The Wednesday Play

The Wednesday Play is an anthology series of British television plays which ran on BBC1 from October 1964 to May 1970. The plays were usually written for television, although adaptations from other sources also featured. The series gained a reputation for presenting contemporary social dramas, and for bringing issues to the attention of a mass audience that would not otherwise have been discussed on screen.

The Wednesday Play
GenreAnthology, television plays
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original language(s)English
Original networkBBC 1
Original releaseOctober 1964 
May 1970

Some of British television drama's most influential, and controversial, plays were shown in this slot, including Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home. The earliest television plays of Dennis Potter were featured in this slot.


Origins and early seasons

The series was suggested to the BBC's Head of Drama Sydney Newman, by the corporation's director of television Kenneth Adam after his cancellation of the two previous series of single plays.[1] Newman had been persuaded to join the BBC following the success of the similar programme Armchair Theatre, which he had produced while Head of Drama at ABC Television from 1958 to 1962. Armchair Theatre had tackled many difficult and socially relevant subjects in the then-popular 'kitchen sink' style, and still managed to gain a mass audience on the ITV network, and Newman wanted a programme that would be able to tackle similar issues with a broad appeal. Newman also wanted to get away from the BBC's reputation of producing safe and unchallenging drama programmes, to produce something with more bite and vigour, what Newman called "agitational contemporaneity".[1]

The Wednesday Play succeeded in meeting this aim, and the BBC quickly developed the practice of stockpiling six or seven Wednesday Plays in case there were problems with individual works.[2] One production, The War Game (1965), was withdrawn from broadcast by a nervous BBC under pressure from the government, while John Hopkins' Fable (20 January 1965),[3] an inversion of South Africa's Apartheid system, was delayed for several weeks over fears that it would incite racial tensions.[3]

Intended as a vehicle for new writers, several careers began thanks to the series. Television programmes had a much shorter lead time in this era, and Dennis Potter's first four accepted television plays were shown during the course of 1965. The two Nigel Barton plays (8[4] and 15 December 1965)[5] first brought him to widespread public attention and the slightly earlier Alice (13 October 1965),[6] about Lewis Carroll's relationship with Alice Liddell, developed themes to which Potter would return.

In the first half of 1966 a series of 26 Wednesday Plays were produced by Peter Luke, the playwright, and story edited by David Benedictus. Highlights included The Snowball (20 April 1966),[7] adapted from the novel by Brigid Brophy, Toddler on the Run adapted by Shena Mackay from her novella and directed by James MacTaggart, (25 May 1966),[7] Cock Hen and Courting Pit (renamed A Tour of the Old Floorboards, 22 June 1966)[7] by David Halliwell and two plays by Frank O'Connor (which Hugh Leonard adapted)[8] virtually without dialogue[8] and which, renamed Silent Song, won The Prix Italia award[9] in 1967 for 'original dramatic programmes' jointly with a French programme.[10] The other O'Connor/Leonard work was The Retreat (11 May 1966).[7] These two plays starred Milo O'Shea and Jack McGowran. Cathy Come Home by Nell Dunn and Jeremy Sandford was offered to the Luke/Benedictus team who passed it on to Tony Garnett.

Tony Garnett and Ken Loach

Garnett was quickly seen as someone capable of delivering plays which would gain much publicity for the BBC and its Drama department.[11] He had the enthusiastic support of Newman, his immediate superior, who lobbied for increased funding to allow for more location shooting on film rather than shooting productions in the multi-camera electronic television studio, a practice which was felt to impair realism, the preferred mode.[11]

Director Ken Loach made ten plays in all for The Wednesday Play series.[12] Two of them are among the best remembered of the entire run: an adaptation of Nell Dunn's Up the Junction (3 November 1965),[13] and the saga of a homeless young couple and their battle to prevent their children being taken into local authority care: Cathy Come Home (16 November 1966).[14] The latter began Loach's 13 year collaboration with Tony Garnett as his producer, although Garnett had been closely involved with Up the Junction as well.[15]

Plays like Up the Junction though were controversial among more conservative viewers. The 'Clean-Up TV' campaigner Mary Whitehouse accused the BBC of portraying "promiscuity as normal" in Up the Junction[16] and The Wednesday Play as featuring "Dirt, Doubt and Disbelief".[17] The writer on television Anthony Hayward quoted Garnett in 2006: "Mary Whitehouse was on the prowl, which was an added frisson, but it was actually very good free publicity and helped the ratings."[16] The 'drama documentary' approach was criticised by television professionals who thought it was dishonest. In a Sunday Telegraph article published before its first repeat transmission Grace Wyndham Goldie complained that Cathy Come Home "deliberately blurs the distinction between fact and fiction ... [viewers] have a right to know whether what they are being offered is real or invented."[18] Loach has admitted that "[w]e were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news" which preceded The Wednesday Play's slot.[19]

Later seasons

The last three years of the strand were predominantly produced by Irene Shubik and Graeme MacDonald; by this time the BBC Drama head Sydney Newman had left the BBC. Highlights from this period include several plays by David Mercer such as In Two Minds (1 March 1967)[20] and Let's Murder Vivaldi (10 April 1968)[21] and Potter's Son of Man (16 April 1969),[22] a modern interpretation of the story of Jesus.

