BBC television drama

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Cathy Come Home, a 1966 entry into The Wednesday Play anthology series, voted the best drama and second highest programme overall in the British Film Institute's 2000 survey of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century.
Cathy Come Home, a 1966 entry into The Wednesday Play anthology series, voted the best drama and second highest programme overall in the British Film Institute's 2000 survey of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century.

The British Broadcasting Corporation has been a producer and broadcaster of television drama since even before it had an officially established television broadcasting network in the United Kingdom. As with any major broadcast network, drama forms an important part of its schedule, with many of the BBC's top-rated programmes being from this genre.

From the 1950s through to the 1980s the BBC received much acclaim for the range and scope of its drama productions, producing series, serials and plays across a range of genres, from soap opera to science-fiction to costume drama, with the 1970s in particular being regarded as a critical and cultural high point in terms of the quality of dramas being produced. In the 1990s, a time of change in the British television industry, the department went through much internal confusion and external criticism, but since the beginning of the 21st century has begun to return to form with a run of critical and popular successes, despite continual accusations of the drama output and the BBC in general dumbing down.

Many BBC productions have also been exported to and screened in other countries, particularly in the United States PBS network's Masterpiece Theatre strand and latterly on the BBC's own BBC America cable channel. Other major purchasers of BBC dramas include the BBC's equivalents in other Commonwealth nations, such as Australia's ABC and Canada's CBC.


Experimental broadcasting and the 1930s

Already an established national radio broadcaster, the BBC began test transmissions with the new technology of television as early as 1929, working with John Logie Baird and using his primitive early apparatus. The following year, as part of one of these test transmissions, the BBC produced what is believed to be the first piece of television drama ever to have been screened, an adaptation of the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello's short play The Man With the Flower in His Mouth.

Broadcast live on the evening of July 14, 1930, the play was produced from a small studio in the Baird Company headquarters at 133 Long Acre, London. The play was chosen because of its confined setting, small cast and short length, and was directed by Val Gielgud, who was at the time the BBC's senior producer of radio drama, a pioneer in that field and a hugely respected broadcaster. Because of the primitive 30-line camera technology, only one figure could be shown on screen at a time and the field of vision of the cameras was extremely restricted. Nonetheless, the production was regarded as a success, and even the Prime Minister of the day, Ramsay MacDonald, watched the play with his family on the Baird Televisor Baird had previously installed at their 10 Downing Street home. 1

The BBC's test broadcasts continued throughout the early part of the decade as the quality of the medium improved, until in 1936 they launched the world's first regular high-definition television channel, the BBC Television Service, from studios in a specially converted wing of Alexandra Palace in London. At the time of the network's debut on November 2 that year, there were only five television producers responsible for the entire output: the producer selected to oversee drama productions was George More O'Ferrall, a former assistant director of feature films who at least had some experience with producing in a visual medium, unlike many of his colleagues who came across from the BBC's radio services.

The first drama production to be mounted as a part of the new, regular service was entitled Marigold, broadcast live from the Alexandra Palace studios on the evening of Friday November 6 1936. "It was probably little more than a photographed version of the stage production," later Head of Drama Shaun Sutton wrote in The Times some thirty-six years later, "with the camera lying well back to preserve the picture-frame convention of the theatre." ^  Most initial drama efforts were of a similar scale: productions of selected dramatised 'scenes' or excerpts from popular novels and adaptations of stage plays, and a programme entitled Theatre Parade would regularly use original London theatre casts for re-enacting selected scenes. However, as the theatres began to fear that such practice would take away their audiences, an increasing number of full-length dramatised productions began to take place in the Alexandra Palace studios. Plays of as long as ninety minutes became regular features of the schedule, with full-length adaptations of novels and stage plays, although original plays written for television were still very rare at this stage. There was also what could be deemed the first regular television drama series – entitled Telecrime, the series of ten and twenty-minute plays presented various crimes, which the viewers were given enough clues to be able to solve themselves using the evidence shown on screen.

