Posted tagged ‘Alan Bennett’

Television drama

July 2, 2009

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.