ARMCHAIR THEATRE: Volume One / Review

Armchair Theatre, the first of the major TV drama anthologies, which made its first appearance in July 1956, was rightly seen as one of the lasting legacies of British television, often compared in stature with BBC's The Wednesday Play and Play For Today, up until its demise in 1974. Overall, it is the word 'theatre' in the anthology's title that provides the dominating principle here. These are plays structured around three commercial breaks, confined to one or two sets, put together through multi-camera gallery based directing. But by 1974, it was this notion of the 'theatrical' which television had simply outgrown and the writing was already on the wall for the single play on television.

However, the series was a vanguard for televisual innovation and in its heyday of the 1960s was taking its cue from many directors and writers who had already established different, inventive ways of working with television as a medium, as far back as Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier with Quatermass and 1984, via the producing skills of Sydney Newman and Leonard White, through to contemporary makers such as Dennis Potter, Jeremy Sandford, Alan Clarke and Mike Leigh. The single play was also a great opportunity to get new or relatively unknown writers to the screen and a chance to be experimental in writing, acting and direction.

This two disc set contains eight 50 minute plays, made by Thames, stretching from 1970 to 1974. The plays in this collection from Armchair Theatre show television drama in its established mode before a more cinematic approach was taken in the 1980s and 'plays' became 'films' for television symbolised by the replacement of Play for Today with Screen One / Two. By then ITV had pretty much left the studio bound 'play for television' behind.

Colin Welland's Say Goodnight To Your Grandma (1970) is a witty and wry look at the generation gap in a Northern family, specifically between grandmother, mothers and daughters. It rehearses a lot of what director Jim Goddard would later expand upon in Trevor Preston's Fox in that it becomes a study of how family traditions change and how matriarchal pressures are inflicted upon sons and their friends. This is worth watching for Madge Ryan's turn as the intensely overbearing Nana Weston who gets a salutary lesson from daughter-in-law Jean (brilliant Susan Jameson) in how to treat her own son Tony (an affable Colin Welland showing what a good actor he was) and his friends as responsible adults. After Nana Weston sees off her rival, Grannie Clarke, in bringing up the newly arrived grand-daughter, it then becomes a searing battle of wills between her and Jean over who wears the trousers (or doesn't, in Jameson's case) and is a thoroughly enjoyable clash of spitting female egos.

Office Party (1970), written by Fay Weldon, is a claustrophobic dissection of that bete noir of all office workers - the leaving do. Weldon brilliantly captures the booze fueled political and sexual manoeuvering between managers and workers, wives and husbands, single men and women in the stuffy, protocol ridden atmosphere of a bank. Obviously, a young secretary, finding herself pregnant by one of the young lads she works with, was something of an eyebrow raiser in the work place back in 1970. The antagonism between the two main characters, Paul (Ray Brooks) and Julia (Angharad Rees) is played out during the retirement party of the incumbent manager and a depressing but inevitable game of who gets off with whom and which wife falls out with which husband ensues. Not my favourite of the bunch despite Weldon's keen observational sense.

On Disc One I would also certainly recommend Brown Skin Gal, Stay Home And Mind Bay-Bee (1971). Written by Robert Holles, a screenwriter with a track record going back to the early 1960s with contributions to Thirty Minute Theatre, Red Cap and The Plane Makers, this is taut, studio based drama, positively bursting at the seams with unresolved sexual tension between the two main characters. I saw this at a Kaleidoscope event with the director Mike Vardy in attendance and was quite struck by it then so I'm glad it made it onto this first release. The drama is about a collision between class and gender, how two culturally different people meet in the divide and almost let go of their repression.

Ruth, stunningly played by Billie Whitelaw, is a lonely, middle class divorcee who lets her basement to Roger, a shy, somewhat nervous building inspector, and the play observes the two characters circling each other, each too class bound and repressed to make the first move. Both stew in their pent up sexual urges across the class boundaries physically embodied by her first floor flat and his basement flat. The garden they both use to sunbathe in becomes a symbol of their gradual cultural and sexual awareness. Vardy gets some terrific performances from Whitelaw and from Donal McCann as Roger. The tension mounts until, in the last act, Ruth has a few drinks and makes her way to the basement only to discover that Roger, feeling he'll never get a chance to seduce Ruth, has dragged a barmaid home from the pub. Fantasies certainly don't turn into realities here.

The last play on Disc One, Detective Waiting (1971), is a slightly surreal dry run of what would become the template for the established relationships between coppers and villains in writer Ian Kennedy Martin's more recognisable The Sweeney. A young CID officer, Lewis (Richard Beckinsale at his vulnerable best), despised by his boss, is given a brief to prove himself. He must sit and watch underworld boss James Cummins and crack an unsolved case. Kennedy Martin shows the villains as brutish, ostentatious jewellery horses cooking up overly-complex heists and a detective willing to sit it out in order to get his man, wined and dined by the villains one minute and beaten up the next. It suffers from that bugbear of 1970s production with a patchwork quilt of studio VT, outside broadcast VT and location filming jarringly defusing any attempts at gritty realism. I didn't find it particularly engrossing as a piece of drama because I couldn't take any of the characters particularly seriously. If it was Kennedy Martin's desire to have them all behave as caricatures then it does succeed but only at the cost of dramatic tension.

