Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

This pioneering book provides detailed analysis of scenes from nine British television dramas produced between 1954 and 2001. Taking dinner table scenes as a recurring motif, the study analyses changes in televisual style with reference to production practices, technology, aesthetic preferences, and social and institutional change.

Table of Contents

Frontmatter

Introduction

Abstract
Until recently, little attention had been paid to aesthetics in television drama — television studies scholars often opting for sociological or cultural analyses, with an emphasis on audiences, genre, politics and representation, or ‘literary’ analyses of authorial themes in the work of particular writers. Whereas the analysis of narrative form and visual style has been central to film studies, it has been more marginal in television studies. This may be due, in part, to the more ‘ephemeral’ nature of television — most programmes before 1960 were broadcast live (and not recorded), and many (recorded) programmes from the 1960s to 1970s were subsequently junked (if shot on film) or wiped (if recorded on videotape) because they were not thought to be of any real cultural or historical value. Additionally, most television dramas had lower production values, compared to feature films, and were not considered to be of sufficient aesthetic quality to merit detailed analysis, unless perhaps they were shot on film, for example The Prisoner (1967–68) or Brideshead Revisited (1981). It was not until the advent of ‘high-end’ drama,1 with its more ‘cinematic’ qualities, in the 1990s and 2000s, that ‘style’ and ‘aesthetics’ became accepted terms in the lexicon of television drama studies. Prior to this, such terms were largely absent from discussions of television drama.
Lez Cooke

1. Nineteen Eighty-Four (BBC, 1954)

Abstract
The BBC Sunday Night Theatre play, Nineteen Eighty-Four (BBC, 1954), is one of the earliest surviving examples of British television drama. The play was broadcast live on Sunday 12 December 1954, at 8.35 pm, and repeated the following Thursday, at 9.35 pm, when the cast reassembled in the BBC’s Alexandra Palace studios for another live transmission.1 It was this second performance of Nineteen Eighty-Four that was recorded, through the process known as ‘telerecording’, by filming the live transmission of the play from a television monitor as it was broadcast. Telerecording had first been demonstrated in 1947 but there were problems synchronising the film camera with the electronic television signal and it was not until the early 1950s that results were considered suitable for archiving. The earliest surviving recording of a complete British television drama is another Sunday Night Theatre play, It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer (tx.26 February 1953) and it is significant that it was plays from this prestigious Sunday evening showcase that were deemed worthy of preservation when other drama productions were not. Even so, only 24 complete productions survive from more than 500 Sunday Night Theatre plays broadcast between 1950 and 1959.
Lez Cooke

2. Coronation Street (ITV, 1960)

Abstract
The first episode of Coronation Street was transmitted live on Friday 9 December 1960 at 7.00 pm, almost exactly six years after Nineteen Eighty-Four was first broadcast. In the intervening six years, however, much had changed in British television. Coronation Street was produced by Granada Television, one of the Independent Television (ITV) companies that began broadcasting in the mid- to late 1950s, providing commercial competition for the BBC. With its network of 15 regional companies coming on air between 1955 and 1962, ITV targeted different audiences with a range of different programming. Needing to maximise audiences in order to attract advertising revenue, unlike the BBC which had a guaranteed source of income through the licence fee, ITV prioritised popular programming — quizzes, game shows, variety programmes — and was accused by its critics of deliberately going downmarket in order to attract viewers. Yet there was ‘quality’ programming too, not least in its anthology drama series — Armchair Theatre, Play of the Week and Television Playhouse — which formed an important part of ITV’s drama programming. There were also imported American series, such as Dragnet and Gunsmoke, and indigenous drama series produced by the ITV companies, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (ABC, 1955–59) and Emergency — Ward 10 (ATV, 1957–67).
Lez Cooke

3. The Bond (BBC1, 1965)

Abstract
The Bond was a BBC Wednesday Play, transmitted on 1 December 1965. Shown in the second series of The Wednesday Play, which also included three plays by Dennis Potter: Alice (13 October 1965), Stand Up, Nigel Barton (8 December 1965) and Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (15 December 1965), and three directed by Ken Loach: Up the Junction (3 November 1965), The End of Arthur’s Marriage (17 November 1965) and The Coming Out Party (22 December 1965), The Bond bears the hallmarks of innovation characteristic of the series, especially in the plays produced by James MacTaggart.1
Lez Cooke

4. Upstairs Downstairs (ITV, 1971)

Abstract
Two significant events occurred in British television in 1967: from January to July BBC2 serialised The Forsyte Saga, based on the novels of John Galsworthy, in 26 episodes. The serial realised a long-held ambition of producer Donald Wilson to bring Galsworthy’s late-Victorian/Edwardian saga to the screen and the dramatisation was the first big success for BBC2, attracting an average audience of 6 million (which tripled to 18 million when the serial was repeated on BBC1 in 1968). The second significant event also occurred on BBC2, in December 1967, when the channel started transmitting in colour. While the full switchover to colour did not occur until November 1969 when BBC1 and ITV started colour transmissions (and even then it was well into the 1970s before the new colour television sets were affordable for many people) the introduction of colour on BBC2 marked the beginning of the end for black and white television and had a significant impact on television aesthetics.
Lez Cooke

