Television drama

One of the major cultural influences of the 1970s – well, at least one of the major cultural influences on me – was the BBC’s series Play for Today. These were one-off TV dramas, written by people who were, or who became, household names in serious creative writing for the screen; they included cultural giants such as Dennis Potter, Mike Leigh and Alan Bennett. The series tackled political, social and moral issues, as well as providing hugely memorable stories. Beyond that, the series demonstrated the capacity of television to be a genuine cultural force, rather than just a medium of light entertainment. It is arguable that, in its early years in the 1980s, Channel 4 picked up the baton (only to drop it with a clang later).

I was reminded of the sheer power of Play for Today when, recently, I came across an audio tape recording I made of one of the episodes in 1976; and although this may sound daft, even without the video the sound recording still transmitted the sheer intelligence of the play.

Television of course can and should serve a number of different purposes, and this certainly includes entertainment, and even entertainment pretending to be culture (as in the case of costume dramas and so forth). But one of these purposes should be to push the boat out through the genre of drama, to ask awkward questions and, occasionally, to refuse to answer them so that viewers are forced to engage their own minds. I wonder, however, whether television still does that in any consistent way. There are drama series which, at one level at least, manage to be innovative and occasionally provocative, including the really wonderful West Wing series that aired for much of this decade. I even find that the medical drama series House – practically the only TV show that I am watching consistently at the moment – has the capacity to stir up at times. But unless I am not properly reading the TV guides and the reviewers, there really is no contemporary equivalent of Play for Today. And indeed what there is in serious television (though the same is true, I would have to say, for trivial TV) tends to come from the US rather than from the UK.

The BBC was the great cultural influence of my youth. It is really time that it returned more deliberately to its original mission.

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11 Comments on “Television drama”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Sunday Miscellany; RTÉ, 9am. While not Tragic Drama, does cut into what you are on about.
    And there is not a bloody thing stopping the live broadcast of the Abbey and Peacock Theatres or Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe for that matter by RTÉ/TG4, they/we are paying for it. And as I’m on the subject, why are the concerts of the Orchestra not broadcast.
    As to the BBC, I know directly of twenty good rep’ groups in north and west London alone.
    Now, to the substantive point, you were brought up in Westmeath- I grant you its not Tipperary, Cork or Galway- by Prussian parents and the British Broadcasting Corporation is the great cultural influence.

  2. Aidan Says:

    “And indeed what there is in serious television (though the same is true, I would have to say, for trivial TV) tends to come from the US rather than from the UK.”
    When I was growing up in Ireland we only had Irish television channels. There was a very interesting east/west divide in the Irish state where those who could get UK tv channels were far more anglicized than those in the west. Of course multi-channel cable television put an end to any such divide.
    In Holland we get a lot of English (and other language) television and I agree with what you say that most quality television comes from the US. However, on Dutch tv you also regularly get good dramas from Australia in particular. Irish people seem to be exposed to a diet of UK/US television with very little influence even from other English speaking countries (never mind the dearth of home produced content).
    In the world as a whole there is a lot of television being produced. As you probably know German television stations produce many quality television dramas (krimis are very popular in Holland) and films. Unfortunately Irish eyes tend to only focus on what is going on in the US or the UK.

    • Thanks, Aidan. I’ve always thought that RTE gained hugely from the proximity of and ‘competition’ from the BBC. For such a small country we had an extraordinarily good public broadcasting service. In fact, its standards have slipped less than the BBC’s over recent years.

      German television is a hit-and-miss affair. Some very good programming, but also some quite amazing rubbish.

