The renaissance of the standalone drama

The 'one-off' television play used to dominate the schedules before the series-hungry executives of the Thatcher years all but killed it off. Now, as the BBC screens his latest offering, the writer Alan Plater celebrates its return

Back in the Eighties there was a conference at the National Film Theatre to discuss the past, present and future, if any, of television drama. The great and the good assembled to share their wisdom with an audience of playwrights. In the mid-afternoon, a senior drama producer scandalised the congregation by declaring that the single play was dead and buried, and we should all bend our minds instead towards long-running series and soaps.

The producer in question - a good man and true - was simply spelling out the facts of life in the Thatcher era. The purpose of ITV was to make money and the purpose of the BBC was to survive in a climate where public and service didn't belong in the same sentence. The great ratings war had been declared, and if that meant competing to see how far down you could dumb, that was the market logic and the market was God. Discovering the next generation of Dennis Potters and Alan Bleasdales, let alone sustaining the existing ones, was strictly bottom of the executive agenda.

And so it came to pass. Twice-weekly soaps doubled their output, and the executive ideal was any drama series that endlessly recycled the same sets, the same actors and frequently the same stories. The definitive television hero was a doctor who could solve murder mysteries. If he was handy in a fist fight, so much the better, and a traumatic private life was compulsory.

To be sure, even within the assembly line culture, good writers still battled through, thus echoing my late agent, Peggy Ramsay's dictum: "Darling, if you're a proper writer, you will write." My ubiquitous friend Andrew Davies revitalised costume drama with Middlemarch; Jimmy McGovern and Paul Abbott emerged from the soap scene to give us Cracker and State of Play; and it is a self-evident truth that Russell T Davies's Doctor Who is better now than it ever was in its so-called golden age.

But it is an equally self-evident truth that much of television drama is dross (as it always was), and maybe it's boredom that sent network television audiences into decline, especially with satellite channels girdling the earth, a Blockbuster on every corner, an iPod in every ear and a laptop on every knee.

That was the situation a year ago when I spotted a small straw blowing in the wind. The producer Ken Trodd invited me to serve on a Bafta jury for the best new writer award. We gave the prize to Brian Dooley for his lovely comedy series The Smoking Room, which gave me additional pleasure, as a smoker, since I knew it would irritate the hell out of the puritans. The jury made its choice from a dozen or so programmes, and among them were a couple of intriguing one-off television plays, made by the BBC in Birmingham, including Viva Las Blackpool, written by Damian Fitzsimmons and directed by Sarah Lancashire.

I later saw another Fitzsimmons play from the Birmingham stable, called The Singing Cactus. It's about a boy who has a cactus that sings to him: a proper story, complete in its own universe. These were traditional television plays in the sense that they were simple stories, simply told, and they bore the writer's fingerprints. They were obviously made quickly and cheaply but - and this is a crucial difference from days of yore - they were made on location. When I was an apprentice, plays were made in a studio with cameras the size of tramcars and mighty men to push them around. In these days of miniaturised technology, cameras get everywhere, and Big Brother is our punishment.

I was curious about the Birmingham phenomenon. I knew they produced Doctors, a daytime soap, but what mischief were these people up to in their spare time? I soon found out. Will Trotter, who runs the drama outfit there, approached me with a proposition. Essentially, it went like this:

"Would you like to write an Afternoon Play?"

"Tell me more."

"This is the fourth series. We get a very good audience share, which is why they're letting us do some more. But there's a down side."

"Tell me more."

"Because it's an afternoon slot, you've got to shoot an hour-long play in eight days with two cameras. And everyone's paid less - but it goes up again if you get a peak-time repeat, and that's beginning to happen."

"Tell me more."

"Again, because it's an afternoon slot, there's no explicit sex, no drugs, and nobody's allowed to say 'shit' or 'fuck'."

"You've just described Jack Rosenthal's career. And mine, too. If we can ban rock'n'roll as well, you're on."

I struck a deal with Will. Over the previous couple of years I had been developing a project with the late, legendary TV producer Andrea Wonfor for a series set on some allotments on or adjacent to Tyneside. I was to write the pilot and we would use the show as a launchpad for some of the bright new writing talent in the North-east.

Andrea died when we were still in the research and development stage, but Will agreed that the material was too good to waste. There were practical advantages, too. I placed most of the action on the allotments, which gave us a stunning and versatile location. We spent six of our eight days on the allotments and the rest on the university campus and in a greasy spoon where our student heroine is working to minimise her debts in New Labour's further education universe.

The play is dedicated to Andrea Wonfor and is called The Last Will and Testament of Billy Two-Sheds. Among others, it stars James Bolam, Paul Copley, Amanda Root and Doña Croll - all with distinguished careers in genre television, but equally chuffed to be part of this traditional, one-off enterprise.

I've called their piece of the good earth the Pebble Mill allotments, as a tribute to the BBC's former Birmingham headquarters where, in the 1970s, the great David Rose let loose talents as diverse as Mike Leigh with Nuts in May, and Bleasdale with The Black Stuff, the play that eventually gave birth to his epoch-making series. David gave me the run of the adventure playground, encouraging me to write Trinity Tales, a Chaucerian update about a group of pilgrims on a spiritual journey - in my case, going to Wembley for the Rugby League Cup Final.

The old Pebble Mill spirit certainly informed the making of the new play, notably because it was quick and bullshit-free. From Will's initial approach to completion was little more than six months. Comparisons are invidious but they're also informative. My most recent one-off drama for television was Belonging, from the novel by Stevie Davies, and it took six years to reach the screen from the initial inception. Going farther back, The Last of the Blonde Bombshells, starring Judi Dench, took 12 years. There are lies, damned lies and programme budgets, but Billy probably cost about one-fifth of Belonging and one-tenth of Bombshells.

The role of television drama is to reflect what's happening in what our masters tell us is the real world - at least, that's what it says on the wrapper. That being so, what the dramatist needs is the shortest possible distance to the audience. If there's a 10- or even a five-year gap, when you hit the screen your work is about three zeitgeists out of date.

But there are reasons to be cautiously cheerful. Gossip from the forest indicates that all the major channels are now commissioning one-offs, admittedly in some cases with one eye on their series potential. ITV even managed to transmit Jack Rosenthal's Ready When You Are, Mr McGill over Christmas. Though why at 11pm in the boozers' slot? What were the schedulers afraid of? That nobody would watch? Or maybe the opposite?

But the Birmingham project remains the only current example of specially commissioned original daytime drama, a simple illustration of the truth that small is beautiful. Its track record also illustrates the only truth I know about the business, after 40 years at the coalface: people like stories.

For example, once upon a time there was this fella, and he had a shed...

'The Last Will and Testament of Billy Two-Sheds' is on BBC1 at 2.05pm today

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