1970s 1980s BBC Archive BBC North East BFI National Archive Directors Dramatised Documentaries Regional Drama

Drama-Documentaries from BBC North East (1971-86)

BBC North East & Cumbria is not known for its drama productions, yet between 1971 and 1986 at least eleven dramatised documentaries were produced by this regional BBC production centre, two of them in three parts, making 15 half-hour programmes altogether.

I say ‘at least’ because when I started researching and viewing these drama-documentaries more and more kept coming to light and it is possible there are others which I have not yet discovered.[1]

One of the difficulties in finding out about these programmes has been that most were originally shown only in the North East and Cumbria region and were not listed in the London edition of the Radio Times until they were shown in BBC 2’s Network series anytime between two months and two years after their regional transmission. Indeed two seem only to have been transmitted in the North East and do not appear in the BBC Genome listings for the Radio Times. That most of them were shot on film has helped to ensure their survival, except in one case where no copy appears to exist (The Hooky Mat, 1974). When I viewed the surviving programmes five were obtained from the BBC Archive in London, five came from the BFI National Archive, and the two programmes that were only shown in the North East were obtained from the library of BBC North East and Cumbria.[2]

Like the dramatised documentaries produced in the same period by BBC East (In a Country Churchyard) all of the BBC North East drama documentaries are about real people and real events and use a mixture of documentary techniques – presenter, narrator/voiceover, archive footage – and dramatised sequences with actors to bring the story to life. The first (as far as I am aware) was The Railway King: The Rise and Fall of George Hudson (BBC North East, 13 December 1971, networked on BBC 1 on 6 April 1972) about the entrepreneur, politician and millionaire George Hudson (played by Joseph O’Conor), described by the presenter/narrator Alf Peacock as “the first big railway capitalist” who developed the railway network in the north east in the early 19th century. That Alf Peacock features more than does Joseph O’Conor as George Hudson indicates that this is more of a documentary than a drama, but apart from the appearances of O’Conor as Hudson throughout there is a dramatised scene towards the end in which Hudson is questioned by a barrister (played by Duncan Morris) about the financial irregularities which led to his downfall. The programme was produced by John Mapplebeck.

Sinker’s Row (BBC North East, 13 February 1973) was made in 1972 and first shown by BBC North East in February 1973, repeated in the North East on 13 August 1974 and finally shown as part of BBC 2’s Network series on 8 February 1975. Based on memories of Northumberland pit life collected by Bob Jeffrey, Sinker’s Row features the Newcastle actor Colin Douglas who appeared in many television series, most notably as the father of the Ashton family in John Finch’s epic A Family at War (Granada, 1970-72).

The film opens with grainy footage of railway sidings and a man on a bicycle (Douglas) stopping to survey the landscape. He sets the scene as the camera pans across the rubbish-strewn landscape: “Sinker’s Row. Sinker’s Row. Population 210, sanitation primitive, occupation coalmining. Its Sunday name was Longworth Colliery but to the folks that lived here it was always Sinker’s Row, and look at it now.”

Douglas plays Matt Robson and proceeds to describe his life growing up in Sinker’s Row (pronounced ‘Rah’ in a Geordie accent). An open-plan set of the house where Matt Robson grew up is used to visualise what life was like in Sinker’s Row at the beginning of the 20th century, when he was born. Colin Douglas plays the elderly Matt Robson, talking to camera and narrating the story, as actors in period costume dramatise his early life: Ursula Smith plays his mother, Alan Hockey his father, Howard Goddard his brother Tommy, killed in the First World War at the age of eighteen, while Tony Robson plays Matt as a young boy. A cast of nine makes this more extensive as a drama than The Railway King but the presence of Douglas as narrator and the fact that this is shot on location using derelict buildings and rudimentary sets makes it a dramatised documentary about life in a Northumberland pit village in the early 20th century. Sinker’s Row was produced by Roger Burgess.

King and Cuthbertson (BBC North East, 24 September 1974; BBC 2, Network, 30 November 1974) also used narration throughout but this time the narration was supplied by one of the two central characters featured in the film, Leslie Cuthbertson, who during the Second World War went on an unauthorised mission with Sergeant Peter King in occupied France, frustrated that he had only been given a non-combatant post in the army dental corp.

