Archive | The Wednesday Play

A weekly classic TV play

November 12, 2014

The Wednesday Play: John McGrath's The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil (1974)

Posted on November 12, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The economic history of Scotland since the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries may seem like a less than promising subject for a drama, but in the 1970s, anything went.

In 1973, John McGrath wrote the play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil, a touring production that went around Scotland explaining to the Scottish how they'd been oppressed and exploited from the 18th century all the way through to the discovery of and drilling for oil in the 1960s. Through a series of sketches, overlaid with a presentation of facts and statistics, and even interviews with workers and owners of oil rigs, the play presents the case that the current exploitation of Scottish natural resources is perhaps even worse than the brutal clearances of Patrick Sellar and that the Scottish people should resist it. 

Obviously, that didn't happen and Scottish ownership of oil became a vital factor for both sides of the Scottish independence referendum this year. But in terms of interesting and innovative approach to storytelling, this piece of 70s agitprop, which went on to become a 1974 BBC Play For Today, is hard to beat. 

November 5, 2014

The Wednesday Play: William Wycherley's The Country Wife (1976)

Posted on November 5, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

It has to be said that as a rule, even when broadcasters had regular TV slots dedicated to plays, they had their biases: modern plays, often by 'angry young men' or left-wing progressives; Shakespeare; the occasional bit of Ibsen or Greek tragedy - these were all grist to the mill. Anything else? Somewhere between nothing and 'once in a blue moon'. 

Restoration comedy falls into the last category. Although it did pop up once in a while - as a recent season at the BFI showed - the most people usually saw of it on TV was whenever John Sessions got asked to do it on Whose Line Is It Anyway? 

All the same, if you look hard enough, you'll find the occasional example. In 1976, the BBC Play of the Month slot aired a production of William Wycherley's The Country Wife. As you can probably guess from the slightly dodgy title - it's a pun... - the original play was quite a lewd affair based on several plays by Molière, but adapted for London audiences. So outrageous did later generations find it that other than a later, 18th century sanitised version, it was kept off stage and out of print between 1753 and 1924.

The story has two main plot strands: a rake, who pretends to be impotent so he can have clandestine affairs with married women; and the arrival in London of an inexperienced young 'country wife', who discovers the joys of town life, especially the fascinating London men. The 1976 version starred Helen Mirren, Anthony Andrews, Bernard Cribbins, Amanda Barrie, Ciaran Madden, Michael Cochrane, Jeremy Clyde, John Nettleton, Ann Beach and Sarah Porter - quite a cast for quite a play, and you can watch it below. Trivia fans might like to know that the play was also the inspiration for the movie Shampoo - bet you never knew that.


October 29, 2014

The Wednesday Play: Nigel Kneale's The Road (1963)

Posted on October 29, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The work of Nigel Kneale is some of the finest and most prophetic to have appeared on British TV. It was sufficiently good that he has been elevated to God-like status on this ‘ere blog.

However, for a large part of his career, television was regarded as an ephemeral medium, one that would be watched and then forgotten about, never to be revisited. Indeed, had his pioneering 1953 adaptation of 1984 not proven so controversial, its second performance would never have been telecorded and the whole thing would have been lost forever, rather than released on DVD to be enjoyed by subsequent generations.

Even once telerecording and then prerecording and filming, rather than live performance, became standard, broadcasters’ attitudes towards archive material was variable, with the BBC famously purging its archives in the 60s and 70s, bar ‘representative examples’ of particular shows.

Naturally, many of the corporation’s play strands were among the purges, which meant that several Nigel Kneale productions were ‘disappeared’. Among these is perhaps one of his best: The Road. His first piece for the BBC since Quatermass and the Pit, it is set in an 18th century village, whose inhabitants are haunted by visions and sounds along a nearby road. Are they ghosts, demons or something else? All is revealed at the end, in one of the most troubling revelations of Kneale’s entire body work.

The original, which starred Norman Kaye, Joy Mitchell, Alexander Archdale and others, is with us no more, unless somebody, somewhere has managed to save a copy that hasn’t yet been returned. But that doesn’t mean the script has gone. And if you have the script for a play, it can be re-performed, which is precisely what some fans of the original have done. And you can watch it below in this week’s Wednesday Play.


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