How the BBC helped to change laws and public opinion away from the Christian norm, an example:
The Wednesday Play’s interventionist agenda
How the BBC employed drama to circumvent objectivity and promote the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality
During the 1960s there were serious socio-cultural conflicts taking place within British society. There was in fact a radical division between the aggressively radical groups and those who tried to defend the status quo. All the moral certitudes that had remained virtually unchallenged since the dawn of Christendom were under attack. There was a cultural revolution taking place but the battle for traditional values and beliefs were not lost right away. The questions asked by those who study the media are: did the media and in particular the television play have a significant role in changing society’s values or did it merely reflect those changed values? However, given the conservative nature of the general public, particularly in relation to family and moral values at the time, it is doubtful that the radical factions would have succeeded without the overwhelming influence of television. By analysing one of the most influential television programme strands of the 1960s, the ‘single play’ we can see that it decisively came down on the side of the radical change. We can also see that many of those who produced, directed, and wrote many of these plays had a radical interventionist agenda. Their strategies were to influence society and government legislation on the side of radical change, and they succeeded.
There were various institutional debates taking place in the 1960s; one of these was at the BBC. There was in place at the BBC the concept of objectivity which was laid down by the Royal Charter. This made it illegal to express opinions on matters of current affairs especially in the proximity of a parliamentary debate. There were many working in the BBC who believed that drama was the way to circumvent the concept of objectivity. Men such as Sydney Newman, Tony Garnett, Ken Loach and James MacTaggart found that they could use the Wednesday Play strand of television drama as a platform to engage in a whole range of moral issues. These ‘single plays’ were newly commissioned original television dramas, some of which directly challenged society’s norms and had an interventionist agenda regarding these parliamentary and cultural debates. Theses plays did not usually support the status quo on issues of traditional values and beliefs.
The dawn of the television single play
The made for television single play started in the United States in the late 1940s and achieved much popular success by the 1950s. These plays were mostly serious dramas and employed playwrights such as Arthur Millar. They were sponsored by some of America’s biggest companies such as General Motors. However, serious plays that exposed the unsavoury underbelly of materialism or the walking wounded of the American Dream and commercial sponsorship were not compatible bedfellows. By the late 1950s the North American TV single play was in decline. As John Coughie puts it, “Seriousness was not the ingredient which advertisers believed could best oil the wheels of commerce: US television was not meant to produce sober citizens, but happy consumers”1. What was needed was a television station that by law was funded through public subscription via a licence fee. This station should be independent of government control or commercial considerations, where those of a Left/liberal persuasion could become politically engaged and produce dramas that indulged their culturally interventionist agenda. The British Broadcasting Corporation fits these criteria perfectly. It was however ABC one of Britain’s new regional independent commercial television stations that first successfully produced original television single plays. ABC had been mindful of the success of the North American single play and had brought over a producer from Canada called Sydney Newman in 1957 and put him in charge of their Armchair Theatre strand. Here Newman produced contemporary drama that had many regional and working class characteristics. Often known as ‘Kitchen-sink drama’, these plays tended to over indulge in gritty ‘naturalistic realism’, but Newman was not yet fully politically engaged. However, Newman as foreigner could look at Britain with a fresh eye. He became utterly fascinated by her problems and tended to dwell upon them in his dramas. When Newman saw Look back in Anger at the Royal Court theatre in London he developed the notion of ‘agitational contemporaneity’. He built up a team of writers that reflected the ‘New Wave’ in British literature including Alun Owen, Ted Willis and Harold Pinter. However, commercial TV was not the place for really interventionist ‘cutting edge’ drama.
Sydney Newman and Co, as the barbarians, at the gates of the BBC
In the early Sixties the BBC were being beaten in the ratings war by the independent commercial channels. To try and remedy this, in 1963 they poached Newman from ABC and made him head of BBC drama and gave him free rein. There were those at the BBC, as in society, who resisted change and the revolutionary Zeitgeist at the BBC that followed. The Oxford educated, BBC trained, producer Don Taylor saw Newman as a ‘vulgarian’, someone who saw no contradiction between ‘popular’ and ‘culture.’ However, snobbish this might sound today, perhaps he had a point. Don Taylor viewed Newman’s appointment with horror and in his autobiography ‘reveals uncompromisingly some of the cultural tensions inherent in the dawning of a new age, an age in which Newman emerges, dressed in skins, as the barbarian at the gates2.’ In fact, the BBC brought the barbarians into every home in the country. In their quest to chase audience ratings via contemporary drama, the BBC blurred the principles of objectivity that had been laid out in the Royal Charter.
|Interventionist agendas at the BBC|
The Wednesday Play was transmitted on the BBC from 1964. In 1970 it became the Play for Today, and had been famed for producing ‘cutting edge’ ground breaking plays. With original plays such as Horror of Darkness, Cathy Come Home, and Up the Junction to name but a few. The BBC has been credited with television ‘events’ that changed society’s values that influenced the political will on issues like homosexuality and abortion. This accolade is given to the BBC through Newman and his some of his ‘radical’ team, namely Garnett, Loach and MacTaggart and their level of political and social engagement. Through Newman’s concept of ‘agitational contemporaneity’ they demonstrated the immense power of television when harnessing creative and cultural forces aligned with an interventionist agenda. Media historian MacMurraugh-Kavanagh saw this ‘agitational’ team’s power and influence through television drama devoid of objectivity as:
‘radical experimentalism in terms of form and content, venerated for its apparent refusal of public broadcasting objectivity in its direct intervention in issues of social legislation (including the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion), critics such as George Brandt conclude that ‘much of the history of British television drama is tied up with this programme spot’ Brandt’s statement expresses the widespread recognition that in the field of television drama The Wednesday Play was the genuine article.3’When asked what is ‘agitational contemporaneity’ in drama, Newman is said to have replied that it ‘causes people to take action after seeing it’4.
1,2. Caughie, John, Television Drama: Modernism and British Culture, Oxford University Press, 2000.
3. MacMurraugh-Kavanagh, M.K., ‘The BBC and the birth of The Wednesday Play, 1962-66: institutional containment versus “agitational contemporaneity”’ Historial Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol.17, no.3, August 1997, p367.4. Aldgate, Tony, Unit 21 British drama: the single play, Book 5 Film and Television History, 2003, Television Genres, The Open University, Milton Keynes, 2003. Also quoting Brandt British Television Drama, Cambridge, 1981, p.17
To be continued ...