Our ‘TV’s Forgotten Dramas’ season at BFI Southbank opens on 3 February with a screening of two plays from the Second City Firsts series, Alan Bleasdale’s Early to Bed (1975) and Ian McEwan’s Jack Flea’s Birthday Celebration (1976), followed by a panel discussion with Alison Steadman, former Commisioning Editor of Drama at Channel 4 Peter Ansorge, director Les Blair and producer Tara Prem.
Second City Firsts was an anthology series of half-hour plays produced by BBC English Regions Drama at Pebble Mill in Birmingham from 1973-78. English Regions Drama came into existence as a consequence of a regional reorganisation at the BBC which saw the three English Regions of North, Midlands and South West replaced by eight smaller regions, while the facilities at the regional production centres in Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol were improved to enable the regions to supply more programmes to the national television service.
Surveying ‘A Decade in Prospect’ in the 1970 BBC Handbook, Director-General Charles Curran described some of the initiatives that were being taken in the expansion of regional broadcasting:
“In non-metropolitan radio and television in England there will be some really radical changes. In television we shall have eight new regions which, by 1971, will be producing 400 programmes a year for their own audiences, compared with the 150 a year of the former three English regions … Through the production centres at Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol regional talent and initiative will continue to flow into network radio and television as fully as or more fully than in the past. Birmingham, for instance, will eventually have at its disposal a £6 million television complex at Pebble Mill. In each place there is a senior executive whose terms of reference include responsibility for nourishing creative talent in his part of the country.”
Pebble Mill was officially opened on 10 November 1971, having eventually cost £7 million, and David Rose was appointed head of English Regions Drama, with a brief to commission and produce regional television drama for the national network. Having worked at the BBC for a number of years, directing dramatised documentaries in the late 1950s and early 1960s before producing two regionally-set police series: Z Cars and Softly, Softly, Rose was well qualified to be Head of English Regions Drama.
With Barry Hanson as script editor, David Rose set about commissioning drama from writers ‘who either live in or who have particular concern for the regions’ (BBC Handbook, 1972: 73). Hanson had been working at Hull Arts Centre, where he was the first Artistic Director, having previously worked at the Royal Court Theatre, and the connection with regional writers and the repertory theatre movement was crucial to the success of English Regions Drama at Pebble Mill.
The first English Regions Drama productions were Thirty-Minute Theatre plays, fourteen of which were transmitted in 1972. They included John Hopkins’ That Quiet Earth (28/2/72), Arthur Hopcraft’s Said the Preacher (6/3/72), Ted Whitehead’s Under the Age (20/3/72), David Rudkin’s Bypass (27/3/72), Jack Rosenthal’s And for My Next Trick (3/4/72), Alan Plater’s Tonight We Meet Arthur Pendlebury (19/10/72) and Henry Livings’ You’re Free (16/11/72), all writers with strong regional affiliations. Unfortunately only five of these fourteen plays survive, giving an indication of the impermanence of half-hour television plays in the 1960s-70s.
All of these dramas, except That Quiet Earth which was shot on film, were recorded in the studio and this continued to be the pattern with the half-hour plays produced by English Regions Drama. Of the 74 half-hour plays the department produced from 1972-78 nearly all were recorded in the Pebble Mill studios – only ten were shot on location, either on film or video.
When English Regions Drama produced a new series of half-hour plays in 1973 the Thirty-Minute Theatre title was dropped. Although the department had close links with the theatre, drawing on writers, directors and actors from regional repertory companies, it had no intention of simply transposing theatre plays to television and by dropping the Thirty-Minute Theatre title the department was seeking to distance itself from any association with ‘televised theatre’.
The untitled series of six plays transmitted in February-March 1973 was the stepping stone between Thirty-Minute Theatre and Second City Firsts. The first drama in the new series, Tara Prem’s A Touch of Eastern Promise (8/2/73), was shot entirely on film, on location, in an Asian district of Birmingham, emphasising both regionality and the multicultural population of Birmingham, with some of the younger Indian characters speaking with a distinctive Birmingham accent, while others spoke Punjabi.
Following A Touch of Eastern Promise, Tara Prem joined English Regions Drama as a script editor and she came up with the title of Second City Firsts for the next series of half-hour plays, transmitted from October-November 1973. While some experienced regional writers had been commissioned to submit plays for the first three series of half-hour plays the intention with Second City Firsts was to premiere work by new writers, hence the ‘firsts’ in the series title, produced by English Regions Drama in Birmingham, England’s ‘second city’.
