Funny thing, television drama. It evolves. Slowly, imperceptibly, it changes, reshapes itself. Styles of performance which were once perfectly familiar and acceptable to the viewer fade, slip out of favour. The things we used to take for granted seem to be – when watched from a remove of several decades – like a transmission from an altogether alien world, so different does it seem to what we’ve been conditioned to expect.
It’s fascinating to track these changes. Watch much television drama from the 1950s and 1960s – especially the stuff shot on videotape – and it can appear to be much more akin to a theatre production. We’re observing actors on a stage, with the occasional film insert to open things out (or more usually to allow time for a costume change or camera movement). With much of television’s output shot live or as-live the little mistakes or errors don’t matter, and the words, the concept are the thing. In a really good television play you’ll be drawn right in to the underlying urgency and immediacy that a really good theatre production can give you, a universe of heightened reality which you’re glad to inhabit for the duration of the piece.
As time passes and technology enables more flexibility, television drama begins to shift. The ambition to make “little films” and – eventually – “films” – becomes obvious. Things open out, exteriors are utilised to greater effect. Directors become more ambitious. Shows appear which are shot entirely on location and on film. The origins of the form begin to blur as the necessity and limitations of studio give way to an altogether slicker and polished production. You can retake and reshoot, and suddenly everyone is word perfect. It’s funny, but you don’t really notice that everyone in television speaks in a unique argot where nobody talks over each other, never stumble mid-sentence and never, ever gets it wrong.
It’s why so many programmes these days choose a live transmission as a means of shaking things up a bit, making things special, marking anniversaries. It takes everyone back to the roots of the form. It’s been so long since this was commonplace that it becomes incredibly exciting. However far we’ve come, however slick we expect our television to be now, sometimes a good story well told by actors desperately holding it together against technical failure, memory loss and the unexpected strikes a chord. I still remember watching the live remake of The Quatermass Experiment and being stunned at the very concept that this was happening right at the same moment that I was watching it. It finished twenty minutes early because everyone was so fired with nervous energy that they gabbled much of the dialogue, rushed through scenes at twice the speed they’d rehearsed. It was electrifying. It’s like we all have a race memory of how things used to be – this is how it’s done, this is how it was, and it shows that no matter how much we develop the technique there’s still room for drama done in the old manner. You can tell fantastic stories with a single camera setup and a beautiful filmed production that’s been laboured on for months but for total immediacy you can’t beat the wallop of a live or as-live production.
Which makes the sort of television archaeology we’re able to indulge in nowadays fascinating. As more and more material becomes freely available to purchase we’re able to dig deeper into the past and enjoy programmes thought long forgotten. What was made for a single broadcast on a night decades ago is preserved forever, to be discovered by succeeding generations of eager viewers. Well, rather a lot of it. Unavoidable gaps in archiving can be frustrating – especially in television series with lengthy broadcast histories. In many cases the surviving material is vanishingly small – in others sufficient remains to give us at least a flavour of how a show developed. If we’re lucky we have enough to track the evolution of a really long-running, successful television institution.
Armchair Theatre was one such. The title gives it away – bringing the best of theatre into your living room on a weekly basis, it lasted for an incredible 457 episodes over twenty four years. From 1956 through to 1980 – unexpectedly giving birth to several spin-off series as it went – it was one of the finest achievements of UK commercial television.
In a world where it seems the anthology play appears to have all but disappeared (bar a few themed, short-run experiments such as the BBC’s Ghosts and the like), the breadth and depth of Armchair Theatre’s ambition is staggering. From classic adaptations, to hard-nosed spy-thrillers, to single-room dramas and science fiction pieces, it tried everything. The BBC had The Wednesday Play, Play For Today, Play of the Month and any number of other short-run strands, from Bedtime Stories to Dead of Night. Armchair Theatre did the lot.
As happens with all major successes it began to breed cliches and tropes of its own. Round The Horne affectionately parodied it regularly as Armpit Theatre, and if the number of spoofs of angry young men hissing furiously in darkened rooms about important matters proliferated throughout the sixties, it’s only because Armchair struck a rich seam, and mined it well. You don’t parody something that nobody recognises.
