My Top Five Plays for Today from Pebble Mill

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. Copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. 

Penda’s Fen
Copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. Copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.Copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.Copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 

 

David Rose obituary by Simon Farquhar

David Rose. Copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Below is Simon Farquhar’s obituary of David Rose, which is published in The Times today, 24th Feb 2017. Thanks to Simon for sharing the full copy of his article.)

When David Rose was appointed the BBC’s Head of English Regions Drama in 1971, with a noble brief to “find new writers in the regions and nurture them”, the Head of Plays waved him off to the new Pebble Mill studios in the badlands of Birmingham saying “you will come to our weekly meetings, won’t you?” Shrewdly, Rose replied “thank you, but no. I don’t want to know what you’re doing, and I don’t want you to know what I’m doing”.

It was typical of what made him an adored man, a wise and altruistic professional with a Father Christmas beard, a twinkling eye and a boundless enthusiasm for drama, stories and, crucially, storytellers. Softly spoken and broad minded, he was a quiet giant who gave a voice to those with new and dangerous things to say, driven, unlike many other pioneering forces in television drama of the time, not by politics but purely by principles, and known to chew his handkerchief in anxious moments. His ten years at Pebble Mill are now the stuff of television legend and a wonderland for the tv historian to explore. On his watch, that building became a powerhouse of innovation and unpredictability; young talent such as David Hare, Willy Russell and Stephen Frears made the place “the British film industry in waiting”.

Born in Swanage, Dorset, David Edward Rose and his sister Daphne lived over the jeweller’s shop his parents ran in the High Street. He inherited their love of music and his mother’s interest in amateur dramatics; his uncle had also set up the first cinema in town. After Kingswood School in Bath and war service with the RAF, during which he undertook 34 flying missions in a Lancaster Bomber, he took a year out in Cannes. After watching Michael Powell explaining film rushes at the end of a day’s shooting on The Red Shoes, he aimed at becoming a director. He studied at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, then worked in repertory theatre for five years, firstly as an actor at the Royal Hippodrome in Preston, where he met his first wife, Valerie Edwards, and then as a stage manager at Sadler’s Wells, before joining the BBC in 1954 as an assistant floor manager.

In his first week, he worked on the now-legendary Rudolph Cartier production of 1984. He later transferred to Elwyn Jones’ Dramatised Documentary Unit, where his first credit as a television director, Medico (1959), about the service that offered emergency medical advice to those at sea, won that year’s Prix Italia. Rose was fond of relating how, after the prize giving, he said to a man at the bar “Hello, I’m David Rose, a producer”. The man replied “hello, I’m Samuel Beckett”. Rose met Gracie Fields on the same trip, and said he always regretted not introducing them.

The following year he launched Z Cars, a series it is impossible to overstate the importance of in television history. It brought a new immediacy to television drama and believed that “a police thriller could be a work of art”, something television is only now, over half a century later, realising again. The pressure of live broadcasts was immense; on one occasion, when actor James Ellis had broken his foot, Rose, out of shot, carried him from one high stool to another, to give the illusion that the actor was delivering his lines standing up.

Director of Television David Attenborough would later say that appointing Rose as Head of English Regions Drama was one of the best decisions he ever made. The triumphant debut, Peter Terson’s The Fishing Party (1972), a story of three Leeds miners on holiday, was an authentic, unpretentious, home-grown treat. After its broadcast, Managing Director of Television Huw Wheldon telephoned Rose and said “if that’s what you’re going to do boyo, that’s alright by me”.

Plays with fire followed this beguiling start; incendiary half-hours such as James Robson’s magnificent Girl (1974), in which Alison Steadman and Myra Francis gave British television its first lesbian kiss, were history in the making. A Touch of Eastern Promise (1973) was the first drama on British television with an entirely Asian cast; the soap opera Empire Road (1978) was another first, written, acted and directed predominantly by black artists, set in one racially diverse street in Birmingham.

Nowhere on television before or since has the “right to fail” principle been so fearlessly executed. Rose loved discovering writers with no screen experience; “some people thought this was mad, but I thought it was great. They come with no baggage”, he explained. “Every day of my working life depended on writers. The BBC used to do audience satisfaction surveys, and you had to score a figure as close to 72 as possible to keep the bosses happy. I didn’t agree. If it was a low figure, I thought that was good. I don’t want to make it easy for the viewer. I don’t like them to know what’s coming”.

