British tele­vi­sion drama

It is appro­priate to make a distinc­tion first of all: this section deals with single dramas or single dramas broken into parts (the so-called ‘mini-series’) and not with serials or drama series, excel­lent as many of these may be. There is both a different struc­ture and different inten­tion to a single drama, one that binds itself to follow one narrative all the way through to a conclusion.

Single dramas, or ‘tele­vi­sion plays’, as they were called, once played an important part in British culture. In the ’60s, ’70s, and even in the ’80s, when there were fewer tv chan­nels to choose from, it was often a tv play that formed the main topic of conver­sa­tions in the works canteen the following day. Often contro­ver­sial in their subject matter, some­times to the point of scan­dal­ising the conser­vative ranks of middle England, this was drama created by a handful of independent-minded produ­cers and writers who were given a degree of autonomy that would be unheard of in these times.

tvPlaywrightsThis was the era of the tv play­wright; a handful of excep­tional scriptwriters who wrote for the medium. Many also wrote for the theatre (David Hare, Alan Bennett, Trevor Grif­fiths) but there were also those who focused nearly exclus­ively on tv and whose body of work had built them a repu­ta­tion as ‘tv dram­at­ists’ (David Mercer, Dennis Potter, Jack Rosenthal).

There were even a few auteurs like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach who used tele­vi­sion as a spring­board for a career in making feature films but tv drama, on the whole, remained some­thing quite distinct.

This was partly for economic reasons. The produc­tions were largely filmed in studios to keep the cost down;  O.B or ‘outside broad­casting’ involving exterior scenes, was still relat­ively expensive so tv plays made a virtue out of neces­sity and tended to be small-scale, character-driven stories, more like theatre than the cinema. They preserved the Aris­totelian unities but kept audi­ence interest through the bold­ness and scope of their ideas.

Para­dox­ic­ally now that tv does have the funding and means to compete with the big screen, its vision and its ambi­tions have shrunk along with its courage. There are no virtu­ally no well-known tv play­wrights any more as the single drama has been replaced by the mini-series, and such impact that narrative tele­vi­sion drama now has on culture and society comes from long-running tv serials like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad.

Different visions

These are dramas that, in one way or another, break down the barriers between fantasy and reality; in Where The Buffalo Roam and Follow The Yellow Brick Road, this happens inside the mind of the prot­ag­onist; a place where we, the audi­ence, are invited to go.  The Black & Blue Lamp is a more playful piece, a ‘mash-up’ of police drama conventions.

All three of these are low budget, mainly studio-based produc­tions but with large ranging ambi­tions that tackle big ideas and themes.

Where The Buffalo Roam 1966

A Welsh teen­ager (Hywel Bennett) with learning diffi­culties is obsessed with west­erns and lives in a fantasy world. When he manages to get hold of a real gun, however, there are tragic consequences.

Dennis Potter scripted this story which features a central char­acter who is a delu­sional misfit martyred by society – a theme that seemed popular in the ’60s. David Mercer’s Morgan a Suit­able Case For Treat­ment explores similar territory

The Black & Blue Lamp 1988

This original tv play by Arthur Ellis plays Piran­dello type games with the ‘police drama’ genre. Black and white and colour is clev­erly employed here as an alleg­or­ical device many years before it was used in films like Pleas­antville.

The play picks up from the end of a classic British film The Blue Lamp (1950), star­ring Dirk Bogarde, which first featured the archetypal ‘British Bobby” char­acter PC Dixon, played by Jack Warner; later to have his own tv series: Dixon of Dock Green.

Follow The Yellow Brick Road 1972

A jobbing actor, whose main claim to fame comes from appearing in tv commer­cials, has a mental break­down after catching his wife in bed with his smarmy agent.

In this, one of Dennis Potter’s bleakest morality plays, Denholm Elliot plays a man disgusted with the world and with sex (described here as ‘a sticky slime’) who imagines his reality is a tv drama. He longs for a ‘purer’ world symbol­ised by commer­cials but can only find it in the end through a doctor’s prescription.

