Friday, 19 September 2014

THE WEDNESDAY PLAY at the BFI, September and October 2014


More glorious TV heritage in a two month festival at the BFI Southbank.

British television could really do with more single plays. The Secrets, the recent week-long run of half hour plays by new writers on BBC1, was specifically created to give scriptwriters new to television a chance. (Typically, the BBC-bashing Daily Mail dismissed the short season of plays as 'rubbish', showing not only how culturally ignorant that so called newspaper really is, but also making you wonder if the reviewer had actually bothered to watch any of them).

It's sad that something like The Secrets has become an exception. In the halcyon days of British TV in the 1960s and 1970s, single plays were everywhere: Armchair Theatre, Play for Today, Play of the Week and The Wednesday Play (so called because it was, um, shown on a Wednesday). Writers such as James Mitchell, Harold Pinter, Alan Bleasdale and Alun Owen all had their breaks into writing for television through single plays, going on to help make British television a richer and more diverse place.

Throughout September and October, the BFI is focuing on The Wednesday Play, and the four screenings so far have been something of a revelation, giving what, for me, had previously just been the title of a dusty old programme in reference books depth and vitality.

Apart from having a wonderfully modish title sequence involving a Mary Quant-style dolly bird and a space-age TV perched on a stone wall, Who's A Good Boy Then? I Am from 1966 was creepy, funny and menacing, a slice of vintage Harold Pinter written by somebody else. Richard Harris's vivid realisation of domestic hell involved a childless couple - Ron Moody and a brilliant Thora Hird - manoeuvring for the affections of their slightly sinister young lodger played by Ronald Lacey. Confined to a few sets, it showed what can be done with three great actors and a terrific script.

Next up was The Mayfly and the Frog. Before watching it I'd never been convinced of all the claims made for what a great actor Sir John Gielgud was, but now I can really see why he was so lionised. Essentially a Mod version of The Prince and the Showgirl with Felicity Kendal as a scooter girl who's transport is in a collision with Gielgud's Rolls Royce, Gielgud is effortlessly amusing, charming, abrasive and introspective, as his luxurious but sterile life is gradually given meaning by Kendal's very fresh-faced interloper. It's made me want to look up more things that Sir John's been in.

Moving on to 1969, Sling Your Hook, about the misadventures of a coach full of miners an a weekend bender in Blackpool, and The Season of the Witch, the days-in-the-life of a young runaway who falls in with some work-shy hippies (Paul Nicholas and Robert Powell), look as fresh as the day they left the editing suite, largely because they were both made on film. The invention of more portable - and affordable - film cameras towards the end of the 1960s saw a minor revolution in TV drama, as writers and directors could now take their stories out on to the streets and into the countryside.

I could watch Sling Your Hook over and over again. Written by Roy Minton, best known as the author of the harrowing borstal drama Scum, his Wednesday Play features a fantastic ensemble cast including Michael Bates, Joe Gladwyn, Patrick O'Connell, Kenneth Cranham and Warren Clarke on a boozy, true-to-life odyssey through Britain's premier seaside resort. From being a tight knit group of friends and workmates, their cameraderie gradually fall apart as they're tempted by the possibilities of a better life in the town, to the point where a glum Bates and Gladwyn return home in an empty bus.

The Season of the Witch stars the singer Julie Driscoll from the in-vogue group Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and The Trinity and her bandmates supply a suitably frenetic and bluesy soundtrack. Not a lot happens and Driscoll isn't the world's greatest actress, but as a piece of social history you can't get more 1969 than the story of a sheltered suburban girl running away from a dull job to join the counter culture. Glynn Edwards (Dave the perennial barman in Minder) is great as her bemused Dad. The Season... was also one of the first Wednesdy Plays to be made in colour, in the year that the BBC and ITV were gearing up for the big switchover to colour transmissions. The film making is so accomplished that you'd never know that the production crew were new to working with colour film.

I'm really looking forward to the next WP screening at the BFI; as ever, it's the place to go to have your cultural horizons widened. And next time you're gritting your teeth through crap like The X Factor or Britain's Got No ****ing Talent, just think how much better the money could be spent.

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