|Country of origin||United Kingdom|
|No. of episodes||452|
|Original release||1956 –|
Armchair Theatre is a British television drama anthology series of single plays that ran on the ITV network from 1956 to 1974. It was originally produced by ABC Weekend TV. Its successor Thames Television took over from mid-1968.
The Canadian-born producer Sydney Newman was in charge of Armchair Theatre between September 1958 and December 1962, during what is generally considered to have been its best era, and produced 152 episodes.
Armchair Theatre filled a Sunday-evening slot on ITV, Britain's only commercial network at the time, in which contemporary dramas were the most common form, though this was not immediately apparent.
The series was launched by Howard Thomas, head of ABC at the time,who argued that "Television drama is not so far removed from television journalism, and the plays which will grip the audience are those that face up to the new issues of the day as well as to the problems as old as civilisation."
The original producer of the series was Dennis Vance, who was in charge for the first two years. In its early years the series drew heavily on North American sources. The first play, The Outsider, was a medical drama adapted from the stage playby Dorothy Brandon, which was transmitted live on 8 July 1956 from ABC's Manchester studios in Didsbury. Reportedly Vance had a preference for classical adaptations, though some of these—such as a version of The Emperor Jones (30 March 1958 ) by the American dramatist Eugene O'Neill—were not conservative choices. Vance was succeeded by Sydney Newman, who was ABC's Head of Drama from April 1958.
The perils of live transmission caught up with the production team on 28 November 1958, early in Newman's tenure. Whilst Underground was being broadcast, 33-year-old actor Gareth Jones suddenly collapsed and died in between his scenes. Such nightmare situations could be handled more easily when Armchair Theatre was able to benefit from prerecording on videotape, after production of the series moved from Manchester to Teddington Studios near London in the summer of 1959.
Migrating from his native Canada to take up his responsibilities with ABC, Sydney Newman objected to the basis of British television drama at the time he arrived:
"The only legitimate theatre was of the 'anyone for tennis' variety, which, on the whole, presented a condescending view of working-class people. Television dramas were usually adaptations of stage plays, and invariably about upper classes. I said 'Damn the upper classes - they don't even own televisions!'"
He converted Armchair Theatre into a vehicle for the generation of "Angry Young Men" that was emerging after John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger (1956) had become a great success,although older writers such as Ted Willis were not excluded. Willis' 1958 play Hot Summer Night (1 February 1959) was adapted to shift its focus, from an unhappy marriage of parents in the original stage version, onto their daughter's mixed-race relationship with a Jamaican man and the problems they might face if they got married. It was one of the earliest British television plays to have race as a theme.
A script editor, Peter Luke,was the first to become aware of the writers Clive Exton, who contributed eight plays to the series, Alun Owen, who wrote No Trams to Lime Street (18 October 1959), ) and Harold Pinter, who contributed A Night Out (24 April 1960). ) Owen's play was the first of a trilogy transmitted during 1959 and 1960, which was completed by After the Funeral (3 April 1960) and Lena, O My Lena (26 September 1960).
Ratings for the series were regularly about 15 million with the series frequently in the week's top ten; it was broadcast immediately after the variety show Sunday Night at the London Palladium . 's audience of 6,380,000.Even so, Pinter once estimated that his stage play The Caretaker , enjoying its first run at the time, would have to be performed for thirty years before matching A Night Out
The German Jewish dramatist Robert Muller, who had arrived in Britain as a refugee in 1938,contributed seven plays to the series, three being transmitted in 1962 and directed by Philip Saville, including Afternoon of a Nymph . Saville worked on more than forty episodes in the series, while Muller's wife in his later years, the actress Billie Whitelaw, had a part in eleven episodes.
