As new single TV plays are commissioned for the BBC iPlayer, and as BBC Two enters its 50th year, the BBC’s History Manager John Escolme explores the highs and lows of the single TV play at the BBC over the years.

Remember the one off play – or should I say ‘the single drama’? The critics have been calling for their return for years, and on and off they have made the occasional reappearance on BBC television. On the eve of the release of a major series of new single plays on the BBC’s iPlayer, I’ve been looking through the archives at previous incarnations of the genre, and have found there’s quite a reputation to keep up.

Being a mere 45 years of age, I am just old enough to recall when the BBC made a habit of producing  single plays. When I was watching them, from about 1980 onward, the regular Play for Today (1970-1984) slot had just four more years to run, ending with the re-vamped last gasp Screen One and Screen Two series in 1985. At that time it seemed the genre was nearing its end. Yet for me there seemed to be something of an ‘event’ about Play for Today, and the other single dramas. In many ways that’s not surprising, given the broadcasting landscape at that time. With just three TV channels in the UK by the end of 1982, there was not a huge range of programming to choose from, so if there was a play being broadcast, chances are you would see it. But what this lack of choice also meant was that you could find yourself exposed to exciting, sometimes bizarre, and certainly unique content that otherwise you might have turned away from, had there been the chance. The reduced options meant a heightened presence for things like plays. All the big names wanted to be in them, and as a viewer you made a point of setting aside time to watch – this was not background viewing.

Given their importance to the TV schedule, when BBC Two began in April 1964, plays were to occupy an elevated place, and before the years end Story Parade was born. A total of 29, 70 minute one-off dramas went out on BBC Two based on modern novels. This in itself was a new idea, and had not been tried seriously before. So why the change?  It was all down to one man - Sydney Newman. He had been brought in from ITV to commission plays of ‘agitational contemporaneity’, changing the face of BBC TV drama for good. He had already scored a major hit with Dr Who (Verity Lambert, 1963), which he commissioned the previous year for what had become BBC One. Now he had to do the same with drama for grown-ups. Newman brought in Eric Taylor, one of the many young producers, designers and directors BBC Two had recruited over the previous few months. They were not a very experienced bunch it seems, but in many ways that was the essence of the early BBC Two. ‘Experiment’ was the mantra of the channel, and most of the time it worked – most of the time!

However, Story Parade started cautiously, aiming to attract the widest audience it could with Michael Hordern and Joe Gladwin fronting Max Frisch’s Condemned to Acquittal (Ronald Eyre, 1964), the first production in the series. With low take up of the new channel (you had to buy a new TV set to watch it), there had to be some familiar faces to tantalise audiences, so initially there was a battle between the stated desire for the new, and the realities of not alienating the few viewers that were cautiously tuning in.       

Soon though, the pace started to hot up. This was the sixties after all, BBC Two was broadcasting in the HD of its day (625 lines), and another young production team burst onto the scene. The Theatre 625 strand started to break down the remaining theatrical and taste barriers of the earlier part of the decade, and from 6 December 1964 BBC Two viewers got their fair share of drama which we might now broadly define as ‘challenging’. Actresses such as Judi Dench, Wendy Craig and Fenella Fielding, made their TV debut, and sex was definitely on the menu.

A young Brian Cox in The Year of the Sex Olympics

Nigel Kneal’s The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) was the play remembered by most from this category. The title rather gives away much of the action (ahem!), but, as with many of the Theatre 625 offerings there was a buried alternative reading of the plot. The setting of a sex Olympics was merely a device for something much more sinister - a prediction that society in the future would be based on two classes, those with high sex drives and those with low sex drives. The ‘low drives’ were the masses, the ‘high drives’ were the elite. In all a unique and rather sideways criticism of capitalist society – if you chose to see it that way.

Mary Whitehouse appearing on BBC Television

Legendary ‘Clean Up TV’ campaigner Mary Whitehouse wasn’t interested in the subtleties emerging by such experimentation in drama however. For her, plays such as The Year of the Sex Olympics were straightforwardly disgusting, and should not be broadcast. She even obtained a script of the drama before transmission and attempted to block its broadcast. Sir Hugh Carleton Greene vigorously defended the BBC, and the programme went out.

Whilst Theatre 625 went where no single TV play had gone before, BBC One’s The Wednesday Play (1964-1970), and Play for Today were controversial in other ways. Solidly political and highly vocal on social matters, the two strands often made the headlines for attacking the establishment, or challenging Britain’s place in the world. The War Game (Peter Watkins, 1965), depicted the effects of a nuclear strike on Kent, and was considered so horrific it was banned. Its extraordinary fly-on-the-wall docu-drama style was finally deemed safe enough for BBC viewers only 20 years later, when it was broadcast on the 40th anniversary of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Abigails Party, starring Alison Steadman as Beverley

Less apocalyptic, yet still unnerving, for social snobs anyway, was Abigail’s Party (Mike Leigh, 1977). For someone like my father who could instantly detect someone’s social class by the way they held their knife (‘‘Watch out John, there’s an HKLP over there – Holds Knife Like Pen’’), Alison Steadman’s Beverley was almost unbearable to watch. The play certainly resonated with Britain’s chattering classes, and has been revived on stage many times since achieving a cult following. Again the nation tuned in, were startled, horrified and amused all at the same time, and like so many of the single plays, it got people talking.

With so much contrast and experimentation, and with the ability to launch the careers of so many writers, directors and actors it is not surprising that calls for the return of the single play have never stopped. Alan Bleasdale, John Osbourne, Alan Plater, Willy Russel and Stephen Poliakoff, all of whom cut their teeth in the single drama format, have kept up the pressure for its return, so expectations are high for the new iPlayer versions. Whether they will have the power to challenge and shock as before remains to be seen. For me, I just hope they feel like a special event again as they did circa 1980. Maybe  the single play and I have moved on – but I wonder.

John Escolme is History Manager, BBC.


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