Archive | The Wednesday Play

A weekly classic TV play

June 9, 2016

What TV's on at the BFI in July? Including The Wednesday Play (on Thursday) - Stocker's Copper (1972)

Posted on June 9, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Do you love director Jack Gold, who was responsible for - among many other things - The Naked Civil Servant? Then I have got the season for you at the BFI in July, with everything from documentaries to plays.

Do you want to watch something other than Jack Gold's directorial work? Then sorry, nothing for you here. Move along. Although you might want to try this week's Wednesday Play (on Thursday) first - Stocker's Copper, a neo-realist dramatisation of the Cornish China Clay workers strike of 1913, starring Gareth Thomas (Blake's 7), written by Tom Clarke (Muck and Brass) and directed by Gold. Or you might not.

Continue reading "What TV's on at the BFI in July? Including The Wednesday Play (on Thursday) - Stocker's Copper (1972)"

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May 11, 2016

The Wednesday Play: Up Pompeii! (1969)

Posted on May 11, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Most TV critics are snooty people. I'm probably very snooty. You should shun me.

This snootiness can manifest in different ways. One of the more obvious is the 'happiness hierarchy' - miserable things are inherently 'better' than happy things, drama is superior to comedy and so on. It's not that TV critics are universally Buddhists who think that all life is suffering, but there's a certain belief that to be good, something needs to depict life as it is - and that's miserable.

Naturally, when it comes to plays, the dramas resultingly get all the attention, particularly on TV. The usual litany of 'top TV play series' trotted out by a TV historian or enthusiast encompasses Play For Today, The Wednesday Play, Armchair Theatre and the like, perhaps focusing on Ken Loach's work or something gritty about working class life in Hull, rather than Abigail's Party, say, although that might get a look in because of what it says about suburban middle class concerns of the 70s. Not because it's funny.

Meanwhile, perhaps the most successful play series of them all will barely pop up on their radar because it was chock full of comedies. Comedy Playhouse ran on BBC One for 15 series between 1961 and 1975, taking in 120 episodes along the way and including plays that would eventually give rise to no fewer than 27 spin-off TV series, including Steptoe and Son, Meet the Wife, Till Death Us Do Part, All Gas and Gaiters, Not in Front of the Children, Me Mammy, That's Your Funeral, The Liver Birds, Are You Being Served? and Last of the Summer Wine, as well as an additional spin-off series, Scottish Comedy Playhouse. Beat that Play For Today.

The series started when the head of BBC Light Entertainment, Tom Sloan, discovered Galton and Simpson were no longer writing for Tony Hancock and so asked them to do six one-off comedies with the hope that one might become established as a series. Galton and Simpson agreed, handing in six plays, the fourth of which, The Offer, went on to become Steptoe and Son. The series itself was successful enough that Galton and Simpson wrote a second series of six plays, after which subsequent series were written by different writers. 

Up Pompeii! was the final play of the show's eighth series, which had started with no less an entry than Carla Lane's The Liver Birds. Its inspiration came during a trip abroad - Sloan and Michael Mills, the head of comedy at the BBC, were visiting the ruins of Pompeii. Mills had recently seen Frankie Howerd in the play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, where he'd play the part of the slave Pseudolus (played by Zero Mostel in the movie):

He said to Sloan that he "half-expected Frankie Howerd to appear coming round some corner." Sloan had replied "Why not?" and Up Pompeii! was born.

However, it was neither Sloan nor Mills who would write Up Pompeii! Instead, they asked Talbot Rothwell, the writer of no fewer than 19 Carry On! movies, to do the honours, and after sending set designer Sally Hulke to Pompeii to ensure some realism and authenticity in the production's look, the play took flight.

Essentially just a vehicle for Frankie Howerd to deliver double entendres, usually to camera, against a backdrop of cod-Roman farcical shenanigans that owe more than a bit of inspiration to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum, both Up Pompeii! and Up Pompeii! are nevertheless classics of comedy. The show would run for two series, and resulted in a movie sequel and two further movies and TV series with the same general format but set in different time periods, Up The Chastity Belt, Up The Front, Whoops Baghdad and Then Churchill Said to Me. There were also two follow-up specials, Further Up Pompeii, and a stage show. 

Not bad, hey? But then even Comedy Playhouse returned in 2014, so clearly there's a lot of it about. Titter ye not.

April 27, 2016

The Wednesday Play/Kneale Before Nigel: Murrain (1975)

Posted on April 27, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share


Any TV buff worth their salt can name at least one or two of the most famous play series: The Wednesday Play, The Play For Today, Armchair Theatre - these were all justifiably famous thanks to the quantity of classics they produced.

However, the annals of TV history are littered with failed TV play series that almost no one can remember, usually because they never yielded a single great piece of work, even when they had great authors writing for them. Indeed, whenever I'm combing YouTube and the Internet for plays for this strand of the blog, I'm usually coming across one or two new ones each time that I've never heard of before.

ATV's 1975 series Against The Crowd - an annoyingly self-consciously titled show if ever there was one - is one such unmemorable series. Heard of Against The Crowd? Neither had I and neither has the Internet, it turns out. It's not been released by Network, the home of obscure TV that only seven people will buy on DVD. It doesn't have a Wikipedia page. Its IMDB page is sketchy at best and even lists it under "partially lost", since two of its seven episodes, Tell It To The Chancellor and Blind Man's Buff, are both missing from the archives, probably having been wiped by ATV/ITV. Even the BFI offers nothing beyond "anthology drama" in its database of TV shows. 

I did discover that:

  1. It may have aired in the afternoons
  2. Dennis Potter resented the name of the series, since that imposed a house style, and he didn't like that.

So why mention it at all? Well, it did have some very famous names writing for it, including Fay Weldon (Poor Baby); Howard Schuman (Carbon Copy); and Kingsley Amis (We Are All Guilty). But no one, it seems, is interested in carrying a torch for their lost works, though. No. You have to have a specific kind of nerdy motivation to dredge up old TV from 40 years ago, and that usually means a love of sci-fi, fantasy or horror.

Don't be surprised then that the only episode of Against The Crowd that anyone is interested in is Murrain, written by a certain Nigel Kneale, after he fell out with the BBC after they abandoned Quatermass. That's the one everyone cares about and that's the only one that's been released on DVD, bundled with Beasts, Kneale's subsequent ITV anthology series that he wrote for Against The Crowd writer/producer Roger Marshall. It's also the only one the BFI has shown in the past decade or perhaps ever, as far as I know.

Murrain, named after an antiquated term for various infectious diseases affecting cattle and sheep, is a standard piece of Kneale fare in which superstition (in the form of a pig farmer who thinks a local woman is really a witch) meets science (a vet who wants to protect the little old lady from him and the other nasty bumpkins who believe). Who's right, who's wrong or are they both right? Everything's an option with Kneale…

Shot on location on the then in-vogue cheap-as-chips video, it lacks the atmosphere of Kneale's BBC plays and proves that DoPs in the 70s shouldn't have got ambitions above their stations so many years before the invention of the Steadicam. All the same, a decent cast, including Bernard Lee (M from the early Bond movies) and Una Brandon-Jones (Withnail & I), and Kneale's dialogue and gift for ideas means it's not a total loss. 

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