THE WEDNESDAY PLAY

British Anthology Series

The 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.

As 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.

His 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.

MacTaggart 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).

As 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 Play.

 


The Wednesday Play, "The Lump"
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

The 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 Cook

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

BBC
1964-1970 Anthology

FURTHER READING

Cook, 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, 1965-66.

Madden, Paul, editor. Complete Programme Notes for a Season of British Television Drama, 1959-73. London: British Film Institute, 1976.

Shubik, Irene. Play for Today: The Evolution of Television Drama. London: Davis-Poynter, 1975.

Williams, Raymond. "A Lecture on Realism." Screen (London), Spring 1977.

 

See also British Programming; Cathy Come Home; Garnett, Tony; Loach, Ken; Mercer, David; Potter, Dennis; Trodd, Kenith