Second City Firsts (BBC2, 1973-78) Panel Discussion
with Philip Jackson (PJ), Tara Prem (TP), Philip Saville (PS) and Jack Shepherd (JS)
chaired by Lez Cooke (LC)
Television Drama: The Forgotten, the Lost and the Neglected Conference
Royal Holloway, University of London
23 April 2015
LC: Welcome to this session on Second City Firsts (BBC2, 1973-78). We’re showing two recently rediscovered Second City Firsts, both made in 1974, or transmitted in 1974. I’m just going to give a short introduction, we’re going to have a screening – they’re both about half an hour, the first one, The Actual Woman (BBC2, 1974), is about 35 minutes and the second one, Pig Bin (BBC2, 1974) is 30 minutes – and then we’re going to have a panel discussion with a very distinguished panel we have with us today: Jack Shepherd, who wrote The Actual Woman, and Philip Saville, who was the director of The Actual Woman. The second one, Pig Bin, was directed by Tara Prem and sitting next to Tara is Philip Jackson who was in Pig Bin, so we have a very distinguished panel to discuss these two. None of our guests wanted to say anything about them beforehand so we’re going to talk about them afterwards and see them fresh, as they would have done in 1974.
I just wanted to provide a context – there’s already been some discussion about Second City Firsts today and those of you who were at the regional panel just before tea would have heard Vanessa (Jackson) talking about a half-hour drama that Tara made for the series which came just before Second City Firsts – A Touch of Eastern Promise (1973) was made as a half-hour drama at BBC Birmingham. Second City Firsts was a series of half-hour plays produced by BBC English Regions Drama in Birmingham at the Pebble Mill studios. English Regions Drama was established in 1971 to produce drama from and about the English regions. David Rose was Head of Department and originally Barry Hanson was his assistant as script editor and producer, commissioning plays from established regional writers such as Arthur Hopcraft, Alan Plater, Jack Rosenthal, David Rudkin and Peter Terson, as well as some new writers. As the department’s output increased David and Barry were joined by other script editors including Tara, William Smethurst, Peter Ansorge, Michael Wearing and Pedr James. Then Tara, Peter Ansorge and Michael Wearing all began producing, as well as doing the odd bit of directing. The department was to become famous for producing plays such as Peter Terson’s The Fishing Party (1972), Alan Plater’s Land of Green Ginger (1973), David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen (1974), David Hare’s Licking Hitler (1978), Alan Garner’s Red Shift (1978), plus series such as Plater’s Trinity Tales (1975), Philip Martin’s Gangsters (1976-78), Michael Abbensetts’ Empire Road (1978-79) and Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff (1982).
Initially most of the plays that were produced were half-hour dramas made for Thirty-Minute Theatre and subsequently for Second City Firsts, which was a new series of half-hour dramas written mostly by new writers. From 1972 to 1978 the department produced 74 half-hour plays for BBC2, 53 of which were made for the Second City Firsts series, and today we’re going to see two of them which until very recently were thought lost. Of those 74 half-hour plays only 40 survive, 31 are missing and there are only short extracts from three more. In fact, my research has revealed that 45 of those 74 plays were actually wiped or junked after transmission – a sign, perhaps, of the impermanence of the half-hour television play. Ten have subsequently been recovered from domestic recordings, made on Phillips 1500, which was the case with The Actual Woman, or VHS cassettes, which was the case with Pig Bin. Simon Coward, who is here with us at the conference, has reconstructed one more Second City First, Barry Reckord’s Club Havana, from the unedited studio material that survives. [Since the conference, one more Second City First has been recovered. Thwum (22 November 1975), written by Mike Stott and directed by Pedr James, features the first screen appearance of Pete Postlethwaite. It will be shown as part of Missing Believed Wiped at BFI Southbank on 16 December 2017.]
So this is why we’re able to show The Actual Woman and Pig Bin today. Jack had a Phillips 1500 cassette of The Actual Woman, which he wrote, which was donated to Kaleidoscope last year and when I was talking to Tara after a screening of two other Second City Firsts at BFI Southbank in February she told me she had a VHS copy of Pig Bin, which was previously thought lost. So we’re delighted to be able to screen these two lost Second City Firsts today and I look forward to talking to four of the people who are responsible for writing, directing and acting in them after the screenings.
The Actual Woman was shown in the second series of Second City Firsts on 11 March 1974, written by Jack Shepherd, directed by Philip Saville and it features the late Tom Bell in the leading role. Pig Bin was shown in the third series of Second City Firsts on 28 October 1974, written by Brian Glover directed by Tara and featuring Philip Jackson. Because these were recorded on domestic formats the quality does vary and there are a few glitches, especially in The Actual Woman, but I hope it won’t spoil your enjoyment of these dramas.
