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Play for Yesterday

Robert Weedon | Radio | Sunday 23rd February 2014

From the 1950s right up to the late 1980s, small screens were awash with productions which were branded as "plays" or "theatre" – witness Armchair Theatre, Theatre 625, Play for Today, The Wednesday Play, ITV Playhouse and Comedy Playhouse to name major strands on both the BBC and ITV which ran during this era, but these days the idea of a TV or radio drama being called a play is almost unheard of.

The change of labelling "play" to "drama" is perhaps indicative of the single biggest change in the last twenty years, namely that of the switch from the studio-bound multiple camera to much more expensive single camera setups which very much take their cue from the cinema rather than the theatre. Indeed, it is probably this which more than any other feature that has dictated the change in direction, presentation and acting styles that make up today's high gloss or grittily realistic TV dramas.

In the early days, the emphasis was very much on TV being like a slightly more special effects-laden version of theatre; there may well have been location shots filmed beforehand, but when you tuned in to see The Wednesday Play, you really were watching actors performing live as if on stage.

The majority of writers of TV drama were experienced playwrights rather than screenwriters, and indeed these strands often managed to coax in, or sometimes start the career of some of the biggest writers of 20th century drama; Dennis Potter, Harold Pinter, Ken Loach, John Osborne, to name but a few.

Actors employed in London theatre rather than motion pictures were the main pool of talent sourced for television and radio productions and whereas in a theatre it's necessary to act in a slightly overblown style due to the need to project voices and actions to a large theatre, this acting style did not exactly translate well to the screen where cameras and boom mikes can pick up every subtlety.

This wasn't helped by actors viewing TV as a second-rate ephemeral medium, and when a shed-load of British TV dramas of the 1960s were unearthed in 2010 at the Library of Congress, a number of now-very-famous actors were apparently rather concerned that their slightly hammy early live TV performances might be re-shown and analysed, rather like one of those Before They Were Famous-type programmes where Simon Cowell turns up on Sale of the Century.

Interestingly, throughout the 1970s TV drama also looked dated compared to the theatre. By the mid-sixties, theatre had moved away from the Victorian requirement for realistic sets. Theatre design in the last forty years has relied on increasingly sparser, impressionistic sets as typified by Trevor Nunn's Macbeth of 1979. By contrast television plays generally required the realism of fully decorated and furnished rooms in which to set their scene; even the cheesiest 1970s sitcom had a big room with chintz sofas, dial telephones and a string of ducks on the wall. Abigail's Party, the most famous TV play of this period can be considered the archetype.
Radio is a happy medium between the two, as provided it's well written, the pictures are, famously, better.

The big change in attitude in television occurred when in 1989 the BBC rebranded their one-off original drama strands as Screen One or Screen Two. This was obviously to highlight the fact that these were essentially television films; quite a lot of these were directed by cinema directors, for example John Schlesinger’s television version of Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution.

The final hurrah was probably BBC Radio 4’s long-running Afternoon Play strand which was rebranded in February 2012 to become the Afternoon Drama. This took place without a huge fanfare or much coverage, as radio in general doesn’t receive half as much coverage as TV. Indeed, while even Pig Farmer’s Monthly has a resident TV critic, only a few of the broadsheet newspapers have a dedicated radio critic.

Indeed, with the exception of a piece in the thespian’s periodical, The Stage, the change of name was barely mentioned. This was mainly because the programme strand itself has not changed; it’s still arguably one of the best outlets for new writers. However, that change of the word "play" to "drama" in the Afternoon Drama marked an interesting shift of nearly all non-theatrical British dramatic outlets away from the word.

Ostensibly, the change of title was to bring it closer together with BBC Television’s Original British Drama brand, which the BBC uses to promote its TV dramas, or at least the slightly classier ones, many of which mark out just how cinematic they are by being presented in 2.35:1, as seen in 2011's Whistle and I'll Come to You.

John Hurt, as seen through a letterbox.

While they were doing that, however, in about 2010 there was a shift of mainstream TV sitcoms back to a more theatrical style which continues to this day.

For example, the top-rated show over Christmas 2013 was Mrs Brown's Boys, a show which revels in being like a play, even showing the audience watching the recording before the episode starts. Other sitcoms such as Miranda, Count Arthur Strong and ITV's Vicious are very much in the theatrical rather than cinematic vein, the latter even being a bit of a thesp-fest starring Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Frances De La Tour.

Perhaps it's because several of these have their origins in stage shows, although I wonder whether it's because there is also a desire on the part of the public to see plays without bothering to leave the house; an armchair theatre, if you will.1

The recent comedy-drama series Inside Number Nine (BBC2 2014) with its stand-alone episodes and single-room settings feels very much like one of the old anthology series of yesteryear. And not only that, it's excellent. Perhaps the TV play is making a comeback?

RW

1. As an aside, I have recently noticed a large number of amateur dramatics companies that formerly would have staged Annie Get Your Gun and its ilk instead presenting stage productions of Fawlty Towers, Dad's Army and Blackadder.





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