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1970s, BBC, BFI, Billy Smart, Drama She Wrote, Equality Writes, ITV

‘Drama She Wrote’ – Women dramatists in British television drama in 1974.

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‘Within These Walls: Failing To Report’ by Rosemary Anne Sisson (ITV/ LWT 22 February 1974)

I was kindly invited onto the panel that followed the first screening in our ‘Drama She Wrote’ season at BFI Southbank (Seven Faces of Woman: Choice ITV/LWT 1974). The panel also featured Gail Renard (Chair of the Writers’ Guild Of Great Britain), Andrea Newman (the author of Choice, Bouquet of Barbed Wire ITV/LWT 1976 and A Sense of Guilt BBC 1990) and Lisa Holdsworth (who has written for New Tricks, Robin Hood, Ackley Bridge and Call The Midwife).

In the light of the WGGB’s recent Equality Writes report (which showed that ony 14% of prime time UK drama from the last fifteen years has been written by a woman) we discussed the status of women writers within British television drama in the past and present. I was invited on the panel in order to provide some historical context to the discussion. I decided to look at the representation of women writers within British telelvision drama in 1974 (the year in which Choice was made), and I present the findings that I made here:

There were 286 single plays on British television in the calender year 1974. Of these 286, 206 were original plays for television, while 49 were adapted from literary sources (novels or short stories) and 31 were adaptations of theatrical plays.

Of those 206 original television plays, 16 were solely written by women, with a further nine written by women in collaboration with men. In addition, five of the literary plays and one theatrical apaptation derived from works by women.

The term ‘single play’ covers a range of works, with variable levels of prestige attached to them – for example, a Welsh-language drama or a Schools production would not recieve the same degree of attention as a BBC Play for Today (1970-84). In order to further qualify our understanding, nine full-length television plays by women, plus a further five written in collaboration with men (and one literary adaptation taken from a source written by a woman) were nationally networked in 1974. They were:

26 Feb Playhouse: Weekend Guest (Pat Hoddinott, Anglia)

07 Mar Play For Today: Easy Go (Tony Ali, Paul Bishop, Brian Clarke, Peter French, Ronnie King, Cliff Norris, Janice Reeves, Paul Stuart & Deidre Walsh, BBC)

22 Mar Fall Of Eagles: The English Princess (John Elliot & Elizabeth Holford, BBC)

08 Apr Mary, Mary (Susan Pleat, ATV)

19 May Childhood: Easter Tells Such Dreadful Tales (Barbara Waring, Granada)

24 May Fall Of Eagles: Tell The King The Sky Is Falling (John Elliot & Elizabeth Holford, BBC)

16 Jun Seven Faces Of Woman: Let’s Marry Liz (Rosemary Anne Sisson, LWT)

22 Jun Thriller: In The Steps Of A Dead Man (Brian Clemens & Lunshya Greer, ATV)

30 Jun Seven Faces Of Woman: Choice (Andrea Newman, LWT)

07 Jul Seven Faces Of Woman: St. Martin’s Summer (Shelagh Delaney, LWT)

11 Aug Hearty-Crafty (Julia Jones, ATV)*

27 Aug Village Hall: Distant Islands (Donald Churchill & Julia Jones, Granada)

17 Sep The Person Responsible (Ellen Dryden, ATV)*

14 Nov Play For Today: Back Of Beyond (Julia Jones, BBC)

28 Nov Play For Today: Taking Leave (Joyce Neary, BBC)

09 Dec Horizon: Joey (Brian Gibson & Elaine Morgan, BBC)

14 Dec The Sun Is God (Ann Blaber & Michael Darlow, Thames)

30 Dec Haunted: Poor Girl (Robin Chapman from Elizabeth Taylor, Granada)

(Asterisked plays no longer survive in the archives. I’m not 100% sure about Pat Hoddinott!)

Women also wrote for series and serials. ITV transmitted two serials by women in 1974, Julia Jones and Donald Churchill’s jointly-written light comedy about an unwilling houseshare between a man and woman Moody & Pegg (Thames), and Yorkshire Television’s 13-part version of Winifred Holtby’s epic interwar novel South Riding (although that was adapted by a man, Stan Barsow).

No series, serial or soap opera on ITV in 1974 had a majority of female writers. Even programmes which concentrated on women’s experience and particularly appealed to women viewers – such as Upstairs, Downstairs (LWT) or women’s prison drama Within These Walls (LWT) – only featured four or five female-authored episodes out of series of 13. The percentage of female-authored episodes of ITV’s soap operas (Coronation Street, Crossroads, Emmerdale Farm and Marked PERSONAL) was under 20%, with no women at all on the writing team for daytime doctors-and-nurses serial General Hospital.

The picture on the BBC was slightly different, with one original full-length serial (The Case of Eliza Armstrong, about a famous Victorian newspaper investigation into child prostitution) being written by a woman (Alison Plowden), as well as two serials which derived from books by woman (Dinah Craik’s 19th Century classic John Halifax, Gentleman and versions of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey detective stories). Perhaps surprisingly, there were no female scriptwriters on Shoulder to Shoulder, the prestigious drama serial about the lives of the suffragettes.

BBC Children’s Television gave young viewers a wider introduction to literature written by women, broadcasting three serials in 1974, with versions of Heidi and two modern children’s classics, Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce and Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War. Women made very little contribution to adult drama series, however, with no female-authored episodes of Z Cars (a long-running police seies that ran throughout the year), for example.

In a sense, not that much has changed since 1974, in that women are still proportionally under-represented amongst the amount of dramatic writing that reaches British television screens (although it is unlikely that any long-running series would now have no women on it’s writing team). One thing that does strike me, though, is that although the percentage of women screenwriters hasn’t greatly changed, the sheer volume of single plays made for British television at this time makes it quite posible to construct a canon of female-written drama from the 1970s. We could easily have programmed six ‘Drama She Wrote’ seasons, and it is important to draw knowledge and inspiration through revisiting the substantial body of neglected dramas by women that did reach the screen that were made in this period.

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