The film begins with archive footage of Hitler and the Blitz before cutting to Leslie Cuthbertson in the present day, talking to camera. As he talks there is a cut to the dramatised footage of Cuthbertson (Edward Wilson) and King (Bill Wallis) on their mission, which was short-lived because, after blowing up a railway line in France, they became stranded on their small boat in the English Channel for two weeks, with no food, eventually being picked up by a Norwegian destroyer. On their return to Britain they were court-martialled but were treated as heroes by their colleagues. The film was dramatised by the playwright C.P. Taylor, who worked with the Live Theatre Company in Newcastle in the 1970s, and was produced and directed by David Pritchard.

The Hooky Mat (BBC North East, 1 October 1974; BBC 2, Network, 10 May 1975) is the only one of these drama-docs which appears not to have survived. It is described in the Radio Times as ‘A fantasy devised for the 1974 Newcastle Festival’, written and directed by Dave Walker and produced by Roger Burgess, featuring Alan Hockey (who played Matt Robson’s father in Sinker’s Row) and Lizzie McKenzie, with music by Lamplight: “Times are changing for Mrs Cannybody now that the All-Seeing, All-Encompassing Super Council is here. Trouble is, all these new regulations. You’ve even got to have a licence to make a hooky mat!” (Radio Times, 9 May 1975, p. 21) [3]

A Slight Case of Poison (BBC North East, 9-23 January 1976; BBC 2, Network, 8-22 January 1977) was a series of three half-hour programmes about Mary Ann Cotton who was hanged in Durham Jail in 1873 for supposedly poisoning up to nineteen people. Each programme was introduced by David Mahlowe who also chaired a discussion at the end of each programme with different experts to assess whether Mary Ann Cotton really was a serial killer. The subject was introduced by Mahlowe at the beginning of the first programme:

“Mary Ann Cotton murdered more people than anyone else in Britain. For some reason she is little-known outside the north-east of England, despite the fact that she probably murdered three out of her four husbands, a friend, a lover, her mother and up to thirteen children and step-children. For the next three weeks I’ll be telling her story, some of it filmed with actors on the locations where the murders took place and some of it in discussions here in the studio.”

Eight actors are credited with appearing in the dramatised scenes in the three programmes, which were filmed on location in County Durham. The experts brought into the studio to discuss the case included the sociologist Laurie Taylor, John Wackett, who wrote a play about Mary Cotton, Bernard Smythe, a Senior Lecturer in Law at Durham University, Arthur Appleton, whose book was the basis for the series, and Catherine Brandon who played Mary Cotton in the dramatised scenes. The series was written and produced by Roger Burgess.

Keelmen (BBC North East, 25 May 1976; BBC 2, Network, 24 December 1977) is described in a title at the beginning of the programme as ‘A Musical Documentary by Roger Burgess and Bob Jeffrey’ and the programme represents a departure in this series of drama-docs in its use of Colour Separation Overlay (CSO), a method of filming against a blue screen background onto which is projected a variety of backdrops. An opening song about the ‘keelmen’ – boatmen who ferried coal along the River Tyne to South Shields – is accompanied by a series of linoprints depicting 18th/19th century views of Newcastle. Then a keelman (Ronald Herdman) is shown steering a boat against a CSO background of buildings which move from right to left behind him, giving the impression of movement along the river. In fact he and his ‘boat’ are in the studio but this non-naturalistic technique is an economical way of showing a keelman at work. In a strong Geordie accent he says: “There’s nae finer sight, a keel with a sail set and a hold crammed with coals, droppin doon river on the tide to Shields.”

In an email Roger Burgess explained the advantage of using CSO: “CSO (colour separation overlay) cost nothing! You just placed the foreground subject in front of a blue screen (green seems to be the favoured colour in movies, now usually called CGI), making sure the subject had none of that colour in their costume, and inserted a background picture from another source (drawing of Newcastle quayside) into the blank colour. I remember we had problems because the keel man’s dress was blue! I chose CSO because it seemed an easy way to combine real old prints with my live actor. Also I always liked to try new technology!” (Email to the author, 22 October 2015)

Some film sequences are used to illustrate Tyneside today with the other main character, presenter/narrator Peter Wheeler, providing voiceover narration about the history of the keelmen: “It’s hard to believe that this was all once green fields … It was the keelmen’s job quite simply to ferry coal from the upriver mines to the harbour mouth at Shields, where the big collier brigs were waiting to take it down the coast to London … the keelmen were the aristocrats of the river.”

