Archive | The Wednesday Play

A weekly classic TV play

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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March 15, 2016

The Wednesday Play (on Tuesday): Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse - The Time Element (1958)

Posted on March 15, 2016 | comments | Bookmark and Share

As we've seen in previous Wednesday Plays, anthology and play strands have often resulted in spin-off series: The Play For Today gave us shows including Gangsters; Armchair Theatre gave us Callan, The Sweeney et al; Dramarama gave us Dodger, Bonzo and The Rest; and so on. But oddly enough, anthology series could spin-off from other anthology series, too - sometimes even the most famous ones.

In 1958, the mouthful-tastic Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse was just starting out. Between 1951 and 1957, husband and wife team Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had been the stars of TV in I Love Lucy, but they were looking to expand their Desilu production company's output with an anthology series of drama, comedy and music. They convinced CBS to buy their show and managed to get Westinghouse to switch its sponsorship away from Westinghouse Studio One in the process, resulting in CBS cancelling that show.

Looking for some prestigious material with which to christen the new show, producer Bert Granet started trawling through CBS's vaults, where he found a buried script called The Time Element, written by one Rod Serling. Serling had become a popular and critically respected TV playwright in the 1950s, but CBS had been unwilling to produce the script so had shelved it. However, Granet thought the script would boost his show and put it into production.

The play, set years after the end of World War II, features a man named Peter Jenson (William Bendix) who visits a psychoanalyst, Dr Gillespie (Martin Balsam). Jenson tells him about a recurring dream in which he tries to warn people about the "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor before it happens, but the warnings are disregarded. Jenson believes the events of the dream are real and each night he travels back to 1941.

Suffice it to say, there's a twist ending.

The Time Element, which was introduced by Desi Arnaz, debuted on November 24 1958 to an 'overwhelmingly delighted' audience of television viewers and critics alike. "The humor and sincerity of Mr Serling's dialogue made The Time Element consistently entertaining," offered Jack Gould of The New York Times. Over 6,000 letters of praise flooded Granet's offices.

Convinced that a series based on such stories could succeed, CBS again began talks with Serling about the possibilities of producing a similar anthology series, one bookended by a narrator, full of fantasy and science-fiction stories, often with twists in their tails, and to be called… The Twilight Zone. Where Is Everybody? was accepted as the pilot episode and the project was officially announced to the public in early 1959. The rest is history.

The Time Element was not aired on television again until it was shown as part of a 1996 all-night sneak preview of the then-new cable channel TVLand. Thankfully, it's this week's Wednesday Play (on Tuesday) and you can watch it below.

January 6, 2016

What TV's on at the BFI in February? Including Nuts In May, Penda's Fen, Artemis 81 and Leap In The Dark

Posted on January 6, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Time to look at what the BFI is showing in February. Yes, February. I never got my January guide, and since it's now January and the February guide turned up yesterday, let's just do February. I'll be ahead of schedule for a change then.

February's actually not got a huge amount of TV, but what there is is largely TV plays - and good 'uns, too. As well as Dexter Press Gang Fletcher introducing Nuts In May, we also have a season of David Rudkin's TV plays. Who's Rudkin? Well, he wrote about 90% of the pagan dramas in TMINE's guide to religion, including Penda's Fen and Artemis 81, both of which get an airing in the season (although since the BFI describes the latter as 'one of the medium's greatest productions', I'm not entirely sure they've actually watched it yet). 

But as well as those, Rudkin's The Living Grave is also being shown. This was part of a somewhat odd, supernatural anthology series that aired on BBC Two called Leap In The Dark. This ran for 20 episodes in four series, over a period of eight years from 1973 to 1980, and featured work from Rudkin, as well as Fay Weldon and Alan Garner among others. Each episode featured a different incident of the paranormal, some in the modern day, but most set in other time periods.

So far, so ordinary, you might think. What's odd about Leap In the Dark is that all these incidents were real events - indeed, the first series consisted only of documentaries, while the later series are technically docudramas, rather than dramas. Rushkin's The Living Grave is about a young woman who regresses under hypnosis to the 1700s, with Rushkin's play recreating both the hypnosis sessions and the 1700s. And it's this week's Wednesday's Play.

Continue reading "What TV's on at the BFI in February? Including Nuts In May, Penda's Fen, Artemis 81 and Leap In The Dark"

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