In my book A Sense of Place: Regional British television drama, 1956-82, I argued that the 1980s saw a shift away from the production of regional television drama in Britain towards more expensive filmed dramas that were attractive to overseas markets.
This was especially evident at Granada Television where the production of Brideshead Revisited (1981) and The Jewel in the Crown (1984), with their exotic locations, at home and abroad, represented a departure from the more parochial, indigenous regional drama Granada had been producing since the early 1960s.
In the 1960s and 70s there were a number of Northern writers at Granada, several of whom began their writing careers on Coronation Street. They included Jim Allen, Stan Barstow, John Finch, Harry Kershaw, Jack Rosenthal and Tony Warren (Granada was rather male-dominated in those days). Of these John Finch was the most prolific, writing 200 episodes of Coronation Street, creating the anthology series City ’68 and The System, as well as A Family at War (1970-72), which ran for 52 episodes and was a huge success. After A Family at War Denis Forman, then Managing Director at Granada, asked Finch what he wanted to do next. As he describes it in Granada Television – the First Generation, the book Finch edited with Michael Cox and Marjorie Giles (Manchester University Press, 2003): ‘We spent half-an-hour chatting about my early experiences in a mining community, and at the end, without asking for a pilot or even an outline, he simply said, “Go and do it.” Trust was a major factor in Granada’s creative approach to drama.’ (p.109)
The idea Finch outlined to Forman was similar to one he had originally submitted to Granada in the mid-1950s, when the company was preparing to go on the air, about a mining community in Yorkshire. The play, called Dark Pastures, was turned down by Granada and produced instead by Associated-Rediffusion in 1958. Two decades later, having proved himself as a successful writer at Granada in the meantime, Finch changed the name of the central character in the play from Jack to Sam Wilson, developed the play into a 13 episode series, and renamed it Sam. The series was transmitted in 1973 and two more series followed in 1974-5, extending the serial to 39 episodes, every one written by John Finch, an unparalleled achievement in British television drama. It was one of the most popular series on British television at the time, knocking Coronation Street off the top of the ratings at one point, winning the Television Critics Award for Best Series in 1973 and the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Series Writer in 1974. Yet today, despite being released on DVD in 2004, the series is largely forgotten.
Set in Yorkshire in a fictional mining town called Skellerton (based on Featherstone, near Leeds, where Finch grew up), Sam was a semi-autobiographical series set, in the first series, in the 1930s, during the Depression when many miners were out of work. The series was written from Finch’s own experience. Like Sam Wilson, who is ten years old when the series begins, in 1934, and whose father has left to go to Canada, Finch’s father left home when he was nine year’s old and he never saw him again. Like Sam, Finch was sent away to a boarding school for orphans and the children of single mothers. Like Sam, Finch went away to sea to escape working down the pit and later worked in an engineering firm. The first series, set between 1934 and 1938, depicts the poverty endured by households where the main breadwinner is out of work and the way in which families rallied round to help each other. The second and third series show the growing affluence in post-war Britain, ending in 1973 at the time of a new economic crisis.
Like much television drama of the time the series was a production hybrid: mainly recorded in the studio but with exterior scenes shot on film. Consequently much of the action takes place in the homes of the central characters, or in other studio interiors, but the location scenes are important in giving verisimilitude to the drama, showing the landscape and the bleak environment in which the characters live. The setting is established in the opening title sequence.
This title sequence was one of the few scenes actually filmed in Yorkshire. Most of the exteriors were filmed nearer to Granada’s Manchester base, at a former coal-mining village near Wigan in Lancashire, while the studio scenes were recorded at Granada’s Manchester studios. The exceptions were a few scenes filmed in a coal mine near Huddersfield, a scene at an engineering factory, where Finch actually worked, and two trips to the seaside which needed to be filmed on location to show they were special occasions, representing rare escapes from the claustrophobic houses, streets and coalmine of Skellerton where most of the drama takes place.
For most episodes there would be two or three days of location filming prior to a week of rehearsals before going into the studio for two days recording. The contrast between studio and film was quite apparent, but it was a convention that audiences were used to at the time, even when it was used as here, in an episode from series 2, when two characters are waiting for a bus and are recorded in a studio set while their view of Skellerton from the bus stop is shown in previously filmed long shots illustrating the bleak landscape, ironically described by one of the characters as ‘Skellerton Alps’.
