by H. R. F. Keating
IN THE jargon of the television world there is something called "the single
play." It is simply a play, like a play in the theatre. but written for television. Why. then. does it get its odd qualifying adjective?
.1 he reason is that the television establishment, quite rightly, rather fears a play. So
they like to take any they decide to commission and wrap them up together in some neat little hag (meanwhile kidding themselves the viewers like it so). Then they have no longer "single plays", but merely parts in some large scheme.
Of course in Britain, but not in America. we still get our considerable ration of single plays, notably in BBC-I's Wednesday play slot (soon to reappear on Thursdays called something different, merely— so the B.B.C. Head of Drama assured us at a recent press conference—as a matter of programming convenience).
But I have a notion that giving us so many of our single plays in one hunch. under the Wednesday label, was partly the establishment's way of insulating these potentially dangerous things by putting an "Itold-you-so" warning sticker on them; and partly a touch of guilty over-compensation. This latter feeling may have lain behind the extremism of so many of the plays we got on the Wednesdays of last winter.
I have said the high-ups rather fear the single play. And from their point-of-view they are right to do so because the single play is largely the product of a single mind, and producers. in asking for such works. run the risk of getting gelignite : bundles • of ideas; nasty things.
The "single novel" (see how ridiculous it sounds) of course has always been the product of a single mind, and has dished out in its time some pretty fizzing-with-danger ideas. And nobody now minds much. But the idea-packed television play reaches, in its freshest and most potent state, a much wider audience than even your bestseller. And it reaches. often, an audience that has made no conscious decision to embark on the work. So there you are. The single play can put ideas, different, contradictory, disturbing ideas, into a lot of people's heads in one fell swoop. And is that the object of our television services? Well, is it? And should it be? Or should it quite definitely not be?
Questions much too demand. ing even to attempt to answer here and now. But if the answer to the last one is 'No, it definitely is not the object of television to do this' (and that's not an unreasonable answer), then quite rightly the single play needs any sort of blinkers or nose-band it can be persuaded to wear.
Hence those curious hotchpotch general titles for runs of plays. A new one began on BBC-2 on Tuesday called Menace. One of ITV's collections just about to finish is called Big Brother. Both simply take plays that could be given such a general title and group them together. Innocuous enough. you say.
I might have said so too, until recently, not having thought very much about the matter. But, happening to notice that the current "Big Brother" and last week's episode in the series Diamond Crack Diamond were rather similar in subject, 1 decided to watch the pair of them. and the process opened my eyes. Both were plays written by skilled and intelligent dramatists who have, in the past, given us single plays of considerable interest (i.e. containing the new, secret wonder ingredient: Idea). Both. in the event, proved to be oddly synthetic.
Hugh Whitemore's contribution to the continuing story of tough, heart-in-the-right-place journalist John Diamond (that these plays are all about the same character doesn't invalidate my point: each has a different author) extracted from me during a .whole hour just one scrawled note: "Bit synthetic". There seemed to be nothing else to say.
Yet when I have watched single plays from Mr. Whitemore's typewriter in the past the biro has fairly skidded across the jotting pad. But here he seemed to have been neatly nobbled. And it's not impossible. Consider the process such a play must undergo. The author. first of all, must he commissioned, and commissioned to a brief, and then there must follow the work of co-ordinators such as the story editor. All very proper and natural, of course, since one episode in a series must not he allowed to drag the general line too far in any direction. But the overall effect is to achieve conformity—and conformity is grey.
With Arden Winch's "Big Brother" contribution I encountered just the same sort of syntheticness. It all went too fast, too smoothly. It was meant to be a play about a vast scheme for the future of the whole of Africa. If it really had been about such an enormous subject. it would have needed an extraordinary intensity. It got just expert story-telling.
You could tell from the characters. They were lively as so many packets of monkeynuts, but they were simply smart fakes cooked up for the occasion, all outward show, no inner connect1/2n to a real human being. You could tell from the plot which produced some rampant untikelinesses the moment you stopped to think—only it gave you no time to stop, The result was pap. And though there may be occasions when a writer succeeds in defeating the machine and saying something sharp and true in a series play, there will not be all that many. The wonderful blanket of the notion will see to that. Register a protest if you feel that way.