Forgotten Drama Conference
Royal Holloway 23-25 April
There was a rich and varied selection of papers, discussions and screenings at the Forgotten Drama Conference, which had relevance to my research work around programme making at BBC Pebble Mill. Royal Holloway, University of London have the contacts and common sense to combine quality academic papers with contributions from significant television drama programme makers.
I spoke about a largely forgotten 30’ film called A Touch of Eastern Promise, BBC2, 1973, written by English Regions Drama Department script editor, Tara Prem. Tara was in the audience for my talk, and I was very pleased to see her again, despite the additional pressure to get everything right! The presentation included a clip of an interview I had recorded with Tara Prem, and script editor, Barry Hanson, a couple of years ago. The film was the first drama on British television to have an entirely Asian cast, and so was ground breaking. It was unusual for script editors to write dramas themselves, but Tara is half Indian, and was aware that there were no Asian writers around to reflect the changing make-up of British society in cities like Birmingham. Due to a lack of professional Asian actors, Tara and director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, drove round the streets of Balsall Heath in Birmingham, asking Asian residents if they wanted to be in a play. The drama went out at 10.10pm on a Thursday night, after War and Peace, and Horizon. I explored why the film has been largely forgotten, mentioning the small scale, being a one-off 30’ production, that it did not include any stars in the cast, and had a relatively insignificant transmission slot. Most importantly though, I argued that perhaps the reason that the film has not been remembered is that the themes it examines are quiet, everyday ones: dreams versus reality, inter-generational conflict and the life of immigrant communities; it is not an action packed film which deals with issues like race relations, and therefore whilst more subtle, it has not proved more enduring. I also considered the film’s significance; it was an important milestone, and opened the door to other multicultural dramas made at BBC Pebble Mill, such as: Gangsters, Black Christmas, Empire Road etc. It was also important because of its risk taking, in allowing a script editor to write a play, in welcoming non-professional actors, and particularly in depicting ordinary life in non-white British communities.
On the afternoon of the second day of the conference was a session on Second City Firsts, the anthology, half-hour drama series to come from BBC Pebble Mill in the 1970s. The series brief was to bring new talent to screen, often in the form of writers or directors fresh to television. Two plays were screened: The Actual Woman, BBC2, 1974, by Jack Shepherd, and Pig Bin, BBC2, 1974, by Brian Glover. A discussion followed the viewing, and included Jack Shepherd and director, Philip Saville, talking about The Actual Woman, and Tara Prem, who directed Pig Bin, along with Philip Jackson, who starred in it. Lez Cooke from Royal Holloway, chaired the discussion.
BBC English Regions Drama produced 74 half-hour plays from 1972-78, of which 53 were Second City Firsts. 14 half-hour plays were transmitted under the Thirty-Minute Theatre banner in 1972, followed by another six half-hour dramas which were transmitted without an anthology series title in Feb-March 1973. From October 1973 to May 1978 53 half-hour plays were transmitted under the series title ‘Second City Firsts’. There was one more half-hour drama, ‘Art … Adrift’ by Peter Terson, recorded in 1974, which was not transmitted.
Both The Actual Woman and Pig Bin were lost, but Jack Shepherd had a Phillips 1500 cassette of the former, and Tara Prem a VHS of the latter. The archive society Kaleidoscope have now digitised and preserved these copies, which were used for the screenings.
The Actual Woman – features three characters, a husband and wife, and the husband’s brother. It is a psychological drama, where each character has the wrong idea about each other. None of the characters is very likeable, and the audience does not empathise with them. It is set in the Yorkshire countryside, with the married couple wrongly assuming that the brother lives in some rural idyll. It is a fairly dark tale, the husband and wife seem to hate each other, and there is an attempted rape of the wife, by the husband’s brother. The viewpoint shifts between the characters, with voice over presenting their thoughts during certain incidents in the drama.
Actor, Jack Shepherd, explained that he wrote the play as a live studio piece for the experimental arts magazine show: Full House. The show went out on BBC2 in 1972-3 from 9-11pm on a Saturday night, and included sketches, music, poetry and a live drama, in front of a studio audience. It was presented by Joe Melia. However, the play had to be re-envisaged as a location piece, after Full House was decommissioned in 1973. The voice over sections would have been soliloquies in the original studio production.
Philip Saville directed the piece and spoke about how the locations and bitter weather had really contributed to the atmosphere of the drama. It was also unusual as being an early experiment of shooting single camera on location, on tape, using a news type camera. Tony Raynor was the VT editor, and one of the few crew to get a credit.
