1960s Audience Research BBC 2 Events John Betjeman Londoners Stewart Farrar

Londoners – Pity About the Abbey (1965)

“London itself takes the leading role in each of this new series of plays – a role which varies between hero and villain, enchantress and harpy, for she is a different city to every Londoner.

To some, the very word London stands for success, to others it is synonymous with failure. For every individual who finds the city rewarding and cannot imagine living anywhere else, there is another to whom it is a stifling place from which he longs to escape.

For better or worse, London has a profound effect on people’s lives; and it is people and their relationship to the city that thirteen writers explore in Londoners. Essentially a writer’s series, it is the work of an unusually varied group of dramatists, their story-telling skill backed by extensive location filming ranging from Soho to the Law Courts, Wembley to the docks.” (Radio Times, 6 May 1965)

Londoners was a twelve-part anthology series of 75-minute plays broadcast on BBC2 from May-July 1965. It included plays by Hugh Whitemore, Milton Schulman, John Finch, Daniel Farson, Julia Jones and John Betjeman. Directors included Waris Hussein, Peter Sasdy, Mary Ridge, Gilchrist Calder, Brian Parker and Ian Curteis. Joss Ackland, Bryan Pringle, Dudley Sutton, Ronald Lacey, George Baker and Judy Parfitt appeared in the series, which was produced by Peter Luke.

Only one episode survives in the archives: John Betjeman and Stewart Farrar’s Pity About the Abbey (29 July 1965), directed by Ian Curteis:

“This play, the last in BBC-2’s sequence Londoners, has Mr. Betjeman and his co-author Stewart Farrar mounting a merry but savage attack on ‘the grey men, the homogenised men’ – two of them played by Henry McGee and Derek Francis – whom they see in control of our destiny in politics and business and government. They are the tycoons, the civil servants, the ‘with-it’ architects and planners who have come up with a functional, efficient, and profitable scheme to take care of traffic in Westminster and to improve the machinery of government with shiny new offices and flats for Members of Parliament. The scheme has only one slight snag (and these homogenised men do regard it as slight): it entails the removal of Westminster Abbey, probably to Texas whence comes the best offer for it.” (Radio Times, 22 July 1965)

Why was this the only play to survive from the series? Possibly it was because of John Betjeman, although he had not yet been knighted or become Poet Laureate. Probably it was because of its paean to Westminster Abbey which, in the play, is threatened with demolition in order to make way for a new government Treasury building, the whole development to be known as ‘The Westminster Roundabout’. There are plenty of sequences where the camera lingers lovingly over the abbey’s architectural splendour, contrasted with the dour bureaucracy of the meetings between civil servants discussing the proposal. The play was repeated on 6 April 1966 as a Wednesday Play, to celebrate Westminster Abbey’s 900th anniversary, when it was described in the Radio Times as a ‘tribute to our national heritage’.

Undoubtedly a satire – the play was subtitled ‘A Comedy of the Future’ – it adopts a suitably comic tone and was enjoyed by the majority of the sample audience in the BBC’s Audience Research Report:

“The message, pointing the dangers of bureaucracy, was conveyed with a light touch, said many who agreed that this was an amusing and ‘sly’ tilt at those who frequent ‘the corridors of power’. The Whitehall pundits were true to life, claimed several (including some who were themselves in Government Service) and more than once it was suggested that John Betjeman and Stewart Farrar must have been drawing on their own experience to achieve such authentic portraits.”

In a letter producer Peter Luke sent to John Betjeman before the repeat he wrote: “You will laugh when I tell you that it was taken out of the schedule for March 16th because it was considered too hot politically to go out before the General Election!”, a decision which seems even more absurd now than it must have seemed at the time.

6 replies on “Londoners – Pity About the Abbey (1965)”

The reason why this is the only play to survive is because (in my opinion) it was the best one. I saw them all first time round- oh dear… I went to the screening at the BFI last night and enjoyed it all over again. I remembered the play very well but I also remember that at the end, after the Waterloo Ring was rejected because of objection by St Thomas’s, there was a line along the lines of “Pity about St Paul’s”. Is that just my imagination?

Thanks for your comment Suze, fantastic to hear from someone who saw the whole series! I’ve been in touch with John Finch recently who wrote one of the plays, The Old Man of Chelsea Reach, about a reclusive painter (played by Hilton Edwards) which was based on John Finch’s experience (before he started writing for television) of being secretary to sculptor Jacob Epstein and living in his house in Chelsea – do you remember seeing that? I think the line “Pity about St. Paul’s” must have been your imagination, unless it was cut when it was repeated as a Wednesday Play in 1966.

Thank you so much, Lez. I very, very, vaguely remember the play about Epstein. Only because I am crazy about Chelsea. I would have thought I had dreamt it if you had not mentioned it. And thank you for putting my mind at rest about “Pity about St Paul’s”!

Thanks for your reply. I live in NZ so that’s not possible. I wish the BBC would stop hiding these programmes away in vaults. We lost an entire generation of television due to their lack of archiving -best they could do is making extant programmes available to the public. The early 60s Wuthering Heights adaptation and the late 50s series Spycatcher are two other surviving programmes hidden away in vaults by the BBC that I would love to see. Such a waste.

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