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The compelling challenges that face drama

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A 1968 interview with Sydney Newman after he left television to direct movies
  1. Controlling the world's biggest drama output (9 May)
  2. Story editors, critics and complainers (16 May)
  3. The best series have their virtues (23 May)
  4. The compelling challenges that face drama (30 May)

1968-05-30 Stage and Television Today.jpg


THE time had come to ask Sydney Newman to look into the future. Our future rather than his. I concentrated first on the single play, because it is the cornerstone of every form of drama, asking him whether he thought that the excitement and goodwill of viewers had been securely recaptured. In short, was the single play out of the wood?

"It will never be out of the wood, in the sense that everybody can relax," he declared. "In television, it just isn't enough to write a beautiful play and have it performed and directed beautifully. There's an immediacy about the medium that demands that drama should grapple with problems that are urgent and of the moment. Drama must walk right into the middle of society and examine it to find out what makes people tick."

"What about the purely practical hazard of production costs rising to an uneconomic height?" I asked.

"I don't think this is a real danger at the moment, although it certainly did happen in America. But that was a direct result of errors of judgment rather than a rise in essential costs

Big stars

"When American plays lost their original vitality, the series took over as the first choice of sponsors wanting to get big audiences for their money. Instead of fighting to put the vitality back, producers went out and bought big Hollywood stars. It made no difference. Audiences just didn't care. So they got bigger and bigger stars, and more and more of them, and that's when the cost began to explode.

In this country there is a divine gift of good sense which should enable us to avoid this mistake. Although I confess I was more than a little bothered by a press release put out in the Spring by my BBC boys—my ex-boys. I mean—which seemed to put great store by big names."

I suggested that the noticeable trend towards publicising productions in terms of star names probably owed its origin to the widely held belief that drama is taken too much for granted because it is available at the turn of a switch. This belief resulted in efforts by executive producers—most notably Cecil Clarke at ATV—to restore the missing "sense of occasion" by means of prestige productions with all star casts. written or adapted by famous playwrights.

"I don't doubt that this is the reason for it, but the argument isn't one that has my support," Sydney replied . "Terms like "special occasion" are only promotional phrases. I've used them myself in the past, but they don't scratch the surface of the fundamentals.

"We eat bread every day, and to me there is nothing wrong in a cultural experience being as commonplace as eating a slice of bread. It is we who are wrong if we regard culture as a thing apart from the mainstream of life—something that can only be enjoyed when you're dressed in your best clothes—and I'm very happy to think that television has been helping to push drama into that mainstream."

"Could these prestige productions, so eloquently publicised by the BBC and the companies, finally result in a devaluing of the new play by a little known writer, with a cast of actors who haven't reached stardom?" I asked.

"There is that danger. But it need not be a real danger if everybody concerned with programming keeps a sense of balance. Once again, this is where the BBC is in the stronger position. With its enormous and varied output, it can work out an internal balance and prevent these big name productions from having undue dominance.

"This is why it never bothered me that Theatre 625 concentrated so much on great stage plays and dramatisations of famous novels. I didn't mind robbing the pasture of immediacy, because I could contain these adaptations within the one programme without injuring the entirely different philosophy of the Wednesday Play.

"Since I left the BBC. however, I've had reason to feel disturbed by a tendency to return to the practice of reviving old stage plays outside the limits of Theatre 625.

"One of the basic tenets of my whole belief has always been—and so far my instinct in this matter has never failed me—that 99 out of 100 stage plays will not make a good television play. That's not to say they won't success with a vast audience. But in saying that I'm qualifying the meaning of the words 'good' and 'succeed'."

"If you are uneasy about big name productions, worried by the possibility of a swing back to stage plays, would you cast a vote in favour of the so-called "anthology". the series of plays with a common theme, as a justifiable device for building up a regular audience?" I queried.

Linked theme

"First of all," Sydney spoke with vehemance. "First of all, let me say how much I dislike the use of the term "anthology" to describe these collections of plays. To me the word has always meant a selection of stories or poems selected by an editor in accordance with his personal taste. In any case, I regard the "linked theme" idea as no more than a promotional gimmick. I don't know who they think they're fooling.

"The true secret of running a series of popular plays is quite simple, but one that very few people seem to understand. Perhaps because it isn't all that easy to explain.

"You must have what I, reluctantly, call a "common denominator of expectation", By this I mean that the stories can be as different as you like but the audience expectation week to week must remain the same. For example, the Wednesday Play built up its own kind of image as a series of plays that treated life in an exciting way. Plays that would be as crude and vigorous as life itself. So long as they stuck to that it was great. But every now and then there was a sort of side excursion into escapist comedy or heavy intellectuality. This was wrong, because the whole trick is to develop a positive form of audience expectation in your regular audience.

"This doesn't mean any dictatorial squeezing of writers, but it does mean that you must go out and find the writers who are prepared to think as you think. Taking the Wednesday Play again, a story could be light but it shouldn't be escapist because the common denominator was realism.

