Question of the week: would you watch prime-time plays?

Back in the day, series of plays (and their close cousins, the anthology series) were one of the staples of TV. Play for Today, Armchair Theatre, Theatre 625, The Wednesday Play et al were vibrant parts of scheduling and they launched the careers of some of our best writers, including Dennis Potter and Jack Rosenthal. There were even themed play series, such as Espionage, Out of the Unknown and Worlds Beyond, dealing with spies, science-fiction and the supernatural respectively. And who could forget Tales of the Unexpected?

Yet where are they now? Sky Arts and daytime TV, that’s where. The popular wisdom is that even with something like The Street, which is essentially a play series (albeit one set in the same location each week), with no recurring stars, there’s no way to build up regular viewership in primetime. With so many draws for the attention, each play would have to be individually marketed and still have to appeal on things like the iPlayer as well.

But today I’m questioning received wisdom and asking this question:

Would you watch a primetime series of original plays if you knew the quality of the writing and acting was going to be good, even if the cast and writers were unknowns? Or would it have to be themed or in some other way more narrowly defined?

Answers below or on your own blog, please.

  • Mark Carroll

    (I know nothing of The Street.) I don’t care if the actors are unknowns. If I know the plays are fairly reliably going to be not-boring and cause me to think back on them later, then that sounds worthwhile to me. That they’re plays is okay, it’s still easy to lose oneself in a good one. Back in English class in school I’m sure we watched some ancient BBC productions I quite liked at the time; sure, the rocks may have been expanded polystyrene, and the crowds but a handful, but neither were showstoppers. (It’s much nicer to have a play spoken and acted, than to have to read it from the book, and with things like Peer Gynt I’ve read it but never seen it performed.) Hopefully they’d be cheap to produce, too, and I’m always happy to support cheap yet quality programming; I’m not sure if what’s driving this particular question is one of modestly produced drama, or more the independence of the episodes but, guessing the latter, mostly what matters is just that the quality stays high. Consistency of premise, actors, writers, etc. may be one way to achieve that, as with a conventional series, but with luck there are others too; I’d guess it’d mostly be in the selection process.

  • Mark Carroll

    (I know nothing of The Street.) I don’t care if the actors are unknowns. If I know the plays are fairly reliably going to be not-boring and cause me to think back on them later, then that sounds worthwhile to me. That they’re plays is okay, it’s still easy to lose oneself in a good one. Back in English class in school I’m sure we watched some ancient BBC productions I quite liked at the time; sure, the rocks may have been expanded polystyrene, and the crowds but a handful, but neither were showstoppers. (It’s much nicer to have a play spoken and acted, than to have to read it from the book, and with things like Peer Gynt I’ve read it but never seen it performed.) Hopefully they’d be cheap to produce, too, and I’m always happy to support cheap yet quality programming; I’m not sure if what’s driving this particular question is one of modestly produced drama, or more the independence of the episodes but, guessing the latter, mostly what matters is just that the quality stays high. Consistency of premise, actors, writers, etc. may be one way to achieve that, as with a conventional series, but with luck there are others too; I’d guess it’d mostly be in the selection process.

  • I’m often drawn in by a good writer, and often one-off (linked? independent?) pieces can be great places to see upcoming talent – if they could be persuaded to perform in it.
    I’d love to see more one off/linked dramas: whether plays (for television) or loosely connected dramas with changing casts.
    It isn’t gonna happen though is it? Writers are NOT king/queen any longer, sadly. It’s can marketing sell it, is there a big name draw, is it recognisable. Meh. Very sad.

  • Jim Smith

    Yes. Because I’m not an idiot. Next question.

  • SK

    I don’t think it’s quite true that there are no play series these days: what was Accused, after all? But they are few and far between (and usually themed, and with a name attached, as Accused was).
    I would watch but, and here’s probably the crucial issue, I probably wouldn’t watch every week. I’d watch the ones that I was interested in, where the premise or the writer or a star caught my attention. And that’s the problem for the channel, I assume: they want programmes where they can construct some sort of narrative out of the audience figures in order to justify their decisions, like ‘started strong but shed 2 million viewers every week, don’t make another series,’ or ‘first episode was disappointing but it’s been climbing steadily, must have good word-of-mouth, bring it back’.
    A play series, where not only would the ratings numbers vary unpredictably but it wouldn’t even be the same people watching each week — indeed two consecutive plays could have almost entirely non-overlapping audiences — would totally lack such a narrative, and therefore decisions as to its future would have to be made not on the basis of a ratings narrative but on principle and belief that this is the sort of thing TV ought to be doing.
    Can you see any controller these days having that kind of strength of character?

  • Robin Parker

    That’s why you’ve got to applaud Channel 4 for doing something different with Black Mirror, which tried to capture some of Twilight Zone’s essence with some ‘what if…?’ scenarios. They were also beautifully made and played straight despite the outlandish concepts, treating the ideas with respect. Some elements worked better than others but I admire the ambition. I hope they’ll do more and broaden the pool of writers – Jesse Armstrong’s contribution was strong and I gather that Charlie Higson pitched in an idea too.

  • Yup. Er, not sure I have anything further to contribute! Have caught some of BBC1’s Moving On series and really enjoyed them. Would they count as plays, or dramas? I occasionally listen to plays on Radio 4, which is fulled by childhood memories of my mother doing the same, and I find it very comforting.
    I’d love to see more one off drama on TV – and I really enjoyed the only episode of Black Mirror I saw, 15 Million Merits, written by Charlie Brooker and Konnie Huq, which was dark and edgy and with a fabulous performance by Daniel Kaluuya, my favourite new actor. I’d definitely watch another series if they made it.