Newman's three-and-a-half-season involvement in Armchair Theatre concluded at the end of December 1962. He was succeeded by Leonard White, an early producer of The Avengers . 's last years Lloyd Shirley was the series producer. A holdover from the Newman era, Clive Exton's legal satire The Trial of Dr Fancy (13 September 1964), was among the first television plays on ITV to be suppressed. The deliberately absurd and savage play was a conscious break on Exton's part from the social realism of which he had grown tired. Although the Independent Television Authority (ITA), the regulator of the commercial channel at the time, had not objected to the production, Howard Thomas of ABC feared that it would give offence to viewers. The programme controller at ABC, Brian Tesler, explained the later change of heart: "We believe that the climate of opinion concerning black comedy has changed in the past two years. When the play was recorded we felt that many people might fail to appreciate the compassion which underlies the irony in Mr Exton's play."In Armchair Theatre
Another play from this period was not so lucky. The Blood Knot (recorded 18 May 1963), a two-hander by the South African writer Athol Fugard with apartheid as its theme, was never scheduled.
The programme occasionally spun off ideas into full-blown series such as Armchair Mystery Theatre, hosted by Donald Pleasence, which specialised in crime and mystery thrillers. A 1962 adaptation of John Wyndham's short story Dumb Martian, scripted by Clive Exton, was a deliberate showcase for the spin-off science fiction anthology Out of This World . Two 1967 episodes became series. One of these was developed into the sitcom Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width , while the other, A Magnum for Schneider, became the pilot for the spy series Callan .
After the 1968 ITV franchise changes and ABC's merger into Thames, the programme continued until 1974. Hugely popular at its peak, with audiences occasionally touching twenty million, Armchair Theatre had an important influence on later programmes such as the BBC's The Wednesday Play (1964–70), a series initiated by Sydney Newman after he had moved to the BBC.
Overall, 452 plays were made and broadcast under the Armchair Theatre banner between 1956 and 1974. As with much early British television, not all of the plays from the original ABC series survive in the archives, owing either to live plays not being recorded or to recordings being destroyed. Two later Thames series used the Armchair... prefix: Armchair Cinema, effectively a series of TV movies, and Armchair Thriller (1978–80), which used a serial format.
Armchair Theatre was satirised on the BBC Radio comedy series Round the Horne as Armpit Theatre.
A DVD boxset featuring eight colour episodes from 1970 to 1973 was released by Network DVD in January 2010. It contains the following episodes:
Volume 2, with another eight colour episodes, appeared in 2012:
Volume 3 contains episodes ranging from 1957 to 1967:
Volume 4 contains:
Network subsequently released further episodes under the Armchair Theatre Archive label.
Armchair Cinema, which included the pilot of the police series The Sweeney (Regan) in its run, was released by Network DVD in autumn 2009.
The year 1958 in television involved some significant events. Below is a list of television-related events during 1958.
Sydney Cecil Newman, OC was a Canadian film and television producer, who played a pioneering role in British television drama from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. After his return to Canada in 1970, Newman was appointed Acting Director of the Broadcast Programs Branch for the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) and then head of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). He also occupied senior positions at the Canadian Film Development Corporation and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and acted as an advisor to the Secretary of State.
William Theodore Kotcheff is a Bulgarian-Canadian film and television director and producer, known primarily for his work on British and American television productions such as Armchair Theatre and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He has also directed numerous successful films including the Australian Wake in Fright (1971), action films such as the original Rambo movie First Blood (1982) and Uncommon Valor (1983), and comedies like Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), North Dallas Forty (1979), and Weekend at Bernie's (1989). He is sometimes credited as William T. Kotcheff, and resides in Beverly Hills, California. Due to his ancestry, Kotcheff has Bulgarian citizenship.
The Wednesday Play is an anthology series of British television plays which ran on BBC1 for six seasons from October 1964 to May 1970. The plays were usually original works written for television, although dramatic adaptations of fiction also featured. The series gained a reputation for presenting contemporary social dramas, and for bringing issues to the attention of a mass audience that would not otherwise have been discussed on screen.
Clive Exton was a British television and film screenwriter who wrote scripts for the series Poirot,Jeeves and Wooster, and Rosemary & Thyme.
Dennis Vance was a British television producer, director, and occasional actor.
No Trams to Lime Street is a 1959 British television play, written by the Welsh playwright Alun Owen for the Armchair Theatre anthology series. Produced by ABC Weekend TV for transmission on the ITV network, the play was broadcast on 18 October 1959. The original version no longer exists.
