Drama and comedy on 1980s television

Public service and entertainment

Since the BBC’s founder, John Reith, declared that broadcasting was itself a service to the public which should educate, inform and -yes- entertain, the concept of ‘public service’ had been mobilised across the television genres. However, during the 1980s, the notion that only certain genres are worthy of the label was gaining currency. In 1986 the Peacock Report on the Financing of the BBC declared that ‘public service programmes’ are only those that are ‘unlikely to be commercially self-supporting in the view of broadcasting entrepreneurs’(para 592). It seems unlikely that Professor Peacock was thinking of comedy or popular drama.

However, Jonathan Powell, Head of Drama at BBC television from 1985, took the risk of commissioning the edgy drama Casualty from two young and unknown writers, Jeremy Brock and Paul Unwin, rather than going for a safer, cosier option. http://www.bbc.co.uk/drama/casualty/classicclips/1986.shtml

He became Controller of BBC1 between 1988-1992 and gave a keynote talk to the ‘No Such’ Symposium on protecting the breadth of the BBC’s output at a time when the Government did not support popular programming, and the Corporation’s new Deputy Director General, John Birt, was anxious to cut costs and focus on journalism at the expense of general programming.

Television drama can take both challenging and popular forms. The No Such project aimed to look across the dramatic output of the 1980s and was committed to taking the popular seriously. For the project, Sherryl Wilson looked closely at representations of health and the health service in a range of different dramatic genres. She argues that popular forms themselves have relevance to the way the NHS was seen (The Nation’s Health paper).

For comedy the issue of public service was even more pressing, especially within the BBC. Heather Sutherland was part of a team working on Volume VI of the official history of the Corporation, where her focus was on light entertainment. This meant that she had unique access to BBC archives and was able to conduct interviews with the most influential players. At the No Such Symposium, she delivered a paper which considered questions of taste, standards and ‘public service’ in comedy of the 1980s. (Comedy paper).

The NHS and television drama
Sherryl Wilson writes

My interest in the No Such project stems from having been a psychiatric nurse between 1975 and 1988. The year prior to my joining the NHS was marked by a major reorganisation that included the formation of Regional Health Authorities and Area Health Authorities. The Matron was gone and a new management structure that included a hierarchy of Nursing Officers was in place. At that time there was some sense of loss expressed by those staff who had known the old system, and the impact of cash limits to spending was felt by all of us throughout the latter half of the 1970s. Nonetheless, it was during the 1980s that we experienced the seismic shifts that we now characterise as Thatcherite. Two key moments stand out for me. The first of these is when ancillary services were privatised in 1983. The cleaning staff were integral to the ward/day care/out patient teams that they were a part of (I don’t think I am romanticising this too much). When this occurred in the hospital in which I was based at the time, the cleaning staff stopped being employed by the NHS and were re-hired by a private company under far less favourable terms and conditions of employment. Further, assigning cleaners to a specific area ended by deploying them to different parts of the hospital on a daily basis. The intimacy that developed between cleaning staff, nursing staff and patients was lost; the cleaners also lost the sense of belonging that makes a mundane job less mundane: they were not happy with these changes. The second moment, in 1984, was the implementation of the recommendations of the Griffiths Report published a year earlier that transformed management structures and brought in managers from industry to run the NHS alongside managers from within it. Greater accountability that the Report demanded brought in a new language through which targets were set and outputs measured. This is pretty tricky when delivering a service that is not easily measurable.

The research that I did for the No Such project involved looking at TV dramas broadcast during the 1980s; they represent a political narrative familiar to me through my own experiences. I explored a number of episodes from The Practice (ITV 1985-86), the first season of Casualty (BBC 1986) and G F Newman’s four part series The Nation’s Health (Channel 4 1983). Each drama has something to say about the condition of the NHS as well as the wider social context. They differ in the ways in which notions of public service are articulated, but in both The Practice and in Casualty, it is clearly embodied in the staff who are represented as struggling against the continual tide of cutbacks and efficiency drives. Interestingly, both dramas were based on extensive research undertaken by the scriptwriters who sat in on patient consultations (for The Practice) and spent months in an Accident and Emergency department (for Casualty). The inside knowledge and understanding gained was translated into the scripts for each programme. Sita Williams, who produced The Practice, told me that time spent in a GP surgery enabled the story lines to follow a realistic representation of the difficulties faced by practice staff as a result of the wider social changes that were taking place in the 1980s. Jonathan Powell, who was Head of Drama at the BBC and responsible for commissioning Casualty, wanted a new popular hospital drama for the Friday 8 pm slot as a means of fulfilling a public service broadcasting remit by showing quality, home-grown television programming. This in itself an offers insight into the broadcasting landscape during the 1980s, and how the notion of public service was conceptualised, as the Casualty writers dramatised how tough life was for staff on the frontline of the NHS.

The Nation’s Health has a very different ‘feel’ to it probably because the writer, G.F. Newman has stated that he wanted to critique the ‘arbitrary power’ held by medical staff and as such, that drama portrays a body of staff emptied out of any sense of public service. Also, while Casualty and The Practice were aimed at a mainstream audience, The Nation’s Health was broadcast on the then very new Channel 4 which had a remit to cater for minority audiences and which, at that time, specialised in more experimental programming. Although the series is a negative critique of the NHS staff in general, it does also offer a damning insight into the policies that were seen to be disabling the NHS. A version of the paper I have written on The Nation’s Health has been uploaded to this website.
(Nation’s Health paper)

BFI Screenonline http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/481759/