It was always so much more than that, though. No Armchair Theatre, no Callan (A Magnum For Schneider – broadcast during 1967 – proved to be the starting point for a wildly successful thriller series that redefined what could be done with the spy genre on television). A 1962 adaptation of John Wyndham’s Dumb Martian proved to be a dry run for a further anthology series of science fiction plays called Out Of This World, introduced by Boris Karloff – once those thirteen episodes had aired creator Irene Shubik took the idea to the BBC and produced what for this writer stands as one of the greatest science fiction series of them all in Out of the Unknown.
A series of retrospective DVD releases has been long overdue and it was with great pleasure that I devoured the first two volumes of Armchair Theatre from Network. Focussing as they did on the latter post-1970 run of the series, I’d always hoped that there’d be further volumes which would delve into the earlier shows. Now with volume 3, Network have done us proud. Eleven plays spanning 1957 – 1967 are here, plus another – Evan Jones’s Old Man’s Fancy– which was recorded on New Year’s Eve 1964 and never transmitted. I’ve tried without success to uncover just why it wasn’t transmitted. Even Leonard White’s definitive book on Armchair’s early years doesn’t shed any light, so any further information would be greatly appreciated. As for the rest… television archaeologists should gather up their trowels and notebooks, and start digging. There’s treasure here in abundance.
The baby of ABC’s managing director Howard Thomas, Armchair Theatre premiered on July 8th 1956 with The Outsider, produced and directed by Dennis Vance and starring David Kossoff, Adrienne Corri and Raymond Huntley. Thanks to long-term casting director Dodo Watts the programme would be guaranteed a steady stream of top-rated stars, performers at the beginning of a rise to greatness and – well, just great actors. The first season (41 single-play pieces) – drew upon the talents of William Franklyn, Anton Diffring, Andre Morell, Yvonne Mitchell, Michael Gough… even Gracie Fields. The second season (a further 44 plays) would be blessed with the likes of Harry H Corbett, Thorley Walters, Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliot… all well known, well loved faces.
When Dennis Vance decided to go freelance in 1958 Thomas managed to lure Sydney Newman from CBC in Toronto to replace him. Newman would go on to have a seismic effect on British television. Not content with imprinting himself on the commercial network with his work on Armchair Theatre and The Avengers (just to start with), he ushered in a massive shakeup at the BBC a few years later. While there – amongst many triumphs – he had an idea for a tea-time serial featuring an eccentric old man who travelled the universe in a battered police box. Definitely potential in that idea.
After a slow start, Newman gradually reshaped Armchair Theatre into a vehicle for the most promising of the new breed of writers. Alun Owen, Clive Exton, Harold Pinter, all were broadcast as part of the strand (Pinter commented that The Caretaker would have to be staged for thirty years continuously before matching the audience figures for his A Night Out, broadcast on 24 April 1960 and included here).
The perils of a live production could catch up with the team in the most horrible ways. Most notoriously, midway through transmission of Underground on 30th November 1958, actor Gareth Jones complained of feeling ill, collapsed and died. Director Ted Kotcheff managed to reorganise things on the hoof and got the show completed without the audience suspecting a thing.
Sadly, this episode is one of many Armchair Theatres which no longer survive. More than half the run is now gone – over 260 shows either destroyed or never recorded in the first place. Thankfully releases like this enable us to treasure and celebrate that which has managed to survive. There’s a fine representative sample here, beginning with the earliest known surviving episode, J.B Priestley’s Now Let Him Go (15th September 1957).
It begins in fine style with a splendid “Lights! Camera! Action!” title sequence before settling into a taut little piece about a successful artist – Hugh Griffith in fine form, hiding behind a huge beard which – if you’ve seen Quatermass II – renders him unrecognisable as that serial’s Leo Pugh, The Calculating Boy. Found in an amnesiac state in a railway carriage somewhere Up North, Griffith is soon ensconsed in a tiny little hotel and hovers close to death. The play focusses on the inevitable swirl of greed, sentiment and love that his closest relations and associates engage in while waiting for the old man to pass. There’s much to enjoy here, if you can get past the aggravating choice of a single brass instrument insistently repeating the same piece of music on the soundtrack (explained away as someone practising in one of the other rooms, it’s mixed intrusively high in what is presumably a deliberate decision to emphasise the claustrophobic nature of small surroundings in which people have to rub along together, unable to escape from their own quirks and failings). The eagle-eyed viewer may spot esteemed director John Schlesinger in the doubtless essential role of “Ticket Inspector”. Everyone has to start somewhere.
