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Stephen Poliakoff: Bring back true grit

His last work was a lavish BBC five-parter but Stephen Poliakoff wants TV to return to serious, one-hour plays

Remember The Wednesday Play? It flourished between 1964 and 1970 as a showcase for emerging playwriting talent and, believe me children, for those of us negotiating adolescence at the time, it was a pungent introduction to Sixties attitudes. The plays, by the likes of David Mercer, Michael Frayn and Peter Nichols, were gritty, contemporary, aggressively un-cosy and challenging. They dealt in political hypocrisy (like Dennis Potter's Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton) or working-class bleakness (Nell Dunn's Up the Junction) or sexual commodification (Nigel Kneale's The Year of the Sex Olympics) or the plight of mothers whose children are taken into care (the most famous of the plays, Jeremy Sandford's Cathy Come Home). Among their many virtues was brevity: most were just an hour long.

The idea had been pinched from ITV's Armchair Theatre, which ran from 1958 to 1974. Its issue-driven grubby realism earned it the nickname "Armpit Theatre" and was unmissable viewing on Sunday nights. And when The Wednesday Play moved to Thursday and became Play for Today, it took with it a reputation for scandal that lasted until 1984. Teenagers in the early 1970s (such as your humble scribe) can recall the hell of watching these hour-long ticking bombs with their parents, and waiting for some moment of nudity or bad taste that would result in paroxysms of senior denunciation. Which was the worst moment? The damaged angel raping a handicapped girl in Potter's Brimstone and Treacle? The first sighting of Roy Minton's Scum?

"Armchair Theatre and its offshoots were among the most successful series of plays on world TV," says Stephen Poliakoff. "It's amazing to think TV viewers were sitting down watching Harold Pinter in massive audiences. It affected the whole of British culture." He remembers being startled by some images.

"I remember watching an hour-long film on Granada in which two schoolgirls carried a huge cheese home to the Liverpool suburbs. And seeing John Gielgud in a play, improbably trying to seduce Felicity Kendal in an embassy. But all the famous actors in Britain turned up in these plays. It was an exciting time."

There's an elegiac note in Poliakoff's voice, because many, or most, of the plays are no more. "Nobody can now say how good they were because there's no book about them, and no archive. Some famous ones, like Cathy Come Home, are shown from time to time, but it's a tiny percentage of the mass. Several thousand one-hour plays have just been wiped, lots of others made on film may still exist but nobody's looked at them since they were transmitted. Considering all the media courses around, it's incredible that we shouldn't have this contribution. A good case could be made that the single-hour play could be the most important art form of the late 20th century."

For years, Poliakoff, one of Britain's most prolific and prizewinning playwrights for stage, screen and TV, has been badgering the BBC to reintroduce regular one-off TV dramas. And a DVD has just been released to remind viewers how startling it was in the 1970s.

Plays for Britain was an attempt in 1976 by Thames TV to emulate the success of Play for Today; it lasted only one series, but featured a very strong line-up. Among the six plays was Howard Brenton's The Paradise Run (starring Ian Charleson, directed by Michael Apted,) Roger McGough's The Life Swappers, starring Sheila Gish, Brian Glover's Sunshine in Brixton, starring a young Ray Winstone as a school bully, and Roy Minton's boxing drama Fast Hands directed by Alan Clarke. But the star of the show is Poliakoff's contribution, Hitting Town, a TV version of his 1975 stage play.

Poliakoff remembers the first screening. "We had to go to Jeremy Isaacs's office, because he was the only one with a video recorder. They were just coming out in 1976. Only about 20 people in the country had one. Five years later, half the population had one."

Hitting Town introduces Ralph (Mick Ford), a young student paying a visit to his older sister Clare (Deborah Norton) in an unspecified city. Ralph is anarchic, hyperactive, living on his nerves because IRA bombs have been detonated in his adopted town. Clare, recently single, shifts between chastising his tiresome attitude-striking, and showing delight in his manic energy.

He takes her for a evening on the tiles: they kiss passionately in a grotty restaurant, make hoax calls to a radio phone-in, walk through a hideous shopping mall, visit a karaoke disco.

Did it stand up as drama? "Seeing it again, what struck me was a rawness and extraordinary brutality. Half of it's shot on location in shocking bleakness. The anger and undirected energy were a reaction to the London bombs of the time. You expected a car to blow up as you walked towards it. But it's also about a time –punk arrived 18 months after I wrote it."

My God, Stephen, I said. You mean Ralph, with his curly hair and his childish anarchy, was the first-ever sighting of a punk? "I don't know how much of a claim one can make for starting off punk," said Poliakoff modestly. "Oh, and 'karaoke' wasn't a word used in England at the time either." Poliakoff later re-worked and expanded Hitting Town as a film, Close My Eyes, in 1991. It starred Clive Owen, Alan Rickman and Saskia Reeves, was directed by Poliakoff, and won the Evening Standard Best Film award. Again, incest was at its heart. Why? "The idea of brother-and-sister incest is about going to a safe and sheltered place amid the dangerous storms, although it's wrong, and illegal and against nature. It suggests a loss of confidence in both characters, that they find solace from the outside world in each other."

Poliakoff's more recent TV work includes The Lost Prince (2003), a one-off drama about Prince John, the youngest child of George V, who died at 13; set during the fall of the Romanovs in Russia, it was screened in two parts in the US and won an Emmy for best miniseries. But this year's Dancing on the Edge, about jazz musicians in 1930s London, was shown in five parts. And Poliakoff isn't happy that this is the way TV drama is now going.

"Single dramas can't be made as cheaply as a drama series, because the series people use the same sets over and over. The BBC kept making single plays until the 1990s. They were putting £60m a year into making single plays, they gave opportunities to young writers and directors and they had lots of successes – Truly Madly Deeply, for instance. Then there were problems with in-house union agreements at the BBC and suddenly no more single plays were made for TV."

He suddenly looked like the stroppy 22-year-old kid who wrote Hitting Town just before punk arrived. "I think BBC should be bolder. They still make occasional single plays – like The Wipers Times, some weeks ago - but it's not the same as having a weekly slot for one-off plays. They should have a whole season of new plays and see what happens." µ

'Hitting Town and Other Plays For Britain' is now available on DVD