal to those tuning in for pop music show Juke Box Jury. Achieving this not only made Doctor Who a hit but led to the BBC dominating Saturday evening TV.

There’s no mention of Doctor Who here. Sadly, Shubik tells us that her oversight of anthology series Out of the Unknown (sci-fi) and Thirteen Against Fate (adaptations of stories by Georges Simenon) are not within the purview of this book - a shame, as it would be interested to know how she thought her work on these differed to the more prestigious one-off plays. She briefly mentions her time as story editor on Story Parade, and one episode in particular: an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel (about a detective who is a robot), but doesn’t mention Terry Nation, who adapted it for TV.

What is useful for my research into Doctor Who story editor David Whitaker is the many insights into Sydney Newman: why he broke up the BBC’s drama department (to increase productivity, p. 32); what made him a good producer (“the ability to assess personalities and match talents successfully”, p. 26); what he thought made a good story or script editor (“the courage to tell the author it [a script] was not good enough”, p. 29); what he’d look for when viewing a “producer’s run” of a play in the rehearsal room ( he had a “keen instinct for what was dramatic in a production and what was boring and self-indulgent on the part of the director or actors” and Shubik learned, from him, to “look at an outside rehearsal not as a stage play, but through the eyes of the cameras”, p. 49).

There are other interesting details too - why filming is more expensive than recording on videotape, the practicalities of working with different writers, the buzz of production with limited budget and time. Plus I have another production to add to my list of TV and film made at Grim’s Dyke: an episode of The Wednesday Play by David Rudkin, House of Character, including filming at “Grims Dyke Manor [sic] and Ham House in thick fog” (p. 91), with production beginning in October 1967.

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