Production Overview: 1.The Four Icons / 2.A New Man / 3.The End of the Festival / 4.Twenty-Four Steps / 5.Arrival / 6.Stand Up And Vote / 7.From Boneyards To Courting Pits / 8.Normal Service / 9.Homes Fit For Cathy / 10.Sleeping Dogs / 11.Last Orders / 12.Casualties of War
Episode Guide: Season 1 / Season 2 / Season 3 / Season 4 / Season 5 /
Season 6 / Season 7 / Season 8 / Season 9

The Wednesday Play Has Arrived
Convicted murderers are not usually the first choice for writing talent chosen by the producers of television, and MacTaggart and Smith's commissioning of A Tap On The Shoulder from former prisoner James O'Connor (as the first edition of The Wednesday Play's second season) attracted controversy virtually from the outset. Distancing itself from polite, restrained television presenting characters far removed from contemporary life, the play concerned the rise of a gangland villain to baronet and, along the way, cynically explored the hypocritical state of Britain's class structure.

The play was a showcase for the talents of O'Connor, director Kenneth Loach, and actor Lee Montague, who appeared as central character Archibald Cooper. Over the course of seventy-five minutes, audiences were introduced to drama with a decidedly expressionist air, thanks chiefly to the fact that O'Connor was not an established scriptwriter and as such did not write within the norm, as it were.

Left: Sir Jocelyn, The Minister Would Like A Word...

The tempo, tone and language featured in the play differed starkly from the first season, and firmly impressed upon audiences that The Wednesday Play was drama with intent; quality produce with the capacity to grip, surprise, entertain and occasionally shock would now become a permanent mid-week fixture. Simon Raven's Sir Jocelyn, The Minister Would Like A Word…, a delightfully acerbic comedic offering, found pride of place as the second of twenty-five planned episodes, offering a change of pace but a commitment to Newman's ideals nonetheless. The bittersweet tale of romance between two working-class navvies was the essential core of Julia Jones' The Navigators, which proved to be a hasty last-minute replacement for the widely-publicised John Hopkins play Fable, which was unceremoniously postponed for a week as the BBC hierarchy considered that such a controversial play should not be transmitted on an evening in which the broadcaster had earlier concerned itself with a United States presidential inauguration.

The pomp and ceremony of the ruling white class in the land of the free would have jarred distinctly with the content on Hopkins' script, which struck at the heart of The Wednesday Play's intentions to produce thought-provoking and near-the-knucle drama. A fable which took as its premise the stark role reversal of a United Kingdom in which the ethnic minority became the majority, and the white majority became swept up in an apartheid similar to that which plagued South Africa and, in turn, became the minority, proved to be palpably controversial drama which exemplified the free licence afforded to writers of this series.

Johnny Clive and Neville Smith in Wear A Very Big Hat
Exploring the class system, social inequities and the power of one subversive voice against the system, Fable was a critical assessment of contemporary racism which bore all the customary hallmarks of Hopkins' high-calibre productions. Hugh Whitemore's Dan, Dan, The Charity Man and the incomparable Ashes To Ashes by Marc Brandel followed, along with Eric Coltart's Wear A Very Big Hat. Whilst these three plays, combining comedy with humanity, drama with malice and all with a permanent question mark over what it means to be a member of contemporary society, were highly worthy fare, the eighth play in the second season would mark a turning point in The Wednesday Play and introduce one of the more notable literary powers the Twentieth Century would ever produce.

Lez Cooke most appropriately set the scene when, in his book British Television Drama: A History, he observed that "Smith guided the early development of The Wednesday Play, bringing in Tony Garnett and Ken Trodd as assistant story editors (Garnett deciding to forsake the acting career which he had been pursuing for five years and move behind the scenes) and commissioning the first plays from Dennis Potter and other new writers. This group formed the nucleus of a loose collection of people who pioneered a new form of television drama for The Wednesday Play, building on the foundations laid by Troy Kennedy Martin and John McGrath in the early 1960s, which set the standard for innovative and challenging television drama for the next two decades".

The Confidence Course introduced audiences to the wonderous works of Dennis Potter, though his first contribution was a somewhat ordinary and lacklustre affair submerged in the shadow of the second play he scripted for the series which, for a combination of reasons (the majority of which concerned difficulties arising between Potter and MacTaggart), was eventually withdrawn from the second series and, under the stewardship of incumbent story editor Tony Garnett, found a home in the third season of The Wednesday Play alongside an especially-commissioned prequel to the tale. Of the plays which followed, James O'Connor's return to the series with Three Clear Sundays (which justified MacTaggart and Smith's faith in a writer of considerable talent), David Mercer's And Did Those Feet and Troy Kennedy Martin's The Pistol (an enormously successful portrait of the impact of Pearl Harbour upon the American psyche, whereupon a weapon becomes the ultimate prize in the face of an act of aggression) proved to be the most outstanding and memorable contributions to a season of plays which saw audience figures accelerate from a modest million to eight million over the course of six months.

Sydney Newman's dream had at last become a reality, thanks to the capabilities of James MacTaggart and the strength of a rich and previously untapped stream of creative licence which returned the power of mould-breaking story-telling to the writers. The Wednesday Play had without doubt arrived. Such was BBC Television's commitment to ensure a steady continuity of high-calibre mid-week productions that a series of repeat transmissions was almost immediately set into motion at the conclusion of the second series, cut short only by the introduction of The Wednesday Thriller, a series of eight diverting plays which were heralded by the wonderful sub-title of "Not For The Nervous". This smaller cluster of productions enabled writers to inject an air of menace and a touch of the macabre into tautly-scripted tales set to disturb the late-night brigade.

© Matthew Lee, 2004