Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Wednesday Plays

Posts have been light this past week because, with nothing of much consequence in the schedules, I went back to rewatching The Wire from the first episode onwards. Well, you know how that is. Before I knew it the evenings had slipped away. Right now I’m deep into season four and breaking for dinner.

I did take time out midweek to watch A Number on BBC2. To be honest, halfway in I fell asleep, waking just before the end. I don’t know if the past three Wednesday’s plays were part of some grand scheme cooked up behind closed doors, high up in the BBC’s ivory tower, but apart from one outstanding drama, I’d say they got it typically ass about face.

If some empty suit got it in their thick skull to resurrect The Wednesday Play, hurray for them. Except, of course, they took it far too literally. Back when it launched in late 1964 the series did start out with adaptations, such as Sartre’s In Camera which featured Harold Pinter in the cast, but only because they were leftovers from the recently cancelled Festival strand. Come the New Year it was on its feet screening provocative and thoughtful dramas.

There are people who look back on The Wednesday Play as being more worthy than entertaining, taking on contentious contemporary issues such as capital punishment and racial prejudice. But more importantly, under the aegis of producer Robert McTaggart, along with assistant script editors Ken Trodd and Tony Garnett working under Roger Smith, not only did the series step outside the confines of the studio by shooting on film but it also created a platform for new writers.

In its first full year, which began with the crime drama A Tap on the Shoulder written by convicted murderer James O’Connor, The Wednesday Play screened the first four plays by Dennis Potter. Starting with The Confidence Course and Alice, his psychological portrait of Charles Dodgson, the series saw out 1965 with the semi-autobiographical Stand Up, Nigel Barton and Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton.

It would also provide a home for more established writers like Troy Kennedy Martin and David Mercer, which may be why the three recent offers went to playwrights David Hare and Caryl Churchill. The problem was Hare’s My Zinc Bed was that the production was ultimately compromised by miscasting. Uma Thurman may still stir the blood but she was hopelessly out of her depth. It may have benefited from the original Royal Court cast of Steven Mackintosh, Tom Wilkinson and Julia Ormond.

Churchill’s A Number betrayed its theatrical routes from the very beginning without making any effort to adapt to the different medium, unless of course you count that final scene I woke up just in time for. Between the two was Frank Cottrell Boyce's magnificent God On Trial, in which a hut full of Auschwitz prisoners launch into a theological and philosophical debate as they await their uncertain fate.

It’s a shame that the other two plays couldn’t have been of the same high calibre. But these days I suppose one good drama and two middling ones are better than nothing. But if they want to try this little experiment again, maybe looking for some new voices might be nice.


At 1:08 am, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

Two cheers for trying something ambitious.

But, yeah, they've taken too literal an approach.

Producing quality drama for TV isn't about simply filming a stage play.

Work for the stage obviously tends to be limited in terms of cast and location, and is driven by dialogue, not action. That makes for heavy going on the screen.

I keep hoping that they'll take that same level of ambition and talent and apply it to the sorts of programmes that play well on the box.

At 9:59 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Yeah, two cheers is about right. Hopefully they won't give up on it.


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