Stephen Poliakoff On Hitting Town, The Nervy 1970s And The British One-Off TV Play

plays for britainNetwork Distributing have just opened an incredible televisual time capsule, issuing a DVD set of ITV's mid-70s series of one-off dramas, Plays For Britain. Included in the set is work by, amongst others, Roger McGough, Alan Clark and Stephen Poliakoff. What's more, every episode starts with the same, curious mini-piece by Mike Leigh.

I took the opportunity of this release to call up Poliakoff and discuss both the lost tradition of standalone TV plays and, specifically, his play Hitting Town, included in this set. It's the story of a brother and a sister who, as Poliakoff explained, turned inwards and looked for escape in each other against the "nervy atmosphere" of the 1970s.

Here's some of what he told me, starting with some context for Hitting Town's adaptation from theatre to TV.

It was a stage play that I wrote a year before it was televised. It was on at The Bush and it was one of my first real successes and went very well so it went on tour, went to the Edinburgh Festival and then came back to The Bush with a different cast. It had quite a long life in the theatre.

Barry Hanson was my main producer in the early part of my career. After Hitting Town worked with him another two times another two times, working with Stephen Frears on Bloody Kids and then another film called Runners. He's best remembered for producing The Long Good Friday. He came to see Hitting Town at The Bush and he said "I'd like to commission you to write a play for this strand of little plays on ITV," and I, with the arrogance of youth said "I don't think I'll write anything better than this, you might as well do this one." And so he did.

In the theatre it has a sort of dangerous humour to it, when you're locked in a room with this boy being dangerous and mischievous. Maybe the television version, as television is obviously more realistic, has melancholy to it as well. But it's pretty close on television to what I wrote. I was 22 when I wrote it and the boy is 21 in the piece – I was close to that character and this play is very much recognisably set in my early world.

The word karaoke had not yet passed into the English language so I would claim this to have the first ever karaoke scene in a British film or television drama, not that that's a wonderful boast. The commercial break after the karaoke scene is quite effective, but the other one less so. [The ad-break cards, left intact on the DVD] are a reminder that these went out on a commercial channel.

Anybody who knows anything about television of the recent past knows a little about Play For Today and before that The Wednesday Play, and the single play or film was closely associated with the BBC. But ITV had just as strong and then just as adventurous tradition, doing the early works of Harold Pinter, for instance, and getting twelve million viewers for these. There was Armchair Theatre, a strand championed by Sydney Newman. The ad breaks are a reminder that this lived in the commercial world, and it's striking to think now that ITV were making these dramas and how much investment they made in serious writing.

These were not genre writing and you never knew what was going to come at you when you watched one. Obviously there were only three channels but this didn't stop BBC and ITV scheduling competitively against one another. If there was a strand of plays on one channel, on the BBC, then ITV would schedule something quite easy for the audience against it. It wasn't like the viewers of Plays For Britain had nothing else to watch.

Radio is where the tradition the plays of lives on, where you can get a play about Florence Nightingale's sister followed by a play about the Iraq War. That lives on in radio but obviously not TV.

I watched the play again before speaking to you, having not watched it in several years, and it does have quite a strong soundtrack. Often in studio drama there was silence, or you could hear the crew dropping something, there's suddenly a clank. In Hitting Town we go from muzak, or pipe music as we'd call it then, to the disco, to the concert music coming through the walls. I don't know what deal they did for The Rolling Stones, that's lost in the mists of history.

This was George Fenton's very first score for a drama. I think he'd written a tiny bit of incidental music for the RSC where he was an actor, but this was his first score. He went to the head of Thames television and asked "How many musicians am I allowed?" and was told "One." He asked "Does that include me on the piano?" But I think there were actually three in the end.

hitting town

The other interesting thing from a purely historical point of view is that most drama of the 70s was shot 70% in the studio and then when people went outside, they went onto 16mm film which gave the pieces a very strange texture. This series of dramas, Plays For Britain, I think I'm right in saying, was the first made on lightweight video cameras outside so you go from video to video. It's more of a piece and you don't get the break between grainy 16mm and over-sharp video.

Some of the shouting was not quite how the play was done on stage. The sister shouts quite a lot in the television version. But it was a very nervy time in Britain because the bombs that the boy makes a lot of reference to, and which you come to realise he's quite shaken up about, were such a huge feature of, especially, the mid 70s.

The Birmingham Bombings and the London bombings, some of which I was living very close to, when there were fractured mannequins all over Oxford Street; these were not regular occurrences but they were happening every year. "The Troubles" is a misnomer if ever there was one, but there was this division and violence pouring from this historical divide in Northern Ireland that's never been breached, and at the same time unemployment was building rapidly, it was a very bleak time. That's why these characters shelter, find solace in each other for that one night. The nervy atmosphere, the shouty atmosphere.

When I wrote the play the word Punk was just around the corner, it was literally about a year later when Punk exploded. When I wrote the play in 1975 the world was still serenely worshipping the sound of The Bay City Rollers. The mood was in the air, this nervy anger and nihilism.

One of the intriguing things is that the location stuff, where they're walking through the world of the shopping malls, or precincts as they called them, how incredibly bleak that looks. I remember at the time thinking "What a pretty mall," at least compared to what I had in mine. Those concrete walkways of the 1970s are unbelievable bleak.

There was a line in the original play, not in this television version, where the boy, who was studying architecture at university, commented on how badly designed it was and how, probably, most of the people responsible for putting it up are in jail. This was the time when there was a lot of corruption in local government, people who tore down the centre of cities and commissioned their friends for new buildings. The play does reflect that mood, something we're still recovering from. Birmingham even now is like living in a surrealist dream, the jumble of styles and architecture fighting each other, a very unquiet place.

The play obviously has a central situation that is eternally beguiling and interesting, of people being drawn towards their sister. There's a tradition of plays about incest. I wanted something about people escaping into something that is dangerous and safe at the same time. I thought that was a good way of characters reacting to the extraordinary atmosphere of the 70s. And I was so haunted by this that fifteen years later I made my film Close My Eyes with Clive Owen and Alan Rickman which is a longer exploration, and that relationship becomes much more addictive, it's not just one night. But the first few moments in the film were directly inspired by the play. It's a theme that interested my younger self greatly.

Right up until I made Perfect Strangers, I had a love affair between two cousins there. I don't know why it's always intrigued me but it's something to do with people sheltering from difficulty, going inwards, but also has a dangerous naughtiness to it, in a sense. It's like taking a drug. It just made sense to me to dramatise things like that.

Hitting Town had the extreme edginess of youth and that seems quite a long way away, it's a long time ago but nevertheless, some things I recognise, some things I don't.

Right now, I'm quite interested in exploring music and the relationship of music to a particular time, and I think I'm going to explore that some more. Not in the 30s, like Dancing on the Edge, but in another time. I'm always secretive while I'm writing but once I've written it, I'm fine to discuss it. I'm not as paranoid as I might have been but I feel that if I talk about things, they disappear. I'm just starting so it will be secret for a little while yet.

And when it's no longer secret, trust that I will be telling you more about it. Thanks again to Stephen for taking the time to talk to me.

For now, though, Plays For Britain comes fully recommended, particularly for anybody interested in the following the evolution of the British television drama and its entwinement with British theatre.