Alan Plater: 'I used to be cool...'

He turned gritty reality into fashionable TV. Forty years on, Alan Plater is still gritty, says Matthew Sweet. But is there a future for his kind of drama? You might be surprised...

If, through some strange mischance, you had fallen asleep in front of the television on an autumn night in 1964, and woken up this week, only two things would soften your culture shock. The first would be a strange pub with frosted glass, spotless upholstery and pitiless overhead lighting, full of nodding extras drinking Newton and Ridley in glasses with handles. The other would be a four-word on-screen caption: "written by Alan Plater". Everything else - Armchair Theatre, The Telegoons, Mr Pastry, William Hartnell, Val Parnell, studio audiences shouting "Take the money! Open the box!" - would all have vanished into the ether. Not Alan Plater. Like the old hoofer in the Sondheim song, he's still here.

If, through some strange mischance, you had fallen asleep in front of the television on an autumn night in 1964, and woken up this week, only two things would soften your culture shock. The first would be a strange pub with frosted glass, spotless upholstery and pitiless overhead lighting, full of nodding extras drinking Newton and Ridley in glasses with handles. The other would be a four-word on-screen caption: "written by Alan Plater". Everything else - Armchair Theatre, The Telegoons, Mr Pastry, William Hartnell, Val Parnell, studio audiences shouting "Take the money! Open the box!" - would all have vanished into the ether. Not Alan Plater. Like the old hoofer in the Sondheim song, he's still here.

Next Sunday, ITV1 will screen Plater's latest work for television - an adaptation of Stevie Davies's novel The Web of Belonging. The title may have been truncated to Belonging, but the central themes - the humiliations of old age, the comforts of religion, the limits of altruism - remain gloriously intact, in defiance of ITV's customary supply of flatpack cop shows and Ross Kemp vehicles. Four days later, the author's latest stage play will open at the Hull Truck Theatre: Confessions of a City Supporter celebrates the Tigers' centenary with a story of four generations of men born on the days of scoreless draws - and will be the third Plater theatre premiere this year. As if that wasn't enough, his first CD - Songs for Unsung Heroes, a collaboration with the jazz musician Alan Barnes - is just out. And BBC4 is compiling a season devoted to his small-screen career, with a profile documentary and repeats from his back catalogue. Not bad for a man who's been entitled to free bus travel for nearly half a decade.

Alan Plater and I go back a long way. When he was a famous TV writer living on Westbourne Avenue in Hull, and I was a sleepless baby on the next street, my dad would push my pram past his house to see him at the window, hunkering down over his typewriter. Thirty-four years later, we're sitting in the dining room of his north London home, a pot of coffee between us, and his wife, Shirley Rubinstein, at the head of the table, working her way through a sheaf of photocopied crosswords.

"I like having a whack at things," he says, flicking his thumb on the wheel of his recalcitrant cigarette lighter. "The phone rings, somebody asks me to do something, and I say yes. I never really meant to do anything. I've never had any sense of career. I've just gone from one gig to the next. You don't get better at writing by not doing it. And it's still a compulsion for me." He lights two cigarettes, and passes one to Shirley.

Plater's pragmatic attitude to his job is the secret of his prolific output. Dennis Potter, you suspect, would never have agreed to write two series of Oh, No! It's Selwyn Froggitt - even if its star, Bill Maynard, had been cured of what Plater calls "a constitutional resistance to learning the script". And if Potter were alive today, I suspect he would have hung up the phone on receiving an offer to script an episode of Midsomer Murders. But Plater is not such a purist - and because of this, you can use his CV to plot the history of television drama through its fecund and fallow periods.

It begins in 1962 with Z Cars, the kitchen-sink cop show which - despite the back-projected streets through which its officers always drove - imported a new realism to television drama. (Plater penned the celebrated episode "A Quiet Night", in which Colin Welland and Frank Windsor spent the late-shift untroubled by criminal activity of any kind.) Single plays dominate the rest of the decade, but in the 1970s - his most prolific period - these yield to original serials. He dramatised the lives of the Pankhurst sisters in Shoulder to Shoulder (1974), retold Chaucer on a coach trip to Wembley in Trinity Tales (1975) and gave Les Dawson his meatiest role as the title character of The Loner (1975).

In the 1980s the projects grew more lavish, but the material more proscribed. He adapted The Barchester Chronicles (1982) and Fortunes of War (1987), in the days when the BBC gave this kind of work to someone other than Andrew Davies. He transposed Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie to the small screen. He made a minor work of political fiction into the landmark political drama A Very British Coup (1988), and spun a novel of his own into The Beiderbecke Affair (1984), a comedy-thriller about jazz, woodwork and civic corruption. The last few years have given him his biggest international success - the Golden Globe-winning The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (2000) - but they have also coincided with stripped-schedule soaps on both main terrestrial channels - and Plater's pragmatism will not stretch as far as Albert Square. Increasingly, theatre and radio have commanded the bulk of his time.

"One of the things that has changed, I think, is that middle-of-the-road drama was always allowed to carry a few extra ingredients. A little bit of social comment or political comment. You were encouraged to make the mix a bit richer with elements other than who did what to whom, and will he or she get caught before they go into the burning building? These days most of the drama I see on screen is only about personal relationships. It's like illustrated births, deaths and marriages columns from the local paper.

"The old Marxists would say that you had a relationship with the economic structures within which you operate. You have a relationship with whoever pays your wages, whoever you owe money to. You have a relationship with history, with the ghosts of your grandparents, with all the music you've ever heard, all the books you've ever read, all the pictures you've ever looked at, all the people you've ever known. Drama which neglects all relationships except the personal is self-limiting. Shirley and I were watching an old episode of Bergerac on UK Gold the other night which was about South African arms deals. Now Bergerac was never cutting-edge. But there was a time when even drama like that could be about more than who's been to bed with whom and when will he or she find out?"

