Conferences Events Forgotten Television Drama Lez Cooke Scotland Wales

Reflections on a Research Symposium (University of Ulster, Belfast Campus, 20-21 February 2014) by Lez Cooke

This event was organised as part of the three-year AHRC-funded research project, The History of Forgotten Television Drama in the UK (Royal Holloway, University of London) in association with the Centre for Media Research, University of Ulster.


It was organised into four sessions:

1)    Revisiting the Canon: the Lost and the Forgotten

2)    Researching the History of Northern Irish Television Drama

3)    Researching the History of Scottish and Welsh Television Drama

4)    Doing TV History and the History of Forgotten Television Drama

My contribution came at the end of the fourth session and was an attempt to summarise some of the issues and ideas that had been presented in the previous sessions and relate them to the project.

The symposium, over the two days, revolved around two main issues: ‘The Canon’ and ‘Forgotten TV’.

The Canon

As Jonathan Bignell pointed out in the opening presentation, as soon as examples are chosen they tend to become canonic. When I was writing British Television Drama: A History (BFI, 2003) I chose a wide range of examples, not all of which have become canonic, but the case studies – Nineteen Eighty-Four, Lena O My Lena, Up the Junction, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil, Edge of Darkness and This Life – have become part of the Canon, if they were not already. The same could be said of any book that pays close attention to selected examples.

Bignell also noted that different methodologies or theoretical approaches produce different canons, a point reiterated by Dave Rolinson in his presentation when he observed that there is no singular canon – canons are always in the process of being formed. Canons are not just a product of academia and Rolinson highlighted the role of critics in producing canons, by privileging some dramas and forms of drama over others. In fact it could be said that there are at least three canons: an academic canon (based on examples regularly used on courses), an industry canon (as in the BFI 100, compiled in 2000 by ‘professional experts’) and a popular canon (where viewers vote for their favourite programmes).

In the other presentation in the first session Vicky Ball highlighted the role of publishers in canon formation, commissioning books on some dramas, writers and directors but not others. Women tend to be the ‘forgotten’ ones in this selection process, so there are books on writers such as Dennis Potter and Alan Bennett, but none on Paula Milne or Kay Mellor, on producers such as Tony Garnett but not on Verity Lambert, on directors such as Alan Clarke but not on Antonia Bird.

The availability of programmes is a major factor in canon formation. Non-existent and unavailable programmes (even if they exist) do not tend to be canonised, which brings me to the second major issue discussed at the symposium.

Forgotten TV

As Rolinson contentiously observed, there is no such thing as a ‘forgotten’ TV drama: someone, somewhere, will always remember something. But what’s remembered in popular memory are not necessarily canonic texts. The Canon is formed out of the opinions and value judgements of ‘professionals’.

As Vicky Ball pointed out, feminine-gendered drama has tended to be neglected (forgotten) – in academia and by male critics, but not by the female audience.

Regional drama, including drama from the ‘national regions’ of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, has also tended to be marginalised and ‘forgotten’, except perhaps where it’s making a statement about ‘the state of the nation’, e.g. Boys from the Blackstuff and Our Friends in the North.

So what are the criteria for ‘forgottenness’? I suggest there are (at least) six possible reasons why a programme may be forgotten:

(i)            Unavailability (perhaps transmitted live and not recorded, or recorded but subsequently wiped or lost, or extant but unavailable for other reasons)

(ii)          A programme that hasn’t been repeated

(iii)        A programme not released on video or DVD

(iv)         A lack of critical attention (either popular or academic)

(v)           An unknown cast (star names attract attention)

(vi)         An unknown writer, director or producer

Any or all of these criteria may contribute to critical neglect. One element may be enough for a drama to be forgotten but the more criteria that apply the greater the chance that a programme has been forgotten, except perhaps by any surviving members of the cast or production team, or viewers old enough to remember, for example, J.B. Priestley’s The Rose and Crown, a ‘forgotten’ drama transmitted live on 27 August 1946 (and again on 6 September 1946) before the technology existed for recording programmes.

When does a ‘forgotten TV drama’ become ‘remembered’?

(i)            When it’s released on DVD?  Network has been releasing a lot of neglected ITV dramas, such as Shadow Squad and Knight Errant, but does this mean they are no longer forgotten?

(ii)          When a programme is written about, in an academic journal, a book, or in a memoir?

The idea for this project stems partly from a paper I gave on ‘Unknown TV Classics’ at a conference on TV Classics at Warwick University in 2009, when I speculated that Anastasia (1953), The Torrents of Spring (1959) and Three Ring Circus (1961) may all be ‘unknown’ TV classics. But Torrents of Spring has been written about by John Hill in Mulvey & Sexton’s Experimental British Television, while an article I wrote on Three Ring Circus was published in Screen at the end of 2009, and both were screened in a season of experimental TV drama at BFI Southbank in 2012, so does that mean they are no longer ‘forgotten’?

Does ‘forgotten’ = ‘invisible’? Not necessarily, because what’s invisible to the academy (e.g. New Tricks, Emmerdale) may be very visible to millions of TV viewers.

An ‘Alternative’ History of TV Drama in the UK

One of the stated objectives in our AHRC proposal was that the project would ‘produce an alternative history of television drama in the UK 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.’

So what would be an alternative to the Canon?

(i)            An alternative social-issue drama to Cathy Come Home? Perhaps a much lesser-known Wednesday Play?

(ii)          An alternative drama about homosexuality to the celebrated Naked Civil Servant?

(iii)        An alternative studio Play for Today to Abigail’s Party?

(iv)         An alternative ‘state of the nation’ drama to Boys from the Blackstuff?

(v)           An alternative costume drama to Brideshead Revisited?

(vi)         An alternative historical studio drama to I Claudius?

In order to avoid simply producing an ‘alternative canon’ we will probably need to recover for TV history more than a ‘top 10’ or ‘top 20’ of forgotten dramas. We need to challenge the idea of a television drama canon by not only encouraging awareness of the regional diversity of television drama production but also by promoting an awareness of the many forgotten writers, directors, producers and other personnel involved in the production of television drama, especially the women who have been excluded from television history. In doing so we will hopefully not only return some ‘forgotten’ dramas to televisual memory but also contribute to a broader understanding of television history, as other projects are, by redefining the criteria about how we evaluate television drama.

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