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 UnplayedPart (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.
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?
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.