We should lament the passing of The Wednesday Play and 1970s television drama. It is not TV culture that is to blame for our wasteland; it is the whole cultureby David Herman / October 23, 2004 / Leave a comment
30th September is the 40th anniversary of The Wednesday Play, one of the great achievements of British television: 172 plays shown over six years by authors like Dennis Potter, David Mercer and Michael Frayn, Simon Gray, Alan Plater and Johnny Speight. Among the directors were John Schlesinger and Jack Gold, Peter Watkins, John Mackenzie and Ken Loach.
Forty years on, not only have we nothing to match it, we can’t even work out what happened to it. In a recent documentary, The Truth About Sixties TV (BBC4), Mark Lawson suggested that the golden age of television drama was a product of technology. Lumbering old cameras, he argued, meant that most television drama was confined to the studio. It was therefore “too difficult and expensive to shoot film drama on location.” This gave 1960s television drama a more theatrical feel, making it easier for stage writers like Pinter and Gray to adapt to the new medium. “What looks like a creative decision was actually a technical one,” says Lawson. “Content is a result of the available technology.”
Like most of Lawson’s propositions in the programme, this was pithy, simple and wrong. Some of the best television drama of the 1960s was shot on location, like the scene from Jonathan Miller’s Alice shown in Lawson’s programme, or Miller’s ghost story, Whistle and I’ll Come to You. Garnett and Loach famously used lightweight 16mm filming equipment to shoot on location to achieve the feel of documentary realism. Playwrights continued to write some of the best television drama through the 1970s and 1980s, after camera technology had changed – Alan Bennett, David Hare, Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker, Stephen Poliakoff and Christopher Hampton among them.
There is no relationship between camera technology and the quality of television writing. Much television drama was filmed in the studio and a lot of it was clunky, cheap and uninteresting. The best television drama was written by great writers, working with talented directors, encouraged by a larger culture interested in complex and lively drama. Potter’s Nigel Barton plays (1965) were watched by over 7m viewers, and his Where the Buffalo Roam (1966) by over 8m. The changes which killed off the single play in the 1980s were cultural, not technological.
Although The Wednesday Play ended in 1970, the golden age of television drama did not. You could even argue that the true golden age of the single play…