By 1939, the drama department had grown to such an extent that there were now fifteen producers working in it, as opposed to nine covering production in all of the other genres of the television service. The number of people with the capability to view the broadcasts – still technically restricted to the London area but in practice viewable a good distance further away – had also grown to an estimated 25,000–40,000 sets in use by the outbreak of the Second World War in September that year. Production methods had become increasingly advanced, with Outside Broadcast cameras often being employed to, for instance, show thirty territorial army troops with two howitzers in the Alexandra Palace grounds for added effect in The White Chateau, and boats on the Palace lake for scenes depicting the battle of Zeebrugge in another war-set play. Alfred Hitchcock once stated that he had been so impressed with a 1939 BBC production of Rope that he had incorporated ideas from its depiction on screen into his later, more famous, film version.

As with every other television programme of the era, live broadcast meant that no record of the drama productions, barring photographs, scripts and press reviews, were kept, and there is no record of how they looked. BBC producer Cecil Madden later claimed that they had experimented with an early telerecording of a production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, but were ordered by film director Alexander Korda to destroy the print as he felt it infringed his film rights. However, there is no official record either of any 1930s telerecording experiments, or a BBC production of The Scarlet Pimpernel during the pre-war era. BBC television broadcasting ceased on September 1 1939, and the station remained off-air for the duration of the war, with the technicians and engineers needed for war efforts such as the RADAR programme, and the government afraid that the VHF transmission signals would act as a guiding beacon for German bombers targeting central London. 2

The return of television and the 1950s

An episode of The Quatermass Experiment from 1953, a popular science-fiction serial and one of the oldest surviving pieces of BBC television drama.
An episode of The Quatermass Experiment from 1953, a popular science-fiction serial and one of the oldest surviving pieces of BBC television drama.

BBC Television resumed broadcasting in June 1946, and the service began in much the same way it had ceased in 1939. However, in 1949 there was a major development in drama when Val Gielgud was installed as the new Head of Drama, a position he had previously and highly successfully occupied at BBC Radio. Since producing the first television play in 1930, Gielgud had worked in television again, serving on attachment to the service at Alexandra Palace in 1939 and directing a half-hour adaptation of his own short story Ending It, starring John Robinson and Joan Marion and broadcast on August 25, 1939, less than a week before the service was placed on hiatus. 3

Now he returned to control the genre on television, and was determined to bring his own very firm ideas about how dramatic stories should be told from radio into the new medium. Gielgud was not a particular fan of television and tolerated the medium rather than embracing it, making him unpopular with several of the producers working under him, many of whom felt that he would have been happier simply televising the recordings of radio plays than making out-and-out television productions. He was also an unpopular choice with the Controller of the television service, Norman Collins, who wrote that "Anything less than complete familiarity with all aspects of television production will mean... that the Head of Television Drama is an amateur."4 Gielgud eventually returned to radio, being replaced as Head of Drama by experienced producer Michael Barry in 1952.

One important move that had occurred under Gielgud was the establishment in 1950 of the Script Department, and the hiring of the television service's first in-house staff drama writers, Nigel Kneale and Philip Mackie. Barry later expanded the Script Department and installed the experienced film producer Donald Wilson as its head in 1955. Television was now developing beyond simply adapting stories from other media into creating its own originally written productions. It was also becoming a high-profile medium, with national coverage and viewing figures now running into the millions, helped by the explosion of interest due to the live televising of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in the summer of 1953. 5

That same year, Barry invested the majority of his original scripting budget into a six-part science-fiction serial written by Kneale and directed by Rudolph Cartier, an Austrian-born director who was establishing a reputation as the television service's most inventive practitioner. Entitled The Quatermass Experiment, the serial (miniseries in American terminology) was a huge success and went a long way towards popularising the form, where one story is told over a short number of episodes, on British television: it is still one of the most popular drama formats in the medium to this day. Kneale and Cartier went on to be responsible for two sequel serials and many other highly successful and popular productions over the course of the decade, drawing many viewers to their programmes with their characteristic blend of horror and allegorical science fiction.

