Earlier in this enquiry I have described how the feuding habits of one BBC TV producer resulted in myths about ‘Cathy Come Home’, which have no foundation in fact, now beginning to appear in academic studies. These myths seem set fair to become part of the accepted history of television. They appear in an apparently serious academic study called ‘Play for Today; the Evolution of Television Drama’. The author, Irene Shubik, is a self styled ‘professional historical researcher’ as well as a former BBC TV producer.
In the sixties and early seventies immense talent was knocking at the door of television and all sorts of things were changing. Many of those inside the television hierarchy were finding these changes confusing and hard to cope with.
Though not without its faults, Shubik’s book is of value in presenting what was probably the fairly typical world view of a run of the mill BBC producer at that time. There is no official training for the position of television producer, and Shubik is frank about the circumstances that led to her being appointed.
During a varied career, she had written a thesis on ‘The Use of English History in the Drama from 1599-1642’, and later had graduated to become what she called a ‘professional historical researcher’. For a Canadian company making educational films for children, she also wrote scripts on subjects like the mediaeval guilds or the founding of Virginia.
She and the director Ted Kotcheff, another Canadian who had found his way into the media, had a romantic affair. Shubik wrote a screenplay based on this relationship which so far has not been performed. The labour she put into this and her historical scripts led her to feel later that she had useful suggestions to offer to other writers. Ted left Canada to come to England and Shubik followed him. She got herself a job as story editor, under Sydney Newman at ABC Television. Sydney left ABC to become Head of Drama at the BBC, and Shubik went too as part of the slipstream.
On arrival at the BBC, she found the complexity of a ‘vast corporation’ confusing and ‘for weeks ... literally sat alone in an office ... without talking to a soul.’ To add to her confusion, she confesses, ‘it took me weeks to find my way to the canteen.’
Feeling that she would like to become a producer, she asked, in her BBC contract, for a codicil that she would be considered for promotion to a producer within nine months. However, she knew, she says, that Sydney Newman ‘did not really consider me right for the job’, indeed, ‘he did not feel that I was producer material.’
Eighteen months later, still a story editor, she describes how she wrote Sydney a memo ‘asking if I had to shoot my way into his office to get to see him and demanding to discuss the codicil in my contract.’
When he was at ABC, she explains, Sydney had a way of developing laryngitis when he did not want to discuss something unpleasant. Now, at the BBC, he began by telling Shubik what a hard day he had had. He hoped Shubik wasn’t going to add to his troubles. Shubik, ‘half choked with the memory of my Kafka-like year and a half of frustration and isolation’, reminded him of the codicil in her contract, upon which he blandly informed her that ‘he really didn’t think I had it in me to be a producer’. He then advised her to go off to America and enjoy herself.
Shubik did not expect much from this interview although it was at any rate better than a previous occasion when ‘he had cried out in pain to me: ‘I’m so Goddamned sick of being father figure to a bunch of neurotics.’ However, a surprise was in store for Shubik. Those were days when women were increasingly claiming the right to work alongside men in the professions. Cachet was attached to an employer who could show that he employed women in executive jobs. It may have been a thought like this that influenced Sydney when he decided to grant her request.
Much to her surprise, Shubik found herself promoted to assistant producer of a science fiction series and a series of Simenon stories. These in turn led to her becoming a producer at the showcase for BBC television drama which was then known as ‘Play for Today’.
Shubik brought to the job a general knowledge of television picked up since she had been working as script editor. She also brought to it a volatile and excitable temperament. It was this latter quality which later caused her to be known, to some of those who worked for her, as ‘she who can lose her head when all around her are keeping theirs’.
Although it claims to look at the evolution of television drama as a whole, most of Shubik’s book is in fact concerned with her own productions. She was producer of one of my BBC TV screenplays - ‘Edna, the Inebriate Woman’.
A glance at her account of that production gives some idea of the problems that some BBC staff were experiencing with the new ideas and techniques that were clamouring to claim their place on television. It was not an easy production.
In retrospect, I can see that, already in that Italian restaurant, there were available to us clues which could have alerted Nick and myself to be on our guard. I spoke of how important accuracy was to me, and how I did not like to write anything for television which I could not support in a current affairs programme afterwards, as I had done in a programme called ‘Late Night Line Up’ and also on the David Frost programme after ‘Cathy’. There was a brief pause, followed by Shubik appearing to be impressed. In fact, as I realised later, she had decided to stay silent for fear that a statement of her real views might jeopardise her acquisition of the screenplays. Her real views, as I learned when I finally came to read ‘Play for Today, the Evolution of Television Drama’, were in fact the opposite. Writers, so she claims, should at all costs avoid ‘revealing themselves, warts and all, to an audience of millions ... justifying or explaining their own work ... a little remoteness is, in my view, a very good thing.’
With a large number of television and radio appearances to my name, working at that time an interviewer on magazine and religious programmes, and as author of large numbers of newspaper articles and series, and having followed ‘Cathy’ with a number of television and radio appearances, lectures, and articles in newspapers, I was of course exactly the ‘warts and all’ type of author that Shubik did not appreciate. These views she chose to keep to herself at the time.
The interesting thing is that Shubik appears to have failed to understand, or been hostile to some of the techniques used in ‘Cathy’, when they appeared in the script of ‘Edna’.
There was one other major clue, at that original meeting with Shubik, that trouble lay ahead. I explained that each play in the trilogy was about an important social subject of contemporary concern, and that I hoped they might be both as successful and also stir up discussion in the way that ‘Cathy’ had. Shubik’s reply was; ‘Let’s make the plays as successful as ‘Cathy’, but please try to make them a little less Goddam controversial.’
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