Read the script
Extract from Follow The Yellow Brick Road by Dennis Potter (PDF)

Reflecting society

After theatre, tele­vi­sion drama is capable of being the most responsive to changes in the zeit­geist. Frequently there was the phenomenon of a tv drama that seemed to perfectly capture some­thing about the time it was made.

Some­times these dramas focused on the trivial; a mood or atmo­sphere that was in the air. Some­times they attempted to go deeper and look at the social or polit­ical values that domin­ated British society at that time. Whether the motive was to satirise or to raise the conscious­ness of the audi­ence, the best examples of this type of drama stirred up debate and often subtly changed public attitudes.

The Season Of The Witch 1970

Three ‘cool’ young people (Julie Driscoll, Paul Nich­olas, Robert Powell) go on the road, shack up together and gener­ally try to live up to the 60’s ideal of free-spiritedness.

Impro­vised, earnest, and rather naff in places; this is a perfect time-capsule of what was ‘in the air’ at the tail end of the 60’s – complete with Donovan’s song on the soundtrack.

The Buddha of Suburbia 1993

A young Asian Londoner tries to find his iden­tity and explore new sexual horizons.

Hanif Kure­ishi does a great job of capturing the direc­tion­less period between prog and punk rock that so many young people exper­i­enced in the late ’70s. The writing is brutally honest but also very funny in places.

Everyone’s A Winner 1987

Part of a series called Tickets For The Titanic, these were a collec­tion of plays written at the height of Thatcherism about the future of Britain. They were (unsur­pris­ingly) mostly dysto­pian and blackly comic in style.

The striking imagery at the begin­ning of streets filled with leaf­lets has, in a sense, come true if you substi­tute spam for paper. The privat­isa­tion of every service has happened more insi­di­ously but the selfish­ness of modern society is very recognisable.

The History Man 1981

Based upon a novel by Malcolm Brad­bury, this mini-series tells the story of a ruth­lessly manip­u­lative lecturer at a red brick univer­sity who spouts Marxist jargon to justify his Machiavel­lian manoeuvring.

The target of the satire is very much the ethos of such univer­sities in the eighties and the char­ac­ters are instantly recog­nis­able; including the ideal­istic and naive students.

Going Gently 1981

Two men in a hospital ward are dying of bowel cancer and this pain­fully honest drama follows their progress unspar­ingly through the stages of the disease.

An excep­tional cast gives it weight (Norman Wisdom, in his first ‘straight’ role, is espe­cially effective) but it is the portrayal of two dying men help­lessly caught up in a system – in this case the UK National Health – that really comes home. Stephen Frears directs it unfussily so that it never sinks to the level of after­noon tv melodrama.

Runners 1983

Stephen Poliakoff is another play­wright who made the trans­ition from stage to the small screen in the seven­ties and whose early tv plays like Caught on A Train and Soft Targets were land­mark produc­tions. His later work has been less memor­able – possibly because he’s been given too much control and has become a sort of tv version of Woody Allen.
Runners however still shows him on mettle even if the premise is suspect. A young girl runs away from home in a desperate quest for inde­pend­ence and is pursued by her obsessive father (James Fox). There are finely judged perform­ances also from Jane Asher and Kate Hardie but the idea of a gener­a­tion gap pushed to this extreme takes a little swallowing.

Media circus

Drama about the media, partic­u­larly about the making of tele­vi­sion programs, is notori­ously diffi­cult to pull off without being too self-conscious or self-referential, yet it is an area that tv drama has returned to again and again.

More recently there has been the semi-satirical Black Mirror series, Charlie Brooker’s dysto­pian visions of future tech­no­logy, but this is more the province of comedy: Epis­odes, looking at British scriptwriters in Holly­wood, and Moving Wall­paper, a peep behind the scenes of a soap.

Ready When You Are Mr McGill 1976

An extra involved in a tv drama produc­tion has fantasies about being an actor but he can’t remember the one line he has to say.

Jack Rosenthal’s play is an affec­tionate portrait of a crew making a tv drama on a tight budget and schedule. The many different types of people involved are deftly and recog­nis­ably sketched in and the humour is gentle and good-natured.

