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1970s Angels Are So Few BBC Dennis Potter Only Make Believe Play For Today The Wednesday Play Writers

‘Tender Contempt’: Dennis Potter’s Love-Hate Relationship with Play for Today

by John Cook

‘The television play is virtually the last place on the box where the individual voice and the personal vision is central to the experience.’[1]

‘Play for Today !  Just for today !… Something easy, undemanding.  It’s all part of the commercial !  It’s all “pass the time”‘ !

How do we reconcile these two statements from the 1970s, both from the pen of Dennis Potter ?  Granted, the first is supposedly ‘fact’: the articulated views of the writer himself, addressing his peers at the 1977 Edinburgh Television Festival.  The second is allegedly ‘fiction’ – a typical angst-ridden outburst from Potter’s fictional TV playwright character Christopher Hudson (played by Keith Barron).  Hudson is venting his frustrations as he struggles to complete his latest TV play within Potter’s own self-referential Play for Today about the writing of a television play, Only Make Believe (12 February 1973).

Keith Barron in Only Make Believe

But as any follower of Dennis Potter knows, where reality ends and fantasy begins is always decidedly unclear within the work and the world of this particular writer. Comparing these statements, we can detect a tension, an ambivalence; one I would argue which runs through Potter’s work for Play for Today and which also opens up wider insights into the history of this period and the attitudes of some of its most prominent figures. Of course, the figure of Dennis Potter is hardly ‘forgotten’. His work ranks amongst the most remembered television plays written for the slot. Indeed, this site has already hosted an interesting comparison of Potter’s spy play Traitor (14 October 1971) with the work of John Le Carré.

What is perhaps less well remembered today, however, are some of the criticisms and anxieties which surrounded the existence of Play for Today and that were felt most keenly by those, like Potter, who had come of age, either as practitioners or viewers, with the earlier The Wednesday Play (1964-70).

For example, when the decision was taken to axe The Wednesday Play and to relaunch BBC1’s primetime contemporary TV play slot as Play for Today, open anxiety was expressed by some about what ultimately this would mean for the BBC’s long-term future commitment to the single TV play.  The most ardent champions of The Wednesday Play publicly worried that this spelled the end of an era of unprecedented freedom and experimentation in TV drama and that the move was a fairly blatant attempt by BBC management to mute those troublesome voices of the single play.  Stanley Reynolds of The Guardian went so far as to assert in February 1969 that ‘the Establishment’ were ‘always against’ The Wednesday Play and that this was why it had been killed off.[2]   The departure a month later of Sir Hugh Greene as the BBC’s Director-General simply reinforced Reynolds’ fears that as the nineteen-sixties were coming to a close, ‘the middlebrows’ within the BBC were on the march.  In words that echo criticisms from later decades of the BBC ‘dumbing down’, Reynolds wrote ‘the opinion is that something awful is going to happen, that the BBC will be aiming lower.  Programmes will not be daring nor artistic, nor intellectual and brother, they’re going to be a lot cheaper… The middlebrows, we are told, will be on the march…’ [3]

This feeling of a new wave of reaction and restriction was echoed a year later by Kenith Trodd, one of The Wednesday Play’s script editors now turned play producer, who complained that in 1970, you could do ‘anything that you liked at the BBC so long as it [was] about three girls in a flat or the six wives of Henry VIII !’[4]

It was against this backdrop of criticism and concern that Play for Today arrived in October 1970.  Doubtless this helps explain why the Radio Times felt it important to devote a four-page colour spread heralding the arrival of the new slot, under the headline ‘Men [sic.] with Something to Say’.  The spread carried individual interviews with the leading (all white male) playwrights whose new television plays would be featured during the first few weeks of the slot, including John Osborne, Clive Exton, Alan Sharp and Potter himself whose new play was announced as Angels Are So Few (5 November 1970).[5]

