20 new plays: ‘Pay Day’, 1960

21st December 2020

John Wyver writes the fifth of a series of posts about BBC Television’s 1960-61 strand of original dramas – his introduction is here.

Like the second of the BBC’s series of 20 new plays, Leopold Louth’s The Unplayed Part, Pay Day, which was the fourth title to be broadcast, appears to be the only writing credit for its author, Roderick Barry. The two reviews of this that I have found to date, in The Times and The Listener, betray mixed feelings, and the recording that once existed no longer does. But the particular interest of this production perhaps lies in the linked traces of the hauntingly sad tale of its author and the intriguing genesis of the script.

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Sunday links

20th December 2020

John Wyver writes: Welcome to this week’s clutch of links to articles and videos that have engaged me over the past week, and which I hope may help in a tiny way get you through the grimness of a holiday lockdown.

Above is a detail from David and Bathsheba, a painting by Artemesia Gentileschi from about 1636-7 in the collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. At present, this large canvas in the artist’s spectacular exhibition at London’s National Gallery (now closed once more) which I was privileged to see last Monday, in the tiny window between lockdowns. Amongst the many, many splendours of the show this wonderful passage of paint captivated me. Which is sufficient excuse to lead this week with…

The blazing world: a brilliant essay for Artforum by Emily LaBarge on the art of Artemisia Gentileschi.

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20 new plays: ‘The Ruffians’, 1960

19th December 2020

John Wyver writes the fourth of a series of posts about BBC Television’s 1960-61 strand of original dramas – his introduction is here.

With The Ruffians, the third of the 20 new plays broadcast in the autumn of 1960, we come to the first commission for an author who was already an established television playwright. Just a fortnight before transmission of The Ruffians on 9 October, and indeed precisely opposite the opening drama of the strand, ABC had contributed to the ITV Network Alun Owen’s Lena, O My Lena. And this well-received play was one element in what must have seemed something of an annus mirabilis for the 33-year-old Welsh writer who had already had his After the Funeral shown by ABC in April. As the Sunday Times noted (25 September 1960),

the film The Criminal, for which he wrote the screenplay opens in London (having already been seen in Edinburgh) on October 25, and a stage play, Progress to the Park, will be produced later by Theatre Workshop.

Progress to the Park in fact had already been heard on the Home Service (8 September 1958), and was to be directed by Harry H. Corbett at Theatre Royal, Stratford East, in November 1960. It was also to be shown as part of BBC2’s Theatre 625 series on 12 December 1965, and a recording of this is in the archives. Lena… and of course the hard-edged, Joseph Losey-directed The Criminal are also still extant. But The Ruffians appears to have been wiped in one of the many moments of institutional madness when the cultural value of a television drama was outweighed by the need to save the cost of a 2″ videotape.

Alun Owen would go on to write the screenplay for The Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and numerous other television dramas, but I want here to explore the intriguing The Ruffians (and presumably there’s a script lurking in the BBC Written Archives Centre) in relation to his other writing around 1960.

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Sunday links

13th December 2020

John Wyver writes: another clutch of pointers to articles, videos and the occasional Twitter feed that have engaged and enlightened and delighted me during the past week – and with thanks, as always, to those on my Twitter who suggest such wonderful things.

The best films of 2020: results of the BFI/Sight & Sound poll, because it’s that time of year – no 1 is the truly great Lovers Rock directed by Steve McQueen (above, with Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn and Micheal Ward; the film is available on BBC iPlayer).

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20 new plays: ‘The Unplayed Part’, 1960

12th December 2020

John Wyver writes the third of a series of posts about BBC Television’s 1960-61 strand of original dramas – his introduction is here.

After my rather lengthy discussion of John Whiting’s A Walk in the Desert, the opening drama of the 20 new plays strand, this exploration of the second broadcast is – of necessity – somewhat shorter. We have no recording and no script of The Unplayed Part (at least until we can explore the microfiche niches of the BBC Written Archives Centre) and next-to-no information about its author, Leopold Louth, whose only play, whether for stage or screen, this appears to have been. Nonetheless, we can reconstruct just a little about this production and its seemingly pseudonymous author.

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20 new plays: ‘A Walk in the Desert’, 1960

10th December 2020

John Wyver writes the second of a series of posts about BBC Television’s 1960-61 strand of original dramas – his introduction is here.

Those of us with an interest in the history of television drama will see the irony of the scheduling of John Whiting’s play A Walk in the Desert, the first in the BBC’s much-vaunted series of original commissions. It was broadcast on Sunday evening 25 September 1960 directly opposite Alun Owen’s Lena, O My Lena in ABC’s Armchair Theatre strand. Whiting’s drama began at 8.45pm that evening, following an Eamonn Andrews-chaired edition of What’s My Line?, while Lena, O My Lena started at 9.05pm on the ITV network after Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium and a short news bulletin.

Lena, O My Lena, which is available on a Network DVD, is recognised as a keystone in the history of television drama. It has been the focus of extensive analysis, most notably by John Caughie in his foundational book Television Drama: Realism, Modernism and British Culture (OUP, 2000), and is widely taught. Two newspaper reviews the day after transmission, one by Lyn Lockwood for the Daily Telegraph and one contributed anonymously to The Times, compared the two plays (of which more below), and both featured Whiting’s play ahead of Owen’s. But the recording of A Walk in the Desert appears to have been wiped at some point and the production is forgotten, absent even from critical discussions of Whiting’s plays that focus almost exclusively on his theatre plays. So what can we know about this elusive broadcast?

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’20 new plays’, BBC, 1960-61

7th December 2020

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.

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Sunday links

6th December 2020

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.)

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‘This is Music Hall’, 1955

5th December 2020

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.

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Sunday links

29th November 2020

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.

Hollywood’s ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’ moment: Nicole Sperling is very good for The New York Times on the implications of Wonder Woman 1984 having a simultaneous cinemas and streaming release on HBOMax this Christmas…

Hollywood’s obituary, the sequel. Now streaming: … and also for the Times, Brooks Barnes is well worth reading:

… 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?

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