UK Teleplay Retrospective: An Introduction to our Readers
For a long time in my life, the BBC was a sort of cultural abstraction, though I was always aware of its importance and position in the global media circuit. Speaking from an American point of view, the BBC has been a limited reference point; a logo commonly associated with reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Doctor Who, and Sherlock just to name a few. Further examination into the various channels spurned over the years (BBC2, BBC3, Screen 2, etc.) and original content put a interesting twist on the greater, more overlooked conversation regarding its significance in British cinema.
Some programs become international sensations, familiar titles in our stateside television vernacular, but the content that aired on the shared networks of the BBC, and ITV gave way to a plethora of principal actors, writers, and directors who would go on to become major players in the landscape of international moviemaking. Teleplays, and anthology programs such as The Wednesday Play, A Play for Today, Play for Tomorrow, Armchair Theatre, The Thirty Minute Theatre; all providing an outlet for the social realism movement often referred to as kitchen sink (or the “angry young men”) subgenre.
The socially conscious platform was reinforced by the likes of writers and directors ranging from Ken Loach, Nigel Kneale, Dennis Potter, Mike Leigh, Michael Apted, Roland Joffe, Alan Bennett, David Mackenzie, Stephen Frears, and the often overlooked Alan Clarke, whose career was defined by his polarizing teleplays. The validity of the term “teleplay” might be contested as many of these productions broke from the studio-bound parameters, by shooting with film and on locations opposed to live telecasting, thus violating the literal definition of a "live teleplay" however the term is a convenient moniker for original television productions.
As America’s Golden Age of television got its start, so did the careers of directors such as John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann, Sidney Lumet, Franklin Schaffner, and George Roy Hill, in addition to a plethora of terrific actors too many to name. The landscape for American teleplays peaked in the noted Golden Age, within the big three there was NBC’s Kraft Television Theatre, CBS’ Westinghouse Studio One, while ABC competed with counterprogramming techniques. But the tradition of live teleplays were in an arm wrestling match with Hollywood, which succeeded in outdoing the small screen by wrangling the talent borne from the small screen. Not unfamiliar to that of the BBC and ITV, but the main contrast between North America and across the pond is that we have a golden age, implying a finite nature.
Although Armchair Theatre was originally developed for exploring contemporary societal issues by breaking almost any and every cultural taboo; race, gender, and sex were flagship subjects that did not always bode well for conservative pundits along with obstinate Christian morality campaigners such as Mary Whitehouse. Controversy always seems to beget success with almost any production, and Ken Loach’s ‘not-so’ humble beginnings with the percussive and gritty examinations of issues from housing assistance (or the lack of assistance), sexuality, and abortion with Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction. Loach, who came under fire from multiple sides, even those who championed his work for incorporating actual documentary footage to his narrative, was never a concessionist.
Other notable early plays to tackle big issues were the alternate universe of reversed Apartheid in Christopher Morahan’s Fable. Alan Clarke’s dissonant expressionism would reach from topical issues such as The Troubles, government institutions (especially his highly controversial borstal drama Scum), to folky horror in Penda’s Fen; and the low-key musical Bertolt Brecht adaptation Baal, starring none other than David Bowie. We'll be hearing plenty about Clarke and this rattling off of titles only scratches the surface of the late director’s lengthy and diverse career in British Television. Our director-centric focus might be challenged in this exploration as the writers were almost always credited first, after all, wasn't the playwright hailed for the script rather than the stage director?
While the small screen was a vehicle for gritty realism BBC and ITV shuffled the many cards in their deck, which dealt out a variety of witty genre films, literary adaptations, science fiction, docudramas, political satires, and documentaries, their umbrella housed a veritable modicum of economically plotted, but woefully handsome productions. Smart, witty and unembellished dramas that weren’t playing to a common dominator.
While names in concert with those mentioned above such as Ray Winstone, Neil Jordan, Ian McKellen, Patrick McGoohan, Tim Roth, Edward Woodward, and Gary Oldman are fixtures in our filmic vernacular many of these titles, have not the light of day outside their native territory. Though access does exist via streaming networks, and international sellers (via Amazon or Ebay) these titles will likely sound off like “for completists only” or curiosities, when in fact this is top tier filmmaking. Don't be fooled; the small screen had big ideas long before HBO and AMC.
The informal wheelhouse of this column will cover a breadth of styles and themes, but the parameters are relatively straightforward: titles will be teleplays directed for British television.
A source of inspiration if you'd like an unofficial syllabus to various British Teleplays, check out Mark Cunliffe on Letterboxd. His list "The Play’s the Thing" is a comprehensive collection of notable titles as well being the same name as his petition to redistribute these programs through the BBC to reach a wider audience, please sign the petition if so inclined.