Each succeeding episode has something to recommend it, from Stanley Baker’s taut performance in the boardroom blackmail drama The Criminals (28th December 1958) to the aforementioned A Night Out. Repeated as part of Channel 4’s TV Heaven retrospective back in the early nineties this viewer was captivated by it then, and the intervening years have done nothing to diminish the psychological power of one of Pinter’s most disturbing dramas. The role-play, the identity switching, the casual cruelty… it really is something special.
Likewise Alun Owen’s Lena Oh My Lena (25th September 1960) – also repeated on TV Heaven, and probably the most representative “kitchen sink” drama here. A tale of social differences and people – as Owen put it – “evading the truth about themselves” – Billie Whitelaw, Peter McEnery and Colin Blakely all shine in the story of a young man facing up to the reality that what he thinks he is doesn’t necessarily chime with how the rest of the world sees him. Not that you see much on several occasions as a trailing flex or uneven studio floor plays havoc with one of the cameras – every time it makes even the simplest move the picture judders alarmingly. One imagines Ted Kotcheff frantically cutting away to another camera every time it happens, but it doesn’t matter. That immediacy and urgency carries it through. The strength of the drama surmounts all technical inadequacies.
A major highlight arrives with The Man Out There (12 Mar 1961). Patrick McGoohan stars as a Cosmonaut stranded in orbit who by a freak of atmospherics ends up in contact with a woman stuck in a tiny log-cabin in the middle of a storm. The woman’s child is grievously ill with diptheria and only the man thousands of feet above her can save her. It’s tailor made for McGoohan’s own brand of caged-tiger intensity and Katherine Blake matches him beat-for-beat. It has an ending which packs a real wallop, offers no easy answers or pat solutions and as a bonus even tells you how to perform a Tracheotomy with a biro. What more can you ask for from an hour of drama? Flippancy aside, it is a superb production, and probably my favourite here – other plays are possibly stronger, but this one has a particular power that makes it unique and I love it unreservedly.
The other pieces here all play games with a range of genres, from broad-stroke farce in A Tune On The Old Tax Fiddle (17 December 1961) to the perils faced by young women when confronted with the predatory older male (Afternoon of a Nymph – 30 Sep 1962). Ian Hendry shines with another sympathetic, layered performance – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him be anything less than superb – and the chemistry between him and Janet Munro as the titular Nymph is obvious (they would later marry). Fans of the particular brand of shark-eyed sleaze practiced by Aubrey Morris will be delighted to find him pitching up here.
The Omega Mystery (10 Sep 1961) displays an endearing trait of British television to pick up on perceived earlier successes and build on them, giving the public exactly what they want. Investigators Butler and Robinson from the earlier Armchair Mystery Theatre production Flight From Treason return to investigate sabotage at a nuclear power station – presumably, with that episode airing in April of that year the production team saw something in them that warranted further exploration and the round-the-year schedule enabled something to be commissioned and slotted in fairly quickly.
By the time you reach Fay Weldon’s Poor Cherry (9th September 1967) – a classic warning of mixing work with play, especially when your marriage is in tatters and you’re getting too close to a debonair young political candidate – you’ll be quite astonished at the sheer eclecticism these episodes show off. There’s a refusal to settle down, a restlessness, above all a willingness to experiment that it seems to me has always been the hallmark of the anthology play series. Play For Today and Wednesday Play had it too – it seems that the hothouse conditions of treadmill television can bring out the best in people and that’s certainly the case here. So many of the people here are beloved faces, so many of the production team would shape British television for decades to come. This is the commercial network coming to terms with exactly what it could do, and stretching the boundaries of what was and wasn’t permissible. Possibly they did it because nobody really knew at the time just what those boundaries were – but almost every play in this set is in some way innovative, groundbreaking or just plain damn entertaining. This one’s an essential purchase. Not just the best release of this year, but one of the most important releases of any year. There’s television history made within these twelve plays. Absolutely superb, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Just buy it. I promise you will not be disappointed.
Armchair Theatre is available now from Network DVD.