This year marks the 50th anniversary of the BBC anthology drama series – Play for Today, making it an appropriate time to reflect on our favourites.
My top five Plays for Today were all filmed by the English Regions Drama department (ERD), at BBC Pebble Mill in Birmingham in the 1970s, when it was led by the renowned producer, David Rose. I worked in the Drama department at Pebble Mill myself in the late 1980s, when Michael Wearing was in charge, and remember the place, the people and the output fondly. Some years ago, I interviewed several of the key programme makers of the Plays for Today listed below and draw on their memories for this blog.
All the Plays for Today discussed here have something unusual or innovative about how they were made, which is why I have chosen them. They illustrate the quality and range of Plays for Today made at Pebble Mill. I’ve listed them in chronological order of transmission.
Shakespeare or Bust, written by Peter Terson, produced by David Rose, directed by Brian Parker. Broadcast BBC1 on Monday 8th Jan 1973 at 21.25.
In June 1972 The Fishing Party, by Peter Terson, was broadcast. It was the story of three miners on a weekend fishing trip to Whitby. Producer, David Rose thought the characters, Art, played by Brian Glover, Ern, played by Ray Mort and Abe, played by Douglas Livingstone demanded another story or two, which he made sure they got. He suggested taking them on a canal narrow boat trip from Birmingham to Stratford Upon Avon. Writer Peter Terson went on the canal trip himself, and David expected that by the end of it he would have an idea for the play. Instead, he had a completed script, with Peter writing on the boat as he went.
Tara Prem was the script editor and remembers being phoned from lock-keepers’ cottages along the route and told there were another 30 pages for her to come and collect. After several trips to collect the bundles of pages, the script was complete.
The miners were on a pilgrimage to see Anthony and Cleopatra at the Royal Shakespeare Company, sadly they don’t get into the theatre, there being no seats left, and instead they meet the actors playing Anthony and Cleopatra, Richard Johnson and Janet Suzeman, outside the RSC and get the Shakespeare from them. Peter had not exactly decided on the ending, saying to Tara that the miners meet the actors, and that she should sort out what happened after that. The sorting it out, seemed to involve everyone swimming in the river in the dark.
Penders Fen, written by David Rudkin, produced by David Rose, directed by Alan Clarke. Broadcast on Thursday 21st March 1974 at 21.25
Pender’s Fen was the third play written by David Rudkin produced at Pebble Mill, the others being shorter dramas, Bypass (BBC2 1972) and Atrocity (BBC2 1973). It is an astonishing film, and very different from the harsh realism usually associated with Rudkin. We have a sixth former, Stephen, in love with Elgar’s music, who has awakened pagan forces within the local landscape. It has surreal elements including a macabre and memorable hand-chopping off scene.
David Rudkin explained that the drama explores several simultaneous contradictory dimensions of reality, including shared and unshared realities. It was visionary writing. There was great difficulty in transferring it to the screen without it looking clumsy, which was partly to do with how discreetly those elements were shot (this would be much easier to achieve nowadays using CGI). David thought the Elgar scene was tremendous, because of its physicality and truth, but felt that the scene with Penda on the hillside at the end lacked mystery. The piece was outside the comfort zone of director Alan Clarke, who was known for directing gritty dramas. According to David Rudkin, Alan felt insecure about the musical and theological dimensions, but trusted his advice to leave all those elements to him, and just deal with the emotion, which Alan did.
David Rose told me of the delight he took in looking at David Rudkin’s scripts, with their beautifully laid out pages, their precision and the puzzles placed on the page. He said he did not know entirely what Pender’s Fen was all about, but that he was happy with that. His mother had never said anything to him about his work in television except for Pender’s Fen, which she said haunted her for three days and nights, which pleased him.
Gangsters, written by Philip Martin, produced by Barry Hanson, directed by Philip Saville. Broadcast on BBC1 on Thursday 9th January 1975 at 21.25.
The Radio Times billing for Gangsters reads:
Blackmail, extortion, drug-peddling and the ‘Blackbird Run’ of illegal immigrants to the West Midlands… How involved is Rafiq, the respected Indian community leader? Rawlinson, the night-club owner? In this hard adventure story, released prisoner John Kline comes up against his old enemies – the gangsters.
Gangsters was a ground-breaking film, inspired after David Rose saw French Connection in the cinema. David gave Philip Martin a writer’s stipend to spend three months in Birmingham to see if he could come up with an idea for a film. Martin researched police corruption, the criminal underworld, and the nightclub scene. The landscape of Birmingham figured strongly, even including an actual speed car chase along the Aston Expressway, which resulted in the crew being pulled over and reprimanded by the police.