LC: I wanted to start off talking about The Actual Woman and ask Jack about the background to it, because I believe it was your first drama script for television?
JS: Yes it was the first anyway. I think the most interesting thing about it is not to talk about the content of it so much as how it came to be on television. It started out as an idea for Second House, a BBC2 arts programme on Saturday nights that took up the entirety of the channel for about four hours I think, hosted by Joe Melia, with different items being shown. In the ones I was involved in, usually doing sketches with Eleanor Bron and John Bird, I met Olivier Messiaen, Stockhausen, people like that. It wasn’t just classical music that was being shown, there would be popular music, there would be a play, there would be items/discussions about the state of the arts and it occurred to me, viewing this from the point of view of being in the sketches, that the plays being done were denying the atmosphere of the event.
You have to imagine a BBC studio packed with guests, seats I think on three sides and a kind of arena in the middle and then into that you’d put a television set and the play would happen, and I thought that’s kind of missing the point, what if it’s more like theatre and the play happens in the arena with no set at all and the actors involve the audience as they would do in a play, they take the audience into account and they may even have soliloquies where they can address the audience, and also, taking a leaf out of Bill Bryden’s book, who we’d both worked for [gesturing towards Philip Jackson], I thought what if I introduced music into the mix by using whatever band turn up on the night and trying to combine the efforts of the actors, the writer, the director and the musician and the audience and involve it all in a kind of collective experience. I have to say that the things we were involved in with Bill Bryden involved folk music usually, where the play would be performed in scenes, which would be rounded off with a song from say the Albion Band or Fairport Convention, or Steeleye Span at one point, whoever was playing, which would end the scene and establish a vibration, an idea for the next one.
So I thought if I take that idea and use it in this context of the arts programme and have a psychological drama, not an epic story, I might have something. So, I wrote it like that and gave it to Tony Staveacre, who was producer at the time, who read the script, liked it and said ‘We can’t do it, much as I like it, because they’re taking us off the air in a few weeks, so it’s not possible. But I’ll send it on to Birmingham and see if anybody likes it there.’ Which is exactly what happened, so what you were watching is a thing that was not designed as the short film that Philip directed but was designed as a way of harnessing the collective talents of a group of people on a Saturday night on BBC2 in 1973. That’s how it all came into existence.
LC: So was it your idea to retain the music and the shot of Phillip Goodhand-Tait singing the song at the beginning?
JS: Yes, if it had been done in the context I’m talking about, the band would have been there all the time in the background and the focus would have switched at the moments of the singing from the action to the band and from the band to the action and back again, as happened regularly in various enterprises that Phil and I were involved in.
LC: The structure is quite interesting because it shifts the point of view from one character to another and uses voiceover to…
JS: Well they were intended as soliloquies, where the actors would step, as it were, out of the action, as in an old-fashioned 16th century play and address the audience directly with what their inner feelings were, but of course in the context of a film it becomes their inner thoughts with an image that you’re watching either supporting or going against the thoughts that the character’s having.
LC: It gets us to see things from their different points of view and it kind of encourages us to empathise with them, but not exactly, because they’re not particularly likeable characters, are they?
JS: Well I mean, if I talk more about what the piece is about, it does come from a notion of multi-viewpoint theatre which was very prevalent at the time, where the actual events that you witness as an audience change according to the point of view of the character. So I was in a play by David Halliwell some years before that, called Muck from Three Angles (1970), where you see the same event three times, each time from a [different] character’s point of view. There’s two suburban housewives in Brighouse and this kind of idiotic salesman turns up at the door with a suitcase full of rubbish and tries to sell them things. You see it from the point of view of one of the housewives who’s frightened of this stranger, then you see it from the stranger’s point of view and he’s a kind of Saint doing great works for charity, who is deeply sexually attractive and inspired by God and you see it from the third character’s point of view who thinks he’s a complete idiot, in part three. So I was certainly influenced by theatre where the drama is to do with the shift of viewpoint.
I was also looking at my father’s family who are from Yorkshire and my father’s brother who had lived a completely secluded life since the war. I now know, since I wrote the piece, that he had Combat Stress Disorder, which I didn’t know at the time. I later went to see him just before he died in the eighties and he told me about his role in the Battle of Anzio and he became so involved in what had happened at the Battle of Anzio that he got under the table and was holding an imaginary rifle and sweating. His sister came in – they were both spinsters, they both had never married, they both never had any kind of emotional or sexual lives – she took one look at him (she was about 70, he was about 65) and she said ‘Oh get out from under that table will you! I don’t know, I just – I don’t know what the matter with him is’. I didn’t know that a lot of his behaviour was because of the enormous stress that people who fought the war went through, I didn’t know that at the time, so it’s not in the piece that you saw but it is a kind of portrait of him.