Although some of Birmingham’s output was commissioned by London, there was a kitty of development money which allowed him to make things without having to ask permission. This was how he got something as wild as The Ken Campbell Road Show on the air, and other works that could be called courageous and adventurous; he knew a keen as mustard young director like Matthew Robinson was just the person to hand a script like Eric Coltart’s Doran’s Box (1976) to. “I don’t understand it, it’s about a man who shoots at aeroplanes”, Rose said. Whatever was inside that puzzle box remained a mystery for the small number of head-scratchers who watched the finished piece, but we had fun trying to find out.

Rose had far more respect for his audience than his superiors. He had to fight constantly for his survival within the BBC, and had his fair share of hot potatoes: Philip Martin’s savage Gangsters (1975), Watson Gould’s blistering feminist attack on a patriarchal society, The Other Woman (1976), Malcolm Bradbury’s concupiscent The History Man (1981) and a planned-then-banned production of Ian McEwan’s Solid Geometry. But there was also Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May (1976), Alan Bleasdale’s The Black Stuff (1978) and the film he was most proud of, Penda’s Fen (1974) by David Rudkin, one of the richest and most sophisticated works ever produced for television. At its simplest, the story of a teenage boy’s awakening to the English landscape surrounding him, its potent blend of folklore, folk horror, questions of personal and national identity, environmental concerns, sexuality and religion made for a bewitching brew, interweaved with the music of Rose’s favourite composer, Elgar.

The days of pockets of anarchy at the BBC were coming to an end as the 1980s ushered in new threats to autonomy and artistic integrity. Rose was two years off retirement when Jeremy Isaacs invited him to become Head of Fiction at the new Channel 4.

It was an Indian summer for him. In his first year there, he produced 20 feature films; the previous year there had been just 21 made in Britain as a whole, only two of which were British. Over eight years, he approved the making of 136 films in total, the advantage over the films made for the BBC being that some had the chance of a theatrical release. High profile successes included My Beautiful Launderette (1983) and Mona Lisa (1986). And fiction didn’t only mean films: he also commissioned a soap opera like no other, Brookside (1982), a breeding ground for writers such as Jimmy McGovern and Frank Cottrell Boyce.

Some disapproved of Film on Four, claiming it betrayed television drama by diverting funds into a moribund film industry. But it allowed strange, wonderful work to be produced and gave a transfusion of faith into British movie-making. As we salute the arrival of T2 Trainspotting we should remember that it, like its predecessor, was backed by Film4. In 1987, Rose received the Roberto Rossellini Award in Cannes for Channel 4’s “services to cinema”, a remarkable and deeply significant achievement.

His appetite for new people and places was a personal as well as a professional virtue; in his later years, having read that if you make a new friend you extend your life by a week, he made a point of getting to know new people, be it in the street, at a bus stop or at a concert. Director Tony Smith says that “he could be irascible, infuriatingly dilatory, he said ‘garn’ and ‘goff’ instead of ‘gone’ and ‘golf’. He was patrician, but a benevolent and self-challenging one. And we all loved him”.

His domestic life was a busy business: married three times, lastly to producer Karin Bamborough, who had been his assistant at Channel 4, he made his own huge family as harmonious a place as Pebble Mill had been; domestic life was often carried out to a classical soundtrack which he would usually be caught conducting around the house or at the wheel of his car. His passion for music and drama was passed on to his nine children, one becoming a jazz musician and another becoming a producer. At 89 he made his debut short film, Friend or Foe, which explored his experience of Parkinson’s Disease. It won him a Mervyn Peake Award.

When he received a BFI fellowship in 2010, Head of Film and Drama at Channel 4, Tessa Ross, announced that “you are in my head all of the time, as I try and protect that precious place”. Tony Smith recalls how “towards the end of his time at Birmingham he took a sabbatical. Some months after his return, he asked me: ‘English Regions Drama – have we succeeded, really?” I answered him at length, ticking off all the positives.  He made no comment.  As I was leaving, I said, ‘You know, when you were gone, we were afraid you wouldn’t come back’.

He had returned then, but he will never be replaced.

