John Wyver writes: Among my television ephemera is a handsome 12-page pamphlet printed in black and red on high quality paper published by the BBC in the late summer of 1960. 20 new plays presented by BBC Television (respecting the modish use of the lower-case) looks forward in celebratory fashion to a season of Sunday-night drama productions between 25 September 1960 and 5 February 1961 which were all original commissions for the medium. Among the authors are names with which we are familiar today including John Whiting, Elaine Morgan, John Osborne, John Hopkins and Jack Pulman, together with a number who even committed historians might struggle to identify, such as Harry Green, Beverley Cross and Lindsay Hardy.
This season of dramas, of which I believe five survive, has next-to-no presence in television history, perhaps in part because it was not graced with an anthology title. But I want to suggest that it was a significant initiative by the BBC that complicates the generally accepted genealogy of original contemporary drama for the medium. ABC’s Armchair Theatre (1956-74) under producer Sydney Newman is most often valorised as the late 1950s and early 1960s powerhouse of such drama – challenging, socially concerned, and realist as per the writings of Raymond Williams. The impetus then passes, so the mainstream history goes, to the BBC only when Newman moves there at the start of 1963 to create not only Doctor Who later that year but crucially The Wednesday Play (1964-70) from the autumn of 1964.
20 new plays demonstrates that under Newman’s predecessor as Head of Television Drama, Michael Barry***, the BBC was significantly more committed to new work for television than has perhaps been recognised. Even if, as we have to acknowledge, the editorial choices resulted in work that appears to have had less impact than the celebrated productions of Armchair Theatre. Nonetheless, these commissions should be better known – just as Barry deserves to be more fêted than he is (a mis-judgement that I plan to address more generally) – and I’m going to devote a strand of blog posts between now and the new year to exploring what it is that we can know about these 20 plays.
John Wyver writes: I’m a little late in posting this week, but here’s the latest clutch of pointers to articles, videos, radio programmes and the occasional Twitter thread that have engaged me this week.
• Beethoven Unleashed: on Friday on BBC Radio 3 Donald MacLeod’s Composer of the Week series came to the end of this year’s epic journey through the life and works of Ludwig van Beethoven. For five hours every other week I have been entertained, educated and generally entranced by a model mix of essay writing, conversation, analysis and performance, and it has been one of the things that has most definitely kept me going though these miserable months.
Thanks to BBC Sounds I’ve listened to every minute, and the last two groups of full programmes remain available for a few weeks, while cut-down podcast versions (with much less music) of the rest continue to be accessible online. Bravo, maestro MacLeod and the production team – and my warm thanks. (Above, a detail of Joseph Karl Stieler’s 1820 portrait of the composer.)
John Wyver writes: I am increasingly fascinated by British television in the early to mid-1950s. This was a moment when the medium was becoming increasingly confident and an ever more significant presence in both public life and in the private lives of viewers. But it was also when the BBC’s television monopoly, which – with a break for the war – had been protected since late 1936 was challenged by discussions about and then the establishment of a new commercial service, ITV, which went on the air in London in September 1955.
Since tele-recording of live broadcasts began only in 1953 and was still a complex and expensive process, we have very few programmes from this moment. Those that do exist are richly revealing of the potential of the medium, as well as its still significant limitations and its underpinning tensions. One such survivor, which seems to be all-but unknown in the histories, is the BBC broadcast This is Music Hall. A 90-minute variety spectacular, this speaks revealingly of television’s close relationship with the theatre and the music hall, of the BBC’s deep unease about ITV, of a concern about the Americanisation of culture, and more generally of the tensions between the past and the future of entertainment.
John Wyver writes: now more or less in its final form, here is another group of links to articles and videos that have engaged me over the past week. As always, my Twitter timeline is a wonderful source for these, although not the only one, and I remain grateful for the generosity of those that I follow.
… the moment of crisis in which Hollywood now finds itself is different. In the 110-year history of the American film industry, never has so much upheaval arrived so fast and on so many fronts… Have streaming, the coronavirus and other challenges combined to blow away — finally, unequivocally — the last remnants of Hollywood?