LC: It is a psychological drama isn’t it.
JS: Yes, it’s a drama where they each have the wrong idea about each other. Their point of view of each other is misguided all the time, and yet the married couple do have each other to hate, and that’s something, and the other character has nothing. They imagine that he’s at one with nature and that he’s got a beautiful peaceful life in the country and he imagines that they’re living happily and living a completely fulfilled life and the piece is about the fact that they’re both wrong.
LC: Philip you were responsible for this transition from a studio piece to filming on location. Can you tell us about the filming of it?
PS: Yes, Barry Hanson, the producer, we’d worked on a series called Gangsters which is set in Birmingham and then later over the years, during that time we became friends and then he said, ‘I’ve got an interesting project here’ and I said ‘Well, what’s that? Anything interesting I want to get on the bandwagon’ and he said, ‘Well it’s three characters who are kind of mixed up’ and I said, ‘Oh really, what’s that?’ ‘Also,’ he said, ‘it would give you an opportunity to try out this new camera’. Now plays mostly were done in the TV studio and they were done with big camera pedestals and big cameras which at that time had turret lenses etc, etc, one or two of them had the zoom, and I said, ‘What do you know about this camera?’ and he said, ‘Well you know, it’s new-ish, it’s kind of news gathering and it’s portable, it’s about this size’, he indicated, and I said ’Oh well that sounds good.’ So I went up to Birmingham and saw the camera and there it was, that kind of shape, this kind of wide [he indicates] – does it sound familiar today? Anyway, I said ‘Yeah, what about sound?’ ‘Yes it’s totally equipped with sound’ and I said ‘What separate booming or separate microphones?’ ‘Yes’ and he said ‘and here is the script, it’s by the actor you know very well’ who played Renfield in my production of Count Dracula (BBC2, 1977) and he was pretty damn good.
Anyway, when I read it I saw it as a little film. I didn’t know anything about the background of the characters because it didn’t emerge very much in the script and I saw it as a film. And when you go outside it’s quite different from being inside a studio, you have to contend with all kinds of extraneous noises and sounds which the sound department drive you mad about, trying to say, ‘I think we’ll have to go again!’
Anyway, I took it on, Barry and I knew that we liked to do things that were, not experimental exactly, but a little adventurous. So, when I went to the location, which was up in the hills behind Birmingham where the studios were, I was amazed! It was like being in the deepest country, forests and everything, and of course we never had seen any of this on television, and the thing about it was that I began to see it as an exterior film, about three people who were not exactly in harmony, two of them were married and the other one had the heartstrings for the woman and she wasn’t getting on with her husband, or she was, or she was torturing him, or vice-versa, which happens in marriages of course. So I proceeded to structure it, we went and looked at locations and we found them and we had a budget – very minimal – and we had a shooting schedule – even more minimal – and we started doing it. And I found that the actual place, the exterior, contributed constantly. So just when I think I’m going to shoot it like this, like this, like this, something said no wait a minute, have a look from the other … you know it’s a very good thing when you make films, when you get a fixation about an angle you should turn 180 degrees and have a look at it from the other side because it’s amazing how stupid you feel when you thought of your original plan.
Anyway, we started doing it, we cast it, we had a wonderful, wonderful cast and Jack came quite a bit and I begged him to be in it and he said ‘No, no, no, no’, he was probably starring in some wonderful production. Anyway, so I started shooting it and the thing I noticed in the schedule was the weather. It was every season you could imagine, but not happening in the season’s time but happening every 2 or 3 hours! It would go from unbelievably grey and foggy to brilliant, dazzling sunshine to freezing cold, sleet falling etc, etc. So I said, like I usually say, ‘Whatever happens, use it’. That’s what I say to actors when actors say ‘Look I can’t understand this, can you explain?’ I say ‘What can’t you understand?’ and they say ‘Well how do I get there, and it worries me, in the part’ and I say to the actor ‘Use it, because that’s going to be real.’
There’s one moment I remember, the actress was so cold that she went blue in the face and the cameraman said to me ‘Philip I don’t think we’re going to be able to cut this in, because come and have a look at this’. We had a tiny little monitor then which was supposed to be an immense improvement because you could actually carry it around with you – bit heavy – but you could carry it around. Anyway, I looked at the picture and it’s true – she was blue! So the make-up artist said ‘I’m doing all I can Philip, but if I put too much amelioration on her face and everything it will start pancaking and looking not real.’ And the poor actress was literally shuddering, I’ve never seen anything … I remember her legs – because she had quite nice legs – and she said, ‘I can’t keep them still I’m so cold!’ Then an hour later we were taking off our clothes, it was unbelievable! But you get that when you make films on location and of course we don’t have to do it so much today because we can create, such is the change in technology, in post-production, you can actually put the whole thing in the studio and create anything: the sea, in boats, anything in the country, flying, we can do it all by computerised CGI, etc, but then you had to still shoot everything for real.