The first play to be shown in the Second City Firsts series was The Medium (15/10/73), written by the Sunderland-based writer Denise Robertson. Its subject was spiritualism: a group of women gather in the house of Beattie (Norah Fulton), whose husband has recently died, to have their fortunes told by a drunken clairvoyant (Winifrede Shelley). Beattie’s daughter (Valerie Georgeson) sees that the clairvoyant is a fraud but she pretends otherwise to her mother so as not to destroy her faith in the afterlife. The Medium was recorded entirely in the studio, with no telecine sequences to establish the location, but the accents of the characters immediately announce this as a regional drama set in the north east, showing that regional identity could be established even when a play was entirely studio-based.
Other plays in the first series of Second City Firsts included If a Man Answers (29/10/73), the first of three Second City Firsts written by the Yorkshire actor/writer Brian Glover, and King of the Castle (12/11/73), the first play for television by the Liverpool playwright Willy Russell. King of the Castle was shot on location in an industrial setting, using an Outside Broadcast (OB) unit, an alternative means of achieving a sense of place, without the expense of shooting on film. Unfortunately, recording on videotape made the drama just as vulnerable to being erased as studio plays and the recording of King of the Castle no longer exists.
The ‘new writers’ qualification for Second City Firsts was not always strictly followed: the first play in the second series, Humbug, Finger or Thumb? (18/2/74), was written by Arthur Hopcraft, who had already written Said the Preacher as a Thirty-Minute Theatre play for English Regions Drama and whose The Mosedale Horseshoe (Granada, 23/3/71), filmed on location in the Lake District, was an important precursor of the filmed dramas produced by BBC English Regions Drama. Humbug, Finger or Thumb? was followed by Girl (25/2/74), the first of four plays written for English Regions Drama by James Robson and the first of several controversial dramas the department was to produce. The controversy surrounding Girl concerned the portrayal of a lesbian relationship between Jackie (Alison Steadman), a young army recruit, and Chrissie (Myra Frances), a corporal with whom Jackie has an affair. Jackie is leaving the army because she is pregnant and Chrissie comes to see her before she goes. She tells Chrissie her pregnancy is the result of being raped and that she still loves her. The drama takes place in one room, but includes a flashback to show Chrissie and Jackie in bed together. At one point Chrissie puts a Dusty Springfield single, ‘This Girl’s in Love’, on the record player, referring to the song as being “top of the gay girls’ hit parade” and they dance together, singing along to the song, an embrace which is followed by the first lesbian kiss to be seen on British television.
The second series of Second City Firsts included two plays shot on location. The Actual Woman (11/3/74), written by Jack Shepherd, was filmed on location outside Birmingham by Philip Saville, on video, while Match of the Day (18/3/74), written by Neville Smith and directed by Stephen Frears, was shot on film. When I wrote about the Second City Firsts series in my book A Sense of Place: Regional British Television Drama, 1956-82 (Manchester University Press, 2012) it seemed that The Actual Woman was lost. Since then, however, a copy of the drama has been donated to Kaleidoscope by its writer, Jack Shepherd, and will be screened in April 2015 at the Forgotten TV Drama conference at Royal Holloway, with Jack Shepherd, director Philip Saville and script editor Tara Prem forming a panel to discuss it.
While many of the writers commissioned by English Regions Drama had regional theatre connections, one of the plays in the third series of Second City Firsts directly acknowledged the special relationship the department had with regional theatres. Fight for Shelton Bar (18/11/74) was a thirty-minute version of a longer stage play produced earlier the same year by Peter Cheeseman’s Victoria Theatre Company in Stoke-on-Trent, dramatising, in documentary style, the struggle to prevent the local steelworks in Shelton from being closed down.
Second City Firsts enabled a number of now very well-known writers to have their first television scripts produced. Willy Russell has already been mentioned and another Liverpudlian, Alan Bleasdale, made his television debut in 1975 with Early to Bed (20/3/75), shown in the fourth series of Second City Firsts. The drama tells the story of Vinny (David Warwick), an 18-year old student who is having a sexual relationship with Helen (Alison Steadman), the young married woman living next door.
Like Match of the Day, Early to Bed was shot on film, which again enabled the drama to achieve a greater sense of place and regional identity than some of the studio dramas were able to achieve. It begins, for example, with a shot of a pit head, establishing the location as that of a Lancashire mining community, and the scenes filmed in the small town help to illustrate the limited opportunities there for Vinny, establishing his need to get away. Early to Bed was an apprentice work for Bleasdale and he acknowledged the contribution of the film’s director, Les Blair, who ‘made a script of some promise, but no great quality, into something worth watching’.