Our discussion veered to the technical side of production. On the debatable issue of filming versus electronic recording, Sydney Newman confessed to a change of heart.

"If the cost of filming can be overcome, I see no particular virtue in clinging to the use of electronic cameras. This is a total reversal of the opinion I held so ardently for many years—in fact. right from the time when I first moved into television from documentary films and came to have an aesthetic, philosophical belief in the intimacy and uniqueness of having four or six cameras o p e r a t i n g virtually simultaneously. But in the past months I've seen so many wonderful things done with the mobility of the film cameras that I've reached a point when I can't hang on to that theory any longer.

"Where electronic recording scores is in the love and devotion of so many of the people working in the studios. who express their love by producing their very best work. Not that the users of film cameras aren't equally devoted. but there's no doubt about it that the television camera is marvellous for the close-up of the human face—the way that it looks right into the soul through an actor's eyes".

Of live transmissions, Sydney says: "I don't think I believe in live productions except as an active discipline in training. They provide excitement and a sense of urgency. Live drama, in a way, is a false god. but a god I could afford to serve with roughly six percent of my BBC output.

"Taking the three departments, Plays, Serials, and Series, I tried to give each of them one live show as a sort of shot in the arm for the produc. tion staff. A live production puts the director and crew under tension and does wonders for their ability to think quickly."

Worrying trend

I asked Sydney Newman whether he saw the introduction of colour as having any valuable effect on the future of drama. His rapture was distinctly modified.

"I've had a set since last September. and I regret to say I've noticed a worrying tendency for directors to rely too heavily on colour.

"Technically and artistically speaking, Dick Levin (Head of Design) and has boys arc producing the loveliest colour. Superb. I've seen nothing in the United States, Canada. or Japan, to equal it. But at present the cameras are a hit static. The fluidity is escaping and productions are getting a little too studied.

"It's true the cameras are bigger and therefore harder to push around, but it isn't only that. The static quality comes from camera angles which seem to have been chosen more for their beauty than their significance. There's a timidity of execution which bothers me.

From generalisations to the particular. To Sydney Newman himself. Looking back over hi4 ten years in British television, was there anything he regretted doing?

"No, I don't regret anything. I've always worked with great passion and belief in what I was doing. and I don't think that at any time I did anything I wouldn't do again if the circumstances were the same. I've had my failures. I failed with 199 Park Lane—but that was a legitimate failure and nothing to be ashamed of. I'm proud of our effort to launch Swizzle-wick. I'm sorry it failed, but I certainly don't regret that we made the effort.

While I burst with pride at some of our opera successes like Billy Budd and Mahogany, i do have a sense of failure about original opera. I wanted to find the musical Extons and Owens. i didn't do enough here.

"I love television." he continued. "Working in the medium was thrilling, with every day a new adventure.

Creative act

Why then did Sydney New man leave his unique position to join the film industry where he is one producer among many? I asked him whether it was because he had done everything that was there for him to do.

Definitely not. The simple answer is that I need replenishing from time to time. I also felt I wanted to have greater personal involvement with the creative act.

"You see, I'd got sort of .. stratospheric ... in the BBC. I felt I'd removed myself a little too far from the front line a little too early in life.

"Besides, there was nowhere else for me to go but up—and I've never been personally ambitious for any high ranking position like Programme Controller or Director of Television. All I ever wanted was to run the biggest and best drama organisation in the world. I did that, and it was marvellous. I didn't want to go beyond in the direction of becoming a real organisation man. I respect people who are BBC career minded, but such a step just wasn't for me.

"I am now looking for new excitement as a feature film maker.

"It seems to me that there's something of a Brain Drain going on. So many of our brightest producers, directors, and writers are working on feature films, that television drama must surely suffer."

New people

"Temporarily perhaps. But new people will come up. You see, television is liable to burn out people because of its voracious appetite. A man can be in the film business for 20 years and make no more than ten pictures. so his growth is slow and long lasting.

"In television, we take kids. train them for three or four years. and then throw them into the mill. Many can and do last a long time, but we tend to burn out the brilliant ones. This hazard needs to be recognised, and the urge to move out of the medium should be understood and treated sympathetically.

"Anyway, I really don't believe it matters which medium attracts the creative people so long as they stay in this country. We have to have these brilliant creative minds all over the place. and if there happens to be a natural progression out of television into films (as there seems to be just now) it's quite all right so long as there's a vast amount of activity going on all the time creating a challenge that will compel television drama to fight to develop and improve."

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  • APA 6th ed.: Bilbow, Marjorie (1968-05-30). The compelling challenges that face drama. The Stage and Television Today p. 10.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Bilbow, Marjorie. "The compelling challenges that face drama." The Stage and Television Today [add city] 1968-05-30, 10. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Bilbow, Marjorie. "The compelling challenges that face drama." The Stage and Television Today, edition, sec., 1968-05-30
  • Turabian: Bilbow, Marjorie. "The compelling challenges that face drama." The Stage and Television Today, 1968-05-30, section, 10 edition.
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