Suffering from declining audience figures, the run of The Wednesday Play ended in 1970 when the day of transmission changed, and the series morphed into Play for Today.

Reputation and availability

It is regarded as one of the most influential and successful programmes to be produced in Britain during the 1960s, and is still frequently referenced and discussed. In a 2000 poll of industry professionals conducted by the British Film Institute to find the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century, two Wednesday Plays made the list: The War Game was placed twenty-seventh, and Cathy Come Home was voted the second greatest British television programme of the century.

Some examples of The Wednesday Play, such as The War Game (which was not screened by the BBC for 20 years) and Cathy Come Home (1966), a television play exploring the theme of housing and homelessness, was according to filmmaker Roger Graef "a giant wakeup call for the whole nation,"[23] and some of the Potter plays, surfaced on VHS and DVD; the Potter play, Alice was a bonus feature of a Region 1 DVD in 2010 of Jonathan Miller's surrealist version of Alice in Wonderland. The Ken Loach material has resurfaced in a Ken Loach at the BBC set. However, as with much British television of this era, many episodes are lost, leaving 76 surviving in the Archives (along with 3 with some surviving sequences) out of 170 transmitted.[24]

The Wednesday Play on DVD

See also


  1. Oliver Wake "Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)", BFI screenonline
  2. Madeleine Macmurraugh-Kavanagh "The BBC and the Birth of the Wednesday Play 1962-66" in Janet Thumim Small Screens, Big Ideas: Television in the 1950s, London: I.B. Tauris, 2000, p.149-64, 159
  3. Mark Duguid "Fable (1965)", BFI screenonline
  4. Sergio Angelini "Stand Up, Nigel Barton (1965)", BFI screenonline
  5. Sergio Angelini "Vote, Vote, Vote, for Nigel Barton (1965)", BFI screenonline
  6. John R. Cook Dennis Potter: a life on screen, Manchester: Manchester University Press, p.333, n.3:5
  7. Irene Shubik Play for Today: the evolution of television drama, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000 [1975], p.46
  8. Madeleine MacMurragh-Kavanagh and Stephen Lacey "Who Framed Theatre?: The 'Moment of Change' in British TV Drama" in New Theatre Quarterly, No.57, February 1999, p.69
  9. Adam Benedick and Sydney Newman Obituary: Peter Luke, The Independent, 26 January 1995
  10. "Winners 1949-2010" Archived 22 October 2013 at the Wayback Machine, Prix Italia official website
  11. Stephen Lacey Tony Garnett, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002, p.56
  12. Jacob Leigh The Cinema of Ken Loach: Art in the Service of the People, London: Wallflower Press, 2002, p.195
  13. Ros Cranston "Up the Junction (1965)", BFI screenonline
  14. Mark Duguid "Cathy Come Home (1966)", BFI screenonline
  15. Jason Deans and Maggie Brown "Up the Junction's Tony Garnett reveals mother's backstreet abortion death", The Guardian, 28 April 2013
  16. Anthony Hayward "Cathy come home", The Independent, 3 November 2006
  17. Asa Briggs The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Volume 5, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.519
  18. Quoted by Stephen Lacey Tony Garnett, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002, p.57
  19. Graham Fuller Loach on Loach, London: Faber, 1998, p.15 cited in Samantha Lay British Social Realism: From Documentary to Brit-Grit, London: WEallflower Press, 2002, p.21
  20. Janet Moat "In Two Minds (1967)", BFI Screenonline
  21. Janet Moat "Let's Murder Vivaldi (1968)", BFI screenonline
  22. Sergio Angelini "Son of Man (1969)", BFI screenonline
  23. Roger Graef "Out of the box", The Guardian, 15 February 2006
  24. Missing or incomplete episodes for programme The Wednesday Play",

Further reading

  • Evans, Jeff. The Penguin TV Companion (1st ed.). London: Penguin Books. 2001. ISBN 0-14-051467-8.
  • Vahimagi, Tise. British Television: An Illustrated Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press / British Film Institute. 1994. ISBN 0-19-818336-4.
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