Why are the likes of Willy Russell still prepared to write for plays for BBC Education?
On Friday, a 30-minute Willy Russell play goes out on BBC, and is expected to get disasterous viewing figures. Fewer than half a million people will watch Terraces, a story about how residents of a Liverpool street gang up on the one man who refuses to paint his house the colour of the local football team It should be said, though that the size of the audience relates not to the quality of the play, but to the fact that it’s being broadcast not in the evening – but at lunchtime.
Friday at 1pm is the berth allocated to Scene, the drama flagship of BBC Education. Unseen by the nation’s grown-ups, unnoticed by all except watching sixth-formers and video recorders, Scene each week puts out an original half-hour drama – and has been doing so for the past 27 years. Whereas the Wednesday Play has fallen by the wayside, Scene has carried on, and can claim the biggest names in theatre as its past alumni.
Tom Stoppard, John Godber and Edward Bond have all done work for Scene, and this season – sorry, term – there are plays from Nigel Williams, Ariel Dorfman and actor-director Douglas Hodge.
Plus, of course, Willy Russell, himself a teacher before turning full-time playwright. Is his work for Scene a symbol of his continuing commitment to education? “Please don’t make me sound so worthy,” winces Russell. “The reason I like working for them is that it suits me. It’s one of the few places left where you can go and see the producer and he says yes, we can go into production next month, without having to ring 10 other people for approval or contact Germany to try to raise money.”
Of course, part of the reason for this is that Scene productions cost about two-thirds as much as mainstream drama. Each 30-minute play works out at about ₤170,000 a time; even the most expensive show – Peter Barne’s award-winning 104-minute adaption of Hard Times – only set them back ₤800,000. Productions also take up a shorter amount of time; some are in the studio for just 1 ½ days.
As well as punching back the frontiers of time and budgetary control, Scene also ventures into experimental territory. Its most spectacular production this term is Forest people, co-written and directed by actor Douglas Hodge (Middlemarch, Bliss, A Fatal Inversion). It features a cast of 200 from the National Youth Theatre, playing the living limbs, leaves and branches of a tropical rainforest, against which is played out a conflict between a businessman, who wants to chop down the trees, and his daughter, who is fiercely opposed to the plan.
What about the ego of the writer though? Does it not offend Russell’s pride that after West End and cinema success with Blood Brothers and Educating Rita, he is sharing a platform with first-time writers and performers? Or that his work is going out sandwiched between cartoons and business news? He says not. “Sure if I was writing a whole series and they wanted to put it out as day-time TV, I might have a few things to say about it. But if you’re writing, and you’re writing well, you want to see your work produced. Having work put on is like visiting a well; it keeps a writer healthy.”
As for tailoring his writing for a teenage audience, Russell says it just doesn’t work. “Its fatal writing down to kids. They soon suss you out. In my first draft of Terraces, I had all these TV scenes in the background from Yugoslavia, because I thought I ought to point up the message about conflict reflecting conflict in the film. And then I thought, sod it, kids can make their own comparisons. They don’t need me to do it for them.”
As well as established writers, Scene also attracts well-known performers. Although paying less than a mainstream production in terms of an initial fee, a Scene show can end up paying more because of repeat fees. Whereas you can’t keep showing the same programmes to adults, Scene’s audience is continually being replaced by new, younger viewers who haven’t seen the old shows.
Thus, past productions have seen Jack Shepherd as an eccentric hospital patient, Brian Cox as an officer in a young offenders institution and a young Dennis Waterman as a layabout called Terry (sounds familiar).
Despite the long line of star vehicles it has produced, Scene has never been allowed past school hours – apart from a brief excursion on its 25th anniversary. Executive producer Richard Langridge continues to agitate for an early evening slot, as yet without success. Recently, he has taken heart from the fact that Irish TV channel RTE has bought 10 Scene plays, collaborated on three more, and is now broadcasting all 13 of them at 8.30pm.
In Britian, however, the traditional image of schools drama as being all chalk and blackboards does not wipe easily from people’s minds. “At present, Scene is TV’s best-kept secret,” says Langridge. But in a voice that makes it clear he wishes it wasn’t.
CHRISTOPHER MIDDLETON - THE SUNDAY TIMES 1996