Anyone reading about the career of Jack Rosenthal, the television dramatist who died this week, would be forgiven for a feeling of incredulous envy. You felt like a modern-day curate, reading about the excesses of a medieval Pope. Quite simply, you couldn't get away with a career like Rosenthal's now. They wouldn't allow it.
Drama on television, these days, comes almost entirely in the form of the serial. Looking at the schedules, it's quite easy to guess that commissioning editors are only really interested in a drama that can be stretched out over six episodes, or spun out indefinitely, like a semi-soap opera. Some interesting work still appears, but most television drama is accounted for by a few, very conventional forms. There is the crime drama; the drama about a workplace, such as Teachers; the drama about a family, such as Paul Abbott's Shameless or Queer as Folk; and, of course, the sexed-up dash through some innocuous classic, with costumes as lavish as can be contrived and music never heard or dreamt of by the hapless and safely dead author.
Beyond that, television hardly ventures itself these days, and our dramas are usually only daring in the sense of being risqué. The pallid surrealism of Teachers or the lurid improbabilities of Footballers' Wives represent the furthest that drama can venture from conventional naturalism. But it wasn't always so.
Rosenthal's career began when, extravagantly, he turned an early episode of Coronation Street into an elaborate pastiche of Gunfight at the OK Corral. That alone tells you how limited TV drama has become since. But all through his career, he was inventive in the way he presented his material, rarely falling into the most obvious dramatic style. A play such as The Chain, a series of overlapping vignettes of house-buying and moving-in, is far more playful than anything you would see on television now, with the amusing, allusive sense that here is a suburban, sexless, money-making version of La Ronde.
Rosenthal's career, above all, was in the single play for television. Although he worked on various serials, such as The Lovers or London's Burning, and also wrote screenplays for movies such as Yentl, his best and most memorable work was in the single television drama - London's Burning, indeed, began life as rather a good, one-off play.
The point about Rosenthal is that he wasn't a genius, just a very efficient, highly inventive and entertaining writer. And in the atmosphere of the 1970s, he was able to pursue his talent in the form that suited it best - the single television play. P'tang Yang Kipperbang, The Knowledge, Bar Mitzvah Boy, Spend Spend Spend: none of them masterpieces, perhaps, but all highly memorable and expertly crafted for their particular scale.
But Rosenthal's dramas are just part of a splendid legacy of single plays from the time. Many of these were commissioned as part of the BBC's Wednesday Play slot, subsequently Play for Today. It's easy to caricature the Play for Today dramas as naff, socially concerned clunkers; the BBC certainly broadcast a fair number of those. But, looking back, over the list of these dramas, it's quite amazing how many genuine classics the project generated.
There are plays by Alan Bennett, Caryl Churchill, Simon Gray, Howard Brenton, David Hare; Mike Leigh's Nuts in May and Abigail's Party; Alan Clarke's Scum; Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle and Blue Remembered Hills; inventive commissions from Beryl Bainbridge and Antonia Fraser; ambitious mountings of plays by Vaclav Havel. Can anyone seriously suppose that anything on television in the last 15 years compares in any way to this?
I keep imagining a present-day executive listening to a writer pitching Blue Remembered Hills, for my money one of the most beautiful dramas in any medium from the period. "Well, it's about a group of kids during the war. There's a lot about bed-wetting and they kill a squirrel. They play some games. And then at the end one of them dies in a fire. Oh, and we don't want child actors, they're all played by adults." "Can you turn it into a six-part series?" "No." "Next."
Television has no commitment now to the one-off drama if it's not an adaptation or a genre piece. It used to be interested in a huge range of dramatic forms, from the soap to the serial to the single drama, and within that all sorts of talents could be encouraged and could thrive. These days, decent talents are forced into uncongenial forms, and attractive material extended until its thinness becomes horribly apparent. As I say, Rosenthal couldn't have got away with it these days; and that's our problem.Reuse content