In the UK opportunities for new writers exist but the nature of the work available to new writers has changed over the years. Kevin Spacey’s recent much publicised comments about ‘Play For Today’ have helped reawaken this debate. The plea for a reurn to the writer-led single play \ film is a common cry from the script-writing community of the UK but Spacey’s diatribe has given these views added credibility. ‘Play For Today’ was a weekly slot which broadcast over 300 films for TV between 1970 and 1984.
The wide-ranging nature of the plays was extraordinary, and the slot helped cement the reputation of many celebrated writers – Alan Bennett, Mike Leigh (Writer? Director?), Dennis Potter, Stephen Poliakoff and many, many others. Stephen Poliakoff is interesting as one of the very few (only?) contemporary writers still able to command slots for the sort of writer-led single films that ‘Play For Today’ was for so long. What is it about Poliakoff’s work that the BBC routinely still seems to commission two or more of his single ‘state-of-the-nation’ films almost every year? Hmm…that’s a question for another day. There are so many writers at least as worthy, if not much more so, as Poliakoff of this privilege – Off the top of my head (and we’ll all have our own different opinions) – Russell T. Davies, Paul Abbot, Frank Deasy, Lee Hall, Tony Marchant, Tony Grounds, Jimmy McGovern, Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant, Toby Whithouse, Charlotte Jones, Peter Moffat, David Wolstencroft…to name a random few. Perhaps we will look back on ambitious, excellent films like Russell Davies’s ‘The Second Coming’also as part of a new ‘golden age’ of TV screen-writing.
Maybe what broadcasters – and writers – should look at are the possibilities offered by new technology – the relative cheapness offered by the digital alternatives to relatively expensive film stock; online editing packages that can be used from the privacy of one’s home. Because one of the main reasons ‘new writing’ as a commercial TV proposition became sidelined, it seems to me, was the demise of conventional video studio filming for drama. Through the ‘80’s and into the ‘90’s, many major TV drama series mixed and matched between the film used on locations and video stock used in the studio interiors. To our relatively tutored eyes the cutting between one and the other now looks jarring and dates the shows terribly. Once BBC Films and Film Four started staking a claim to the single dramas, they became synonomous with big budgets and cinematic production values, in a way they never previously were.
And we shouldn’t forget that as well as ‘Play For Today’, there were many different incarnations of series of contained, studio-set plays for TV, mostly shown on BBC2. I particularly remember the excellent ‘Second City Firsts’, but there were many other ‘seasons’ of TV plays, concentrating on the writer as the fulcrum of creativity. So now things are different. There are without doubt opportunities for new writers in the continuing drama series and there are mechanisms in place at both the BBC (the writers academy) and ITV to attract, train and encourage new writers for these shows. And there are still strong single pieces being written for TV – but it’s indicative of a cultural change that so many of these new films are now being ‘disguised’ as part of a series under umbrella titles like BBC3’s current and very interesting ‘The Curse of Comedy’, BBC1’s recent ‘Fairy Tales’ season, ‘The Street’ and the recent updated BBC Shakespeare films. It seems that there is an inherent distrust of the single film among TV executives unless it is packaged under a broader, easier-to-grasp ‘umbrella’.