It was they who were responsible for the 1954 adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the second performance of which drew the largest television audience since the coronation, some seven million viewers, and is one of the earliest surviving dramas in the archive. The telerecording process had by now been perfected for capturing live broadcasts for repeat and overseas sales, although it was not until the early 1960s that the majority of BBC dramas were prerecorded on the new technology of videotape. The BBC, unlike American broadcasters and their commercial British rivals, did not produce dramas entirely on film stock on any regular basis until the 1980s, preferring their traditional electronic studio methods, which gave much of the drama produced by the Corporation a somewhat unique – although some argue cheaper-looking – feel. Film would, however, be used to mount scenes unachievable in a live television environment or on location, which would be pre-shot and inserted into live productions at relevant points, later being inserted into videotaped shows at the editing stage. "These sequences bought time for the more elaborate costume changes or scene set-ups, but also served to 'open out' the action,"[1] as the British Film Institute explained on its Screenonline website in 2004.

The BBC suffered during the second half of the 1950s from the rise of the ITV network, which had debuted in 1955 and rapidly begun to take away audience share from the Corporation as its coverage spread nationally. Despite popular hits such as the police drama series Dixon of Dock Green and soap opera The Grove Family, the BBC was seen as being more highbrow, lacking the popular common touch of the commercial network. One of the major figures in commercial television drama of the late 1950s and early 1960s was Canadian producer Sydney Newman, the Head of Drama at ABC Television responsible for such programmes as Armchair Theatre and The Avengers. In December 1962, keen to turn around the fortunes of their own drama department, the BBC invited Newman to replace the retiring Barry as Head of Drama, and he accepted, keen on the idea of transforming what he saw as the staid, docile image of BBC drama. 6

The 'golden age' of BBC drama

Even before Newman's arrival, some BBC producers were attempting to break the mould, with Elwyn Jones, Troy Kennedy Martin and Allan Prior's landmark police drama series Z-Cars shaking up the image of television police dramas and becoming an enormous popular success from 1962 onwards. Newman, however, restructured the entire department, dividing the unwieldy drama group into three separate divisions: Series, for on-going continuing dramas with self-contained episodes; Serials, for stories told over multi-episode runs, or programmes which were made up of a series of serials; and Plays, for any kind of drama one-offs, an area Newman was especially keen on following the success of Armchair Theatre at ABC.

The Daleks in Doctor Who, a science-fiction series which started in 1963 and went on to become one of the most popular, successful and long-lasting BBC programmes in any genre.
The Daleks in Doctor Who, a science-fiction series which started in 1963 and went on to become one of the most popular, successful and long-lasting BBC programmes in any genre.

Newman followed BBC Managing Director of Television Sir Huw Wheldon's famous edict to "make the good popular and the popular good," once stating: "damn the upper classes! They don't even own televisions!" While he did personally create populist family-entertainment-based dramas such as Adam Adamant Lives! and the incredibly long-running science-fiction series Doctor Who, he also attempted to create drama that was socially relevant to those who were watching, initiating The Wednesday Play anthology strand to present contemporary dramas with a social background the resonance. Says Screenonline of this development, "It was from this artistic high of the 'golden age' of British TV drama (this 'agitational contemporaneity', as Newman coined it) that a new generation of TV playwrights emerged."[2]

The Wednesday Play proved to be a breeding ground for acclaimed and sometimes controversial writers such as Dennis Potter and directors such as Ken Loach, but sometimes Newman's desire to create biting, cutting drama could land the Corporation in trouble. This was particularly the case with 1965's The War Game by Peter Watkins, which depicted a fictional nuclear attack on the UK and the consequences of such, and was banned by the BBC under pressure from the government. It was not eventually screened on television until the 1980s.