Read the script

Extract from Ready When You Are, Mr McGill (PDF)

Jack Rosenthal writes about the script (DOC)

Ready When You Are Mr McGill 2003

Rosenthal rewrites his original tv play but for a noughties audi­ence. The period piece has become a cop series. There are many hi-tech trap­pings but an equal number of very different pres­sures. Casting a celebrity actor (Tom Courtney) as the extra was a mistake and rather unbal­ances it though.

There is a certain bite to this scene about what modern tv produ­cers are looking for and you can’t help but feel there’s also a biograph­ical element. Rosenthal lived long enough to see the face of tele­vi­sion change out of all recognition.

History plays

The past is a well-explored country when it comes to British prime-time scheduling, and the bewigged and bejew­elled costume drama one of our best-known exports. Many of these are no more than glor­i­fied soap operas, histor­ical pageants or family sagas; always popular with British audi­ences who are obsessed with social class as well as the heritage of two world wars.

But there are some examples that stand out above the rest; usually, those where an incisive writer like Hare or Mercer has been allowed to chal­lenge social mores and the orthodox version of history with a fresh inter­pret­a­tion based on modern perspect­ives. (This kind of drama is rarer than it used to be because it relies on an authorial vision; more common is a homo­gen­ised version of ‘history as enter­tain­ment’ repres­ented by recent series like The Tudors and The White Queen).

The Para­chute 1968

David Mercer’s script about a German aris­to­crat (John Osborne)  dealing with the fervent nation­alism of his country during WW2 is striking and memor­able with cine­matic aspir­a­tions (except it would have been diffi­cult or impossible to get the funds to make this as a feature film)

The heightened style, obvi­ously influ­enced as much by Fellini as by East European surrealism, places it very much within its late 60’s milieu but there are some wonderful moments: such as Alan Dobie’s weary fore­cast of Germany’s fate and the war’s outcome.

Test­a­ment Of Youth 1979

Telling the story of Vera Brit­tain, a forwarding thinking young woman and one of the first to attend Oxford Univer­sity, this mini-series brought a fresh eye to the First World War, reminding us that youth and rebel­li­ous­ness were not some­thing exclusive to the sixties.

Vera comes from humble origins and has to constantly fight against the forces of conser­vatism to assert herself. The drama looks at the role of young women as well as young men in the great conflict that engulfed so many of her generation.

Licking Hitler 1978

This play belongs firmly to an era when David Hare was rein­vest­ig­ating class warfare and the roots of post-war British society on stage in plays like Plenty and on screen in Weth­erby and Heading Home. Hare’s favourite Cana­dian actress, Kate Nelligan, turns in another finely tuned perform­ance as a brittle English­woman in this story of a Bletchley-like centre for black propaganda.

Struc­tur­ally messy and incon­clusive, the play never­the­less has a fire in its belly and belongs firmly to a time (lamented by some) when left-leaning play­wrights like Howard Brenton, Trevor Grif­fiths and Hare used the stage and the screen with the same fine disregard for the estab­lish­ment and ratings.

Read the script
Extract from the script of  Licking Hitler by David Hare (PDF)

A Waste of Shame 2005

There has been more than one attempt at a biopic of The Bard. John Mortimer’s Young Will in the ’70s rein­vented him, with Tim Curry in earrings, as a ‘cool young dude’; Stop­pard‘s jokey Shakespeare in Love tried some­thing similar.

William Boyd gives us the middle-aged, paunchy bisexual gingerly threading his way through the mine­field of Eliza­bethan politics; much more in keeping with the vision of Anthony Burgess’s classic novel Nothing Like The Sun. Like Burgess, Boyd also focuses on the rela­tion­ships behind the sonnets and the mystery of The Dark Lady.

Red Shift 1978

An adapt­a­tion of Alan Garner’s book about a pair of teenage lovers whose troubled rela­tion­ship is echoed in incid­ents from Britain’s past history.

The origin­ality in the depic­tion of these histor­ical epis­odes was what gave it impact – this was not polite BBC fare. It was a play that had real savagery and grace at its heart as well as a haunting quality.

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