Alan Plater was born in Jarrow in 1935, which makes his birth certificate a kind of political comment. But the family didn't stay on Tyneside for long. When the shipyard closed in 1938, Plater's father moved his family to Hull, where he took a job with the London and North Eastern Railway. "He was in charge of a blacksmith's shop off Hessle Road which tested lifting gear from the docks. So if anything broke and fell on a docker, it was my dad's fault. I used to be a bit embarrassed by it as a kid because the title of his job was Chain Inspector, which made it sound like a high-class lavatory attendant." Plater can remember his visits to the workshop, and the Dantean conditions under which his father worked. "No dockers were killed under my dad's jurisdiction," he reflects, "but there were moments when he wouldn't have minded if they had been."

His schooling was completed in the company of Tom Courtenay. ("We shared some of our secret dreams," he recalls.) His cultural education was supplied by the Tivoli - a Victorian music hall, now demolished, in whose wings Old Mother Riley breathed her last - and by the local rep theatre, in which he watched plays about Home Counties families who never went to work and drank gin in the afternoons. "Act One curtain was generally the daughter of the house walking in and telling everyone she was pregnant, which produced a great frisson in the audience." In textbook fashion, it was a touring production of Look Back in Anger that alerted Plater to dramatic possibilities beyond the drawing room.

Plater claims that he wasn't a conspicuously angry young man - though he did get kicked off his architecture course at Newcastle University. His natural adaptability helped him here, too: he took a lowly job in an architect's office in Hull, deferred his final exams, and kept deferring them until the first day of 1960 - on which National Service was abolished. Some of his contemporaries, he suspects, must still hate his guts for this sly strategy.

As soon as the Army's claim upon him expired, he quit his job at the firm and was immediately re-engaged in a freelance capacity, at the head-spinning rate of five shillings an hour. "I did all the crappy jobs that nobody wanted to do. I ended up measuring fields in Thorngumbald, after which they were filled with nasty semi-detached bungalows." And after a day scrambling around in the mud with his tape measure, he would sit down at his typewriter - from which chuntered 40 articles for Punch (one of which was even published), book reviews for the Yorkshire Post, "six lousy plays nobody wanted, and a seventh that crept onto the radio in 1961".

History was on his side. "It was a writer's time, it really was. There was no history, no tradition of television drama. None of us knew anything. So we just made it up as we went along." He also benefited from that brief moment in British cultural life when being from Hull was considered sexy. "The north was so damn fashionable. I used to be a cool guy. When I started coming down to London for meetings, I flattened my vowels more and played it up. 'I love the way you talk,' people would say. And I'd say, 'Oh aye?' I wasn't the smooth sophisticate you see before you now."

Most of his contemporaries from that period - Potter, David Mercer, John Hopkins - have gone to their graves. Does he feel like a survivor of some sort? "The last of the dinosaurs, you mean? I suppose that most of the key players have..." he struggles to locate the correct expression, but Shirley has a useful suggestion. "Dropped off the branch?" Her husband concurs. "But Richard Harris [author of Stepping Out] is still with us. Nigel Kneale is still doing it.

"There's a deal of ageism in the business. People like to work with their own generation - as we did in the Sixties. There were one or two old lags around then, and we were a bit impatient with them. But it does annoy me that there are wonderful plays in the archive - by Barry Collins, David Rudkin, Henry Livings - and yet they're never shown. Brilliant plays made for David Rose at Pebble Mill. And now the studio's been sold off. It's just bloody real estate."

His prognosis for the medium in which he learnt his craft, however, is far from gloomy. "Original work finds its way out," he says. "It's like the grass growing up through the concrete. And because of the decline of the single play on television, we've had a very exciting generation of writers in the theatre. Twenty years ago, Lee Hall and Patrick Marber and Joe Penhall would have been writing for Play for Today and The Wednesday Play. Others who would have been doing that have gone into comedy. Compulsory viewing in this house is Phoenix Nights, The Kumars and anything by Paul Abbott." He enthuses about Abbott's recent successes, State of Play and Shameless, grinds another fag into extinction, and looses a tarry cough. "I remember the time when I had the energy to write two major series a year..."

One drama, however, is good enough, if it's as sharp as Belonging. So next Sunday will be business as usual for Plater, and for British television. At 7.30, those extras in Coronation Street will be bobbing their heads up and down under the arc lamps of the Rover's Return. Then, an hour and a half later, Plater's credit will be conjured on the screen. Two fixed points in a changing age.

'Belonging': ITV1, 12 September, 9pm

ALAN PLATER: A LIFE IN DRAMA

Close the Coalhouse Door (1969)

The TV version of his stage play, a key work of British political theatre - co-written with Alex Glasgow and Sid Chaplin - and the work that most pleased Plater's father.

Trinity Tales (1975)

Chaucer retold by a coachload of rugby league fans on the way to the cup final at Wembley. Bill Maynard and Gaye Brown star as Bill, the Fryer and the Wife of Batley.

The Barchester Chronicles (1982)

Plater turns Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire novels into one of the best-remembered BBC costume dramas: Alan Rickman is the oleaginous Obadiah Slope; Donald Pleasance is the Rev Septimus Harding.

The Beiderbecke Affair (1984)

Adapted from his own novel, a comic thriller starring James Bolam and Barbara Flynn as a pair of schoolteachers caught up in a plot involving corrupt councillors and dead jazzmen. Two sequels followed.

The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (2000)

Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Leslie Caron and a swing band: BAFTAs, a Golden Globe and a brace of Emmy nominations came its way. A stage prequel, Blonde Bombshells of 1943, premiered last April at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

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