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

Twenty-Four Steps From The Kitchen Sink

Alice by Dennis Potter was granted a Radio Times cover for the new series
BBC Television's First Night had enjoyed moderate audience appreciation and critical acclaim, but had been predominately dogged with the tag of "kitchen sink" drama, much to the chagrin of Sydney Newman, who was determined to ensure that The Wednesday Play firmly side-stepped such content and presented viewers with a "mind-blowing" experience which tested the very boundaries of the televisual medium. Original programme producer Peter Luke had failed to adequately realise Newman's vision, and was promptly removed in favour of handing over the reigns to young Scotsman James MacTaggart, whose experimental talents had been employed upon the short anthology series Storyboard in 1961 and more recently in the series Teletale in 1963. MacTaggart, a strong advocate for more dramatic fare in the mould of that which Troy Kennedy Martin had previously delivered, had impressed Newman to the extent that a rapid promotion to the level of producer of such a high-profile vehicle as The Wednesday Play was executed without delay, and the pair jointly discussed the future direction the series would take.

Luke's productions had been predominately studio-bound (further underlining the fact that the six British-made plays were nothing more than Festival left-overs), and the prevailing style and appearance of the plays remained uniformly conventional and stilted. Additionally, content had been derived from adaptations of stage plays and classic novels which far from adequately reflected contemporary life. As a result, when working-class characters appeared in the plays featured in Festival, First Night and the first series of The Wednesday Play, they were nothing more than well-established caricatures as opposed to capturing the essence of the changing class culture.

Indeed, the majority of the fare inherent in the aforementioned vehicles was marred by "Anyone For Tennis?"-esque upper-class twits and cheeky Cockney salt-of-the-earth characters. Newman and MacTaggart struck a symbiotic creative parternship in their discussions as to the next step The Wednesday Play would take; Ray Galton and Alan Simpson had already demonstrated the potent power of being afforded free licence to explore their own creative parameters in Comedy Playhouse, and the pair recognised that to provide writers and directors with the relatively unheard of freedom to indulge in drama without guidelines would serve to generate, foster and nurture the creative process to the extent that the series would establish a "house style" for its unpredictability, gritty realism, attention to character and capacity to lure in and sustain an audience throughout. Newman was prepared to entrust MacTaggart with the task of turning British television metaphorically on its head, and provided him with a loose five-point-plan to follow in order to establish the strong foundation upon which the second season of the series would be based:

1. There should be identifiable relevance between the content of the play and the lives of society (both mainstream and the minorities)

2. Writers should feel happy to indulge in free expression with regard to the changing face of British life in the 1960s (whether through the breakdown of the classic nuclear family, changing attitudes towards the church, the recent legalisation of homosexuality, the power of the union movement, changing political allegiances, etc)

3. Directors should be cognisant of the fact that the seventy-five-minute duration is the maximum length of a play, and as such pace, mood and characterisation must develop accordingly (thus the realisation of plays would required a fast-paced approach, much akin to the manner in which ITV programmes were produced and, later in 1965, the highly-publicised John Elliot series Mogul)

4. Teaser and tag sequences were to be readily employed throughout, a double-edged dramatic device in which audiences could enjoy a taste of things to come, and would in turn provide writers and directors with the opportunity to advance the progression of a tale to the point where the play could open in the second or third act as opposed to languidly establishing themes, moods and well-rounded characters in an otherwise redundant half hour

5. Controversial issues should not be shied away from, particularly if they were now commonplace in everyday life (such as same sex relationships, the emergence of the feminist movement, the changes to the British class structure, etc).

After two years of failed attempts to salvage the complicated mess which had become the presentation of single plays on BBC Television, Newman was confident that he had at last found his man. Left to his own devices, MacTaggart's search for fresh creative blood, which had been undertaken on a preliminary basis towards the end of the first official season of The Wednesday Play, was assisted by his own personal appointment of the first of what would become a long line of distinguished story editors in Roger Smith, whom he had previously worked alongside on Teletale. The combined creative energy of MacTaggart and Smith would secure the programme's iconic status for presenting "no-holds-barred" drama with a controversial edge, presenting a "warts-and-all" view of contemporary life like no other series of plays. Such a description may be littered with what appear to be hollow clichés, but their choice for the first play of the series proper, coupled with the writer responsible, reflected their commitment to a bold and brash new enterprise.

© Matthew Lee, 2004