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

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.