Mercer, an innovative and controversial writer for television, stage
and film, was a key figure in the development of television drama
in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s. Although he often said he
got into television by accident, his television plays first established
his reputation and offered a powerful and personal exploration of
the possibilities of the medium. Most were published soon after
transmission, and they sparked lively critical and political debates.
came from a northern working-class family, but his interest in the
arts and in politics began after World War II when he was able to
take advantage of the extension of new educational opportunities.
This experience was central to his first television play, Where
the Difference Begins (1961), originally written for the stage
but accepted for broadcast by the BBC. The "difference" in the title
referred to the younger generation's break with traditional socialist
values, and Mercer followed up with two more plays, A Climate
of Fear (1962) and The Birth of a Private Man (1963),
which dealt with characters struggling to sustain a left-wing political
vision in the new "affluent" society.
Mercer's early work showed the influence of the "kitchen sink" realism
that had swept through British theater, literature and cinema in
the late 1950s, he soon became joined other BBC writers and producers
to challenge what Troy Kennedy-Martin called the prevailing "naturalism"
of television drama. In Mercer's case, the result was a new verbal
and visual freedom: instead of talking heads and colloquial speech
patterns, the plays combined condensed, witty and articulate dialogue
with striking, often subjective or allegorical, images. At the end
of The Birth of a Private Man, for example, Colin Waring,
whose private life had disintegrated in the face of his political
uncertainties, dies at the Berlin Wall in a hail of bullets from
This anti-naturalist style was recognized as an imaginative use
of the medium, but disturbed critics of all political persuasions.
Conservatives objected to Mercer's self-professed Marxist position,
liberals found the plays too explicit and lacking in subtlety, while
orthodox left-wing critics questioned the emphasis on the problems
of Socialism: the compromises of the British post-war Labour governments,
the revelations about Stalin's atrocities, and the failures of communism
in Eastern Europe. The plays may be Marxist in their stress on the
need for a political revolution, but the revolutionary impulse is
usually blocked and becomes internalized as psychological breakdown.
However, it also emerges in Mercer's pleasure in breaking the rules
of television drama, as he did emphatically in A Suitable Case
for Treatment, (1962), a broad farce in which the main character
indulged in "mad" visions of a retreat to the jungle away from the
complexities of his political and personal life. Mercer later wrote
the screenplay for the successful film version of this play, Morgan:
A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), directed by Karel Reisz.
motif of "madness" in Mercer's plays had much in common with the
anti-psychiatry of R.D. Laing, whose claim that schizophrenia is
an essentially sane response to a mad society was extremely influential
in the 1960s. Laing expressed great interest in Mercer's work and
acted as consultant on one of his most powerful television plays,
In Two Minds (1967), a documentary-style drama which traced
the causes of a young woman's schizophrenia to her oppressive family
life. The play was directed by Ken Loach who later directed a film
version Family Life (Wednesday's Child in the United States),
based on Mercer's screenplay.
himself likened his plays to rituals exploring the tensions and
contradictions of fragmented personalities and ambiguous truths.
They explore the relationships of the political and the personal
in a society which encourages conformity, inhibiting individual
expression. He felt that television gave him greater freedom of
expression than was possible in the commercial theater or cinema,
but he did continue to work in other media. His influence can be
seen in the work of a younger generation of writers like Trevor
Griffiths, David Hare, and Stephen Poliakoff who have also drawn
on the resources of television, theater, and film to produce a powerful
body of work dealing with the intersection of personal and political
pressures in contemporary Britain.
MERCER. Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, England, 27 June 1928.
Educated at King's College, Newcastle upon Tyne; B.A. with honors,
Durham University, 1953. Married twice; children: 1 daughter. Served
in Royal Navy 1945-48. Laboratory technician, 1942-45; lived in
Paris, 1953-54; supply teacher, 1955-59; teacher, Barrett Street
Technical College, 1959-61; television dramatist from 1961; screenwriter
from 1965. Recipient: Writers Guild Award for Television Play, 1962;
1967; 1968; Evening Standard Award, 1965; BAFTA Award, 1966; French
Film Academy CÚsar Award, for screenplay, 1977; Emmy Award, 1980.
Died 8 August 1980.
1961 Where the Difference Begins
1962 A Climate of Fear
1962 A Suitable Case for Treatment
1963 The Buried Man
1963 The Birth of a Private Man
1963 For Tea on Sunday
1963 A Way of Living
1965 And Did Those Feet?
1967 In Two Minds
1968 The Parachute
1968 Let's Murder Vivaldi
1968 On the Eve of Publication
1970 The Cellar and the Almond Tree
1970 Emma's Time
1972 The Bankrupt
1973 You and Me and Him
1973 An Afternoon at the Festival
1973 Barbara of the House of Grebe
1974 The Arcata Promise
1974 Find Me
1976 Huggy Bear
1977 A Superstition
1977 Shooting the Chandelier
1978 The Ragazza
1980 A Rod of Iron
Degrees in the Shade (English dialogue), 1965; Morgan
(film version of In Two Minds), 1966; A Suitable Case for Treatment,
1966; Family Life (film version of In Two Minds), 1972;
A Doll's House (with Michael Meyer), 1973; Providence,
The Governor's Lady, 1960; Folie a Deux, 1974.
