Tony Garnett • The BBC Files

The Wednesday Play: Aims and Policy

BBC Controller, Huw Wheldon, introduces the third season of The Wednesday Play. In his note he reminds readers of The Wednesday Play’s purpose and shares a brief of what is expected from new and existing playwrights.

It is one of those key series in which “broadcasting must be most willing to make mistakes; for if it does not, it will make no discoveries”. Mistakes draw criticism. Discoveries are uncomfortable. Both compel controversy. So does the Wednesday Play. We should be surprised – and disappointed – if it did not.

Huw Wheldon - The Wednesday Play: Aims and Policy P1
Huw Wheldon - The Wednesday Play: Aims and Policy P1
Huw Wheldon - The Wednesday Play: Aims and Policy P2
Huw Wheldon - The Wednesday Play: Aims and Policy P2

The Wednesday Play: Aims and Policy
Note by Controller, Programmes, Television (Huw Wheldon)
Date: 3rd October 1966

Page 1

On 2nd November, the Wednesday Play returns for its third season in expectation of a further increase in popularity. Its authors will include John Mortimer, Dennis Potter, Simon Raven, Marc Brandel, Jeremy Sandford, David Mercer and a first television play from the internationally distinguished author, Jean Anouilh. Among the many top-ranking actors will be Sir John Gielgud, Damn Peggy Ashcroft and Donald Pleasance.

The plays will cover a wide range of themes including a comedy about a young girl who crosses swords with a millionaire; a tragedy about the court-martial of a colonel accused of killing a private; a reconstruction of the famous Rattenbury case; a strong social drama about a couple looking for a place to live and satirical drama about the life and loves of a William Randolph-Hearst-like figure.

The policy of the series, like the policy of any programme worth its salt, does not aim at being all things to all men, but at giving stimulus, satisfaction and entertainment to that large section of television viewers at which it is aimed.

In order to put the Wednesday Play into its proper perspective, it may be useful to list some types of productions which sustain the other 94% of the Drama Group’s annual work. These include: “Dr. Finlay’s Casebook” and “This Man Craig”; “Out of the Unknown”, and “Dr.Who”; the adult Classic Serial, “The Troubleshooters” and “Thirty Minute”; the Thriller Serial, “The Troubleshooters” and “Softly, Softly”; operate from the studio; “Play of the Month” and special productions in collaboration with The National Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company and other national institutions.

At a first glance once might think that the above dramas take care of most tastes, but there is one other category which the Wednesday Play fills – the plays which reflect the changing pattern of life today, the plays that concentrate mainly on the here and now.

In 1954, John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger” finally broke through the damn that was holding back the torrent of English writing talent.

Whether ‘believing’ or not in Osborne and the new writers that followed him, no responsible person in the entertainment profession could deny them. Not all the writing was good and it took time to develop, to experiment, to make mistakes and to discard some of its pioneers. The influence of John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Alun Own, David Turner, Clive Exton and John Hopkins remains a constant factor in today’s writing and it became apparent that every increasing numbers were changing their tastes and beginning to understand and appreciate what the new writer had to offer.

Page 2

In all the work of Drama Group there are signs of these shifts and developments: but it is in the Wednesday Play series that the main effect of these changes are most specifically to be found.

Accordingly, this is the kind of brief which the producers of the series give to new or inexperienced writers when they discuss a commission:

1. Whether you write in terms of drama, comedy, satire or tragedy, speak in a contemporary voice and illuminate the truth.
2. Your skill as a writer will be judged by the art of saying what you have to say n a subtle yet compelling manner. Write astringently therefore but do not pontificate, and do not propangandize.
3. You may be an intensely serious writer with many exciting ideas. This is why we commission you to write a Wednesday Play in the first place. We like your ideas so much that we want your work to reach the widest possible public. So please make your work as easily comprehensible, as possible, taking for granted that the level of intelligence of your viewer is a great deal higher than you may been led to believe. If you wish to be controversial, that field is open to you; but neither we nor our viewers are interested in salacity or sensationalism for their own sake. They are signs of immaturity and not of boldness.

These are the distinctive marks of the series. It offers a regular outlet for contemporary playwrights both established and new; it offers them a weekly place on BBC Television to explore, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, our changing times. Its main targets are the turning points in a society which is changing too quickly for some, too slowly for others. Its themes include subjects which force themselves into any session of Parliament these days. Relations between management and labour, parent and child, voter and politician, chold and teach, worshipper and minister, husband and wife, England and the world. All these have, in the past, been the subjects of plays in this series.

The aim of the Wednesday Play, then is to provide one of those growing points not only in television but in the life of the nation at which, the Pilkington Report suggested, “the challenges to existing assumptions and beliefs are made, where the claims to new knowledge and new awareness are stated”. It is one of those key series in which “broadcasting must be most willing to make mistakes; for if it does not, it will make no discoveries”. Mistakes draw criticism. Discoveries are uncomfortable. Both compel controversy. So does the Wednesday Play. We should be surprised – and disappointed – if it did not.

H.P. WHELDON

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