The Actual Woman & Pig Bin

From 22-24th April 2015 there was a conference at Royal Holloway College, part of the University of London, on Forgotten Drama. I was lucky enough to attend the conference, and there were several sessions which mentioned BBC Pebble Mill.

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 by Jack Shepherd, and Pig Bin by Brian Glover. A discussion followed the viewing, which 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 Second City Firsts, 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.

Philip Jackson in Pig Bin

Philip Jackson in Pig Bin













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.

You don’t see these kinds of dramas on television any more – and that, I think, is a shame. They tend to explore the human condition in a way in which few modern dramas do. They may seem slow and technically far poorer than contemporary dramas, but they have a powerful authorial voice which has been largely lost due to the commissioning process and demands of modern television.

(Thanks to Lez Cooke for supplying information about the number of half hour plays produced by ERD)

Games Without Frontiers


Jim Broadbent

Jim Broadbent

Christopher Fairbank

Christopher Fairbank

Philip Jackson

Philip Jackson







I attended the Kaleidoscope, Pebble Mill archive screening event on Saturday in Stourbridge, and had the opportunity to see some wonderful shows from the 1970s and ‘80s. An added bonus was that some of the programme makers, actors and presenters were able to come along and discuss their work.

One treasure from the archives was the 1980, BBC 2 Playhouse: Games Without Frontiers. It was a multi-camera studio drama, devised and directed by Michael Bradwell, who came along to the screening, as did Philip Jackson, one of the lead actors. The play also featured Jim Broadbent, Eric Allan and Christopher Fairbank – so a very strong cast.

The drama was improvised by the actors during the rehearsal period, and then written down, so that it could be plotted for the cameras, in a similar way to how Mike Leigh’s dramas worked.  It was set on a North Sea ferry from Holland. In order to research ideas for the play the actors went on a weekend away to Amsterdam – including the obligatory trip to the red-light district, paid for, of course, by the BBC!

The action was almost all set in the ferry bar, with a couple of scenes in the corridor, so it had quite a claustrophobic feel. The set was built on the top floor of the Pebble Mill office block, which acted as the studio.

The play was remarkably watchable, mainly because of the developing relationships between the characters. There were some funny comic touches and excellent character acting.  The story revolves around the two main characters, Clive (Philip Jackson) and Stewart (Jim Broadbent), who are on their way home after a weekend in Amsterdam.  They describe their weekend’s adventures, including the trip to the red-light area, and we learn a lot about their home and working lives. Technically the pictures and sound were still good quality.

This kind of drama would not be made nowadays: it is a character driven study, with nowhere near enough action to satisfy a contemporary audience. Also it would not fit into the popular sub-genres of modern drama – it isn’t crime related, or a thriller.

Peter Ansorge was the producer of Games Without Frontiers; he came along to the showing and took part in a panel discussion about it, and other dramas, before the screening. He said to me afterwards that he had no idea that the play still existed, and he hadn’t seen it for many years! So many studio dramas of this era were junked, as videotape was expensive, and tapes were wiped to be re-used.

Vanessa Jackson

Lizzie’s Pictures – TX Card from Dave Bushell

Transmission Card for the 1987 4 part drama Lizzie's Pictures

Lizzie's Pictures TX Card

Lizzie’s Pictures, four-part drama series shot in Studio A and on location in Birmingham, Warwickshire and London. Directed by Nick Renton.

Transmitted in 1987. Critically well-received but unfortunately got lost as it was aired alongside ‘Porterhouse Blue’ which was very popular. Starred Lisa Harrow, Robert Stephens, Sheila Ruskin, Philip Jackson and Pam Ferris amongst others. Crew included myself on lighting, Sally Engelbach (designer), Al Barnett  (costume), Gill Hughes (make-up), Dave Doogood (camera supervisor), Dave Baumber (sound) and Ivor Williams (VT editor).

Dave Bushell

Camera script front page for Lizzie's Pictures

Script front page for Lizzie's Pictures