The Governor's Lady, 1960; The Buried Man, 1962; Ride
a Cock Horse, 1965; Belcher's Luck, 1966; White Poem,
1970; Flint, 1970; After Haggerty, 1970; Blood
On the Table, 1971; Let's Murder Vivaldi, 1972; In
Two Minds, 1973; Duck Song, 1974; The Arcata Promise,
1974; Cousin Vladimir, 1978; Then and Now, 1979; No
Limits to Love, 1980.
"Huggy Bear" (short story). Stand (Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.),
"Positivist" (short story). Stand (Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.),
"Folie a Deux" (short story). Stand (Newcastle upon Tyne,
U.K.), Winter 1960.
Governor's Lady. Stand (Newcastle upon Tyne), Spring 1962.
Also published in Best Short Plays of the World Theatre 1958-1967.
Richards, Stanley, editor. New York: Crown, 1968.
Television Has Meant in the Development of Drama in Britain," With
Lewis Greifer, and Arthur Swinson. Journal of the Society of
Film and Television Arts (London), Autumn 1963.
Generations: A Trilogy of Plays. (includes Where the Difference
Begins, A Climate of Fear, The Birth of a Private Man). London:
Calder, and New York: Fernhill, 1964; as Collected TV Plays I, 1981.
"Style in Drama: Playwright's Postscript." Contrast Spring
Long Crawl Through Time." In New Writers III. London: Calder
and Boyars, 1965.
Open Letter to Harold Wilson." Peace News (London), February
"David Mercer on Why He Writes the Plays He Does." The Times
(London), 27 July 1966.
Three TV Comedies (includes A Suitable Case for Treatment, For
Tea On Sunday, And Did Those Feet). London: Calder and Boyars,
"The Meaning of Censorship: A Discussion." With Roger Manvell. Journal
of the Society of Film and Television Arts (London), Autumn
Ride a Cock Horse. London: Calder and Boyars, and New York:
Hill and Wang, 1966.
Parachute with Two More TV Plays: Let's Murder Vivaldi, In Two Minds.
London: Calder and Boyars, 1967.
Belcher's Luck. London: Calder and Boyars, and New York:
Hill and Wang, 1967.
Gay. "Portrait of a Playwright" (interview). Radio Times (London),
4 April 1968.
Sonia. "Interview." The Sunday Times (London) 20 April 1969.
Haggerty. London: Methuen, 1970.
London: Methuen, 1970.
the Eve of Publication and Other Plays. (television plays; includes
The Cellar and the Almond Tree and Emma's Time). London: Methuen,
Joan. "Interview." In Bakewell, Joan, and Nicholas Garnham. The
New Priesthood. London: Penguin Press, 1970.
Giles. "Interview." In, McCrindle, Joseph, editor. Behind the
Scenes: Theatre and Film Interviews from the Transatlantic Review.
London: Pitman, 1971.
the Eve of Publication. Scripts 8 (New York), June 1972.
John. "Mercer and the Slag Heap Myth." (interview). Radio Times
23 November 1972.
Ronald. "Interview." Playback 2. London: Davis-Poynter, 1973.
Francis, with the editors of Theatre Quarterly. "Birth of
a Playwriting Man" (interview). Theatre Quarterly (London), January-March
Murder Vivaldi. In, Richards, Stanley, editor. The Best Short
Radnor, Pennsylvania: Chilton, 1974.
Bankrupt and Other Plays (includes You and Me and Him, An Afternoon
at the Festival, Find Me). London: Eyre Methuen, 1974.
Song. London: Eyre Methuen, 1974.
Paul. "Interview." Complete Programme Notes for a Season of British
Television Drama 1959-73, Held at the National Film Theatre 11th-24th
October 1976. London: British Film Institute, 1976.
Bear and Other Plays (includes The Arcata Promise and A Superstition).
London: Eyre Methuen, 1977.
Vladimir. With Shooting the Chandelier. London: Eyre Methuen,
and Now. With The Monster of Karlovy Vary. London: Eyre Methuen,
TV Plays 1-2 (includes Where the Difference Begins, A Climate of
Fear, The Birth of a Private Man, A Suitable Case for Treatment,
For Tea on Sunday, And Did Those Feet, The Parachute, Let's Murder
Vivaldi, In Two Minds). London: Calder, 2 vols., 1981.
Limits to Love. London: Eyre Methuen, 1981.
Ronald. British Theatre Since 1955: A Reassessment. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1979.
Catherine. Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain
Since 1968. London: Eyre Methuen, 1980.
Francis, with John Noyce, and Malcolm Page. The Quality of Mercer:
A Bibliography of Writings by and about the Playwright David Mercer.
Brighton: Smoothie, 1974.
D.A.N. "Mercer Unmarxed." Listener (London), 14 May 1970.
Paul, editor. David Mercer: Where the Difference Begins.
London: British Film Institute, 1981.
Joseph F., editor. Behind the Scenes: Theater and Film Interviews.
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.
John. "TV Drama: The Case Against Naturalism." Sight and Sound
(London), Spring, 1977.
Khalid El Mubarek. "David Mercer." In Brandt, George W., editor.
British Television Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Don. "David Mercer and Television Drama." Appendix to Mercer's
Generations. London: Calder, 1964.
John Russell. Second Wave British Drama for the Seventies.
London: Methuen, 1971.
_______________. 1981. "David Mercer and the Mixed Blessings of
Television." Modern Drama (Toronto, Canada), December 1981.
T.C. Television: The Ephemeral Art. London: Alan Ross, 1970.