Armchair drama

8th June 2017

Next Thursday, 15 June, as part of the conference Britain, Canada and the Arts at Senate House in London, which I have helped to draw together, I am introducing a special screening (open to all) of two television drama productions from the ground-breaking series Armchair Theatre. The context is an exploration of the pioneering producer Sydney Newman who came to Britain in 1958 after working for Canadian television. There’s lots I want to write about the two exceptional dramas that we’ll show, and I intend to do that over the next couple of days, but first let me enthuse about the interest and quality of both – and suggest that the screening, which is open to all, is something that you might want to put into your schedule.

Armchair Theatre was started by the ITV company ABC Television before Sydney Newman arrived in Britain, but its Sunday night strand quickly became associated with his commitment to original dramas engaged with contemporary issues. This screening is a rare opportunity to see two of the surviving productions, the first a social drama of working-class life and the other an ambitious tale of the space race with an intriguing Canadian connection. The pairing also highlights the talents of two of the directors who first worked with Newman at CBC in the mid-1950s and then followed him to Britain, Ted Kotcheff and Chalres Jarrott.

Lena, O My Lena (1960)

Writer: Alun Owen; director: Ted Kotcheff; producer: Sydney Newman; 50 minutes.

Alun Owen’s play is set in a Lancashire factory, and is among the most distinguished examples of the series’ social realist drama. A cross-class tale of love, it features Peter McEnery (pictured above) as a young student and Billie Whitelaw as a hard-bitten factory worker. Director Ted Kotcheff demonstrates an innovative approach to the developing conventions of studio drama and draws exceptional performances from a cast that also includes Colin Blakely.

The Man Out There (1961)

Writer: Donal Giltinan; director: Charles Jarrott; producer: Sydney Newman; 50 minutes.

Patrick McGoohan is a Russian astronaut who is trapped in orbit by malfunctioning equipment. Freak electric storms mean that the only person he can communicate with is Marie, played by Katharine Blake, who is herself caught in blizzard in a remote Canadian cabin. He has to work out how to get home, she has to deal with a mortally ill child. Imaginative direction by Jarrott enlivens this space race tale shown just a month before Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.

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