Drama in the studio could be thrilling when created by writers (Potter, John Hopkins, David Mercer, Trevor Griffiths . . .) and directors (Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Herbert Wise, Bill Hays, John Glenister, Piers Haggard; I regretfully note the lack of women) who saw the characteristics of the studio not as shortcomings but as disciplines.
John Hopkins memorably defined the essence of teledrama as 'two faces in conflict'. Many of us see the studio and tape as a still underrated medium because a contained, domestic image makes for very powerful viewing, feeling so close to the circumstances of that viewing. If George Faber is right in saying that 'it has become fashionable to knock the single play', it may be that there is an impatience with the between-two-stools vacillation of much film-making for television. Yes, film is favoured by directors suspicious of the 'theatricality' of studio sets, especially those like Ken Loach who seek to create a social realist teledrama. But others prefer film for less honourable reasons, seeing TV drama as a mere stepping-stone to feature films, Hollywood and serious money.
Many forces came together to imperil the one-off play made in the studio.
Some were structural: technical, institutional or economic. But most had a political nuance: the drive to maximise audiences for every damned thing; decisions to participate in the feature film market; and a determination to rein in drama producers who encouraged writers to exploit their privileged position as suppliers of programmes from outside the institutions of television.
But executive attitudes have changed too. George Faber writes that 'there isn't an audience these days hungering for the studio play' - that's a misguided and self-fulfilling prophesy. Look, if you must, at the ratings: they record a huge and loyal audience hungering for the sitcom made in the studio, the soap on tape. Why not for drama too? Answer: because there isn't any. People generally want what they know.
The invocation of viewing figures is Faber's give-away. The clarion call of the BBC's Drama Department in the Sixties and early Seventies was 'the right to fail'. Single plays were granted a degree of exemption from the ratings war. Given the width of the BBC's battle front, it was a meagre though hard-won concession. Schedulers 'hammocked' plays between more obvious crowd-pleasers. There was some discreet winking between BBC and ITV over scheduling of supposed loss-leaders. And the mandarins could be consoled with awards and kudos and even reconciled to controversy if it was contained as headline-grabbing and kept from remark by the Home Office.
It is perfectly possible for some of the lost ground to be won back and, as BBC Head of Single Drama, George Faber is the man who can make it happen. He could persuade the channel controllers that one-off drama be exempt from ratings pressure. He could dismantle the white-knuckle ride that now constitutes 'the deal', restoring to producers the right to buy and commission without months of meetings with battalions of executives and (worse) consultants. A producer in the 1960s would think nothing of generating eight, 10, even 12 plays in a year; now a producer is thought to be a dangerous empire-builder if she has two productions to show for a year of hustling and pitching.
He could recreate the 'nursery slope' that Thirty-Minute Theatre offered and ensure that it had sufficient slots to be effective. He could open up the studios and offer bold producers runs of slots on tight budgets and schedules. He could make it mandatory for producers to read and decide on any project inside a limit of four weeks (mandatory for himself too). He could make a climate wherein writers can dare again, be bold in style and content, yes even be politically engage. He could restore the prime ingredient that made it possible for Dennis Potter to have four plays broadcast in his first year as a playwright, 21 in his first decade: continuity of production.
For all George Faber's spirited defence of the party line, the fact is that many fewer writers, aspiring or once-active, now believe that television offers either a livelihood or a worthy challenge, despite the assurances that recovery is here.
W Stephen Gilbert, former producer of one-off plays including 'Only Connect', is writing a critical biography of Dennis PotterReuse content