There was a lot of sensitivity at the time about how race and people from different backgrounds were depicted, because in Gangsters there were just good and bad people and they might be black, white or Asian. This led to nervousness within the BBC about the film. The great and the good of the BBC, including the controllers and some heads of department, gathered in London to watch the film a few days before transmission. They reacted very favourably to it and only asked for just one edit. There was a shot of a black woman with electrodes on her nipples and they wanted this cut. The director, Philip Saville, said he could edit the visual, but not the sound, so a reaction shot of another character looking was inserted, which David Rose thought made the scene more frightening.
Gangsters got a very good audience and was developed into two prime time series for BBC1.
Nuts in May written by Mike Leigh, produced by David Rose, directed by Mike Leigh. Broadcast on BBC 1 on Tuesday 13th January 1976 at 21.25.
This is almost certainly the best known of Pebble Mill’s Plays for Today, but Mike Leigh’s first television drama for ERD was a half-hour studio piece called Permissive Society in 1975, which led indirectly to Nuts in May. At first, a lot of BBC staff were rather nervous of Mike Leigh’s improvisatory way of working. The crew would be chatting in the canteen saying, there’s a guy down there in the studio and they’re making it up as they go along, which fails to appreciate Mike Leigh’s careful observation of the actors interacting as the characters and developing storylines from those interactions.
David Rose originated from Dorset and was keen to depict the area, as part of the ERD remit to reflect life outside of London. There seemed to be few writers from the South West, and therefore he invited Mike Leigh to make a film set around the Isle of Purbeck: Nuts in May was the result.
David was delighted that the characters of Candice-Marie and Keith were so vivid that they lived on in the memories of the audience for many years, chewing their food very ,very slowly and carefully, and driving round the lanes in their Morris Minor, whilst encountering wild Brummies in local camp sites.
Licking Hitler, written and directed by David Hare, produced by David Rose. Broadcast on BBC1 on Tuesday 10th January 1978 at 21.25.
A glowing review in The Times summed the play up thus, “Licking Hitler began with unnerving brilliance – impeccably in period and hypersensitive to feeling and mood.”
David Hare won the BAFTA for best single television play for Licking Hitler in 1978. Remarkably, it was his television directorial debut. Set in an English stately home in 1941, it tells the story of Anna, played by Kate Nelligan, who is thrust into a secret world, broadcasting propaganda to Nazi Germany. After the war, Anna, and Archie, the chief writer of the now disbanded unit, played by Bill Paterson, long for the meaning of their wartime work, and the excitement of their former lives. It was shot at Compton Verney House in Warwickshire.
Peter Ansorge, who script edited the play and was a friend of David Hare, thought it astonishing that Hare was allowed to direct it, having never directed television before. Even in the late 1970s it was a tremendous risk to give a high profile and complex drama to someone without television experience. However, it paid off, and Peter acknowledges that no one could have made the film better. It was Peter who brought David Hare to television and helped him overcome the prejudices he had about it as a medium.
David Rose described Licking Hitler as an absolute gem, that he could just keep on watching. He had seen a number of plays of David Hare’s in the theatre and had no qualms about him directing, saying he appreciated how precise he could be and how he knew exactly what he wanted to do with the script.
Interviews with the following programme makers have been used in this blog:
David Rose (d.2017) – producer and Head of ERD
Tara Prem – script editor and producer at ERD
David Rudkin – writer Pender’s Fen
Barry Hanson (d.2016) – script editor, producer and later Head of Drama at Pebble Mill
Philip Saville (d. 2016) – director of Gangsters
Michael Wearing (d. 2017) – script editor, producer and later Head of Drama at Pebble Mill
Peter Ansorge – script editor and producer at ERD
Here is the Radio Times entry for the 1981 Playhouse production, Days at the Beach, starring Julie Walters. It was produced by David Rose, and directed and written by Malcolm Mowbray. John Kenway was the cameraman, with Chris Rowlands being the film editor, and Margaret Peacock being the designer. Roger Gregory was the script editor. Thanks to Roger for keeping the copy safe since 1981.
The following comment was posted on the Pebble Mill Facebook page:
Steve Saunderson: ‘Days at the Beach was a very classy piece of writing and direction by Malcolm Mowbray on which I was the un-credited Camera Operator. We shot most of it on Harlech Beach and Llandudno Pier. The very talented Graham Hazard was my Focus Puller who was constantly battling the sand being blown into the camera kit. Micky Patten was the Grip?I think Mick Murphy was on this too, maybe he’ll correct me on this. I remember Julie Walters was very nervous on one scene with her husband who had returned “Shell-Shocked” from the battle fields of WW 1. It was one of her first film roles, and it was a very difficult scene. After the take she tugged frantically at my sleeve and whispered “was I ok? was I ok?” I whispered back that she was perfect and she smiled back at me. I felt very humble. I also remember Stephen Bill, known from “Nuts in May” played a great part. A lot of night shoots.’