5. Bar Mitzvah Boy (BBC1, 1976)

Abstract
Written for Play for Today (1970–84), the anthology series that replaced The Wednesday Play in October 1970 when the series moved to Thursday nights, Jack Rosenthal’s Bar Mitzvah Boy (tx.14 September 1976) was a 75-minute play, shot on film and directed by Michael Tuchner. Filmed dramas are more expensive to make than studio dramas and film was usually reserved for a select number of single plays. During the course of the 1970s, the number of plays made on film for Play for Today increased from 6 out of 21 plays in the first series to 9 out of 24 plays in the sixth series, reaching a peak in 1979–80 when 14 of the 27 plays in series 10 were shot on film. During the 1980s studio-based television plays largely disappeared from British television screens, being replaced by TV films made for series such as Film on Four (C4, 1982–98),1 Screen Two (BBC2, 1985–97) and Screen One (BBC1, 1989–97).
Lez Cooke

6. Middlemarch (BBC2, 1994)

Abstract
The six-part adaptation of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (BBC2, 12 January–16 February 1994) was the first in a new cycle of adaptations from classic literature in the 1990s. After an avalanche of historical dramas and literary adaptations in the 1970s, following the switch to colour TV, and a recasting of the genre as ‘heritage’ drama in the 1980s, the 1990s saw a revival of classic literary adaptations on the BBC as the corporation engaged in a renewed ratings battle with several competitors in a newly deregulated marketplace.
Lez Cooke

7. This Life (BBC2, 1996)

Abstract
This Life (BBC2, 1996–97) formed part of a ‘new wave’ of British television drama that emerged in the mid-1990s.1 One of the hallmarks of this new wave was a new, ‘post-modern’ televisual style consisting of a faster narrative tempo, more mobile camerawork, unusual camera angles, a colourful mise en scene and fantasy sequences. This new style of television drama was designed to cater for a new post-modern audience, an audience that had not been reared on the slower narrative pace of studio drama and which demanded different representations of contemporary life in the 1990s, not those offered by costume drama or even those to be found in mainstream contemporary television drama, such as soap opera.
Lez Cooke

8. Births, Marriages and Deaths (BBC2, 1999)

Abstract
Births, Marriages and Deaths (BBC2, February–March 1999) was a four-part serial made by Tiger Aspect Productions, an independent production company set up in the late 1980s. One of the stipulations of the 1990 Broadcasting Act was that both the BBC and ITV should take at least 25 per cent of their programmes from independent production companies and it may be no coincidence that, with a new attitude and approach to drama production, independent production companies were in the forefront of new stylistic developments in the 1990s and 2000s. Like World Productions, Tiger Aspect capitalised on the opportunities opened up by the introduction of a 25 per cent quota and, after making factual programmes in the early 1990s, started producing drama from the mid-1990s.
Lez Cooke

9. Teachers (Channel 4, 2001)

Abstract
Tiger Aspect Productions was also responsible for the Channel 4 series, Teachers (2001–04), a comedy drama about a group of teachers at a comprehensive school in Bristol. Like This Life and Births, Marriages and Deaths this was also stylistically innovative, employing quirky camerawork, fast cutting and fantasy sequences. As its late-night presence on Channel 4 might suggest, this was an alternative, light-hearted view of the teaching profession, targeted at a young audience, ranging in age from the mid-teens of the schoolchildren portrayed to the late 20s and early 30s of the central group of teachers. Emotionally, the male teachers, in particular, are not much more mature than the pupils they are teaching and, as Sarah Cardwell notes in an article on ‘The Representation of Youth in the Twenty-Something Serial’, they show little of the ambition shown by the young barristers in This Life:
The teachers are neither high-achieving careerists such as those depicted in This Life, nor the trendy city-types presented in Queer as Folk; rather, they are relaxed to the point of lethargy at work, cynical about their careers and anyone who is ‘too keen’, and uninterested in or failing at their personal relationships. They show most enthusiasm when engrossed in drunken discussions of inanities. Their hobbies outside the classroom include lolling around in the staffroom, smoking behind the bike sheds (having confiscated the cigarettes from pupils), and hanging out at the bowling alley, or in the local pub — a dreary, unfashionable place from which pupils are informally banned.
(Cardwell, 2005b: 133)1
Lez Cooke

Conclusion

Abstract
In 1964 the television journal Contrast published three articles on ‘Style in Drama’, of which the longest and most interesting was written by the director Don Taylor.1 Referring to ‘a recent article’ by Roger Manville which claimed that original television drama in the early 1960s was comparable to the Elizabethan theatre of the early 1590s, Taylor proceeded to explain why, contrary to Manville’s ‘optimistic statement’, he felt that television drama was ‘barely at the Gorboduc stage’ (Taylor, 1964: 208). Gorboduc was a 16th-century play written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, first performed in 1561 in the early years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, which was notable for being the first verse drama in English to use blank verse (unrhymed verse). Although Taylor did not elaborate on the reference to Gorboduc, the significance of the play in theatre history resides in its departure from dramatic tradition, becoming the forerunner of a new form of drama which was taken up by other playwrights, including Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare.
Lez Cooke

Backmatter

Additional information