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

Last Orders

Malcolm McDowell in Happy
The ninth and final season of The Wednesday Play premiered on October 1st 1969, and consisted of twenty-six new plays and six repeat transmissions, drawn from the highly-successful Theatre 625 anthology series which had enjoyed patronage from some of the most promising writers emerging in British Television of the age. The final run of plays was a hotch-potch affair which is perhaps not the best reflection of the power of The Wednesday Play at its height, yet the season still sustained a delicate balance between high drama and low comedy, culminating in perhaps the most controversial new play of the entire programme's history (a bold claim, but an examination of the content wholly justifies its appropriation).

The Last Train Through The Harecastle Tunnel opened the season, with Peter Terson's play gifting memorable performances to Richard O'Callaghan and John Le Mesurier and providing trainspotters with a passionate play devoted to the dying days of the locomotive as a primary transport provider. BBC Scotland's Patterson O.K, a moving study of the more hard-bitten aspects of contemporary life in Glasgow, followed, along with the comic meanderings arising out of the presence of The Mark-Two Wife at a party featuring Faith Brook, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, Lilias Walker and Joanna Lumley. Alan Plater's richly-performed and scripted Close The Coalhouse Door was next out of the stalls, followed by The Sad Decline Of Arthur Maybury, All Out For Kangaroo Valley (an Australian enterprise which reflected the emerging cosmopolitan style of The Wednesday Play which its successor would whole-heartedly embrace), Happy and There Is Also Tomorrow.

Marty Feldman made his impressive straight-acting debut in Johnny Speight's Double Bill, which consisted of two half-hour playlets, The Compartment and Playmates, which provided a suitable platform for the mutually symbiotic talents of the actor and writer. Frank Finlay, Nicola Pagett and T P McKenna appeared in Blood Of The Lamb, which was followed by the highly-publicised adaptation of Noel Coward's first play, The Vortex, which was broadcast as part of a week of programmes mounted in celebration of the great playwright's birthday and his undoubted achievements and contribution to the arts. James Hanley's darkly comic and murderous offering, It Wasn't Me, was followed by Julie Driscoll's entry into the acting fraternity (taking a brief sabbactical from her music career) in The Season Of The Witch, a play by Desmond McCarthy and Johnny Byrne which explored one woman's search for personal fulfilment and the freedom to make her own choices in life, whether good or bad. Other plays populating the final series included Mille Miglia, The Hunting Of Lionel Crane, Rest In Peace and Uncle Fred, whilst Tom Clarke's Mad Jack told the story of Second-Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon and his controversial protest against the military activities at the Western Front in 1917; Michael Jayston positively shone in this production, further underlining his credentials as an instantly gripping character actor.

The Sad Decline of Arthur
Barry Bermange's Nathan And Tabileth was a notable and rare co-production between Dutch Television and BBC Television which presented a play shot almost entirely in brown and white (as a symbolic gesture towards the sepia photographs of the period in which the production was set), with a masterly use of one colour scene at the heart of the programme which exploded into life and drew the attention of audiences and critics alike into the powerful visual display of offer. The play was also notable in that it was shot as a silent film, and then re-dubbed in both English and Dutch for simultaneous broadcast in both countries.

The second and third instalments in David Mercer's trilogy concerning the life and loves of a popular writer, The Cellar And The Almond Tree and Emma's Time, were two of the more high-profile features of the final season, drawing together the threads established in the earlier On The Eve Of Publication and providing a showpiece for Michele Dotrice's powerful dramatic presence. Further outings included The Italian Table (with a star turn from Leonard Rossiter), The Boy Who Wanted Peace, No Trams To Lime Street (based on Alun Owen's tale, this play was adapted by Alun Owen by Marty Wilde and Ronnie Scott and was hailed as "The Wednesday Musical" by the associated press for its deft non-naturalistic deployment of sequences accompanied by song, in a similar vein to the "Voice Of God" usage which would elevate Dennis Potter's use of this twist in the genre to greater effect), Nigel Kneale's futurescape play Wine Of India (where morals were abandoned in favour of the pursuit of lurid pleasure), the unforgettable Don Shaw play Sovereign's Company and Party Games.

Tony Parker's Chariot Of Fire
would draw to a close the series proper, albeit with one repeated play remaining after its transmission. This particular play rounded off the programme in the finest controversial tradidtion that The Wednesday Play could ever have hoped to muster. The Radio Times billing for the episode is deliberately vague, perhaps recognising that the material in itself would be considered in such poor taste as to see viewers abandon the programme in droves: "Stanley Wood is a man who interferes with little boys - an outcast in society and even in prison. Would you invite him into your home to try to help him? This play by Tony Parker is a sympathetic and understanding story of a Prison Visitor who believes that no one is beyond helping. "Stanley Wood" is a real person. His name is different and he has just been sent to prison again, for six years".

Having said precious little to establish the core theme of the production, the Radio Times overlooked a warning to viewers that Chariot Of Fire was a "paedophiles are people too" production which saw Parker going to extraordinary lengths to convince his viewership that, despite being convicted for predatory sexual behaviour over schoolboys, his impotence and the fact that he (Stanley Wood, the central character of the play) was really a nice person once you got to know him, could somehow excuse him for his thoroughly abhorrent behaviour. Undoubtedly the play courted controversy, and as such if this was the aim then the intention was justifably founded, yet no rational audience member would empathise with such a predatory character as Wood, and as such, any efforts on the part of Rosemary Leach's Shelley Mitchell, his volunteer prison visitor, to show compassion towards the prisoner would be considered bizarre and extraordinary. Repeat transmission of the plays The Year Of The Sex Olympics (by Nigel Kneale), To See How Far It Is (by Alan Plater) and Wind Versus Polygamy (by Obi Egbuna), the last of which concerned itself with the changing face of contemporary African society, offered audiences a renewed acquaintance with the more popular Theatre 625 ventures, and ostensibly filled out the gaps in this final swansong

The elevation of these three selected plays to accompany the final run of The Wednesday Play underlines not only the popularity of the themes and issues raised in the content, but also unfortunately reflects the fact that this one proud anthology series was steadily running out of steam as it approached its end towards the middle of 1970. The end of the 1960s and the start of a new decade had further heralded the dwindling reserves of audiences attracted to The Wednesday Play, with viewers no longer titillated by salacious controversy and rejecting the plays as no longer holding any particular relevance to contemporary society. The series was becoming something of a parody to its original form, and in order to arrest the problem at its earliest point, incumbent Head of Drama Serials Shaun Sutton set in motion a chain of events which would effectively put an end to the series in its present format, and resurrect its fortunes on a new day, in a new timeslot, under a new programme title. In late 1970, the series transferred from Wednesday to Thursday evenings under the new title of Play For Today, and whilst the majority of the production staff made the comfortable transition from the one vehicle to the other, changes in perspective and the demands of a new audience required the selection of a different group of writers (accompanied by only the best of The Wednesday Play) to adapt to changing times and changing expectations.

Stark realism and documentary-stylised plays were replaced with comedies and dramas which approached the issues affecting contemporary society in much the same manner, though the pacing of the productions varied considerably from week to week (largely dependant upon the content of the play and the running-time, which was at odds with The Wednesday Play's self-imposed seventy-five-minute maximum). The fortunes of the anthology series prospered greatly from Sutton's insight, as Play For Today continued for a further fourteen years, and the international exportation of the programme reached its peak under this new banner title. The series successfully produced pilot episodes for a wide range of drama productions, and notably reconfirmed BBC Television's reputation as a quality producer of isolated drama productions which could be thought-provoking, moving, readily controversial and of an undeniably high calibre.

© Matthew Lee, 2004