This publicity photograph, of Kate Nelligan and Bill Nighy is from the Play for Today: Dreams of Leaving, transmitted on 17th January 1980.
Below is the entry from the Radio Times, from the BBC Genome project:
‘A film by DAVID HARE
William came to work in Fleet Street in 1971. London meant girls, as many girls as he could find. Then he met Caroline and so it began, that very strange summer … Caroline said the best of her life.
Music NICK BICAT
Film cameraman MICHAEL Williams. Film editor MIKE HALL
Designer MICHAEL EDWARDS. Script editor ROGER GREGORY. Producer DAVID ROSE. Written and directed by DAVID HARE
William: Bill Nighy
Caroline: Kate Nelligan
Andrew: Andrew Seear
Xan: Mel Smith
Stievel: Johnny Shannon
Mrs Alexander: Helen Lindsay
Aaron: Julian Littman
Colin: Charles Dance
Robert: Hilton McRae
Gallery owner: Tony Mathews
Keith: Gary Holton
Keith’s lawyer: Raymond Brody
Drunken journalist: David Ryall
Miss Collins: Annie Hayes
Doctor: George Raistrick
Laura: Maria Harper’
(Below is Michael Wearing’s obituary written by Simon Farquhar, for The Times. Thanks to Simon for allowing the obituary to be shared here.)
When Michael Wearing gave screenwriter Andrew Davies a copy of Michael Dobbs’ novel House of Cards in 1989, suggesting he dramatise it for the BBC, he said, intuitively: “it’s not very good but it’s got a great plot. It wants a bit of tweaking. Think Jacobean”.
With ideas now flourishing in his mind of a charismatic villain who talks directly to the audience, Davies was on his way to creating three series of immaculate drama that proved so popular that they even inspired a surprisingly successful American incarnation. Wearing’s was a masterful piece of guidance that exemplified what made him one of the most incisive and supportive drama producers in the BBC’s history, a man who skilfully fought to tell stories he felt were worth telling, a man undervalued by the broadcaster who he had provided with some of its greatest successes during some of its most troubled times.
The single play, which Wearing had learnt his craft working on, traditionally the space that allowed original voices the freedom to say original and often radical things, had been a threatened institution for twenty years, due to its habit of upsetting the apple cart. Finally, in a new, nervous and more accountable BBC, it was a form that would gradually be abandoned in favour of genre serials. But, despite his frustrations, Wearing’s superb record of creating sophisticated popular successes showed that stimulating television could still be made if producers had his blend of courage and good taste.
As well as the knavish House of Cards, which he saw as “a racy story about power, money and sex, and one I thought the BBC should tell”, two other wildly different works stand as a testament to those qualities: Troy Kennedy Martin’s nuclear conspiracy thriller Edge of Darkness (1985) and Alan Bleasdale’s savage, funny and despairing Boys From The Blackstuff (1982). Each of the serials were political to a greater or lesser degree, each boldly reimagined traditional storytelling techniques on television, and each was a phenomenally successful exploration of something that was wrong with Eighties Britain.
Wearing was a man of pleasing contradictions, affable without being easy, earthy yet elegant, as distinctive for his graceful hand gestures as for his gravelly laugh, an admirer of the bon mot whose eyes would light up if he inadvertently coined one. He enjoyed good wine and good company, but unlike many in the convivial atmosphere of the BBC bar in the 1970s, he was also disciplined and quietly determined, more interested in those who created drama than those who caused it, not a man who went out of his way to please people or to mollify those who supposedly needed mollifying. Those traits won him passionate admirers and dangerous enemies.
Even his much-imitated working-class accent, incongruous in the hushed upper echelons of the BBC, made him instantly recognisable as a different kind of animal. He was a grammar-school boy, the son of Douglas, a Stock Exchange clerk, and Molly (nee Dawson), born in Southgate, North London. His performance at Dame Alice Owen’s school in Islington earned him a place reading anthropology at Durham University. He then worked as a research assistant at the University of Leeds, during which time his fast and funny production of Max Frisch’s The Chinese Wall took the Sunday Times Cup at the 1967 National Student Drama Festival and landed three nights at the Garrick. The production starred his future BBC colleague, Alan Yentob, but the judge, critic Harold Hobson, was decidedly grumpy when announcing their victory. Wearing, with a candour and irreverence he would later become celebrated for, told the press: “Hobson could have been more constructive in his criticism. It’s a bit much when five universities spend hundreds of pounds and he finds more to say on a fellow journalist than on the plays”.
