Tony Garnett • The BBC Files

Sydney Newman defends The Wednesday Play

The following is a memo sent by Sydney Newman after Up the Junction was broadcast and the BBC received 464 complaints by the public. Sydney Newman defends the Wednesday Play and talks about its purpose, the process of commissioning plays and managing talent including producers and directors.

The Wednesday Play: Newman P1
The Wednesday Play: Newman P1
The Wednesday Play: Newman P2
The Wednesday Play: Newman P2
The Wednesday Play: Newman P3
The Wednesday Play: Newman P3
The Wednesday Play: Newman P4
The Wednesday Play: Newman P4
The Wednesday Play: Newman P5
The Wednesday Play: Newman P5
The Wednesday Play: Newman P6
The Wednesday Play: Newman P6
The Wednesday Play: Newman P7
The Wednesday Play: Newman P7
The Wednesday Play: Newman P8
The Wednesday Play: Newman P8
The Wednesday Play: Newman P9
The Wednesday Play: Newman P9
The Wednesday Play: Newman P10
The Wednesday Play: Newman P10


Page 1

From: Head of Drama Group, Television
To: C.P.Tel.
Date: 15th June 1966

The following is, I think, almost useless, but my secretary having gone home by 7.30 p.m, my assistant on holiday and Head of Plays on holiday, everything down here is based on the very minuscule bits and pieces I had on the subject and what I had in my head. In short, it’s soft in fact and long on thought.
I finished drafting it at 5.0 a.m. this morning and I hate turning out something shoddy like this. With this introduction I suppose you think I’m underrating it so you will think how marvellous it is. It isn’t.

On the evening of 3rd November 1965, our television switchboard was jammed by ‘phone calls regarding UP THE JUNCTION. From the Duty Log, 464 phone calls went something like this:

Mrs. Ferrier from Sevenoaks:

“What a load of rubbish. I switched off.”

Mrs. Finnicombe from Heston:

“Utterly disgraceful. I’m glad my daughter has gone to bed because this would have her a terrible impression of the young men of today.”

50 calls were favourable:

Mr. Mayle from London:

“Enjoyed every minute of the drama – a real insight into the younger generation.”

Vicar Evans of St. Mark’s, Battersea:

“Courageous and useful.” Vicar Evans is a Chairman of a Committee which helps young unmarried mothers. He has had to handle 100 cases of this last year. He would be more than willing to co-operate in any other plays the Producer might have in mind, in repeats or in discussions on it.

From a man:

“We liked it – I’m a policeman and we know it’s no good pretending it doesn’t exist. It’s life.”

Page 2

Dramatically, these 514 ‘phone calls pointed out the fundamental problem. A lot of people believe that audiences emulate what they see on television. Others believe that by seeing life as it is, people will benefit – “the truth will make you free” – etc.

Since our drama output is ao large and varied approached from many points of view, it is inevitable that we shall please some of time and annoy others some of the time. In the main, of the 660 productions we do a year, I would say that over 600 are emulatable without pain – that is, out drama conveys the relatively simple attitudes of DR. WHO to his young friends, the way he treats villains, etc. to the wise, kind, obviously Christian Dr. Cameron. There’s compassion and bravery in virtually every episode of SOFTLY, SOTFLY. There’s courage and invention demonstrated in almost every episode of QUICK BEFORE THEY CATCH US. There is splendid language heard in some contemporary dramas as well as in the almost 100 episodes a year in our dramatization of classic literature.

There are, of course, a number of productions each year in which it is fair to say there is very little to emulate. This stuff is what in the U.S.A. is called part of their “vast wasteland”. Pillington called this sort of production “trivial”. The only damage this kind of drama does is that it might be regarded as a waste of air time, or at worse a soporific. In the main our drama is generally entertainment. However, it is fair to say that the bulk of our output is either “safe” or entertaining or innocuous and entertaining.

About 50 dramas do something more. They entertain and divert buth they also strive for a quality of perception and occasionally inspire by their very revelation of life and its many complex parts. Equal to the value of this kind of play to the country and to us is its danger to us. These are the plays that sometimes bring the wrath of God or the wrath of his lost children upon us and I’m thinking of groups and individuals ranging from the Assembly of the Church of Scotand to Mrs. Mary You-Know-Who.

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The danger to which I’m referring to is two-fold. The first is the large general audience and what it is like. Peter Black of the Daily Mail put it this way when talking about UP THE JUNCTION, and I agree with him:-

“A lot of people genuinely dislike seeing the unpleasant realities of life – and to such this play was one long unpleasant reality – emphasised.

Others cannot bear looking at working class life unless it is respectable. The anarchy of this play must have frozen their blood.

There’s another section that has sex on the brain and it’s driven almost crazy by almost any reference to it.”

Because this kind of very sincere, self-expressioned play is, to say the least, tricky, it needs very experienced individuals to produce it. Individuals who are experienced enough to be wise, to win and not offend (too much) audiences; clever enough to inspire writers along the right lines and strong enough to control directors who may be, and often are, headstrong and dangerously original. The fact that they have to be good organization men and good business managers as well….!
Frankly, we have not got one producer who possesses all these qualities. We have many who have some but none have all – that is in the Plays Department where they are most needed. In the Group as a whole there are about 5 producers who, I suspect, will make it given time and more experience.

