People behind programmes – 1 

7 September 2017 tbs.pm/13662


“Dramatic power doesn’t lie in the barrel of a gun.”



Lloyd Shirley, Thames Television’s Controller of Drama programmes, began his broadcasting career with TV in his home province of Ontario and came into British television in 1956. In ITV’s early years his productions ranged across the whole output from arts programmes and documentaries to World of Sport, but he later began to specialise in drama with such successes as Armchair Theatre, Public Eye, Frontier, Callan and lately The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.

Lloyd Shirley, Controller of Drama

The title Controller of Drama is, to say the least, an odd one. You cannot legislate drama into existence any more than you can dictate any creative process successfully from the outside. All you can do – at least, all I feel I can do in my department -is bring together a group of professionals who write and produce and direct drama, and give them the facilities to do it in a certain way. A way that will both satisfy them as programme makers and also please our audience as consistently as possible. For me that is as far as you can go towards ‘controlling’ drama. But what you can do from outside is to finance it, and how you do that is important to results.

The Board of Thames Television has just allocated my department’s programme expenditure for the next two years: £5½ million. That is a great deal of money but no blank cheque, because programme production is very expensive. Yet there are two vital things about the allocation. First it gives us the chance to plan well ahead, which helps us to vary our output properly. Secondly, it comes without strings. It is financial backing for the programmes we would like to make and which we hope viewers will enjoy.

Our most striking new venture is, I suppose, armchair cinema. We shall go on making armchair theatre (including a new Terence Rattigan play, incidentally) but Armchair Cinema will be a £1 million series of films made especially for British television. There will be new thrillers – indeed the whole concept began when our films rumour and suspect were so successful – and there will also be comedy and romance and domestic drama. There has been no other project like it in Britain, and if it sounds hackneyed to describe it as a challenge I can only say that is exactly how we see it.

Another departure for us is a cycle of Restoration comedy, a series of linked adaptations which Peter Hammond will produce. We are calling it the way of the world, borrowing Congreve’s title because it exemplifies the way we intend to present the plays: not as a quaint period revival but as a living revelation of wit, manner and morals which is relevant to the present. George Markstein’s adaptation of De Quincey’s confessions of an english opium eater will again be a portrayal of an earlier period, but all too clearly relating to our own society. And for a present-day message actually written in this century, we are negotiating with Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s representatives to serialise one of his works. I hope to announce the details soon. None of these will be in the studio for several months, though they are all in active preparation. One which will appear rather sooner is the new eight-part series on napoleon which Philip Mackie has conceived and is writing.

In naming those particular series I do not mean to imply that we have lost interest in popular contemporary story-telling. The role of television as a presenter of popular fiction seems to me an important one. But we are more interested in a series that reveals some human truths than we are, say, in just a good detective story. Frank Marker in public eye is a detective, but the series concentrates on him and his cases as human problems, callan is a sensitive character with believable emotions. In another genre, Joe Lampton of man at the top is a complicated and interesting human being. In all of those it was the characters that attracted us first, the stories second. The same is true of Nicholas Freeling’s Dutch detective van der valk, which is a series going into production shortly.

If there is any theme in our work, I hope it is this sense of humanity and of relevance to ordinary life. We do not, in the main, create escapist fantasy. That is not to say that Callan and Public Eye are heavy with social undertone. But neither are they a couple of handsome heroes who solve every problem with a bullet, six days of justice illustrates the point very well. Courtroom drama is hardly new. But we took an ordinary magistrates’ court and tried to present, exactly as they would happen, the cases which represent day-to-day British justice. Cases about ordinary people that take place by the hundred for every one dramatic trial at the Old Bailey.

We had a great deal of praise from the critics for it, but many of them said in effect that it was too authentic to be entertaining. That, as one of them put it, it would never reach the Top Twenty. In fact, each programme has been watched by around thirteen million people and it was in the Top Twenty every time. Now that is very gratifying, because with only one channel it is part of our responsibility to make our work appeal to a large proportion of our audience. We want, if you like, to fill our theatre and not have half the seats empty. But much more rewarding than that is the knowledge, from letters and calls and comments, that people were excited by the very lack of traditional dramatic ingredients in six days of justice. Because the professionals who work for my department learned long ago that dramatic power doesn’t lie in the barrel of a gun. And we never tire of proving that the audience knows it too.

Lloyd Shirley, Controller of Drama
Armchair Cinema, Armchair Theatre, Callan, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Man at the Top, The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder, Napoleon, Public Eye, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, Six Days of Justice, Special Branch, Van der Valk, The Way of the World.

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