The intention was clearly to reassure audiences of the old Wednesday Play that while the time-slot may have changed and the production format was generally moving over to colour, otherwise it was business as usual and the BBC’s commitment to the contemporary single play had not wavered.  The BBC’s new Head of TV Drama Shaun Sutton (appointed in 1969 as permanent replacement for Sydney Newman who had helped launch The Wednesday Play in 1964-5), continued to fend off the criticisms, however.  A few weeks later, he was asked to respond in the letters page of the Radio Times to a viewer’s complaint that the ditching of the weekly Wednesday Play slot and its replacement with the ‘nothing title’ of Play for Today meant a weakening of the BBC’s commitment to the contemporary single play because now planners would be able to move productions around the schedule at will.  Sutton’s response was that the BBC remained resolute in its commitment to the contemporary single play and that the new time-slot would help win a new audience for it, away from the press reputation for controversy and ‘sleaze’ which The Wednesday Play had attracted and that Sutton maintained was increasingly putting off sizeable sections of the potential play-watching audience.[6]  The Head of Drama’s reassurances notwithstanding, suspicion clearly remained in certain quarters about the BBC’s motives for replacing The Wednesday Play with Play for Today.This context helps make sense of the sentiments against Play for Today which Potter inserts into the mouth of Christopher Hudson within Only Make Believe.  The play was written during the same period as Angels Are So Few and delivered to the BBC just three weeks after Angels, on 6 January 1970.  Rewrites and production delays meant that studio recording did not actually take place until September 1972.[7]  However, the script was originally subtitled ‘A Companion Piece to Angels Are So Few’ and the TV play that Hudson writes in Only Make Believe is none other than Potter’s own Angels Are So Few.  Scenes from Angels are recreated in the finished production, cross-cut with Hudson’s struggles to get his words and ideas down on paper with the help of a dictation typist. The two plays were clearly intended to be transmitted close together with each feeding off the other, creating a veritable hall of mirrors for the audience in which scenes from Only Make Believe would link across and help shine interpretive light upon scenes from Angels and vice versa, all the time raising uncomfortable questions for the audience as to the relationship of all of this to the ‘real’ Dennis Potter: the author named in the credits of Angels Are So Few.  In this way, Potter would have got his Play for Today career off to a flying start, with not one play but two.

Only Make Believe

Underlying Potter’s original intention can be discerned a growing disillusionment, even despair, on his part, with the one-off television play – or more precisely, with the quality of audience response it could provide.  Five years earlier, when Potter began writing for The Wednesday Play, he had expressed his excitement that with The Nigel Barton Plays ( 8 November 1965 and 15 November 1965), he could cut across all social classes and categories and with television reach both ‘coalminers and Oxford dons’ in ways he said he would never have been able to do if he had written, say, for the more elite environs of the theatre.[8]  In this respect, The Wednesday Play had seemed a perfect vehicle for his particular brand of challenge and provocation.  Potter had labelled it an ‘authentic lump of white gristle’[9] in the otherwise often all too bland diet of an evening’s viewing.

Angels Are So Few

But now, as the nineteen-sixties gave way to the nineteen-seventies and television production matured and entered the colour TV age, there was a growing sense that even this gristle would slowly and inevitably turn into homogenised, processed pap.  Potter may have declared in his interview for the Radio Times which launched Play for Today that television was still for him ‘the only medium that counts’[10] but he had already attempted to branch out and diversify into other media, including the creation of an unproduced feature film script and a putative commission from the National Theatre. More such attempts would follow as the nineteen-seventies progressed.[11]  His critical writing in this period shows an increasing disillusion with what the one-off play was capable of within the context of the shiny new age of the consumer society.  Potter began to lament of television that ‘the once named “window on the world” of brave old promise’ had become more like ‘a silvered mirror’ sending back images that we already know and do not want to change, selling ‘aerosoled reassurance during the programmes and aerosoled deodorants in between’.[12]  Too much of television, for him, was becoming one big long commercial, not challenging for change anymore but there simply to pass the time – the exact sentiments he puts in the mouth of his writer character Christopher Hudson.  What had begun to trouble Potter was the way in which the constant flow of images meant that every programme seemed to submerge into another until everything began to feel like the same kind of experience, even an original single play. It was this ‘landscape of indifference, hotly lit’ which, he said, defeated ‘the pride and passion of the writer’.[13]

Only Make Believe

Creating several thematically linked plays, or indeed a longer narrative over several weeks, was one way to escape this writer’s curse of the play ‘just for today’. It would become the direction of travel for Potter’s TV drama in the nineteen-seventies – at first, tentatively in terms of critical and popular success, with the six-part Casanova (16 November 1971 – 21 December 1971) and then resoundingly with Pennies from Heaven (7 March 1978 – 11 April 1978)  Note, however, the way both of these were described by Potter and the BBC at the time.  Potter did not regard Casanova as a six-part serial but instead ‘a single play divided into six episodes’.  It had arisen, he said, from a desire to do something more than a one-off that was ‘swallowed up as soon as the screen went dark’.[14]  Pennies from Heaven, meanwhile, was described as a ‘play with music in six parts’[15] in the Radio Times and transmitted during spring 1978 in the regular Play for Today slot of Tuesday evenings at 9.25pm, having emanated from the Plays Department under Potter’s now regular Play for Today producer, Kenith Trodd.