The majority of the programme though is recorded on video in the studio in front of CSO backgrounds and several traditional Tyneside folk songs punctuate the narrative. It is an entertaining way to tell the story of the Tyneside keelmen who have faded from memory: “In 1700 there were some 500 keels at work on the Tyne. In 1860 there were only half that number. In 1900 there were none. Today Tyneside has all but forgotten its keelmen.”

Roger Burgess’s next production was Farewell, Jobling (BBC North East, 4 February 1977; BBC2, Network, 4 June 1977), a film about a Jarrow miner, William Jobling (Gary Roberts), who was hanged for the murder of a reactionary local magistrate, Nicholas Fairles (Geoffrey Banks) in 1832. It was written by Arthur Appleton, whose book on Mary Ann Cotton was the basis for A Slight Case of Poison. The story is told by Thomas Hepburn (Fred Pearson), the first leader of the pitmen in the north east, who argues that Jobling did not kill the magistrate but that he was hanged because he was a striking miner and a member of the miners’ union. Not only was he hanged but afterwards his body was covered in tar and locked in a metal harness as a warning to others. ‘Tommy Hepburn’ is introduced in the studio (Fred Pearson wears period costume and has a Geordie accent) but the programme cuts to location filming to show the reconstruction of what happened, according to Arthur Appleton, and Hepburn’s narration continues over the dramatised scenes. The scene where Jobling appears before a judge, however, is recorded in the studio, on video. End titles record how Jobling’s widow lived on until 1891, dying at the age of 96 in a workhouse, and was buried in a pauper’s grave in Jarrow cemetery.

Darling Grace: The Wreck of the Forfarshire (BBC North East, 3 February 1978) was the first of three programmes about Grace Darling who, with her father William Darling, helped rescue survivors of the Forfarshire, a steamship which ran aground on the Farne Islands on 5 September 1838. The programmes, which were written and produced by Roger Burgess, were only shown in the north east. This first programme uses a mixture of filmed documentary footage and dramatised sequences to tell the story of the shipwreck, with Barbara Hickmott playing the 22 year-old Grace Darling and Alan Hockey her father. The programme is presented by Bob Langley who explains that the first programme will look at the shipwreck, while the second will look at the aftermath of the event and the third will look at the effects of the publicity on Grace Darling and “the obligations of being famous.” Indeed the Grace Darling Museum is one of the locations used for the filming, along with nearby Bamburgh Castle and Seahouses. Bob Langley takes a prominent role in the telling of Grace Darling’s story and there is less dramatisation in this programme than in some of the other drama-docs.

Mr Swan’s Electric Light: The Story of a Great Inventor (BBC 2, 28 November 1979) is an exception among these drama-documentaries from the North East in that it was networked on BBC 2, rather than being shown first in the north east region. Written and produced by Roger Burgess it tells the story of Joseph Swan who gave the first successful demonstration of an incandescent electric light bulb on 3 February 1879, ten months before Thomas Edison demonstrated his electric light bulb. Alan Meadows plays Joseph Swan in dramatised scenes and the programme is narrated by Peter Wheeler, Despite the dramatised scenes the programme was described as a documentary in the Radio Times: “Tonight’s documentary celebrates the unsung genius of the Sunderland-born scientist and inventor, whose natural modesty has too often denied him the place in the history books he deserved” (Radio Times, 22 November 1979).

Romany (BBC North East, 18 November 1983; BBC 2, 30 December 1983) was a dramatised documentary about George Bramwell Evans, a.k.a. ‘Romany of the BBC’: “For a decade he was known to millions as ‘Romany’, one of the most popular broadcasters in Britain, bringing the spirit and sounds of the countryside to BBC Children’s Hour listeners” (Radio Times, 24 December 1983). Peter Whitbread plays Romany in the dramatised scenes, showing him broadcasting his radio programme or walking in the countryside, with most of the information about him conveyed in voiceover, making this again more of a documentary than a drama-doc. The programme was produced by Eric Robson.