      • Aidan Says:

        “I’ve always thought that RTE gained hugely from the proximity of and ‘competition’ from the BBC.”
        I can’t agree with that assertion. Except for Current Affairs programmes (which are inherently local) RTE has no track record of generating output that is equal to or better than that of other English language countries. I have lived in quite a few places and I have never seen an Irish produced show on a foreign television channel.
        The BBC has produced some good television in the past but for those of us who did not grow up on it believe me it is certainly no high water mark for television.
        “German television is a hit-and-miss affair. Some very good programming, but also some quite amazing rubbish.”
        Given the fact that there are so many channels you wouldn’t expect otherwise. Also, taste is by nature subjective. However, my point is that Germany produces lots of original, quality television. The same is true of Poland, thanks to my wife I watch enough Polish tv to know. People in those countries are not culturally swamped by the UK and the US.

        • Interesting comments, Aidan. I do have a very different perspective on all that, however. First, RTE. Actually, I think you’re wrong here, RTE has a very interesting record of original programming. Look at the Riordans or Glenroe; look at Hall’s Pictorial Weekly (which was a groundbreaking political satire show); or indeed the Late Late Show, which under Gay Byrne was unrivalled anywhere in its quality (and *was* broadcast internationally). All of these tackled taboos, and were genuinely innovative. Then there was a drama series whose name I forget, which was set in a Dublin inner city school and was extraordinarily good (until it was taken off the air because the Legion of Mary objected…). Australian TV has come on a lot since then, but back in those days it had nothing to rival any of that. And one of the reasons (and there is research on this) for all this was that Irish viewers had the BBC to turn to (well, in multi-channel territory they had), and so RTE put up a quality-based fight which was not at all bad.

          As for the BBC, whatever you might think now, in the 1960s and 1970s it quite simply defined quality television across the globe, and American PBS was/is based on the BBC model. Americans dubbed PBS the ‘Purely British Service’. It really was *the* high water mark, and not just for English speaking countries. When I lived in Germany in the 1970s, every other programme almost was a translated/dubbed BBC programme; and even some of the better German productions, like the countless Francis Durbridge dramatisations, were clearly based on the BBC’s methods.

          And indeed, as for German TV: back when there were only 2 German channels (ARD and ZDF), it was as I described – 15 per cent really rather good programming, 20 per cent news/current affairs, 30 per cent foreign (British/US, and a little French) programming, and 35 per cent games shows and similar (and generally rubbish). The current affairs programming was modelled almost entirely on the British, right down to the main magazine programme being called Panorama.

  3. Perry Share Says:

    the RTE drama you are referring to was The Spike, set in Ringsend Tech. It was pretty amazing in many respects, but I doubt would stand up to scrutiny today. It was the Chairman of The League of Decency (oh where are they now when we need them?) who had an (alleged) heart attack when viewing a scene that featured a nude model in a life drawing class. You can a watch a programme about The Spike here:

  4. Aidan Says:

    Some great points there. I cannot judge German tv historically as I did not watch it until the 1990s when I lived there and I watch it now in Holland so I am judging it on its modern incarnation, the same is true of Polish or Dutch TV. I know that the BBC was considered a great beast in the past but, as I said, I didn’t watch in my childhood and it is just another (quite good) broadcaster to me. I watch more Dutch tv than anything else when I have a choice (even with 5 BBC channels) so that will say something.
    I thought that you might mention those programs. In my lifetime The Riordans and Glenroe were good dramas, Irish programs about Irish people. However, most RTE programs I was exposed to were either imports or copycats. Coronation Street was RTE’s top show for decades! I was actually watching RTE while people in Leinster were enjoying the BBC remember 😉
    RTE Radio is top class but I have no positive feelings about the television broadcaster. TG4 has shown far more creativity in its short lifetime and is more in line with the kind of station you would expect an independent country to have. I watch TG4 on the internet, the only RTE show I watch is the news.

  5. Vincent Says:

    A bit less.

  6. Spiny Norman Says:

    Obviously I am a bit late to comment… and it’s a bit off-topic, but… Could I ask, which episode of Play for Today was it? Supposing that it no longer exists, would you perhaps be willing to load it so that a copy of the audio can be made? Even from 1975 and 1976, a few episodes weren’t saved.

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