Pig Bin – was an extreme studio piece, set in one room, a police holding cell in the basement of a football stadium. Again, there are only three characters, an adult Leeds United fan, played by Philip Jackson, a young boy fan, and a police officer. The piece was a longer version of a short play written for Tara Prem by Brian Glover (her future husband) for her BBC studio directors course final project. Producer, Barry Hanson saw the recording from the course and suggested that it was expanded for a Second City First. The play relies on the quality of the acting, which is extremely good, and still stands up today. The Leeds accents of two football fans are quite strong, and there is great attention to detail.
This production was Tara’s first experience of directing, and she explained about the production process. Rehearsals would last for around a week, whilst the piece was choreographed. There was one day in the studio, with camera blocking taking most of the day, and the actual recording taking around two hours. Two or three cameras would have been used, but recording would not have been continuous. Studio days were very intensive, and overrunning was virtually unheard of, due to the expense of overtime. The play would have been recorded in chronological order. Philip Jackson described the ‘producer’s run’, which was a performance of the whole piece for the producer to see, and for the crew to wander round and work out how best to shoot it. A camera script, with the various cameras and shots on would be produced by the director. This was the bible, and although you could make changes on the recording day, it was extremely difficult if you did. Directing was challenging, as the action would all be happening on the studio floor, and the director would be up in the production gallery divorced from what was going on. Generally you had to talk to the actors through the floor manager; you could go down to the floor, if necessary, but it meant that things were serious if you did. The vision mixer would be cutting the play as the recording went on.
The panel were asked to explore the notion of the half hour play. Jack Shepherd said that he missed it, because the point of view of the writer is less present in modern dramas, but that single half hours are not profitable, and don’t sell abroad. Tara explained that the half hour format would never come back to TV, but that people who want to, will produce such pieces for online distribution, because that is now achievable on a very small budget, so anyone can have a voice, which is a positive thing. The actors’ perspective was also given – that there were now fewer opportunities to contribute to serious drama, whereas now you have to take what comes. Philip Saville said that television drama is now much more filmic, and less theatric. The result, almost certainly of more location and less studio recording.
The final session of the conference was an interview of producer Terrance Dicks by Billy Smart. Dicks is well known for his work on Dr Who, but here he was talking about his role on The Classic Serial, 1981-8, first as a script editor, and then as producer. The Classic Serial went out on BBC1 on a Sunday afternoon, and was designed to be family viewing. It was part of the Series and Serials department, and always involved the adaptation of a classic novel, Dickens being a favourite author. It was an expensive strand to produce because of all the design costs. Dicks pointed out the similarities between Dr Who and The Classic Serial, in that both are a series of serials.
Great Expectations, BBC1,1981, was an early production when Terrance Dicks was a script editor. The novel was adapted for television by James Andrew Hall and was a significant success. Dicks described the role of the script editor as planning the production with the producer, choosing the writer and talking through the show with them, followed by liaising with the writer and making sure that the scripts were in on time.
Another notable production was Charlotte Bronte’s, Jane Eyre, BBC1,1983, adapted by Alexander Baron, with Timothy Dalton as Rochester. This drama, like many other Classic Serials, was recorded at BBC Pebble Mill, as a hosted London production. I asked Terrance about why Birmingham studios were chosen. He replied that London crews behaved like they were doing you a favour in working on your shows, whereas Birmingham managers were much more supportive, and the crews were more co-operative and grateful – if not quite as good! I’m sure that the crews in Birmingham would dispute his judgement that they weren’t as skilled, whilst being pleased that they were considered better to work with.
The Invisible Man, BBC1, 1984, was a significant 6 part serial, which had to have an evening transmission due to its inherent violence. After this production, Dicks became a producer, which he described as doing proper grown up work, something which he’d tried to avoid all his life!
Two further serials were discussed, both of which were recorded in Studio A at Pebble Mill: Oliver Twist, BBC1, 1985, and Vanity Fair, BBC1,1987. Oliver Twist was a fantastic success, and the viewing figures were so good that they enabled Jonathan Powell (then Head of Series and Serials) to convince Michael Grade (Controller BBC1,1984-6), not to cancel The Classic Serial. Vanity Fair, was a less successful production, being in Dick’s opinion too big and expensive a production, with problems with viewer engagement, due to the ambiguity of Becky Sharp’s character
Drama on television has certainly developed as a genre since the 1970s and ‘80s, and in the main 30’ series, like The Classic Serial, are no longer made, although adaptations of classic novels are still made, albeit in longer format.
The conference was an inspiring celebration of dramas which have largely slipped from the public consciousness, but which merit remembering, for a variety of reasons. I learnt about many dramas which I wasn’t aware of, and met and re-met some interesting academics, programme makers and friends.