Anyway, this play grew on me and the characters and in a way, for those people who have been married for a while, various things in your play came home very true. I remember asking the actors – please you can’t act it out, we can’t see the acting. It’s funny because actors spend all their lives learning how to act, only for them to learn how, when they’re acting, not to look as if they’re acting!
LC: Can you remember how much rehearsal time you had before you shot it?
PS: Yes, we rehearsed of course in a nice warm room etc, and we didn’t have very much, it was about six or seven days.
LC: Given that it was shot on video rather than film…
PS: Well that was another thing of course. I used to rush up to wherever the video guy was, muffled up to the hilt, and I remember on about the third day we managed to get a little personal monitor for me, but I used to have to go up there. Of course, the recording centre of the camera had his own monitor and I remember having to rush up a hill, rush down a hill again, I mean it was like a workout, the whole thing, it was extraordinary. The thing I mostly remember about the experience was it was the nearest thing to filming on one camera and that was an incredible experience when you remember at that time directors were asked to conceive their productions, mostly in the studio of course, on three or four cameras if you were very fortunate, because you had to keep always one camera in the studio on standby in case one of the other cameras broke down. You’ve got it lucky you guys!
LC: Presumably it was cheaper to shoot it on video rather than shoot it on film, was there a financial incentive there?
PS: Yes of course, film cameras then used film, as you know, with sprockets etc. We had 16mm film, with sprockets on one side.
LC: It was shot on single camera.
PS: Yes, single camera. I remember I wanted to do a lovely panning shot when the character in his trauma and misery was running the emotion out of himself. It’s like people that smash walls and damage their hands, etc to get rid of the core suffering. He was wonderful, the actor doing it, because I thought he might have broken his ankle and I think we did it in one shot too, the cameraman was very, very good. It was a new experience so we had to be very patient with each other, you couldn’t have too many studio tantrums and Barry Hanson the producer was an angel and very, very helpful.
LC: There was an amazing shot of Alec running through the forest, running away – was that difficult to achieve?
PS: Yes, it was, because it was a small camera and it was put on a tripod and it was on a longish lens and it was wide-ish, but then I remember we moved in on him all the time. It’s the sort of thing today you see all the time on tennis matches.
LC: Tara, you were the script editor on The Actual Woman, what was your role?
TP: Very little, practically nothing!
LC: I just wondered how you worked with Jack on it?
TP: Well the thing about a script editor, the script editor’s there to get the script into some sort of order and then be a sort of link between the writer, who needs a bit of help to talk to the director and then dealing with the producer, but it wasn’t really necessary in this case, so the best thing was just to let them get on with it!
PS: You were in the car in the warm having a flask of coffee!
TP: Well most of the work has to be done beforehand and obviously Jack had worked on it and obviously got it ready to go on to this other show, then Barry had taken it, then they’d talked about it, then they’d worked out how they were going to film it. They didn’t really need me to say anything at all. So probably yes, I did come out one day and sit in the warm and say ‘How’s it all going? Oh good!’ and that’s probably all the contribution I made!
PS: How different was the actual screenplay, was it much different to the original?
JS: No, the children were not in the original, they were added.
LC: Would have been around the same length as what you had envisaged for Second House?
JS: Yes, the plays were half an hour.
LC: Was it Second House or Full House? Because Second House was a successor to Full House.
JS: Well I remember it as Second House, maybe it was Full House. It started out as Full House – the ones I was involved in with Joe Melia were with an audience.
LC: Let’s talk a bit about Pig Bin, because that was your directorial debut Tara, can you tell us how that came about?
TP: Well, it was obviously an extreme studio piece and I went on the BBC directors course and you have to do a five-minute piece for that and so I asked Brian Glover if he’d write me a little two-hander to do and he did. Then Barry Hanson saw that and said we ought to expand it and that’s how it came about. It turned into a three-hander.
LC: So, Brian wrote it as a short piece and then developed it into a half-hour?
TP: Yes, it was basically the same story – it was the two guys in the pig bin but then it was expanded to half an hour.
LC: There seem to be only two or three cameras being used?
TP: Yes, yes.
LC: Was it filmed continuously?