David Edward Rose, producer, born 22 November, 1924; Swanage, Dorset, married 1st, 1952, Valerie Edwards (d 1966); three sons three daughters; 2nd, 1966, Sarah Reid (marriage dissolved, 1988); one daughter and one stepson, one stepdaughter adopted; 3rd, 2001, Karin Bamborough, died Hackney, London, 27th January 2017

Simon Farquhar

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

David Rose 1924-2017

David Rose 2009. Copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

News has come through today that David Rose has sadly died. His death was apparently very peaceful.

David had a long and distinguished television career. He flew in Lancaster bombers during the WWII, joining the BBC in the mid 1950s. In the 1960s he produced Z-Cars and the spin-off series, Softly, Softly.

In 1971 he was appointed by director of programming, David Attenborough, as Head of English Regions Drama at Pebble Mill. His remit was to produce dramas which depicted life outside London. The era at Pebble Mill was a rich and creative one. David proved himself to be an inspiring leader, with an impeccable knack of putting together talented and innovative teams. He took creative risks and was responsible for bringing many new writers and directors to the television screen. Pebble Mill was incredibly productive under his leadership, producing many Plays for Today, as well as anthology series like Second City Firsts. The talent he worked with included: Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell, Alan Plater, David Hare, Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, Peter Terson, David Rudkin, amongst many others, as well as the staff team including Michael Wearing, Peter Ansorge, Tara Prem, and Barry Hanson.

In 1981 David moved to the newly formed Channel 4, where he was made Commissioning Editor of Fiction by Jeremy Isaacs. He was responsible for the development of Film on Four. It was during his time at Channel 4 that he won the Roberto Rossellini award for services to cinema in 1987, an honour he was incredibly proud of.

David Rose’s legacy at Pebble Mill is still evident in the BBC Birmingham Drama Village today, in the shape of some members of staff, and also in the innovative production practices.

David will be much missed, and we are unlikely to see his like again.

2-Opportunities from pebblemill on Vimeo.

I recorded this film in 2009, of David, Barry Hanson, Tara Prem and Peter Ansorge talking about English Regions Drama.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Shakespeare or Bust end credits

0_212

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission.

This grab is taken from the end credits of Shakespeare or Bust, by Peter Terson.

The 1973 Play for Today featured the three characters who’d appeared previously in The Fishing Party.  The drama followed the miners, Art, Ern and Abe, on a canal narrowboat trip down to Stratford Upon Avon.  Art was played by Brian Glover, Ern, Ray Mort and Abe by Douglas Livingstone.

The story is of how the three men travelled on a canal boat to see some Sharkespeare at the RSC in Stratford Upon Avon, but when they arrived they couldn’t get in to the theatre. However, at the end of the play they meet Richard Johnson and Janet Suzman, as themselves, outside the theatre, where they were playing the title roles of Anthony and Cleopatra. I think the grab is of Janet Suzman going for a swim in the river at the end of the film.

The producer was David Rose, Brian Parker the director, with Barry Hanson as script editor, assisted by Tara Prem. Oliver White, as you can see from the grab was the film editor, with sound by Peter Caselberg.

Thanks to Ian Collins for sharing the grab.

The following comment was left on the Pebble Mill Facebook page:

Susan Cawson: ‘Peter Terson lived on [the canal boat] Ben when it had a cabin. We had an interesting trip when he towed Christopher James for us, he is the only person I know who can steer a 70′ boat through a bridge sideways and get away with it. An interesting weekend!’

 

Shakespeare or Bust

0_211

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission.

This grab is from the 1973 Play for Today, ‘Shakespeare or Bust’, by Peter Tersen.  David Rose was the producer, Brian Parker the director, Barry Hanson the script editor, assisted by Tara Prem.

The film featured three characters who’d appeared in an earlier Play for Today, ‘The Fishing Party’ again by Peter Terson.  The drama followed the miners, Art, Ern and Abe, on a canal narrowboat trip down to Stratford Upon Avon.  Art was played by Brian Glover, Ern, Ray Mort and Abe by Douglas Livingstone.

Peter Terson wrote the script whilst doing the journey himself in a narrowboat, leaving chunks of the finished script at lock-keepers’ cottage along the route for Tara to pick up.

The following comments were added on the Pebble Mill Facebook Page:

Caroline Hawkins: ‘Yep, I remember it. Mum was the costume designer and after the filming was over we hired the very same boat for a family holiday.’

Dawn Trotman: ‘I think Oliver White cut it and of course Barry Hanson went on to head up the department as well as produce the Long Good Friday.’