Wednesday, March 01, 2006

New hope for emerging TV scribes

Good news on - the BBC is bringing the single play back to prime time TV, a format that nurtured the early careers of numerous emerging scribes in the past. Below are extracts from the article [you can read the whole thing at this URL:,,1720525,00.html ].

After more than two decades, the BBC is planning to revive Play for Today, the single play strand recognised as the breeding ground for many top dramatists and much mourned by those who made their reputation there. The original Wednesday Play, succeeded by the long-running Play for Today, is fondly remembered by many of today's best-known writers and directors as the experimental breeding ground for the likes of Dennis Potter, Ken Loach, Tony Garnett, Mike Leigh and Alan Bleasdale. With the working title The Evening Play, the new BBC1 strand will be handed a primetime 9pm slot and feature work by up and coming new writers who might already be working in television but have not had much work broadcast.

The BBC's head of drama, Jane Tranter, said it was "early days" for the project, which will not hit the screen until next year and is part of a wider single-drama rethink across all BBC channels. The only single dramas on BBC1 in recent years have tended to be part of a themed run, such as the modern-day update of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and last year's Shakespeare adaptations, or one-offs such as The Girl in the Cafe or The Gathering Storm.

The decision to revive The Afternoon Play as an occasional daytime series on BBC1 has proved an unlikely ratings winner, presaging the decision to bring back an evening version. A string of respected names including Alan Plater and Stephen Poliakoff have claimed that the demise of the single play led to a narrowing of focus and a constriction of ambition by broadcasters in the the 1980s and 1990s as series and serials took over. Instead of a diverse selection of subjects, they argued that broadcasters in the 80s and 90s tended to swarm instead around genre-based thrillers, detective dramas, period pieces or soaps as they became ever more obsessed with overnight ratings.

The Wednesday Play ran on the BBC from 1964 to 1970, while Play For Today lasted from 1970 to 1984. Meanwhile, ITV's equally influential Armchair Theatre was broadcast from 1956 until 1974.

Although widely remembered, and sometimes caricatured, for their heart on sleeve social realism in the mould of the classic 1966 film Cathy Come Home, the long running strands also featured a wide variety of other genres. The format also encouraged experimentation in both writing style and direction. Among the most revered were Leigh's Abigail's Party and Nuts in May, Harold Pinter's first television play, A Night Out, Dennis Potter's early Vote, Vote, Vote For Nigel Barton and later Blue Remembered Hills, and Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home, both directed by Loach. Among the most popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s were science fiction works such as Z For Zachariah, while Bleasdale's The Black Stuff formed the template for the hugely popular Boys From the Black Stuff. The new run, initially of six programmes, would look for a similar spread of themes and "light and shade", said Ms Tranter.

Ms Tranter said criticism of the lack of a permanent home for single plays always left her feeling "partly sympathetic and partly irritated" because many of today's best writers, such as Paul Abbott and Russell T Davies, now preferred to write serials. Now that the BBC had reinvigorated its series with the likes of Spooks, Doctor Who, Life on Mars and Bleak House, it made sense to reinstate a regular slot for single dramas. "It's about giving different voices a go. I think we're phenomenally lucky in this country. There are huge numbers of talented writers out there and we need to encourage them to find the best ideas they can," she said.


So, why is this good news? Well, in a TV world frequently dominated by cop dramas, medical dramas and soaps, The Evening Play will create opportunities to tell different kinds of stories. If you're a new or emerging scribe, soaps offer the easiest, most obvious way of getting your foot in the door of TV writing. Not everybody wants to write for soaps and, even if you do, the burnout rate is pretty high in that genre. What next for emerging screenwriters? They rarely have the clout to get a series of their own on TV, so work on other people's series in the hope of acquiring some traction. But The Evening Play holds out hope there might be another way forward.

For me, it's all academic right now [no pun intended]. I'm only a few months into my MA Screenwriting course and since I'm doing that part-time, more than 18 months from finishing. I don't have a single broadcast credit to my name yet, but that will change this summer when my first radio play is heard on Radio 4. It's one tiny step on a much longer journey, but it's a start. The news about The Evening Play offers a glimmer of hope to wannabes that there is light at the end of the tunnel, rather than an oncoming train called Rejection.

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