TP: No, it was like all the studio shows were done then – you would rehearse the piece for a week or so and work out how the whole thing would be choreographed. In this case it needed a bit of choreography to have some sort of movement and what’s quite good, looking at this, is that the acting does stand up, because the acting has to carry practically the whole weight of the piece. So you rehearse very intensely with the actors to get the performances right and work out the way the cameras are going to be. Then you went into the studio for one day and rehearsed the cameras all day long and then the thing was shot in two hours. So it wasn’t shot continuously. I mean it had evolved from the time when they tried to make it so it was continuous, so that gradually editing crept in more and more, so it was not shot continuously.
LC: It feels almost like it. Philip what do you remember about the recording?
PJ: Well when you did studio drama you spent this time in the rehearsal room and then at the end of the week, usually a week, when you got it sort of ready, there’d be what you’d call a producer’s run. The producer came in and then you’d do it, it was like a performance really, you’d be petrified, because all these technicians suddenly arrived, lots of them actually, about fifteen people suddenly there with clipboards.
TP: You’d have to get your camera script ready before the producer’s run and all the technicians would get the script, where you’d written down basically exactly what the shots were going to be for every single bit of the mix and they would come in, so the sound person would be thinking ‘Oh when they speak they’re going to be like that, he’s going to be here, he’s going to be there’, so that’s what they’d be doing.
PJ: But as a performer you’d do the whole thing, like a dress rehearsal, if you like.
TP: But they’d be all wandering around making notes.
PJ: Yeah, then you’d go to the studio and you’d break it down a bit so you wouldn’t do it continuously, but it was done in order, wasn’t it?
TP: Yes, it was done in order, but you didn’t have to get through the entire half-hour piece without a break.
PJ: No, but we sort of could have done!
LC: It certainly gives that impression, so it would have been about two hours of recording?
TP: Two hours, that was it. I mean, ten minutes overtime was like a negotiation, that was terrible. Philip [Saville] will know this, it was like running an army and I’m not a General but that’s what it was like. First of all, you were far away from the actual action, everything was happening on the floor with all the technicians and the cameramen. You were upstairs, up a flight of stairs to get up and down, so you tried to communicate through your PA on the floor, with the vision mixer, and only if things got a bit rough you’d say to people on the floor ‘I’m coming down!’ and it was like ‘Oh God, she’s coming down!’ That means it’s far too important to go through us, she’s actually coming down! So, there’s this disconnect between actually being with the actors and the camera and everything, with the vision mixer virtually editing in front of you and you have to tell him which camera to go for, so you have to marshal this sort of army of people and somehow keep some sort of momentum and fluidity.
PS: You would probably have a camera shooting script, to which she or he [the vision mixer] would refer.
TP: Oh yes, they’d all know what they’re coming to next: ‘Coming to 3 next’.
PJ: And also, theoretically, it was all supposed to go continuously. Obviously this play was only one set but I’ve been on productions where there might be five sets in the same studio and what they did was, you do a scene in one set and then they’d put ‘tape run’ and the idea was everybody scuttled over to the next set and you carried on. Now, theoretically that should just have gone on and on and on for the whole evening, but of course it couldn’t possibly.
TP: That’s how live television was.
PJ: Yes, so what they were doing really was a hangover from live television, the idea was that it would go on and on, but of course it fell apart.
TP: The shooting script, the camera script, the Bible camera script which you were supposed to have ready for this thing was not really supposed to change. It was supposed to be that actually it was pretty much set so that everybody on the floor, knew that when he said that you were coming to them, then it was them, then it would be a two-shot here, then it would be that, so that any changes was like ‘Oh…’ I can remember at one point a lot of head-shaking going ‘Why don’t we put the camera on there?’ and a lot of ‘Our camera scripts are looking like a terrible mess’ because I had changed things, because you had to, obviously, but you were supposed to be as prepared as possible.
PJ: That’s like Philip saying you line up a shot that you love and then realise that you should be doing it from 180 degrees round.
TP: But in the studio, the camera script would be printed off and given out. The week’s rehearsal went to, say, Thursday, then on Thursday night you’d have to spend the whole night writing this camera script to hand it in so that it could then be given to everybody. People then, to have a relatively easy life in the studio, wanted you to vaguely stick to it, which you did have to, but you could improvise a bit.
LC: The accents are quite strong which is what gives it its regional quality I think, despite the fact that it’s recorded just in the studio, and there were some comments I read in BBC Programme Review Meeting minutes from people on BBC management, saying ‘I couldn’t understand …’, particularly the young boy in it and yet one person said, ‘Actually I couldn’t understand it but my young son had no trouble at all.’ They’re quite strong, I mean you’re not a Yorkshireman, but…
PJ: I nearly am, eight miles from the border, so it wasn’t a big stretch. But that was an era when the attention to detail about, not just accents but in this case accents, was so enormous. It was that whole tradition – which was led a lot by directors at the Royal Court, people like Lindsay Anderson – where virtually, if you went up for a David Storey play that was set in Wakefield and actors lied and said, ‘Oh I’m from Wakefield’ and he more or less said ‘Which street?’ and if you were more than 300 yards from where he thought then you wouldn’t get the job!
