GRANVILLE WILLIAMS looks back to a time when TV took creative risks in tackling issues of racism, homelessness and unemployment affecting ordinary people
THE 1960s was a decade when, for the first time, convincing stories about ordinary people’s lives, capturing their speech and personalities, appeared on British television.
Among the protagonists were miners, dockers, building workers and political activists.
A crucial creative partnership in this radical upsurge was that between Ken Loach and Tony Garnett, when they worked on the landmark BBC Wednesday Play series.
The power of these dramas lay in the way they exposed social injustice by tackling the big themes of unemployment, strikes, homelessness and racism.
Garnett and Loach worked as producer and director on Up The Junction, Cathy Come Home, The Big Flame, The Rank and File and Days of Hope.
Political and social dramas, filmed in a gritty, documentary style, burst onto the TV screens and, while there isn’t a single explanation for the phenomenon, the space created by the 1960 royal commission on broadcasting policy proposal for a third channel was significant.
It led to BBC2 going on air in April 1964 and its head of programmes was Stuart Hood, a Marxist who had fought in the war with the partisans in the north of Italy. It was a time when Hugh Green, BBC director general from 1960 to 1969, encouraged risk taking and experimentalism.
The BBC recruited young directors, writers and script editors to staff the new service, people formed by the cultural and political changes post-1956 who were not restricted by practices limiting what you could, and could not, do in television drama.
They shared a desire to move away from what Lindsay Anderson, active in the mid-1950s with Free Cinema, described as “a metropolitan, southern English culture.”
Stanley Newman, who had run Armchair Theatre for the commercial ABC Television, moved to Head of Drama at BBC2.
“I am proud that I played some part in the recognition that the working man was a fit subject for drama,” Newman said, “and not such a comic foil in a play on middle-class manners.”
When Newman set up the Wednesday Play it was under the inventive producer James MacTaggart, whose achievements are still honoured in the annual lecture given in his name at the Edinburgh Television Festival.
But crucial also to the success of these plays was the scripts of people like Jim Allen, Barry Hines and many other writers whose talents were identified and nurtured through the BBC regional drama departments and ITV’s Granada.
Jim Allen began his career in 1965 writing scripts for Granada’s Coronation Street. He left the soap and moved to the BBC, collaborating with Tony Garnett on The Lump (1967), The Big Flame (1969) and The Rank and File (1971).
Hines was supported in his early work by Alfred Bradley, a key figure in charge of drama at BBC North, based in Leeds.
Bradley was so impressed with his radio play Billy’s Last Stand that he recommended that the BBC’s northern region give Hines a bursary.
Hines took a trip to the island of Elba and wrote A Kestrel for a Knave. Bradley also alerted Garnett to Hines’s work and started their creative collaboration on the film Kes and TV dramas like the two-part The Price of Coal (1977).
The plays achieved their impact because of the reality of the fictional world they presented. TV critics described them as documentary drama or “faction” because Garnett and Loach used lightweight 16mm film equipment in actual locations rather than in TV studios, often using untrained performers in the plays.
Predictably the subject matter and emotional impact of the work triggered angry coverage in the right-wing press. The recent documentary Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach covers some of the press response to his dramas.
In the end, it was politics that did for this strand of politically committed drama which thrived in the 1960s and ’70s. The last flowering was Boys from the Blackstuff, written by Alan Bleasdale and produced by Michael Wearing.
First shown in October 1982 on a BBC2 Sunday night arts slot, the publicity for it in the Radio Times emphasised the comic elements at the expense of the political thrust but such was the response to the five episodes it was shown again on BBC1 in a prime-time slot eight weeks later.
The 1979 election victory of Margaret Thatcher inevitably meant BBC managers would find it difficult to defend such productions in the face of constrained budgets and political pressure.
By the mid-1980s, the Thatcherite assault on the BBC intensified. Thatcher consulted Rupert Murdoch on who should take over as chair of the BBC after Stuart Young’s death and Marmaduke Hussey, who had worked for Murdoch, was appointed in September 1986.
He set about sacking director general Alasdair Milne, making sure that BBC creativity was curbed and centralisation accelerated later with John Birt in charge.
In 1976 there were over 50 producers in London and the regions empowered to commission new drama. By 1997 this had been reduced to three — the two channel controllers and director of programmes Alan Yentob.
As Garnett pointed out: “There was only one problem. This sort of control is the enemy of creativity... the main effect of the kind of supervision which penetrates into the details of productions, leading to artistic decisions being made further up the hierarchy, is to stifle the creativity which the organisation is supposed to be encouraging.”
Sadly, that’s what happened.
Granville Williams is the editor of Pit Props: Music, International Solidarity and the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. The booklet Barry Hines: Celebrating His Life and Work is available from CPBF North, 24 Tower Avenue, Upton, WF9 1EE. Cheques for £3.00 including p&p should be made made out to CPBF North.