Angels Are So Few

Potter may have hated the idea of it being ‘just for today’ but clearly, the play was still the thing for him.  There was evidently as much love in Potter’s relationship with the single play and Play for Today as there was disillusion and dissatisfaction.  By 1976, he was able simultaneously to tell the Radio Times that the single play was nearly over and done with  (‘It will soon all be done on film and be a director’s medium like the cinema.  It only remains an author’s medium at the moment because of British anachronisms’) whilst asserting ‘But before it ends, I want to make a few defiant noises’.[16]

Only Make Believe

By 1983, however, he was lamenting that he may have created his last one-slot, ‘one-shot’ play for television.[17]  By this stage, he was writing (mostly unproduced) screenplays for Hollywood.  In this, he was by no means alone.  When Colin Welland famously declared at the 1982 Oscars ceremony ‘the British are coming’[18], it was partly a nod to the fact that numerous of his generation of colleagues who had worked on Play for Today had moved on to try their luck getting projects made in Hollywood.  This included not only himself and Potter but figures like Tony Garnett, Roland Joffé, Michael Apted and even Trevor Griffiths who had co-written the screenplay for Reds (1981).  Reds had been nominated for Best Screenplay Oscar alongside Welland’s nomination for Chariots of Fire (1981) (Welland won).  Potter’s screenplay for the MGM movie version of Pennies From Heaven had also been nominated at the same March 1982 ceremony for ‘Best Screenplay based on Material Adapted from Another Medium’ (losing out to Ernest Thompson for On Golden Pond [1981]).

Play for Today, meanwhile, struggled to survive within the more competitive nineteen-eighties which, by 1982, included the launch of Channel Four with its Film on Four initiative.  It finally came to an end and was ‘rested’ by the BBC in 1984.[19]  Potter, however, had grown rather sad at the death of the studio play and had decided to write a new script called The Last Television Play.  It consisted of a series of studio-bound scenes set in a London hospital and featuring a central protagonist, an author named ‘Nigel Barton’, who suffered from a dreadful skin disease called psoriatic arthropathy.  And thus was planted the seed of the idea that would eventually be expanded to become The Singing Detective (16 November 1986 – 21 December 1986).[20]   

It is important that the fiftieth anniversary of Play for Today is marked and celebrated. It is important not only as a fascinating, rich and historically significant period in its own right but because its era of challenge, experimentation and controversy gestures at different, alternative possibilities for television that are worth remembering, investigating and studying today.  As with most things in his work and life, Dennis Potter was ambivalent, complex and conflicted about Play for Today.  But perhaps what he once said about the past more generally can best be used to sum up his attitudes about this particular topic too:

‘I once said you should always look back on your past with tender contempt. Tender is important.’[21]

John Cook is Professor of Media at Glasgow Caledonian University and the author of Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen (1995).

Notes

[1] Dennis Potter, ‘Realism and Non-Naturalism’, Edinburgh International Television Festival, 1 September 1977.

[2] Stanley Reynolds, ‘Censored Drama’, The Guardian, 27 February 1969, p.8. This was a mock eulogy by Reynolds mourning and criticising what he regarded as the death of the ‘old-style’ Wednesday Play due to censorship and management caution following the BBC’s belated screening of The Big Flame (19 February 1969) and the fact that the play’s director Ken Loach and producer Tony Garnett had now left the BBC to work for Kestrel Films.  The actual demise of The Wednesday Play followed a year later when in April 1970, BBC Head of Drama Shaun Sutton announced a scheduling change for the slot for the coming autumn under the new title of Play for Today.

[3] Stanley Reynolds, ‘Middlebrows on the March’, The Guardian, 31 March 1969, p.8.