TP: We had auditions where people would come in and somebody would say something and we’d go [sighing], ‘South Manchester’.
PJ: Now they couldn’t care less – he said bitterly! – but in a play like this you’ve got to believe that these two fellows, these two supporters are really from backend of Leeds. Jack’s actually from Leeds, he’s probably got a few things to say!
LC: Was it authentic?
JS: The lad sounded more Barnsley.
TP: He was from Barnsley.
JS: You sounded more Leeds [to Philip Jackson].
TP: But the kid, we just found him. He hadn’t done anything before or since.
LC: I was wondering what had happened to him.
TP: He went t’bad apparently.
PJ: He was from Pontefract wasn’t he?
TP: Yes, that’s where he was from, Pontefract – he went to’t bad they said. He went to prison.
PJ: A wrong’un. He was a bad lad.
JS: Lot of talent, he’d got.
TP: Well he was carrying half of it!
LC: Just before I open it up for audience questions, I just wanted to ask generally about the half-hour play and the advantages and disadvantages of the half-hour form, which we don’t see so much on television these days, apart from in sitcoms, like Raised by Wolves [featuring Philip Jackson]. I suppose the nearest equivalent today is the BBC afternoon series Moving On (BBC1, 2009-), although they’re 45 minutes rather than half an hour.
JS: That’s all that’s left I think.
LC: There’s a Sky Playhouse series which is half an hour, but I’m thinking of the single half hour play as opposed to EastEnders or whatever. What were the advantages or the disadvantages of the half-hour play?
JS: Well I certainly miss it, no doubt about that. I think above all else what I miss is the point of view of the writer and so many programmes you see that are very well written, very well acted, you know, extremely entertaining, don’t really have a point of view to them, don’t have a vision that the author’s trying to get across.
If you’ve got someone like Bleasdale writing about Liverpool you get a blistering point of view about working class society, working class problems – it’s fantastic! But I think at the moment it makes the BBC, for example, very uncomfortable to have a left-wing point of view put so vehemently and they kind of avoid it. ITV has always been very careful about what kind of drama it puts on, so it’s more profitable and much easier to put on series and to kind of eradicate the point of view of the writer, with either a journalistic view about a topic, or a subject, or a problem, or a story. Or else it becomes a kind of spun out thing where the company is standing to make a lot of money through world sales and they aren’t keen anymore to invest a smaller amount of money in a single thing that may not realise any profit at all. But I certainly miss it and not just as a place where people can, as Philip was saying very eloquently I thought, how you can learn to do the job and to advance it technically in terms of your knowledge and understanding of it. This Story of Yours [Talking to a Stranger (BBC2, 1966)] by John Hopkins, four plays, I remember that vividly. Multi-viewpoint, same events shown four times about the collapse of a family – absolutely fantastic.
LC: You went on to do a couple more for BBC English Regions Drama: Underdog (1979) and Clapperclaw (1981), which you’d done in the theatre, had you?
JS: No, they were not so much psychological dramas, one was a sort of satire really on world politics, spies, a kind of surreal satire on world events about which I have no control whatsoever, and the third one was based on the book The People’s War (Angus Calder, 1969), which some of you may have read, and was a look at all those people that made money out of the Second World War, who stayed at home and didn’t get shot, didn’t put themselves in the firing line, and made enormous fortunes.
PS: Apropos what you’re saying, most people, I think, who watch television as entertainment look and demand a story, a good story, would you say? Now it could vary, from person to person, what a good story is, but now, particularly in ITV, the success of many of the top dramas is based upon very deliberate manipulation of characters, where you can see the writer at work or indeed the script editors at work, but of course when we get to part three you’ll be able to reintroduce the character. So I think that this has become quite a fine art in the big companies now and a lot of very top writers are brought in or schooled in how to be moving on in the story, to move it on with a sort of ‘vroom!’, like that. So people suddenly are going from fidgeting, they’re looking ‘Oh, what’s going on?’ So these little ‘vroom’ things I’ve just talked about, they’re very important now in modern TV. They’ve always been, because in the big stories – the great classic stories – they were always there and that’s why when the BBC does so many terrific classic revivals they’ve got this solid storytelling, which they can refine, or change, or heighten. So I think a good story is really very important. No matter how technically good, how brilliantly you shoot it and how brilliantly you act it, you can act fairly second rate in a fantastic story and the public won’t notice.
TP: But I think the half-hour form, I think it will never go back onto TV. TV’s just gone into something completely different. I think there are people though, who want that and people are doing it online now.
