In the olden days most British tv shows were shot in studios and roughly looked like theatre plays. The camera would stay in one place – usually as the fourth wall, where the audience should be or was. Hundreds of dramas were produced that way from the 1930s, when television began, until the 1990s, when television finally – belatedly – moved on.
Because I’m old and it’s so inextricably intertwined with childhood memories – studio bound dramas are the type I prefer. I wish they would come back, boring beige walls’n’all.
Some of those dramas were seen once, and apart from vague notions – would never be remembered. Some of them were seen, stuck in my mind, and were easily remembered – like Juliet Bravo or early Casualty or Dramarama. Some stuck in my mind – but after the fact were hard or impossible to track down. Of those – my favourites – the four that struck the hardest were three Open University set plays and one Jane Asher play whose name escaped me.
The second earliest was ‘Endgame’ by Samuel Beckett, made in 1989. I was only watching it because I was very ill, and couldn’t sleep. Everyone else in the house, even my rabbit, was in bed. It was an oddball of a play – with Stephen Rhea as the servant Clov, Norman Beaton as the master Hamm and Charlie Drake (the comedian – but I’d never heard of him) and Kate Binchly (I’ve still never heard of her) as the parents in bins, Nagg and Nell. To my 12-year-old self – it was all very mysterious. Nothing happened, nothing made sense and everything seemed to matter. On the other side was always the James Whale Radio Show – a tv magazine with lots of bands, drunks and controversy. Both symbolised the adult world to me – a load of old balls that was quite fascinating because I was doomed to end up there.
The next – although I only saw it twice, much later – was ‘Prometheus Unbound’, adapted by the poet Tom Paulin, in 1985, from the greek original. This play I liked because it was on late, I was alone, and it had a cosy yet frantic atmosphere. I saw it in 88 and 90, and the Duran Duran jacket worn by the hero and the Marilyn Monroe get-up sported by some actress (I think she was famous at the time) who came on to be distraught and then buggered off – were already deeply unfashionable. I couldn’t tell you what it was about – but I knew it was somehow profound (or posh).
The last of the Open University plays was ‘Madmen and Specialists’ by Wole Soyinka in 1993. I was still ill, still couldn’t sleep at night – but I was older, a bit wiser (in that not remotely wise, far too arrogant, but completely miserable, teenage way), and considered all this sort of thing to be a ruse that the ruling class used to keep the rest of us feeling dim, but I was fond of it because I was still alone, and it felt as if it belonged to me, as if I was the only person watching. It was set in Africa apparently – although it starred that guy from Red Dwarf – a cult hit at the time – and it seemed very British. I think it lasted days. I certainly can’t pin-point an ending. They were in a war, angry and despairing. They sat around a lot. Someone might have been shot.
The last play turns out to have been the first or maybe second. It was shown in 1985. I thought it was a BBC ‘Play for Today’ type thing. I thought it lasted for two hours at least and was a serious examination of the effects of giving up a career for a man, only to be shunted aside for a younger woman. I can remember Jane Asher – looking older and exhausted – screaming at the man and his new girlfriend that she would never forgive them. I can’t guarantee that this scene ever took place – but just three days ago I discovered the name of this gem – ‘Bright Smiler’ by Fay Weldon in ITV’s ‘Time For Murder’ series. It only lasted an hour. Most of that hour consisted of an aged Jane Asher massaging an oblivious Janet Suzman, while telling her the story of her ill-fated love-affair and playing Russian Roulette with a gun pointed in Janet’s face. The punch line was that Janet – unthinkingly – convinced Jane that she was to blame for throwing her life away, and Jane trotted off to kill herself while Janet mused on what bastards writers are. All I remembered were the flash-backs of the young Jane slaving to repair a dilapidated home that would be sold as a spa without her making a penny. It obsessed me for years. I’ve rewritten it half asleep in the middle of the night. It was Proust and Shakespeare and Kubrick to me. And yet, of all the plays I’ve remembered, it’s the only one that realistically could be described as mainstream, or naff, or trash or pure entertainment.
Still, they were all fabulous things. Modern stuff just isn’t as weird.