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Forgotten Television Drama, Lez Cooke, Regional Drama

The Forgotten History of British TV Drama

by Lez Cooke

In recent years, there has been a degree of return to empirically-based television history that seeks to ‘revise’ the conventional ways in which television’s past has been understood.

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Forgotten television drama from the regions: opening credits of ‘Second City Firsts’ (BBC Birmingham, 1973-78)

In particular, there has been a growth in awareness of the need to document and reassess the output of the BBC and ITV during the early decades of television production when many programmes were ‘lost’ or destroyed. This project will build on previous research by investigating the history of ‘forgotten’ television drama in the UK, looking at productions that are largely unknown, either because they were produced live and not recorded, or because they were recorded but subsequently junked, wiped or lost. It will also examine dramas that exist, either in part (e.g. as individual episodes within a series or serial) or complete, but which have rarely been seen, if at all, since their original transmission. Due to the specific issues raised by regional production, the project will place particular emphasis upon television drama made in the regions and nations of the UK (the English regions plus Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) and assess the extent of the correlation between the ‘unknown’ and the ‘regional’ in television drama. 

The period to be covered by the project is from 1946, when BBC television resumed after the Second World War, to 1982, when the BBC/ITV duopoly was ended by the arrival of Channel 4 and a new era in broadcasting began. In 1946 all drama was broadcast live and no recordings were made. By 1982 nearly all drama was pre-recorded and the practice of wiping and junking recordings, which occurred on a regular basis during the 1960s-70s, had ceased. Through research in regional and national archives, and by interviewing surviving production personnel, the project aims to uncover a ‘lost’ history of television drama in the UK. In doing so it seeks to produce an alternative history of UK television drama that will add to our knowledge of television history, challenge ideas concerning the television drama ‘canon’ and encourage awareness of the regional diversity of television drama production.

Among the research questions to be addressed are: What has happened to the many lesser-known plays, series and serials produced from 1946-82 that are not mentioned in television histories and which have not had subsequent screenings?Do these dramas still exist? If not, does their lack of existence, or their unavailability if they do exist, account for their ‘invisibility’ in histories of television drama? What constitutes the ‘unknown’ or ‘forgotten’ in UK television drama and by what criteria might a drama be designated ‘unknown’. To what extent were these ‘forgotten’ dramas produced by regional BBC production centres and regional ITV companies? Is there a correlation between ‘forgotten’ drama and regional production?What happened to recordings of these dramas? Were they kept in the archives of regional BBC production centres and regional ITV companies? If so, what happened to these archives when the centres closed or relocated, or when the ITV companies were taken over by other companies? Has the nature of their archiving contributed to the ‘invisibility’ of these dramas?

Given that it will be impossible to provide an exhaustive account of all the ‘forgotten’ drama produced in the period under study, it is the aim of the research to build on existing databases by mapping the main contours of unknown and forgotten drama in the UK before concentrating on a series of case studies.The case studies will be chosen to represent all of the regions and nations, with at least one drama, as far as possible, representing each BBC regional production centre and each regional ITV company. In this way, the case studies should contribute to an alternative history of television drama in the UK while also putting to the test some of the assumptions that have traditionally underpinned existing accounts of its history.

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