TP: People are doing the very simple – the equivalent of Pig Bin – a very simple two-hander or something in one set – not in a one set like the studio – but they’re putting that stuff online because it’s just about achievable on a very small budget and I think a lot of young people who don’t really want to make the kind of TV that’s being made now, who have a voice, that’s the thing I think with Second City Firsts, most of the plays had a voice, some of them were good, some of them were less good, but there was always a voice behind it of somebody wanting to try and do something and I think that impetus now is very, very difficult to get with untested people on TV and I think they’re doing it online, which is actually, I think, a very positive thing.
Simon Farquhar: This is a question for Tara, did you find it difficult to become a female director in that period?
TP: No, I didn’t really but I didn’t carry on being a director so maybe that speaks for itself. It was just too hard.
LC: You did a few more, didn’t you?
TP: I did a few more, but what I mean is I didn’t carry on to have a career as a director.
SF: So, doing the directors course wasn’t a way in?
TP: Well, I was already in the set-up and David Rose was a very helpful and accommodating man and he wanted people, he wanted me, so that wasn’t difficult. I just think it was a very hard world to be in and that’s why a lot of women became producers, because it was an easier road to go down.
Christine Geraghty: I just wanted to say about the half-hour business that Playhouse Presents (2012-), which is on Sky Arts 1 I think – so no one watches it – actually has had some quite interesting half-hour plays.
TP: They’re very star-heavy though aren’t they?
CG: Yes, they are very star-heavy and also the star gets to direct, but they are quite interesting, they obviously aren’t saying the same things, but they demonstrate the value of the half-hour play, and there is of course now Inside No. 9 (BBC2, 2014-) which is actually really clever and again it’s not got the political side to it that we’re seeing here.
TP: Yes, the one all in that couchette was like Second City Firsts, could have been a Second City Firsts actually.
Leah Panos: Coming back to Full House, which Jack was talking about, I wonder if you remember The Education of Skinny Spew (BBC2, 1972) which had you and Brian Glover in it and it was just such an explosive [inaudible] – I don’t know whether you remember it.
JS: I do remember it.
TP: That was the one Pam Brighton directed, wasn’t it?
JS: It was yes. She’s just died, hasn’t she? The thing I remember most about that, is that I had to wrestle with Brian Glover. I think it was the third time I’d done it in different contexts, so I was not unprepared. But of course, I just had to be more or less acrobatic and he would do all the moves. One of them was me throwing him in a flying mare, where I go over backwards, put my foot in the air and throw him into the air backwards, but of course he’s jumping and he got so carried away doing this, live television, with the adrenaline and the excitement of it he forgot it wasn’t a canvas ring and he landed on the concrete on the flat of his back, dropping from about five feet and there was this noise like ‘errrh’. He went deathly white and I thought he’s not going to get up, he’s not going to be able to get up, he might have haemorrhaged on the inside. But Brian was tough and he got up and continued.
TP: And it was live as well.
JS: Live, the odd thing about live television, there’s an illusion at work. For example, on an earlier Full House I’d watched a play with two actors in a kitchen having an argument, and I was in the audience and I watched the rehearsal and I knew that they were nervous and terrified of forgetting their lines, but I thought well they’ll get through it. Come the performance I can see that they’re both white with fear and they can’t lift up the things in the kitchen without them shaking because they’re so frightened. I can see them about three or four feet in front of me, because I was very close, and I can see the monitor which is giving me the shot. Now, I can see that they’re just about able to get through it. They’re turning away from camera and taking these agonised breaths in terror and somehow getting on with it, but when I look at the monitor they just look self-possessed. None of the fear that I can actually see is registering on the screen. So with Brian, after he’s nearly killed himself by dropping onto the concrete, he just looks angry.
LP: Given that this is a conference about ‘forgotten’ television, I wanted to ask whether Philip had any roles that he’s particularly enjoyed or remember that you feel have now been somewhat ‘forgotten’?
PJ: It’s sort of tied up with this thing about half-hour plays, it wasn’t just half-hour plays, it was single dramas, like Plays for Today (BBC1, 1970-84), which were a bit longer, around an hour and a quarter or an hour and a half. They were all incredibly stimulating and they were all very crafted and very carefully thought out and there were just lots of those at that time and there was a real sense that everybody was trying to really create something very special.
One of the first ones I did was actually a Play for Today written by Brian Glover again which is about a bunch of pigeon people up in Barnsley. It was a fantastic play about relationships, sexual relationships, friendship, hope and disappointment, it had the whole damn thing in it and that’s what I miss, being part of that one single piece very beautifully made and very stimulating. In those days, because there wasn’t so much television to watch, you’d find everybody in the pub the next day was talking about it. That’s obviously not going to happen now, but it was exciting stuff. It was a very good time to be doing this kind of work.
