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Thursday, 11 October 2007

What God knows about TV drama

My first experience of Samuel Beckett the playwright was in 1979 when I caught a broadcast performance of Waiting for Godot recorded for Open University students. I got up at the crack of dawn on three occasions to watch it but I didn’t own a video recorder at the time and I’ve never seen that interpretation again.

When Beckett died in 1998, the BBC dusted off a few programmes and gave them an airing. This time I was prepared and made VHS tapes of everything, but after moving house several times, God alone knows who got custody of them. One thing’s for sure, they’re not in my collection now and I doubt they’ll ever be transmitted again.

When, in 2000, Channel 4 announced it was to air all Beckett’s stage plays I got dead excited but they dried up and the only way I eventually got to see them all was to fork out over £100 for the boxed set because God alone knows when, if ever, they’ll get round to showing them again.

Fortunately, I managed to catch the BBC4 recording of Harold Pinter in Krapp’s Last Tape earlier this year and I kept a copy on DVD for posterity. God alone knows when it’ll ever be broadcast again.

Actually, as God is also probably very well aware, this blog is really not about Beckett. It’s about television reruns.

Back in the 1970s, television drama was a lot different than it is today. A lot of things were. I was not your typical teenager (you didn’t honestly imagine I was), but I was a teenager nevertheless with a teenager’s limited life experiences and perspective. That didn’t stop me watching grown-up dramas – unless my parents deemed them inappropriate – but I didn’t always get the subtleties of the plays I was watching.

Strands like commercial television’s Armchair Theatre (1956-74) and the BBC's The Wednesday Play (1964-70) and Play for Today (1970-84) all supplied a steady stream on one-off dramas, a format that has all but died a death on television these days.

During this time, these series premiered plays by the likes of Dennis Potter, Alan Bleasdale, David Mercer, Ken Loach, Nigel Kneale, Mike Leigh, Jack Rosenthal, Willy Russell, Alan Bennett, Malcolm Bradbury and Stephen Poliakoff along with classics by Sartre, Turgenev, Ibsen and others but nothing, I’m sorry to say, by Beckett. And then, God alone knows why, it all stopped.

Granted some of these have been repeated since: Abigail’s Party, Cathy Come Home, and most of Potter’s work – praise the Lord! – but showings are rare. I would love to see these plays again because I was simply too young to fully appreciate them at the time of initial broadcast. I can easily pick up a copy of any book I didn’t quite get when I first had a go at it, but, when it comes to television drama, I’m wholly dependent on the powers that be deciding that there’s a market and that annoys me.

I believe it should be the responsibility of broadcasters to treat quality TV drama with a degree of respect. Why does the BBC keep ramming serialisations of Dickens and Jane Austin down our throats to the exclusion of all else? Oh, and if the tape has been wiped – as the BBC was wont to do back then – then why not remake these dramas for today’s audiences? Good drama doesn’t date – look at Shakespeare. Hollywood certainly has no problem re-imagining the films of its past so why should TV be any different?

In March 2006 the BBC indicated that there was going to be a revival of the single play format for BBC1 and granted there have been a few more of these popping up in the schedules but nothing to get really excited over. The soaps, sitcoms, series and serials are still there, some good (e.g. Jekyll), some not so much (don’t get me started).

It’s now October 2007 and I don’t quite feel the arrival of a second golden age of TV drama. God alone knows if I ever will, but he’s not returning my calls.


Ken Urban said...

I teach theatre/playwriting at a university in the US and I was wondering if it is possible to purchase the Pinter production of Krapp's Last Tape. There are no plans to show it in the US.

Jim Murdoch said...

Drop me a note of your address to

I'd be happy to make you a copy.

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