Given the popularity of the series at the time it’s interesting to speculate as to why it has been forgotten, never having been repeated, and with the DVD having recently been withdrawn. Other popular series of the period, such as Upstairs Downstairs (LWT, 1971-5), The Onedin Line (BBC1, 1971-80), Poldark (BBC1, 1975-7) and The Sweeney (Thames, 1975-8), have a much higher profile through having been repeated and released on DVD. The Onedin Line and Poldark were even afforded cult status when they featured in BBC4’s The Cult of … series in 2008. Sam wasn’t a drama that was ever going to be included in that series. Even ‘serious’ or radical dramas, such as Jim Allen’s Days of Hope (BBC1, 1975) and John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (BBC 1, 1974), have received far more critical and academic attention than John Finch’s realist serial.
Perhaps the fact that Sam is a realist serial, not a melodrama or crime drama or radical drama, has contributed to its neglect. John Finch specialised in what have been described as ‘telenovels’, long-form realist serials in the tradition of the 19th century realist novel, extending over many episodes and recorded mainly in the studio. In contrast, Days of Hope and The Sweeney were shot on location, on film, and represented a new development in television drama in the 1970s, one that rejected studio-bound naturalism in favour of a new filmic realism.
A useful comparison might be made between Sam and Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven (BBC 1, 1978), made shortly after and also set in the 1930s, but non-naturalistic in style with its characters miming to popular songs of the time. Pennies from Heaven is fondly remembered and has become part of the canon of British television drama because of its innovative style, whereas Sam’s realist style has excluded it from the canon and contributed to its critical neglect.
Unlike Pennies from Heaven, Sam was set in the north, which had long since ceased to be a fashionable setting for film and drama. The modernity of a series like The Sweeney in the 1970s had a lot to do with it being set in London. Sam was also a serious drama, dealing with the harsh reality of life in the 1930s in the first series and largely lacking in humour because of the circumstances with which its characters are confronted. But it wasn’t serious in the way that John Caughie has discussed ‘serious drama’ in his book Television Drama: Realism, Modernism, and British Culture (Oxford, 2000), a book which, for all its virtues, does not once mention John Finch, or Sam, or even A Family at War, and which only mentions Granada TV with reference to Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown.
Although it has a lot of politics in it, Sam was not a ‘political’ drama in the way that other 1970s dramas were. Its politics are implicit, rather than explicit, emerging through everyday discussion between characters, often in domestic situations, rather than being foregrounded as in more overtly political dramas of the time such as The Cheviot, Days of Hope, and Trevor Griffiths’ All Good Men (BBC1, 1974) and Bill Brand (Thames, 1976).
What it did very well, as producer Michael Cox says in his notes on the production of Sam on John Finch’s website, was to enrich the perception of the lives and changing fortunes of ordinary people. This ‘enrichment’ is achieved largely through John Finch’s writing, together with some excellent acting from a largely unknown cast. As the series progresses the pattern of changing lives is conveyed through the use of flashbacks, mainly from Sam’s POV, serving to show how people’s lives, especially Sam’s, have been shaped by their own past experience.
As a long-running serial drama Sam was able to show how the lives of ordinary people in the industrial north of England are affected by changing social conditions and class relations over a period of 40 years. This strength of the series may be another reason why it has been forgotten. It would be a big commitment for a television company to repeat all 39 episodes of Sam today and it may not be coincidental that the canon of British television drama is largely made up of single plays and mini-series, more easily digestible by audiences and critics than a 39 hour drama.
One of the key scenes in this epic serial occurs at the end of the twenty-third episode, called ‘Land’. It is a three and a half minute scene shot on film, featuring Sam (played as an adult by Mark McManus), and his grandfather Jack Barraclough (Michael Goodliffe), perhaps the two most important characters in a serial featuring literally dozens of characters. The scene illustrates the importance of place in the serial and how people are shaped by a sense of belonging to the place in which they grow up, and the scene needed to be shot on location in order to illustrate this. The iconography here is of an alternative English heritage, an industrial heritage, far removed from the iconography of Englishness which features in the later, far more celebrated, Brideshead Revisited. Incidentally, this episode was directed by Roland Joffe, one of four episodes he directed for Sam, early in his career. Ten years later he would be nominated for an Oscar for directing The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986).
(This is a slightly revised version of a paper given at the Screen Studies Conference, 27-29 June 2014 and at the Media and Place Conference, Leeds Metropolitan University, 11-12 July 2014)