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

Stand Up And Vote For Nigel Barton

For a modest collection of eleven plays, which concluded James MacTaggart's tenure as producer of The Wednesday Play, the list of contributing writers makes mouth-watering reading by comparison to some of the dour output which plagues contemporary British Television schedules. Three plays by Dennis Potter, coupled with offerings from James O'Connor, Dawn Pavitt and Terry Wale, Fred Watson, Neil Dunn and Julia Jones. The collection of this creative powerhouse was thanks largely to the powers of persuasion of Tony Garnett, the newly-appointed story editor for the series and a man with a keen eye on the developing state of British drama, as presented for television.

The reliable state of affairs with BBC Television programmes had always been to rest on one's laurels when the pinnacle of success had been achieved, as exemplified by long-running serials such as Dixon Of Dock Green, Doctor Finlay's Casebook, Maigret and Z-Cars, all of which brought fresh ideas to an untimely end when a rudely healthy audience base had been mustered, and started producing standard comfort-zone viewing which remained standardised throughout their respective runs. By its very nature, The Wednesday Play had produced controversial plays - often penned by figures of controversy - which were presented to audiences in brash, exciting and novel ways and to much critical acclaim. Yet now the programme had established a benchmark which it would be required to further advance with each successive season, and, on the evidence of the third series, both the writing and production teams rose admirably to the challenge at hand.

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party in Alice
On October 13th 1965, the programme returned with Dennis Potter's Alice, a moving portrait of Lewis Carroll (as portrayed in this instance by the wonderful George Baker). Whilst the play itself appeared on the surface to be a run-of-the-mill offering, Potter's deftness of touch - which was healthily cultivated in his contributions to this vehicle - ensured that the story captivated audiences with a renewed vigour for the tales of Alice In Wonderland whilst exploring Victorian values and the need to express one's innermost feelings and desires through the mouthpiece of fiction.
Garnett notably used the launching-point of this play to espouse the virtues of the forthcoming series in the Radio Times, proclaiming that "Each week will be a surprise, because each of these writers is as individual as the people who will watch their plays. This means that the series will not run to a set formula - pace, style, setting, and subject will vary from week to week. The series as a whole, however, will have a personality of its own, and all the plays do have some things in common. Whether we are in the year 1865 or 1970, in a mining village or an Oxford college, with an aristocrat or an astronaut, we shall try to face things as they really are. We are not in the wish-fulfilment business. We will try to show the real hopes and conflicts of some ordinary - and some extraordinary - people, honestly and directly. To tell our stories, we shall have to break a lot of old rules about what is permissible in television drama; and although we shall not set out to offend people, we may be provocative - but out of a compassion that comes from a concern for human beings. We invite you to join us tonight and hope you will be with us every Wednesday".

Whilst Alice was hardly mould-breaking in terms of its delivery to audiences, The Wednesday Play would once again make the headlines with four of its plays from this third season cited as having changed the face of British drama - and British television - permanently (a grand claim which would only be bettered by an internationally-recognised success in 1968).


Up The Junction
For whilst Peter Everett's The Girl Who Loved Robots and Julia Jones' A Designing Woman proved diverting fare, it would be Neil Dunn's Up The Junction, as directed by the legendary Kenneth Loach, which would see The Wednesday Play emerge from its studio-bound confines to produce a play in and around the streets of South London in a manner not since previously approached. Contemporary drama with a view to the exploration of the social issues of the age had become the programme's trademark, but for the most part these plays had been produced in the studio and lacked the gritty social realism that Garnett and Loach would later become so famous for pioneering.

The undoubted strength of presenting a play in the real world - as opposed to a fictional setting in a studio - in which a pseudo-documentary style could be employed upon the plays, blurring the distinguishing line between fact and fiction so as to present audiences with a "this-could-actually-happen-to-you" scenario, became their mutual target. Up The Junction, a play concerning itself with working-class life in a south London community, became the beneficiary of their endeavours by: "initiating a technological breakthrough by moving over to film and location shooting with Up The Junction (BBC-1, 3 November 1965), the play which took television drama out of the studio and into the real world … in order to make a drama about contemporary life among ordinary working-class people in south London, Garnett and Loach wanted to get out onto the streets, into the real world, as much as possible. After the battle with James MacTaggart over the script and the whole conception of the drama, Garnett then fought another battle with BBC management, and with the BBC Film Department, to be allowed to use sixteen-millimetre cameras to go out and shoot the drama on the streets … they wanted to achieve the look of `immediacy' to be found in news footage, in order to reinforce the veracity of the drama that they wanted to put on screen. They wanted to turn `drama' into `news'" (
Lez Cooke - British Television Drama: A History).

If the controversy over blurring the lines between news and drama were not enough, the scene featuring the execution of a backstreet abortion disturbed viewers and "stuffed-shirts" in the BBC hierarchy alike, but Garnett and Loach prided themselves on not turning a blind eye when it came to depicting the realities of contemporary life in all its unedifying glory. Unquestionably, their dogged determination in by-passing numerous obstacles placed before them by the various BBC Television departments and by James MacTaggart himself, secured a shower of praise from the critics and from writer Troy Kennedy Martin, who extolled the virtues of the production at every available opportunity. Such controversial fare could never be sustained for a prolonged period of time, however, and more standard - yet equally diverting - plays such as The Trial And Torture Of Sir John Rampayne, The End Of Arthur's Marriage, Tomorrow, You Just Wait and The Bond continued the high-calibre production values of the series. Predominately studio-based, these plays were nevertheless effective in terms of their gentle blend of high comedy and high drama, eliciting memorable performances from the likes of James Hawkins, Faith Brook, Ian McKellen and Hannah Gordon under the directorial expertise of Loach, Peter Duguid, James Ferman and Mary Ridge. Dennis Potter's swansong was then launched upon an unsuspecting public, with Garnett's specially commissioned prequel, Stand Up, Nigel Barton, being followed a week later by Vote, Vote, Vote For Nigel Barton (this episode having previously fallen through the cracks of the second series of plays).

A joyous exploration of political chicanery, based in part on Potter's own personal experiences, the impact of the play on the public and critical psyche has lived long in the memory; the elevation of Keith Barron to stellar status, the consolidation and confirmation of Potter as a playwright of considerable pedigree, and the resounding success of The Wednesday Play having fostered and nurtured such a creative force, were all by-products of having spent two weeks in the company of the somewhat naïve Nigel Barton.

Left: The Nigel Barton Plays

The series came to a close three days prior to Christmas 1965 with James O'Connor's festive offering, The Coming Out Party. The experimental nature of The Wednesday Play had continued unabated throughout this third season, in-keeping with Newman's original vision and ensuring that an air of notoriety continued to surround the programme's dramatic output. A brief festive recess would permit a changing of the guard in the production staff, with Peter Luke enjoying a welcome transition period from James MacTaggart as producer of the series for the second time.


© Matthew Lee, 2004