John Wyver writes: another selection of things that have caught my eye and engaged my attention over the past week – with my thanks, as ever, to all those in my Twitter feed and on FaceBook who make such interesting recommendations. As for the above, see ‘The shape of a story… or so I’ve been told’ below.
the advertising, lobbying, and public-relations firms that help provide the rationalizations and the justifications that slow the pace of change. Although these agencies are less significant monetarily than the banks, they are more so intellectually; if money is the oxygen on which the fire of global warming burns, then P.R. campaigns and snappy catchphrases are the kindling.
John Wyver writes: back to standard-issue links this week, and I’m determined not to lead with gloomy analyses of the world, but rather with a clutch of recommendations both for and about The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix, above – a framegrab from ep 5), which is one of the most joyful television series I’ve seen in a long time. Search it out if you’re able, and meanwhile…
TheQueen’s Gambit is so thrilling because it offers a kind of fantasy to Americans engaged in a daily hustle designed to reward the most mediocre offerings with praise and capital. Beth and her friends show us a different kind of endgame: one in which victory is never achieved alone.
John Wyver writes: on Sunday I posted the first part of a compendious list of 50 links to celebrate a century of Sunday links since we revamped the website; this is the second part with another 50 links. If nothing else, something here might distract you from what’s going on across the pond.
• OK, America, so what the hell happens now?: each week I resist including at least two columns by the Guardian’s genius who goes by the name of Marina Hyde, but at least I can lead off here with her just-posted thoughts (it’s 9.40am):
Of course, the 2020 US presidential election situation is still very much developing, and by the time you read this, there could be a lot of hostages to fortune. Or even just hostages. Rule nothing out. Nothing, perhaps, except moral optimism.
John Wyver writes: this is the one hundredth set of Sunday links since we over-hauled our website back in 2014. The feature took a number of forms before that, including ‘Links for the weekend’, and there was a long period when I stopped posting each week. Lockdown, however, sent me back to format and I’ve really enjoyed compiling them recently. I collect the links during each week – many come from Twitter recommendations, while others suggest themselves from my own reading and watching and listening (and I know I have pretty limited musical tastes).
For this modestly celebratory set I have responded to the suggestion, or rather challenge, from my friend Luke McKernan, whose posts I often feature here, and I am compiling a set of 100 links, with a host of new ones and a sprinkling of favourites drawn from recent posts, indicated with an [R]. But – and here’s the rub – only the first 50 are featured here – I’m aiming to post the second part on Wednesday (when we’ll all need something to distract ourselves). And I have included some headings to help manage such an unwieldy list, plus a handful of musical interludes.
Enjoy – and if you’re eligible on Tuesday, VOTE!
• The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney | Joe Biden for President 2020: there’s only one way to start this week — probably the most beautiful political campaign ad ever:
John Wyver writes: Although Play for Today events are continuing, with showings on BBC Four and at BFI Southbank, our documentary Drama Out of a Crisis is happily installed on BBC iPlayer and I have started to think about other things. I am beginning to explore a clutch of research strands, for publication at present and not television, each of which has a connection with television between the mid-1950s and the early 1960s, and if you’ll indulge me I’m going to feature occasional stories for this period over the coming weeks.
I’m interested in all sorts of stuff from this period. What kinds of plays did ITV show before Armchair Theatre? And what was BBC drama like before The Wednesday Play? What was the involvement of the company Towers of London in ITV dramas in late 1955 and early 1956, when Harry Alan Towers‘ company is credited as a co-producer on a string of titles? Then there’s Mr Towers himself, who is a fascinating figure. How was the West End theatre behemoth H. M. Tennent involved in early television drama? And what links might be made between television drama of the late 1950s and British cinema at this time? Stick around – I’m going to explore these questions and more over the coming weeks.
This first post is an odd story which I’m not sure anyone has noticed before. It concerns two television productions of the same musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. BBC Television first broadcast a studio production of this ‘light operetta’ version on 16 May 1954 (see the Radio Times heading above), with a live repeat on Thursday 20 May. Then, after the show had played in London’s West End, it was re-mounted, with some cast changes but mostly the same creative team, for the eight-month-old ITV service in May 1956. I can think of no other Shakespeare adaptation that has channel hopped in this way.