LC: We have the producer of that particular play here, Ann Scott. It’s called Keep an Eye on Albert (BBC1, 1975). Jack, do you have any plays that we haven’t talked about, films, plays, TV, roles that you think have been forgotten that deserve to be remembered?
JS: Yes, there’s a lot of earlier things which have probably gone or they may be in the back of someone’s garage. There are things too that you’re quite pleased to forget!
LC: Such as?
JS: Like Frankenstein they come up out of the pit, to haunt me! It’s quite elusive this argument about how television has changed and was there a ‘Golden Age’? And was it all that much better? It’s a really tricky thing because it feels like, when you look back, in exactly the way that you’re describing, that there were more options for us as actors in those days to contribute to some kind of serious drama on television. Since about 1990 really, you’ve just got to take what comes.
And of course, in 1974 when this was made, the British film industry was in a real pit. The films that were being made were not really all that good. It was a road that I particularly did not want to go down, particularly when television was offering such amazing options. I think maybe the focus has switched a bit by now, television is much more commercial and films have got an awful lot better.
PS: Yes, but don’t forget television now today, particularly plays, they’re films – they’re not plays. They’re screenplays, they’re shot like films, they use modern, up to date technology. They’re not like when we used to make ‘the’ television, when they were getting the 8.32 from Morecambe to some other part of the North of England and talk about it across the journey.
Now, there are at least ten on the same night, probably at least 3-4 days of the week, of TV plays, which are all films. You can spend a half an hour to go through every single one of the 350 channels to see how many old plays, old films, new ones, new series, advertisements telling you about what’s coming. Now, television-watching as entertainment has become much more unified in as much as themes of television, like family dramas, crime series, in other words, whole sort of sections like going to a library and seeing books about famous murderers or something. There’s a whole list of them and you’ll find it’s very, very difficult to pigeonhole any kind of structure in how one can…
Also, another thing, in some of the big dramas, there are at least eight executive producers and then there are eight more co-executive producers, that’s nothing to do with producers, associate producers, supervising producers, etc. Today it’s very difficult, you have to give it a title falling into some kind of drama – family drama, crime, something like that. The choice is enormous! If you’ve got the time tonight, those of you who’ve got smart TVs, which I’m sure you all have, just see how many – if you went through the list on your remote – how many dramas are in play, have just finished or just starting. It’s astonishing, don’t you think? It’s wonderful I suppose, but you were talking about standards, what do you measure them by? Do you measure them by the usual ratings? When you look at Variety, the sole thing they’re concerned with is how many people watched this – how it beat this one. This actor is moving over from RCA to CBS or Italian TV.
We’re living now, in terms of television, in a truly remarkable period, where it’s become totally bipolar. There’s a schizophrenia now in television such that there are many, many productions solely about people who suffer from this and the whole medium of television now, particularly drama, is gearing up for the ratings. I remember doing many years ago Jean-Paul Sartre’s In Camera (BBC1, The Wednesday Play, 1964), with a very distinguished cast and we never thought about this was on BBC2. No one asked ‘Will it get anybody to watch it? Who’s going to watch J.P. Sartre?’ No, we were doing it as part of the structure of that year in terms of drama. There were variations of course, they were also doing plays and comedies that weren’t on that level, which balanced it. I find now today there is very little up there and there is less down there on the bottom and there is much more in the middle.
TP: But there’s still some amazing series which inspire great loyalty and very, very, very high standards – amazingly high standards with wonderful acting and they often are ones where it’s been again one person who’s been able to drive through a vision – like The Wire or Mad Men – there is somebody at the back of that pushing something and they can stay true to it through five, six, seven, eight series, it’s amazing.
PS: But apparently the producers of Mad Men – a superb series, truly – fought for three years to get that made and they were already powerful producers.
TP: But what I mean is that it’s only with that amount of power and the vision that they can drive it through. Anyone else just gets sort of trampled.
PS: The trouble is it’s very easy for young writers to realise ‘Well there’s no good me wasting my time, I’ve got this fantastic idea, but I know it’ll be impossible to get it past the script editors, so I must write something that will maybe be a good part for a famous celebrity TV name’. I remember hearing from a very distinguished producer a few years ago saying to me – I won’t say who it is – ‘If you could write a piece for this particular person, I’ll commit to doing it immediately’. It was as simple as that. I’m a big fan of Miranda Hart, such an incredibly creative person, who writes, performs, etc, and how that got on television I don’t know – a lot of people say it’s a wonder how it got on television. But it’s very, not experimental exactly, but it’s very daring and I think we need much more of those things.
(In memory of Philip Saville, who died on 22 December 2016)
(Panel discussion transcribed by Steph Janes)