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

A New Man, A Relative "Messiah"
Ostriches were languidly grazing at Television Centre, comfortable in the knowledge that sticking one's head in the ground would protect both themselves and the august employer from the worst excesses of recent decisions made by their leaders of their respective packs. Stuffed-shirts and the more high-minded of their number, otherwise known as the Board of Directors of BBC Television, had made conscious efforts to ensure that programme content for BBC-1 remained high-brow and with feet firmly grounded in the artistic side of pure entertainment; a selection of rarely televised, socially-conscious imported plays were broadcast, accompanied by dour offerings which either took themselves far too seriously, or conversely descended into nothing more than parody.

Left: Jack Hawkins in The Trial and Torture of Sir John Rampayne

Wholesome attitudes of a life far from that of contemporary 1960s Britain were reflected in serials such as Dixon Of Dock Green and Compact, comfortable Sunday evening drama was presented to audiences in Doctor Finlay's Casebook, and apart from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the corporation's collection of light entertainment writers failed to deliver anything other than material which served to inflate the egos of a handful of comedians. In short, BBC Television had spectacularly "hit-the-skids" as its competitor ITV sustained healthy audiences with a wide range of different ventures, from action to adventure, drama to comedy; an assessment of The Wednesday Play would, however, not be complete without a comparable "rival" on a competing network, and in this instance the enormously successful ITV anthology series Armchair Theatre is perhaps the most notable example of a format BBC Television would happily have sold its soul to obtain.

The corporation was forced to undertake a certain degree of soul-searching within itself in order to salvage a downhill slide which had seen BBC-1 produce high-quality dramatic fare for audiences tired of melodrama, stilted period productions and single plays which lacked the compulsive attraction of ITV's audience-pleasing venture. Viewers were deserting the corporation in favour of what "the other side" had to offer, and in order to arrest the situation before it became a suitable case for treatment, BBC Television acquired the services of a new man, a relative "messiah", who would be charged with taking the dramatic output of Britain's eldest statesman of broadcasting firmly by the scruff of the neck and knock some semblance of relevance into it: Sydney Newman, the dynamic creative force behind the success of Armchair Theatre, was appointed as Head of BBC Television Drama, and the impact of his appointment wrought a new internal structure to the corporation and changed the face of the network's schedules forever. Irene Shubik, one of the more notable fixtures in both The Wednesday Play and its logical successor, Play For Today, best summarised the state of affairs both prior to and directly after his appointment:

"… although good plays were going out, audiences did not know what to expect; modern and classical were mixed and there was little evidence of a continuing taste of style behind the material. Also there was little sense of occasion attached to these transmissions. Sydney's idea was to divide the type of plays into groups. `Festival', under Peter Luke, who went with him to the BBC as a producer, was to do the more classical pieces, ancient and modern: plays by Noel Coward, Cocteau, James Joyce, Ionesco, etc, were included in the first 1963-1964 season. `First Night', produced by John Elliot, was to concentrate on the new writers and was to go out on Sunday night in opposition to `Armchair Theatre'. The first season included plays by Terence Frisby (later best known for There's A Girl In My Soup), Arnold Wesker and Alun Owen. Specific producers and editors would give the different slots their different character"
(British Television Drama: A History by Lez Cooke).

Newman restructured the drama departments of the BBC to be directly responsible for specific strands, thus establishing a form of brand identity on the output of the corporation. Abandoning vehicles such as Play Of The Month, Sunday-Night Theatre and The Sunday Play, which had, on the whole, exhausted their dramatic capabilities and the attraction of audiences, Newman appointed reputable writing and production teams to the various strands, which would be devoted to specific themed content. Thus, Festival became primarily concerned with period productions and classical plays, First Night became a vehicle for contemporary plays which explored the status quo in the United Kingdom in the 1960s, Play Of The Month was permitted to sporadically continue with a selection of imported plays, and work began on a series of geographically-themed plays under the banner title of Londoners (which would explore the impact and influence exerted upon the residents and newcomers to the capital).

However, even this combination of anthology series did little to bolster BBC Television's flagging ratings, and Newman was compelled to establish one strong, enduring format which would rescue the production of the single play from its impending demise on the network. The conclusion of First Night and Festival presented him with the ideal opportunity to consolidate the dramatic output of the pair into one mid-week vehicle, The Wednesday Play (with First Night having failed to score notable successes against Newman's ITV venture Armchair Theatre, the man in question was forced to effectively re-invent the wheel and create a similarly-successful vehicle on a different evening altogether), a format so refined and re-tuned prior to its eventual realisation that it would arguably become the single greatest dramatic success of BBC Television in the 1960s…


© Matthew Lee, 2004