It has become fashionable to knock the single play, but the truth is that it's still providing opportunities for new writers, though not in quite the same form as previously. This is hardly surprising given changing audience viewing habits. When the BBC's Wednesday Play was the talk of the nation, there were only three channels and Die Hard 2 certainly wasn't on the other side at the same time. Audiences ranged from three to nine million, much as they do now for the current season of Screen One films. There were far fewer series and serials, and many more plays were made each year, because studio was much cheaper than location.
There isn't an audience these days hungering for the studio play and it would be a mistake to ghettoise new writing in such a strand. Opportunities for new writers have to be provided across the range of drama output, from soaps, series and serials to films and the occasional studio play.
EastEnders, Casualty, The Bill and Brookside have all provided new writers with the chance to learn their craft. Rona Munro, for instance, whose first writing included episodes for Dr Who and Casualty, went on to write Men of the Month for Screen Two, and most recently the screenplay for Ken Loach's Ladybird, Ladybird. Starting out on series doesn't have to entail the writer suppressing his or her voice. Debbie Horsfield's Making Out and Tim Firth's All Quiet on the Preston Front were both series that owed their success to the distinctive world of each writer's imagination.
But it is the television film or play, with its unique 30-year tradition, that has proved a consistently fertile arena in which the would-be writer has flourished. This form allows writers to flex their muscles, unconstrained by the narrative imperatives of a series. The BBC's single drama output has been curiously undervalued in recent years, but in fact it has launched the screenwriting careers of no fewer than 15 writers this year. Contrary to recent suggestions, a new writing talent is every producer's prize.
Among those whose first full-blooded original work was aired on BBC 2's ScreenPlay were William Ivory, who went on to create the current hit series Common as Muck, Allan Cubitt, who wrote the award-winning Prime Suspect 2, Lucy Gannon, who then created Peak Practice and Soldier Soldier, and Jimmy McGovern, inventor of Cracker, who has returned to the BBC with his award-winning film Priest, to be shown next year. Other writers whose first full-length work has been produced of late by the BBC range from performers Meera Syal, Benjamin Zephaniah and Owen O'Neill to rising talents Catherine Johnson, Biyi Bandele Thomas, Clare McIntyre and Ronan Bennett.
In addition to their regular single drama slots, the BBC also has numerous initiatives explicitly designed to encourage new writers: Black Screen, Double Exposure, Tartan Shorts and The Dennis Potter Award, to name but a few. Contrast this with ITV where a networked single drama by a new writer is virtually unheard of, and Channel 4, whose Alan Bleasdale Presents season of four films is its first commitment to full-length single TV drama since it axed its 4-Play strand in 1991.
It is argued that a return to studio would open up more opportunities for new writers because we could make many more plays. But many of the new generation of writers and directors have been reared on film, not theatre. They find the studio limiting and there is a danger of the studio play appearing quaint and old-fashioned.
In BBC 2's recent season of studio plays, Stages, the outstanding dramas were those where the quality of writing and performance were best served by the confines of a studio set. Two new revivals in the forthcoming Performance season, Potter's Message for Posterity and Paddy Chayefsky's The Mother, give further proof of the studio's resilience as a forum for taut, impassioned drama. There can still clearly be a role for the studio where the writing actually plays to the strengths of the medium, but studio drama is not so much cheaper than film these days that we need confine new writers to it.
Next year on the BBC there will be over 30 new films across both channels, many of them by new writers. They'll be provocative, funny, elegiac, witty, period, contemporary, hard-hitting, romantic, challenging and sexy. Watch them.