[4] Kenith Trodd, interviewed by Ann Purser, ‘In at the Birth and Death of Kestrel Productions’, The Stage and Television Today, 25 June 1970, p.10. Trodd was quoting approvingly the words of writer Keith Dewhurst with whom he had recently worked on the Kestrel Production for London Weekend Television: It Calls for a Great Deal of Love​ (20 December 1969).  The BBC programme references here are to Take Three Girls (1969-71) and The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970).

[5] ‘Men with Something to Say’, Radio Times, 8 October 1970, pp.64-8.

[6] See Shaun Sutton’s statement in ‘Yes, There is a Future for the Television Play’, Radio Times, 29 October 1970, p.64.

[7] ‘Notes’, Dennis Potter The Art of Invective – Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94, edited by Ian Greaves, David Rolinson and John Williams, London: Oberon Books, 2015, p.350. Potter’s digs against Play for Today were inserted during the rewrites.

[8] Dennis Potter, ‘Cue Teleciné, Put on the Kettle’, New Society, 22 September 1966, p.457.

[9] See for example, Potter, ‘The Only Meat was in the Cookery Class’, The Sun, 15 February 1968, p.14.

[10] ‘Television is the Only Medium that Counts’, interviewed by Gordon Burn, Radio Times, 8 October 1970, p.66.

[11] Potter’s first attempt at a feature film screenplay was The Sins of the Fathers in 1968, based on the life of eighteenth-century slave trader turned abolitionist, John Newton.  Around the same time Kenneth Tynan commissioned an original play from Potter for the National Theatre but this came to nothing.  In 1975, Potter wrote an unproduced screenplay adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman for director Fred Zinnemann. It was only when Potter met Hollywood director Herbert Ross in 1979 that he finally got his break into feature films, with his screenplay version of Pennies From Heaven, directed by Ross in 1981.

[12] Dennis Potter, ‘Introduction’, Follow the Yellow Brick Road in The Television Dramatist, edited by Robert Muller, London: Elek Books, 1973, p.303.  Interestingly, Potter’s critiques echo those of Jean Baudrillard in The Consumer Society, first published in 1970.

[13] Potter, ‘Introduction’, p.305.

[14] ‘Potter’s Path’, interviewed by Philip Oakes, Sunday Times, 7 November 1971, p.24.

[15] Radio Times, 2 March 1978, p.43.

[16] ‘The Values of a Playwright’, interviewed by Robert Cushman, Radio Times, 3-9 April 1976, p.62.

[17] Dennis Potter, ‘Some Sort of Preface’ (June 1983), Waiting for the Boat, On Television, London: Faber and Faber, 1984, p.32.

[18] Colin Welland, 54th Academy Awards Ceremony,  29 March 1982, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/entertainment-arts-34713325

[19] Though what tends to be forgotten is that BBC Scotland then led production on four seasons of BBC1 plays transmitted in the old Tuesday Play for Today slot: The Play on One (1988-91).  For further discussion of this, see John R. Cook, ‘A View from North of the Border: Scotland’s “Forgotten” Contribution to the History of the Primetime BBC1 Contemporary Single TV Play Slot’, Visual Culture in Britain, 18(2), 2017, pp.1-17.

[20] The Last Television Play is prefaced with the funeral of ‘Dennis Potter’ who, according to the presiding vicar, ‘choked to death on a small piece of rolled-up salmon’ half-way between England and the US whilst travelling on Concorde: the kind of ‘mid-Atlantic demise some of you, his worried friends’ had long predicted for his career. The early draft papers of what became The Singing Detective can be inspected as part of The Dennis Potter Archive, held at the Dean Heritage Centre, Forest of Dean, Soudley, Gloucestershire.

[21] Dennis Potter, Potter on Potter, edited by Graham Fuller, London: Faber and Faber 1993, p.98.

2 replies on “‘Tender Contempt’: Dennis Potter’s Love-Hate Relationship with Play for Today”

That was a fantastic read: such a great historical sweep to this.

I’m interested to explore more of what Potter made of other writers’ PFTs – he plays a role in discourses around Penda’s Fen, Abigail’s Party and Destiny, for starters… His Abigail’s Party review perhaps simplifies it in decrying sneering class snobbery, but then this was a snapshot from one viewing… I’ve had the chance to watch it perhaps five times where different layers become evident, not least in Alison Steadman’s performance. I love how Potter was an advocate for these Rudkin and Edgar Plays for Today which didn’t get the warmest public reaction overall, say, in comparison to Abigail’s Party. He was fearless, happy to be an outlier to the critical and public consensus.

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