Newman's reign saw a large number of popular and critically acclaimed dramas go out on the BBC, with Doctor Who, Z-Cars, Doctor Finlay's Casebook and the epic The Forsyte Saga picking up viewers while the likes of The Wednesday Play and Theatre 625 presented challenging ideas to the audience. Newman left the staff of the BBC once his five-year contract expired in 1967, departing for an unsuccessful attempt to break into the film industry. He was replaced by Head of Serials Shaun Sutton, initially on an acting basis combined with his existing role, but permanently from 1969. 7

Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes with Nigel Stock as Dr. Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, a 1968 series which was one of the first major BBC dramas to be made in colour.
Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes with Nigel Stock as Dr. Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, a 1968 series which was one of the first major BBC dramas to be made in colour.

Sutton became the BBC's longest-serving Head of Drama, serving as such until 1981 and presiding over the BBC's move from black and white into colour broadcasting. His era took in the whole of the 1970s, a time when the BBC enjoyed large viewing figures, positive audience reaction and generally high production values across a range of programmes, with drama enjoying a particularly well-received spell. The Wednesday Play transformed into the equally famous and long-running Play for Today in 1970; later in the decade the BBC began a run of producing every single Shakespeare play, a run which Sutton himself would later take over the producer's role on following his departure from the Head of Drama position in the early 1980s. Popular dramas such as Doctor Who and Z-Cars continued into the new decade, and were joined by costume dramas such as The Pallisers, The Onedin Line and Poldark, carrying on from the successes of The Forsyte Saga, which had been set in the past and been a major success in the late 1960s. Family-audience based period dramas, often adaptations such as The Eagle of the Ninth (1977), were popular on Sunday afternoons, with the Classic Serial strand which ran there becoming something of an institution until the early 1990s.

There were also failures, however. The epic Churchill's People, twenty-six fifty-minute episodes based around Winston Churchill's A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, was deemed unbroadcastable by Sutton after he had viewed the initial episodes, but so much time and money had been invested in huge pre-transmission publicity that the BBC had no choice but to show the plays, to critical derision and tiny viewing figures. Never again would a fifty-minute series be given a run as long as twenty-six episodes, for fear of being too committed to a project: runs of thirteen became the norm, although in later years even this began to be considered quite long. Plays such as Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle and Roy Minton's Scum were not broadcast at all due to fears over their content at the highest levels of the BBC, although despite this Potter continued to write landmark drama serials and one-offs for the Corporation throughout the rest of the decade and into the 1980s.

Pennies From Heaven, a highly acclaimed 1978 drama serial by famed television playwright Dennis Potter, who did much of his most famous work for the BBC.
Pennies From Heaven, a highly acclaimed 1978 drama serial by famed television playwright Dennis Potter, who did much of his most famous work for the BBC.

Whenever writers and media analysts criticise the current state of British and particularly BBC television drama, it is frequently the 1960s and 1970s period which they cite as being the most important and influential, with a vast variety of genres (science fiction, crime, historical, family based) and types of programme (series, serials, one-offs, anthologies) being produced. "What may justly be rated as the golden age of television drama reached its zenith,"[3] as The Guardian described it in their 2004 obituary of Sutton. Or in the words of the Royal Television Society, " era that championed new writers, young directors and challenging drama. The amazing diversity... helped to make it the golden age of broadcasting."[4]

However, despite this high esteem, the television drama of the era does not fully exist in the archives. Most of the live output up until the 1950s was never recorded at all, and a large amount of material from the 1960s and early 1970s was wiped once it had been repeated the number of times contractually allowed, or when it was of no further use for overseas sales. The transfer from black and white to colour broadcasting led to an increase in the destruction of older material which was now regarded as redundant, although by 1978 the BBC had realised the historical value of its archive and ceased the wiping process. However, by this stage many series were completely missing – United!, a football-based soap opera which ran from 1965 to 1967 has no episodes existing at all. Others have large gaps – Doctor Who, for example, has 108 missing episodes.