It must be remembered that it is barely 3 years since I created the producer function (as distinct from the director function). In short, this kind of immediate supervisory control system has, in the sense of its complexity, barely gotten off the ground. It is true to say that very few of our people, or worthwhile people in England generally want this kind of job. The pay is not so great and is regarded as not having so much “fun” nor worth the anguish, pain, frustration and above all, responsibility. Remember they are the ones who have to satisfy the BBC policy, their immediate superiors, the critics, the audiences, win actors, directors, save money and so on.

The above is a quick picture of the general problem. Now the Wednesday Play:

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While audiences enjoy Series and Serials, adaptations of stage plays and dramatisations of novels, they also very much enjoy a good single play. These, as well as being popular from a craft, artistic and industry stand-point, are the pacesetters for television drama.

Here is where the new writer is found and where the good professional writer is not bound to a Series or Serial format with its set and often pat approach to life and often two dimensional characters. Only in the single play can the writer, bound only by the general (and factually unknown) limitations of public acceptability and the security of the BBC and its finances, perform his true creative function of interpreting life as he sees it in dramatic form. If nothing else, we are duty bound to support this.

Our Wednesday Pla (6% of our total output) is the only drama programme we do in which we demand that the majority of plays be original and specially written for television. Good writers are scarce and to compound the situation good writers earn vastly greater amounts of money by writing Series and Serials mainly because these are less demanding forms of writing and they can be based out in a very short time. John Hopkins, for example, was actually able to write Z-CARS script in two days and get £500 for it. On the other hand, when he wrote a fine play called HORROR OF DARKNESS it took him at least 8 weeks to write plus additional time over the 5 weeks the play was in production and for this he was paid £650.

To meet this kind of problem over 90% of all Wednesday Plays must be especially commissioned – that is, the writers are asked to write a play. Roughly it goes something like this:

The writer discusses the theme with the producer and story editor, and is then commissioned to provide a synopsis for the small amount of £50. If the synopsis or verbal description is satisfying he is then commissioned to write the play and receives 50% of the total negotiated fee upon delivery of the play. After re-writes, which are often necessary, have been completed, if the play is accepted the author receives the final 50% payment. If it is not accepted, he keeps the play and receives no more money. These conditions are part of our Agreement with the Writers Guild of Great Britain.

Page 5

Fees for Wednesday Plays range from £500 to £1100 for top writers like Alun Own, Giles Cooper, Harold Pinter and so on. Beyond prestige and professional status there isn’t much incentive. Clive Exton, in the £1100 per play class can only write two plays a year. On the other hand, people like Alan Prior writing for Series are reputed to earn up to £20,000 a year.

Many of them give up writing for television entirely. Exton is one of them. Pinter and Alun Own now rarely write for television. Most of them write feature films where there is very little freedom but an enormous amount of money. £6,000 – £7,000 and upwards to £30,000 for a feature file scenario. Many of them would rather speculate on a stage play which, if successful in the West End, will also reap them great rewards although, of course, many fail.

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While it can be said that we do not keep for many years the writers for television that we in particular have helped to develop, we do in fact when they “graduate” from us, enrich the country by their work in other media.

To get writers we have to woo them and be nice to the as well as inform them of our needs. Approximately each month we sent out a reneoed sheet which is called “BBC-tv Script Market Information” in which we describe our current Drama Plays needs. The recent one for May/June describes the Wednesday Play situation at the moment:

“WANTED! Seventy-five minutes of original Television writing that forces the viewer to lean forward in riveted attention and not to lean backwards in cosy contemplation. New Producer, Lionel Harris, and his two (count’em – two) Story Editors, Kenith Trodd and Michael Ruggins, invite you to offer or discuss stories aimed at a very large audience which reveal contemporary life, contemporary change and problems of to-day as they affect all sections of society. Dramas, yes, but also comedies and thrillers. Urban settings, yes, but also suburban, industrial and countryside – whatever best tells the tale.

The Wednesday Play is one of the prime cuts of the Television carcase – so remember that it is quality that counts, not quantity, and watch the number of sets and the size of the cast. This is an unique opportunity if you have something to say and know how to say it.”

These works have changed in form but not in substance over the three years that I have been in the BBC.

If writers write a good play we put in production. If it is good but contains scenes which we think might give offence we ask for rewrites (by our Guild Agreement we may not make changes without the author’s consent). If the author will not make a change, although most of them can be won over, we have the option of losing the 50% of the fee we have already paid. Because of the shortage of scripts we sometimes risk putting a play into production in the expectation that the offending scenes will be minimized by direction and by acting or by camera. Because good plays are in short supply a good writer to a certain extend owns us and not we him. While we need one another badly the writer can sell to other markets, e.g. ITV’s Play of the Week, Armchair Theatre etc. or to other media like stage and film.

