The Wednesday Play: James O’Connor’s Three Clear Sundays (1965)

Ken Loach has always been attracted to controversial political subjects, frequently using the plays he directs to campaign. One of his most famous early works was 1965’s Three Clear Sundays, one of the BBC’s Wednesday Plays, which campaigned vigorously against the death penalty, which was still in effect at the time, albeit subject to a moratorium – the play takes its name from the ‘three clear Sundays’ that were mandated to elapse between the sentence of death and execution of a prisoner.

The play was written by former criminal James O’Connor, who had himself been sentenced to hang in 1942 and was only reprieved at the last month, so acquires an extra verisimilitude. It sees petty criminal Tony Selby commit murder after being misled by gangsters including George Sewell while in prison for a minor offence. It then follows Selby through every stage of the process, arguing against it at each turn.

While reaction to the play was strong, with writers to newspapers largely saying they were now against the death penalty as a result of having watched it, it didn’t have quite the success that some proponents argue – it wasn’t until 1969 that hanging was finally abolished for virtually all crimes, including murder, with some strange exemptions holding on until 1971 (arson in Royal Dockyards), 1992 (crimes committed on the Isle of Man) and 1998 (crimes committed under military jurisdiction, and High Treason and piracy with violence).

All the same, it’s a powerful piece of work and it’s this week’s Wednesday Play. If you like it, you can buy it on DVD.

This week’s The Wednesday Play is In Two Minds, written by David Mercer and directed by Ken Loach