Changing attitudes in the 1980s and beyond

Following Sutton's departure from the Head of Drama role in 1981 and his return to front-line producing duties in Shakespeare plays, his place as Head of Drama was taken by Graeme MacDonald. MacDonald had been Head of Serials and later Head of Series & Serials under Sutton, with the two departments having been merged in 1980, remaining so for most of the decade before separating again at the end of it. MacDonald maintained the status quo, and was only Head of Drama for a short time before he was promoted again to run a channel as Controller of BBC Two. He was succeeded in turn by his own Head of Series & Serials, Jonathan Powell.

Boys from the Blackstuff, writer Alan Bleasdale's first major success, from 1982.
Boys from the Blackstuff, writer Alan Bleasdale's first major success, from 1982.

Powell had been a producer of high-quality all-film drama serials such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and its sequel Smiley's People (1982), and he very much favoured this form of short-run, self-contained filmed serial over longer-running videotaped drama series. It was under his aegis, therefore, that the BBC produced some of its highest-quality examples of this type of drama, of particular note being 1985's Edge of Darkness by Troy Kennedy Martin, and the following year's Dennis Potter piece The Singing Detective, both regarded as seminal BBC drama productions. "A gripping, innovative six-part drama which fully deserves its cult status and many awards,"[5] was the British Film Institute's verdict on Edge of Darkness in 2000.

Powell also oversaw the rise of more populist continuing drama series, however, encouraged by the ratings-chasing strategy of the then Controller of BBC One, his friend Michael Grade. It was during Powell's tenure that the BBC launched the twice-weekly soap opera EastEnders (1985–present) and the medical drama Casualty (1986–present), both of which remain lynchpins of the BBC One schedule to this day and the highest-rated drama productions on BBC television. Indeed, EastEnders achieved phenomenal success in its early years, its Christmas Day 1986 episode earning a massive 30.15 million viewers, the highest British television audience of the 1980s[6].Aside from these continuing dramas, based in one major location and shot entirely on videotape and thus comparatively cheap to make, longer runs of drama series became rare, with short series of six or eight episodes becoming the norm.

The single play, in its original studio-based form, also began to disappear from the schedules, with the final series of Play for Today airing in 1984. The BBC was envious of the success of its rival Channel 4's newly formed film arm, which had seen made-for-television one-offs such as Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette gain cinematic releases to considerable success. New strands such as Screen One and Screen Two concentrated on short runs of all-film, cinematic-style one-off dramas, with the most successful of these being Anthony Minghella's Truly, Madly, Deeply (Screen One, 1990) which became a successful film released to cinemas. The Plays department eventually disappeared altogether, being replaced latterly with a 'Head of Film & Single Drama' position with autonomous powers for investing in feature film production, co-commissioning television one-offs with the Head of Drama. This interest in film production is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that both of Powell's successors as Head of Drama, Mark Shivas (198893) and Charles Denton (1993–96), went on to work in the film industry after leaving the position.

Bob Peck as Ronald Craven in the 1985 eco-thriller Edge of Darkness, by Troy Kennedy Martin. The serial was so successful it was repeated on BBC One mere weeks after its initial BBC Two showing.
Bob Peck as Ronald Craven in the 1985 eco-thriller Edge of Darkness, by Troy Kennedy Martin. The serial was so successful it was repeated on BBC One mere weeks after its initial BBC Two showing.

Another major change to BBC production methods in all areas, but particularly affecting drama, occurred in 1990 with the passing of the new Broadcasting Act, which amongst other things obliged the BBC to commission 25% of its output from independent production companies. Many BBC drama productions were subsequently outsourced to and commissioned from independent companies, although the BBC's in-house production arm continued to contribute heavily, with the separate Drama Series and Serials departments remaining intact. Production arms such as costumes, make-up and special effects were all closed by the early 21st century, however, with these services now being bought in from outside even for in-house programmes.