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There is a unique goal which the Wednesday Play has which further complicates the situation, that is the serious aim “to dramatise the turning points in contemporary Britain”.
There are two reasons for this objective : (1) society needs a mirror held up to itself, therefore plays about life as it is, whether treated poetically or realistically, are socially useful. (2) In the belief that audiences want to know about the experiences of people in the other occupations and classes, and how they face their problems which may be similar to their own, it is the best way to win them to watch the Wednesday Play in vast numbers.

The turning point in a society are usually controversial and Britain is changing quickly. Pre-marital sexual intercourse has increased enormously since World War 2, homesexuality and abortion are on the verge of being made legal. Arguments about charity before chastity – the labour party is totally responsible, so are unions, the divorce rate has gone up, the relations between management and labour, parent and child, voter and politician, child and teacher, worshipper and minister, England and the world – all these are food for the hungry and the aware playwright and the audiences are starved for safe vicarious experience to help make them more able to cope with a world that is changing too fast.

At the same time may minorities who are afraid of the changing times and seem positively to hate what they see in the world will oppose the representation of what they dislike on the television screen as if that will make the bogey-man go away.

This Wednesday Play policy of original writing and plays of contemporary Britain has given the BBC the leadership in Drama in England, and I genuinely believe there is nothing as good any where in the world. This real we are to show has excited writers and directors. It has given birth to new forms of drama like the siz plays by John McGrath and Troy Kennedy Martin – “The Diary of a Young Man”. The political comedy dramas about Nigel Barton are written by Dennis Potter, an ex-journalist who was given both first and second prizes for original writing by the Writers Guild of Great Britain. The Wednesday Play found a fast racy and entertaining writer in James O’Connor, whom they helped develop, who dramatized Britain’s underworld in his plays “Three Clear Sundays”, “Tap on the Shoulder” and “The Coming Out Party”.

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It has broken new ground with two plays which were performed largely in mime and which met with overwhelming approval and acclaim from critics and public alike – “Silent Song” was a collaboration between distinguished Irish short story writer just before he died – Frank O’Connor, and Television playwright Hugh Leonard, the other was “The Retreat” written by the latter. There are many, many others, most that I have mentioned here successfully in every sense of the word.

There were also many full unsuccessful plays too. There were also many fine plays which did not break new ground creatively but which gave pleasure. I am thinking of “the Connoisseur” by the Scots novelist Hugo Charteris which was a highly polished piece about literate people in a boys’ school which delicately treated the subject of homosexuality without giving offence.

On the other hand “Toddler on the Run”, an equally fine production, but it offended almost all the readers of Encounter. “Up the Junction” was messy, too long, and looked down on the working class, but it was also revolutionary in drama technique, it was fresh, moral and honest. “For the West”, about the Congo, offended just about everybody, whites and blacks, progressives and reactionaries as did another one by John Hopkins called “Fable”.

For better or for worse over the past four years the Wednesday Play has steadily increased its reputation and its average weekly audience.

1963 – 5.4 millions
1964 – 6.0 millions
1965 – 7.3 millions
1966 – 8.6 millions (to date)

On the other hand over this period the average reaction index per show declined.

1963 – 56.4%
1964 – 60.0%
1965 – 54.6%
1966 – 53.0% (to date)

This can be interpreted in many ways but to me it means that people want the truth but find it disturbing.

Page 9

So what do we have now in June 1966? We have a good goal, a nobility of purpose, critical success, and we have made fair progress in the craft of the medium and in winning audiences. The ups-and-downs in quality and certainty of taste comes in the main from the nature “of the beast” and its supervision. Individual writers whom we do not own are expressing their views about a changing world. Some of these views are distasteful to a certain section of the audience and their protesting voices are heard. At the production level we have a fair number of talented, headstrong and not always subtle directors aiming for a graphic style but most operating at a furious pace supervised by producers who, although loyal and vigorous are generally inexperienced as leaders, who are often uncertain of their strength or insecure in their knowledge about public sensitivities. Or, some cannot handle money.

The answer to the above in my view is to be steadfast and to continue to believe in the value of the Wednesday Play – the single play, to the creative world and to the country as a whole. Our touch is getting stronger. After all, considering the extraordinary and forced expansion in staff over the past two years – the terrific increase in numbers of programmes to 660 for the last fiscal year. To me it is a miracle that so much has gone so well and that in a single play field the Wednesday Play in particular, we have wrested first place in quality and excitement from Independent Television. People actually talk about the Wednesday Play! The newspaper space given to up-coming Wednesday Plays is evidence that people care what we do.

Our danger area can be boiled down to the Wednesday Play, and of the 39 or so we do a year old about three get us into trouble and perhaps another five contain momentary lapses of taste. The problem eliminating these is enormous – the whole nature of supervising creative people is delicate. Tight supervision is anathema to writers, directors, designers and actors. What we must do is to continue to force a better understanding and awareness of sympathy, even love, for the audience (creative people tend to be inward looking).

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Story Editors who are generally, at present, too young and underpaid must especially be aware of our larger responsibilities, to be able, along with their Producers, to solve potential trouble before it leaves the scripting stage. The next recourse is to ensure that all plays are screened well in advance of their billings in the Radio Times so that the ultimate and rare step of cancellation may be taken without causing a press sensation.

Signed by Sydney Newman.