Disc Two, whilst it displays Armchair Theatre's ability to embrace all genres and dramatic forms, is a very mixed bag. Roy Clarke's Will Amelia Quint Continue Writing 'A Gnome Called Shorthouse'? (1971) gives us Beryl Reid in full on eccentric mode as a children's writer coaxed out of semi-retirement to write another bestselling book by her publisher. She's too busy playing house in the Mediterranean to a rather dubious pair of Italian men (suggestive to me of a gay couple but there's a hint that Reid's character is engaging with them in a menage a trois here) played by stalwart comic actor Norman Rossington and 'Milk Tray man' David Warbeck. Clarke examines how peculiar British values and humour must seem to the outsider, Europeans particularly, the adult humour hidden in children's stories and the changing tastes and modishness of publishers. It's a bit ramshackle but often quite witty and worth watching just for Reid's performance alone but it isn't as solid as some of Clarke's other work such as Open All Hours.

The Folk Singer (1972), originally written in 1969 for the theatre, is steeped in writer Dominic Behan's prolific output as a composer of 450 songs as well as his family background in collecting songs and stories and his political affiliations with the IRA. It's essentially a play about the Troubles, verging into black comedy, and is driven by a Greek Chorus in the form of folk singer Danny Blake who peppers the drama with wry, observational songs. Blake, played by the charismatic Tom Bell, wanders through the hotel in which his band is accommodated, and spins out a narrative that is chock full of religious and political parody, metaphor and allusions. Not being completely intimate with the arguments on both sides of the Troubles, I found this quite difficult to enjoy. However, it's exciting that Armchair Theatre took the risk of presenting the play, showing that it was happy to cross boundaries as far as drama was concerned, and that it defied the rules of what a television play is, telling much of the story in song-form.

Donald Churchill's A Bit of A Lift is a charming 'bedroom farce' that would not look out of place on a West End stage. Frank (Churchill) decides to end it all with an overdose in a hotel bedroom, having recorded what he thinks of his wife, Brenda, in one of those automatic record making booths. He says it's the 'first chance I've ever had of talking to you for three minutes without you interrupting me'. Meanwhile caddish Alec (Ronald Fraser) picks up Penelope (Ann Beach) at a wedding reception at the hotel and they both settle into their hotel room for the afternoon. Chaos ensues when Alec decides to go to the bathroom and on his return ends up in Frank's room by mistake. Simple and life affirming, it's an enjoyable comedy with Fraser in top form.

Red Riding Hood is also one of the most impressive pieces here. A psychological thriller heavy with symbolism and a denouement that suggests all the events we see on screen are simply the tortured imaginings of a young woman having a nervous breakdown. Writer John Peacock was no stranger to highly strung Gothic style thrillers having penned Straight On Till Morning for Hammer in 1972. Even though this is pretty much studio bound, director Joan Kemp-Welch demonstrates that you can use a television studio to do some extraordinarily powerful visual storytelling.
If ever there was such a thing as 'pure television', as analogous to 'pure cinema', then Welch certainly flirts with it here. She's also extremely good with actors and gets a pair of great performances from Rita Tushingham and Keith Barron. Tushingham is meek librarian Grace, ministering to aged relatives. When she pays a visit to her grandmother's house (subtly wearing a bright red cape) she discovers Henry (Barron) has murdered her grandmother. The house becomes a psychological battleground and we gradually become aware that Grace is losing her mind and that perhaps what we are seeing hasn't really happened but is just simply a result of stress piling up in her head. It's a disturbing 50 minutes. Tushingham is amazing.

A decent start, Volume One suggests that Network may release more of these plays and hopefully they'll be able to clear some of the earlier examples from the 1960s for the next volume. 

Armchair Theatre - Volume One (Network DVD 7953221 - Region 2 - Released 18th January 2010 - Cert 12)

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3 Responses to “ARMCHAIR THEATRE: Volume One / Review”
  1. Good review Frank; I'm working my way through my own review copy of the plays too and am struck by how intimate they feel - one of the strengths of the old videotape style of TV-making. I'd really love to see ITV trying something like this now, one-hour plays, low-budget, basically theatre productions on the screen. But I suppose unless they could crowbar some phone voting into it they wouldn't be interested. Good stuff though.

  2. Thanks Paul. A set worth getting for at least four of the productions. 'Red Riding Hood' is extraordinary, 'Brown Skin Gal' is a superb exercise in tension building and 'Say Goodnight To Your Grandma' is Welland at his best. The other are a bit hit and miss for me but that's what you'd expect from an anthology series.

    If it is 'Play For Today/Armchair Theatre' style stuff you're after then SkyArts is the place. They've just decided to expand their 'Theatre Live' run of plays into a 'Play For Today' style series. Murdoch's taking the BBC on at its own game!

  3. Anonymous says:

    I ordered this set after reading your review a couple of months ago, but it arrived just as I became extremely busy, so I've only seen the first two plays so far. I'm looking forward to watching more soon.

    The Welland is very good, with lovely performances from Madge Ryan and Susan Jameson. Its progress from comedy of manners to feral battle of wills is gripping. Fay Weldon's play is indeed less successful, maybe because it's less claustrophobic (there are moments when you wonder why one character or another doesn't just say "Stuff this, I'm going home"), but still full of sharp observation.

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