Also in the fourth series was The Permissive Society (10/4/75), the first of two Second City Firsts devised and directed by Mike Leigh, both studio productions and the only studio dramas, apart from Abigail’s Party (BBC 1, 1978), that Leigh ever produced. The scenario is typical of Leigh’s work: a slice of working-class life, set mainly in a living room, featuring a rather mismatched young couple and the boy’s older sister, who goes out on a date only to return at the end of the play having been stood up. Nothing much happens and like most of Leigh’s work The Permissive Society (the title is clearly ironic) is a character study. But the claustrophobic studio set suits the drama well, reinforcing the sense of characters being trapped in lives with limited horizons. Once again, The Permissive Society illustrates that it is not essential to film on location in order to convey a sense of characters being trapped in their environment.
As with the plays for Thirty-Minute Theatre and Play for Today, the primary objective of Second City Firsts was to commission regional writers rather than regional drama. The distinction is important because it meant that not all of the plays produced by English Regions Drama were obviously ‘regional’ in subject-matter. For example, Ian McEwan’s Jack Flea’s Birthday Celebration (10/4/76), shown in the sixth series of Second City Firsts, was a studio drama about a young man who is writing a novel called ‘Jack Flea’s Birthday Celebration’, the content of which is remarkably similar to the subject of the play. Thematically the drama is typical of McEwan’s first collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975) and McEwan, in fact, saw the play as “really belonging in that volume.”
Jack Flea’s Birthday Celebration is not particularly ‘regional’ in subject matter but the fact that the play was produced in Birmingham did have a distinct advantage, according to McEwan:
“At the end of a day’s rehearsal the four actors – who all came from far away – could not go home. They had to hang about together in restaurants or in the hotel bar. No one could quite escape his or her part. By the end of ten days a very odd and gratifying level of controlled hysteria had been reached and this suited the claustrophobic nature of the play perfectly, as did the detached quality of Mike Newell’s camera script.” (Ian McEwan, The Imitation Game: Three Plays for Television, Jonathan Cape, 1981: 11-12)
McEwan’s remarks illustrate the advantage of having the actors, whenever possible, based in Birmingham for the course of a production in order to replicate the conditions of being, as David Rose described it, “on film location, you’re remote, you’re a team, you’re sort of working to one end together.”
The director of Jack Flea’s Birthday Celebration, Mike Newell, is now better known for feature films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), among many others. He is one of several Second City Firsts directors who went on to have successful careers in the film industry, others being Les Blair, Alan Clarke, Stephen Frears, Roland Joffe, Mike Leigh, Michael Lindsay-Hogg and Philip Saville, all of whom directed half-hour plays at Birmingham in the 1970s. While English Regions Drama may have privileged the writer, directors made an important contribution, as indeed did set designers, given that most of the productions were studio plays.
The importance of the Second City Firsts series was that it gave writers an opportunity to experiment and to have original work produced, rather than having to conform to the more formulaic strictures of the continuous drama serial, which is what most new writers are obliged to do today. It also gave an opportunity to an unprecedented number of new writers. Forty-two writers contributed to the nine series of Second City Firsts over a period of six years, while another eighteen wrote half-hour plays for English Regions Drama, one of which, Art… Adrift by Peter Terson, was never transmitted. While not all of these writers were making their television debut, most of those who wrote for Second City Firsts were. Some of them went on to write other work for television and a couple (Bleasdale and Leigh) have since contributed to the ‘canon’ of British television drama with work such as Boys from the Blackstuff (also produced by English Regions Drama) and Abigail’s Party. The chief significance of Second City Firsts, however, is that it provided a forum in which regional writers could try their hand at television drama, without having to write a full-length Play for Today.
That not all of these plays were considered worthy of preservation is evident by the fact that only 38 of the 74 half-hour plays produced by English Regions Drama in the 1970s survive (and nine of these 38 only survive because they were recorded on a domestic format, such as VHS or Philips 1500 tapes). One more, Barry Reckord’s Club Havana (25/10/75), featuring Don Warrington, Mona Hammond and Julie Walters, survives as unedited studio footage, while short extracts from three more exist, but altogether 36 plays, nearly half of those produced, no longer survive in their original broadcast form.