1970s BBC BBC Pebble Mill Obituary Play For Today Producers Regional Drama Second City Firsts

Barry Hanson (1943-2016)


When the film and television producer Barry Hanson died in June 2016 Christopher Hampton wrote an obituary for the Guardian which highlighted Hanson’s best-known productions: The Naked Civil Servant (1975) and The Long Good Friday (1980), referring also to Hanson’s work at the Royal Court Theatre and Hull Arts Centre in the late 1960s, but making only a brief reference to his time at Pebble Mill in Birmingham in the early 1970s. Yet this period, working with David Rose in the newly formed department of English Regions Drama, was to be the foundation for Hanson’s subsequent successful career in film and television.

David Rose appointed Hanson because he wanted someone who had experience of working with writers, especially those from the regions, such as David Mercer, Alan Plater, Jack Rosenthal and David Rudkin, all of whom contributed plays to Thirty-Minute Theatre in 1972, the first productions to come out of the new department. English Regions Drama was set up to produce regional drama for the BBC network and Rose and Hanson set about commissioning new and established writers from the regions to provide it.

Hanson was the script editor on these early productions, with Rose as producer, and in addition to the above writers there were half-hour plays by Keith Dewhurst, Arthur Hopcraft, John Hopkins, Henry Livings and Ted Whitehead. That first year of English Regions Drama production also included Peter Terson’s The Fishing Party (1 June 1972), an all-film Play for Today of which Hanson later wrote: ‘Terson – theatre writer from Stoke; film setting – Whitby and the sea; subject – three miners from Yorkshire; the author – a Geordie, living on a long boat on the canal in Pelsall. What impeccable credentials!’[1]

The Fishing Party was followed by Shakespeare – or Bust (8 January 1973), another Terson Play for Today on which Hanson was script editor, and Alan Plater’s Land of Green Ginger (15 January 1973). Then another season of half-hour plays, beginning with Tara Prem’s all-film A Touch of Eastern Promise (8 February 1973). Not only was Hanson script editor on four of the six plays in this season he directed the other two, making his directorial debut with David Mercer’s extraordinary You and Me and Him (22 February 1973), ‘where the “id”, the “ego”, and the “super-ego” were simultaneously played by one actor [Peter Vaughan]. It involved over three hundred manual video edits between every shot, a difficult and expensive task in those days.’[2] Hanson also directed David Rudkin’s Atrocity (15 March 1973), of which only eleven minutes of filmed sequences survive, so many of these half-hour plays having been wiped in the videotape holocaust at the BBC in the early 1970s.[3]

Hanson was script editor on the next Play for Today to be produced by the department: David Halliwell’s Steps Back (14 May 1973). Like Hanson and Mercer, Halliwell was a Yorkshireman, as was Victor Henry, the talented young actor who had been in Hopcraft’s Said the Preacher (6 March 1972) and who was also in the next ERD production to be screened, Diary of a Madman (23 August 1973), based on Michael Wearing’s stage production of Gogol’s short story.

By this time Tara Prem had joined the department as script editor and it was she who suggested the title for the next series of half-hour plays, Second City Firsts – new plays from Birmingham, England’s second city. With Prem to assist with the increasing volume of work being produced by the department Hanson switched to producing and was producer on the first three series of Second City Firsts (1973-74). He also continued to direct one play in each series: Brian Glover’s If a Man Answers (29 October 1973) from the first series, Rony Robinson’s Lunch Duty (25 March 1974) from the second series, and Tom Pickard’s Squire (25 November 1974) from the third series.

It was on these series that Hanson realised producing, not directing, was really his forte and his ambition soon outgrew the half-hour plays he was producing at Pebble Mill. Towards the end of 1974 he produced Philip Martin’s seminal Gangsters (9 January 1975), a ground-breaking Play for Today directed by Philip Saville and possibly Hanson’s finest contribution to the rich and varied body of work produced by English Regions Drama. Then, after three final productions for the fourth series of Second City Firsts, including Alan Bleasdale’s television debut, Early to Bed (20 March 1975), Hanson left Birmingham to take up a post as Head of Drama at Thames Television, where his first production was the award-winning The Naked Civil Servant (19 December 1975), directed by Jack Gold, with John Hurt as Quentin Crisp. It was followed by Plays for Britain (1976), a series of six plays by Howard Brenton, Roger McGough, Brian Glover, Stephen Poliakoff, Roy Minton and Henry Livings (now available on DVD from Network), plus plays by Michael Abbensetts, Tony Bicat, Pam Gems, Barrie Keefe and Ted Whitehead, among others, for ITV Playhouse (1977-78), and Trevor Preston’s six-part crime drama, Out (July-August 1978), made by Euston Films for Thames.

This was arguably Hanson’s golden period as a producer, culminating with Barrie Keefe’s The Long Good Friday (1979, not released until 1980), directed by John Mackenzie, and Stephen Poliakoff’s Bloody Kids (ITV, 23 March 1980), directed by Stephen Frears. Hanson returned to Birmingham in 1989 as Head of Drama, but the television landscape was changing and Birmingham in the 1990s was never going to match the glory days of the 1970s when David Rose presided over a richly creative department where Barry Hanson and many others who were later to have distinguished careers first made their mark.

[1] Barry Hanson, ‘The 1970s: Regional Variations’ in Jonathan Bignell, Stephen Lacey and Madeleine Macmurragh-Kavanagh (eds.), British Television Drama: Past, Present and Future (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), p.60.

[2] Ibid, pp.61-2.

[3] Fortunately, You and Me and Him does survive, along with another seven of the 20 half-hour plays produced by English Regions Drama in 1972-73.


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