Jonathan Powell's attempt to repeat the success of EastEnders in 1992, when he had become Controller of BBC One, led to one of the BBC's most notorious and costly failures. Eldorado was set in the British expatriate community in Spain, created by the same team of Julia Smith and Tony Holland who had come up with EastEnders. The costly soap opera, hugely maligned by critics and the victim of a viewer backlash against the massive advertising campaign the BBC had undertaken to promote it, was scrapped by Powell's successor Alan Yentob after less than a year's run, under pressure from the Director-General of the BBC John Birt.

The 1990s saw a rise in the popularity of costume drama adaptations of literary classics, mostly adapted by the acclaimed screenwriter Andrew Davies. One of the most successful of these was a 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. Contemporary social drama, a BBC signature style since the 1960s, remained in the form of landmark productions such as Our Friends in the North (1996), but it was notable that this was transmitted on the more niche BBC Two channel rather than the mainstream BBC One as might well have been the case in previous decades.

There was criticism of the department's commissioning process in some quarters, which was seen as being overly intricate and bureaucratic. As The Independent described: "Lengthy agonising over whether the BBC1 saga Seaforth would be given a second series (eventually, it wasn't) further encouraged the view that the BBC's management floor is full of desks where the buck does not so much stop as hang around for a few months." ^  Further problems emerged for the drama department after the departure of Charles Denton as its Head in May 1996. He was briefly replaced on a temporary basis by Ruth Caleb, the Head of Drama at BBC Wales. However, Caleb had no interest in taking the job on a permanent basis, and after a six-month attachment left the post at the end of the year. With no suitable candidate to take the job on a full-time basis having been found, Director of Television Alan Yentob was forced to oversee the department, again on a temporary basis.

The 1996 serial Our Friends in the North, which took up the majority of BBC Two's drama budget for the entire year, was one of the few major critical successes of the 1990s, a time of turbulence within BBC drama.
The 1996 serial Our Friends in the North, which took up the majority of BBC Two's drama budget for the entire year, was one of the few major critical successes of the 1990s, a time of turbulence within BBC drama.

There was much criticism in the press over the inability of the BBC to find a full-time Head of Drama, with even the BBC Chairman Sir Christopher Bland criticising the amount of time it was taking to find a new Head of Department, stating publicly that: "There aren't a lot of people who are pre-eminently qualified and able to do the biggest job in drama. That's the difficulty." ^ . Experienced BBC Drama staff such as Michael Wearing (Head of Serials) were leaving the department, which was seen to be in trouble after the failure of hugely expensive productions such as the historical drama Rhodes in 1996. "Many in the drama business, and not just BBC insiders, are worried about the hand-over of creative say to the controllers, low morale and the lack of a head," ^  The Guardian reported in December 1996. Finally in June 1997 Colin Adams was appointed as the new Head of Drama. Adams was a surprising choice, his previous role at the Corporation having been as Head of Northern Broadcasting. However, he was essentially an administrator and seen by Drama staff as a temporary appointment.

In 1997 the BBC approached Mal Young, best known for producing Liverpool-set Channel 4 soap Brookside, to head up the Drama Series section of the in-house Drama Department, which had become something of a poisoned chalice with many Controllers departing in quick succession. As Controller of Continuing Drama Series, Young oversaw the move to volume production and also commissioned a new medical Series, Holby City. By the time Young left the BBC to join 19 Entertainment in December 2004, the BBC had increased Series production to nearly 300 hours per annum, including EastEnders at four times a week, Holby City x 52 episodes, Casualty x 48 episodes. Volume Series production was a controversial move because it took a large part of the Drama budget away from original production and contributed to accusations of "dumbing down" its programming. "The decision to show EastEnders four nights a week, followed by Holby City has left the corporation open to accusations that the BBC1 schedule has been cleared for a diet of 'precinct pulp',"[7] reported The Guardian in 2003.

The modern era

As of August 2005, the current Head of Drama at the BBC is Jane Tranter, who has occupied the position since 2000, before then having been Head of Serials for three years. Working under her are: Head of Series & Serials Laura Mackie and Controller of Continuing (i.e. year-round) Drama Series & Joint Head of Independent Drama John Yorke, with David Thompson of Film & Single Drama overseeing one-offs. Productions from independent companies are overseen jointly by Yorke and Lucy Richer, the other Joint Head of Independent Drama.