The triumph was enough of an encouragement for him to quit his research job for the theatre, first working as an assistant stage manager at Bromley Rep, impressing with Muck For Three Angels at the Traverse, then being invited to direct at the Royal Court. The attitude of a theatre dedicated to new writing was one which Wearing thrived on, and he carried its mentality with him throughout the rest of his career, even if directing wasn’t his best expression of it. He helmed the eagerly-awaited but disastrous follow up to Hair, Isabel’s a Jezebel (1970), and later directed a couple of television plays, but the producer’s chair would prove his natural home.
His route to it came via one of television’s great impresarios, David Rose, in his new role as the BBC’s Head of English Regions Drama. Rose was impressed by Wearing’s touring (via transit van) production of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, and brought the production to television. The piece stunned the critics, and led Rose to invite Wearing to join the team as a script editor.
Initially a quiet and tentative member of this creative powerhouse, he worked diligently, gradually growing in confidence, and upon becoming a producer, inherited a gift of a serial in Malcolm Bradbury’s concupiscent The History Man (1981), a campus saga of gross moral turpitude that had already outraged as a novel and which vividly established Wearing’s credentials as a producer unafraid of whipping up a storm. Boys From The Blackstuff, with its confrontational depiction of a Britain crumbling both spiritually and economically under the weight of unemployment, was again a project which guaranteed controversy and governmental displeasure.
Wearing then took over as producer for the final season of Play for Today in 1984. The strand had been dying of neglect since the turn of the 1980s, lacking the innovation and courage that had made it such a force for good throughout the previous decade, but under his command there were some final triumphs, such as Barrie Keefe’s King, exploring the exploitation of the Windrush generation as they neared retirement age, and Doug Lucie’s horrifying study of a spiteful, privileged metropolitan elite, Hard Feelings.
Wearing was never afraid to make life difficult for himself if it might yield good work: Edge of Darkness meant having to rely on a writer as unpredictable and undisciplined as Troy Kennedy Martin, whose original pitch was “detective who turns into a tree”. The finished work perfectly expressed Britain’s growing fear that the Cold War might be hotting up for a nuclear winter. Another BAFTA winner was First And Last (1989), Michael Frayn’s story of a retired everyman (Joss Ackland) walking from Land’s End to John O’Groates. A road movie on foot and a long-distance love story, the huge production was hit not only by inconsistent weather but by tragedy when its original star, Ray McAnally, died half-way through shooting, but the finished film remains a gentle masterpiece.
As Head of Serials, as well as inevitably controversial works of the highest quality such as Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), he became a late convert to period drama, overseeing the BBC’s massive renaissance and reinvigoration of the genre after the success of Pride and Prejudice (1995).
An executive role thankfully never smoothed his rough edges: at a weekly programme review meeting, after listening to two senior BBC figures dissing a recent and challenging serial, Grushko (1994), Wearing, rather than disassociating himself from the production, told them “you’re both completely wrong. I think it’s a really important piece that is very well made and one that isn’t easy with its audience”.
He was awarded BAFTA’s Alan Clarke Award in 1997 and the RTS Cyril Bennett Award the following year, but with the arrival at the BBC of John Birt, an invasion by consultants, an obsession with ratings and the centralisation of the decision-making process, Wearing was driven disgustedly to resign and set up his own production company. Within a few hours of the announcement, 300 people signed a petition of support for him. A former colleague later bumped into him in Soho and “he said to me: ‘one day I’ll talk to you about betrayal’”.
Wearing was modest in his achievements, a gregarious but unpretentious character who lived at arm’s length from the showbiz world, in Peckham, where he shared a home for over twenty years with the artist Karen Loader. They had two children, Ella, an artist, and Benjamin, a cinematographer. He was previously married for twenty years to Jean Ramsay, with whom he had two daughters, Sadie, an academic, and Catherine, herself an exceptional television producer, who predeceased him.
Although there has been a flowering of impressive drama again at the BBC in the last two years, Wearing remained justifiably angry that “there is now nowhere for new, original voices to be heard. New writers are trained on how to write EastEnders instead”. There remains an unjustifiable gap in the schedules for the kind of work he believed in. As producer Kenith Trodd said at the time of Wearing’s resignation: “the symbolism of the BBC becoming a place where Michael Wearing cannot exist is very, very ominous”.
Michael Howard Wearing, producer, born 12 March 1939, died 5 May 2017