Wednesday Play is now nostalgically looked back upon as the
legendary lost past of British television drama-- a halcyon time
in the 1960s when practitioners had the luxurious freedom of exploring
the creative possibilities of the medium through the one-off television
play, egged on by broadcasters and audiences alike. To many writers
and directors today, it stands as a wistful beacon, a symbol of
the possible, as they gaze enviously at the apparent freedoms of
their forebears from the seemingly ratings-led, series-dominated
wasteland of their TV dramatic present.
with any legend, there is more than a grain of truth to this view
of the past but also a considerable amount of misty idealisation.
The Wednesday Play, arose, in fact, not as a benign gift of
liberal broadcasters but as a desperate attempt by the head of BBC
TV Drama, Sydney Newman, to save the single play from being axed
from the BBC's premier channel (BBC-1), due to poor ratings. Newman
appointed James MacTaggart, a Scots director whose work on the earlier
experimental play strands, Storyboard (1961) and Teletale
(1963) had impressed him, as producer of the new BBC-1 play slot,
handing him a brief to commission a popular series of plays.
stipulations were significant. He wanted a play slot that would
be relevant to the lives of a mainstream popular audience; that
would reflect the "turning points" of society: the relationship
between a son and a father; a parishioner and his priest; a trade
union official and his boss. He also wanted plays that would be
fast, not only telling an exciting narrative sparely rather than
building up mood but also hooking the audience's attention by way
of an intriguing pre-titles "teaser" sequence. Borrowing from the
techniques of the popular series that was threatening to displace
the single play in the schedules, Newman wanted the slot to have
a recognisable "house style", so that audiences knew if they tuned
in each week, they could expect to see a certain type of show. Finally,
mimicking his own success in commercial television several years
earlier (on ITV's Armchair Theatre slot), Newman prioritised
a search for material that would more accurately reflect the experience
of the audience, by instituting a system of story editors whose
task it was to bring fresh new writers to television.
absorbed Newman's guidelines but crucially he translated them in
his own way, not least by appointing as his story editor a young
writer and actor with whom he had worked on Teletale: Roger Smith.
It was with his help that the play slot soon came to acquire the
reputation for "controversy" and "outrage" that would mark its subsequent
history. The script commissioned for MacTaggart and Smith's very
first Wednesday Play outing in January 1965 set the seal
for what would follow. Written by a convicted murderer (James O'Connor)
and depicting the cynical progress of a villain from gangster to
baronet, A Tap on the Shoulder marked a conscious break with the
conventions of the polite, "well-made" TV play.
Its determination to break new ground came to characterise The
Wednesday Play ethos as a whole--from the first crucial season
in 1965 to the last in 1970. The slot also acted as a showcase for
new talent, in keeping with Newman's original vision. Many well-known
practitioners gained their first big break on The Wednesday Play,
including Tony Garnett and Kenith Trodd (recruited by Smith as assistant
story editors), Dennis Potter, and Ken Loach, A Tap's director,
whose contributions to the slot eventually numbered some of the
most seminal TV plays of the 1960s: the "docudramas" Up the Junction
(1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966).
The Wednesday Play developed, shifts in emphasis, however,
took place. Under the first season of MacTaggart and Smith, the
plays were much more "expressionist" in style, and concerned with
exploiting the resources of the television studio, as the earlier
Teletale had done. It is significant that the slot's first
non-naturalistic dramas, from writers like Dennis Potter and David
Mercer, were commissioned at this time. In later seasons, though,
after MacTaggart and Smith had departed and Tony Garnett became
chief story editor, many of the plays became noticeably more "documentary";
reflecting a determination to transcend the confines of the TV studio
in order to record more faithfully the rapidly changing character
of life in 1960s Britain. Having gained access to lightweight 16mm
filming equipment, Garnett and his collaborator Loach abandoned
the studio for location shooting and their form of filmed documentary
realism became one of the most familiar hallmarks of The Wednesday
The Wednesday Play, "The Lump"
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute
Loach-Garnett documentary style also became one of the most controversial,
and was accused both outside and within the BBC of unacceptably
blurring the distinctions between fictional drama and factual current
affairs. Meanwhile, the play slot itself came under attack from
some quarters for its general "filth" and "squalor". "Clean-Up TV"
campaigner Mary Whitehouse harried it for what she saw as its gross
sexual immorality, though the effect of her attacks was simply to
boost publicity and the all-important ratings. Audiences climbed
from one to eight million, as people tuned in each week to see for
themselves the latest play trailed as "controversial" in the press,
so that for one of the very few times in TV history, Newman's dream
of a popular series of plays became reality. By the end of the 1960s,
however, it had become clear the slot was a victim of its own past
reputation: a reaction had set in against its perceived "permissiveness"
and anti-Establishment bias amongst significant proportions of the
audience who were now deliberately not tuning in. Accordingly, Newman's
successor as Head of Drama, Shaun Sutton, tried to win new audiences
by giving the BBC's contemporary play slot a new time and title.
In 1970, he mutated it into Play for Today, thereby inadvertently
creating the legend of the lost golden age which The Wednesday
Play has become.
John R. Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen. Manchester and New
York: Manchester University Press, 1995.
Kennedy-Martin, Troy. "Nats Go Home: First Statement of a New Drama
for Television." Encore (London), March-April 1964.
"Up the Junction and After." Conrast (London), Winter-Spring,
Madden, Paul, editor. Complete Programme Notes for a Season of
British Television Drama, 1959-73. London: British Film Institute,
Irene. Play for Today: The Evolution of Television Drama.
London: Davis-Poynter, 1975.
Raymond. "A Lecture on Realism." Screen (London), Spring
Come Home; Garnett,