Tranter's era has seen a return to longer-run episode series, with programmes such as Spooks being given longer second runs following successful debut seasons. Recent years have also seen a huge increase in continuing drama output, with EastEnders gaining a fourth weekly episode to add to the third added during the mid-1990s, and Casualty and its spin-off series Holby City (1999–present) turning from regular seasonal shows to year-round soap opera-style productions. These moves have been criticised in some quarters for filling the market with insubstantial populist dramas at the expense of 'quality' prestige pieces, although there have been several notable drama serial successes, such as Paul Abbott's State of Play (2003) and the historical drama Charles II: The Power and the Passion (BBC NI - 2004).

Spy drama Spooks, produced independently for the BBC by Kudus Film & Television, was a critical and popular success on its 2002 debut.
Spy drama Spooks, produced independently for the BBC by Kudus Film & Television, was a critical and popular success on its 2002 debut.

Another move of recent years has been the regionalisation of BBC drama, in response to criticisms that the majority of programmes were made and set in and around London and the surrounding areas, with the BBC's central drama department currently being based at Centre House in London, near to BBC Television Centre. As far back at 1962, the makers of Z-Cars had deliberately set their programme near Liverpool in the North of England to break away from the perceived London bias, and in 1976 an English Regions Drama Department had been established at BBC Birmingham with a remit for making 'regional drama', gaining a major success with Alan Bleasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff in 1982. In the modern era, however, the separate BBC branches in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own drama departments with Heads of Drama who have autonomous commissioning powers, both for in-house production and co-production with or commissioning from independents.

Although some of these shows are purely for regional consumption, such as BBC Scotland's River City and BBC Wales' Belonging, many programmes networked nationally on BBC One and Two are made in 'the nations', with perhaps the highest profile being the current BBC Wales revival of Doctor Who. The larger English regions also produce drama productions of their own, with BBC Birmingham providing the detective drama Dalziel and Pascoe, daytime soap opera Doctors and anthology series The Afternoon Play for national consumption, for example. The BBC also has a new in-house drama division, BBC Fictionlab, which specialises in producing dramas for the corporation's digital stations, particularly BBC Four. Notable Fictionlab productions for BBC Four have included The Alan Clark Diaries (2003), a live re-make of The Quatermass Experiment (2005) and the biopic Kenneth Tynan - In Praise of Hardcore (2005). Several of these have later seen analogue transmission on BBC Two.

Children's drama

The BBC has established a strong reputation in the field of children's drama, although children's dramas are almost universally commissioned and / or produced by the BBC's Children's Department rather than the Drama Department itself. There are however occasional crossovers - Doctor Who, for example, would commonly be regarded as a children's or family programme, but has always been produced by the main Drama Department.

Throughout much of the department's history, the epmhasis has been on continuing productions of short-run drama serials, including adaptations of classic children's literature such as Little Lord Fauntleroy, as well as made-for-television prductions. Science-fiction has been a popular theme, from Stranger from Space (1951-52) through to the likes of Dark Season (1991) and Century Falls (1993). Since the middle of the 1980s, children's dramas - with the exception of the Sunday evening 'classics' slot - have almost always been screened in the weekday BBC One 3pm-5.30pm Children's BBC (CBBC) strand.

Longer continuing drama series became common from the late 1970s, spearheaded by the 1978 launch of the popular school-set drama series Grange Hill. Created by Liverpudlian dramatist Phil Redmond, the intention of the programme was to present issues relevant to children in a realistic manner, showing characters in a modern Comprehensive school and concentrating on the issues facing children in such schools. The series was a huge success, and in 1989 a similar programme, Byker Grove, set in a youth club, was launched by the BBC's North-Eastern arm and screened on Children's BBC.