Hands (BBC North East, 19 December 1986) was shown as part of a BBC North East series called Northwards and was not repeated on the network. As the series presenter says in his introduction this edition of Northwards is a tribute to the local writer Sid Chaplin, who died earlier that year. The presenter is followed by a young Robson Green, making quite possibly his first television appearance, and Tim Healy from Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (ITV, 1983-86) who pay their own tributes to Chaplin before playing father (Healy) and son (Robson) in what is a fully-fledged drama. The drama uses CSO sets as well as a scene in which father and son are walking along a beach, which appears to be shot on video rather than film. Both father and son are miners and when they go down the mine this is again shot with video cameras in a realistic set. When the mineshaft collapses there is a song (by Alex Glasgow) about a mining disaster and black and white photographs of people congregating at a pithead. John (Robson Green) survives the collapse but his father is killed. The play was dramatised and directed by Mark Scrimshaw and the executive producer was John Mapplebeck, who 15 years earlier had produced The Railway King.

As a drama Hands is not in the same category as the dramatised documentaries described above, although the fact that it is presented as a tribute to a local writer and was produced by BBC North East for a regional audience aligns it with the other productions. As a body of work these programmes represent genuine regional television, about local people and subjects from the 19th-20th centuries, using local actors with distinct regional accents. Like the people and subjects they portray these drama-documentaries have largely been forgotten, overlooked in histories of British television. Like many such regional productions, where they survive, they deserve to be seen again.

Lez Cooke

[1] I am grateful, as ever, to Simon Coward for bringing some of these to my attention, to the producer Roger Burgess for telling me about some others that he produced and to Lesley Fraser, the Librarian at BBC North East & Cumbria, for telling me about Hands (1986).

[2] I am grateful to Kathleen Dickson at the BFI National Archive for arranging for me to view all of the surviving programmes and to Lesley Fraser at BBC North East & Cumbria for providing the two held by them.

[3] A ‘hooky mat’ is a traditional form of rug-making in the north east.

5 replies on “Drama-Documentaries from BBC North East (1971-86)”

Thanks for bringing ‘Freeborn John’ to my attention Matthew – I thought there might be more BBC North East drama-docs than I knew about. I’ve now managed to see it and it’s a fascinating programme. Presented in the style of a modern-day news report, as part of the ‘Coast to Coast’ series, it is introduced by Eric Robson:
“Tonight in the first of our new series of ‘Coast to Coast’ we’re telling the story of a County Durham man called John Lilburne. Lilburne lived in the 17th century and seemed to spend more time in jail than outside around the time of the English Civil Wars. He led a movement called the Levellers, which someone described as the first socialist party in Britain. We’re telling the story of John Lilburne as though it was being presented by one of our own century’s innovations in political coverage, the nightly news magazine programme.”
Robson hands over to a news team in the studio who conduct the investigation, interviewing ‘John Lilburne’ (played by John Woodvine) in some scenes while others are dramatised, including the trial when Lilburne was tried for High Treason (he was acquitted).
The scenes with Lilburne are all shot on film, on location, while the studio scenes are on video. It’s an innovative format for a regional programme which was only shown in the North East, on 26 September 1980, repeated on 25 September 1981.

Simon Coward has also brought another BBC North East drama-doc to my attention: ‘Look North for Those Delavels!’ was shown in two parts in the North East only on 11 and 18 January 1972. It’s the story of a Northumberland family (1723-1822) and the first episode is entitled ‘That Scoundrel Francis’, written and produced by Roger Burgess and narrated by Gareth Morgan. A copy of this survives in the BBC North East library but only on film so I haven’t been able to view this yet.

Sorry, Lez – I’ve somehow managed to miss this before now. I should arrange to see the Delaval film myself if I can – wearing my eighteenth-century historian hat I wrote the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Sir Francis Blake Delaval, filling in a gap in Delaval family coverage. I’d forgotten that there was a hybrid film drama/news format for ‘Freeborn John’ – the filmed segments, more recognisably drama, made more of an impression on my nine-year-old self, I think. I remembered it being part of Coast to Coast, however, which was a very varied series of offerings not well-represented by Radio Times listings from what I’ve seen. Thanks again for letting me know.

How do I go about finding out a documentary called coast to coast involvI g 3 Glasgow schools triEd everything but can’t find it helpful

As I mentioned in a footnote to the article I saw most of these BBC North East drama-docs at the British Film Institute National Archive so you could try contacting them about the Coast to Coast programme you’re trying to find. Contact details are here: Alternatively you could try BBC North East & Cumbria, who produced the series. The librarian there is Lesley Fraser.

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