From the 1990s onwards, in common with BBC programming in other genres, children's drama has often been commissioned from independent producers as well as being made in-house. Grange Hill switched to independent production after twenty-five years as an in-house programme in 2003, when production was taken over by Mersey Television, the company established by the programme's creator Phil Redmond in the early 1980s. Co-productions with foreign broadcasters are also common, with BBC Scotland's successful 2004 fantasy drama Shoebox Zoo being made in collaboration with the Canadian company Blueprint Entertainment [8].

As of 2005, the BBC continues to broadcast children's drama, usually in the weekday afternoon CBBC slot, but also occasional Sunday early evening / late afternoon prestige productions such as the adaptation of Kidnapped (April 2005). In July 2005, the corporation appointed its first Head of Children's Drama, Jon East [9] - previously commissioning of children's drama had always been done by the overall head of children's programming.

See also



  • Note 1: Detailed in: Briggs, Asa (1995). History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom - Volume Two: The Golden Age of Wireless (reprint edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-212930-9.
  • Note 2: Jacobs, Jason (2000). The Intimate Screen: Early British Television Drama (1st ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-874233-9. The relevant information can be found in Chapter 2: "The End of the Photographed Stage Play: Television Drama 1936-39" (pages 25-76).
  • Note 3: Detailed in Gielgud, Val (1948). The Right Way to Radio Playwriting (1st ed.). Kingswood: Right Way Books. Pre-dates ISBN.
  • Note 4: Quoted in Briggs, Asa (1978). History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom - Volume Four: Sound and Vision (1st ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-212967-8.
  • Note 5: Jacobs, Jason (2000). The Intimate Screen: Early British Television Drama (1st ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-874233-9. Chapter 4: "Lost Not Cosy: Expanding the Screen of Television Drama, 1951-55" (pages 109-155).
  • Note 6: Newman's tenure and much of the drama of the 1960s to the 1990s is detailed in: Caughie, John (2000). Television Drama: Realism, Modernism, and British Culture (1st ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-874218-5.
  • Note 7: Sutton writes about his own period in charge of the department in: Sutton, Shaun (1982). The Largest Theatre in the World: Thirty Years of Television Drama (1st ed.). London: BBC Books. ISBN 0-563-20011-1.


  1. ^  Shaun Sutton, Dramatis personae, "The Times", Thursday 2nd November 1972.
  2. ^  Mark Lawson, Making a crisis out of the drama, "The Independent", Wednesday 3rd January 1996, page 17.
  3. ^  Andrew Culf, Media Correspondent, In midst of a crisis, BBC fails to head up the drama, "The Guardian", Saturday 15th March 1997, page 6.
  4. ^  Richard Brooks, Who's lost the plot? Four senior executives have left the BBC drama department in the past month. So why doesn't anyone want to run this prestigious show? Richard Brooks asks if there is a crisis in the making, "The Guardian" features page, Monday 23rd December 1996, page 9.


  1. ^  Dugoid, Mark (2003). BFI Screenonline website article. Retrieved on August 20 2005.
  2. ^  Vahimagi, Tose (2003). BFI Screenonline website Sydney Newman biography. Retrieved on August 20 2005.
  3. ^  Purser, Philip (May 19 2004). The Guardian newspaper obituary of Shaun Sutton. Retrieved on August 20 2005.
  4. ^  Fox, Sir Paul (June 2004). Royal Television Society obituary of Shaun Sutton. Retrieved on August 20 2005.
  5. ^  Taylor, Veronica (2000). British Film Institute TV 100 entry on Edge of Darkness. Retrieved on August 20 2005.
  6. ^  Uncredited (July 2005). British Film Institute Top Television Audiences of the 1980s article. Retrieved on August 20 2005.
  7. ^  Hodgson, Jessica (November 3 2003). The Guardian newspaper news article. Retrieved on August 20 2005.
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  9. ^  Uncredited, (July 4 2005). BBC Press Release announcing Jon East's appointment as Head of CBBC Drama. Retrieved September 7 2005.

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