Out of This World is a British science fiction anthology television series made by the ITV franchise ABC Television for ITV. It was broadcast on ITV in 1962. A spin-off from the Armchair Theatre anthology series, each episode was introduced by the actor Boris Karloff. Many of the episodes were adaptations of stories by science fiction writers including Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick and Clifford D. Simak. The series is described by the British Film Institute as a precursor to the BBC science fiction anthology series Out of the Unknown, which was produced by Out of This World creator Irene Shubik after she left ABC.
A Night Out is a play written by Harold Pinter in 1959.
Irene Shubik was a British television producer and story editor, known for her contribution to the development of the single play in British television drama. Beginning her career in television at ABC Weekend TV, she worked on Armchair Theatre as a story editor, where she devised the science fiction anthology series Out of this World.
Richard Harris is a British television writer, most active from the early 1960s to the mid-1990s. He writes primarily for the crime and detective genres, having contributed episodes of series such as The Avengers, The Saint, The Sweeney, Armchair Mystery Theatre, and Target. He has helped to create several programmes of the genre, including Adam Adamant Lives!, Man in a Suitcase, and Shoestring. Despite a career that has been largely spent writing for the crime and detective genre, in 1994 he won the prize for best situation comedy from the Writers' Guild of Great Britain for Outside Edge, a programme he had originated as a stage play. Though the majority of his work has been for television, a substantial amount of his output has been for the stage.
A television play is a television programming genre which is a live drama performance broadcast from the television studio or, later, put on the tape.
This is a list of British television related events from 1961.
"Underground" was a science fiction television play presented as part of the British anthology series Armchair Theatre which was broadcast live by the ITV commercial network on 30 November 1958. It is chiefly remembered because an actor had a fatal heart attack during transmission.
Lloyd Reckord was a Jamaican actor, film maker, and stage director who lived in England for some years. Reckord appeared in 1958 in a West End production of Hot Summer Night, which as an ITV adaptation broadcast on 1 February 1959 contained the earliest known example of an interracial kiss on television. His brother was the dramatist Barry Reckord.
Leonard White was a British actor and television producer. In the latter role he was responsible for The Avengers and Armchair Theatre.
Joan Kemp-Welch was a British stage and film actress, who later went on to become a television director. After making her stage debut in 1926 at the Q Theatre, Kemp-Welch made her film debut in 1933 and appeared in fifteen films over the next decade largely in supporting or minor roles. Occasionally she played more substantial parts as in Hard Steel and They Flew Alone.
Theatre Royal, aka Lilli Palmer Theatre is an Anglo/American half-hour television anthology series hosted by Lilli Palmer. It was the first ITV play series; and was first transmitted on 25 September 1955, with the televised Dickens episode, Bardell v Pickwick. Thirty-four episodes aired in the UK on ATV London in 1955–56. Fourteen episodes aired in the US from 1955–56.
ITV Play of the Week is a 90-minute UK television anthology series produced by a variety of companies including Granada Television, Associated-Rediffusion, ATV and Anglia Television. From 1956 to 1966 approximately 500 episodes aired on ITV. The first production was Ten Minute Alibi, produced by Associated-Rediffusion on 14 May 1956 while the earliest to survive is There Was a Young Lady, transmitted on 23 July 1956 and was telerecorded. The first production not to be transmitted live was Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck which was also film recorded. The first to be pre-recorded on videotape was Mary Broome, a Granada production broadcast on 3 September 1958. Subsequently, only one play was transmitted live, Associated-Rediffusion's Search Party on 26 July 1960. The recording of The Liberty Man, a Granada production broadcast on 1 October 1958, contains the original advertisements during the first commercial break. The Violent Years was networked from Anglia on its opening night, 27 October 1959, and exists at the University of East Anglia.
Afternoon of a Nymph is an episode of the British Armchair Theatre series made by the ITV franchise holder ABC Television and first broadcast by the ITV network on 30 September 1962. It was written by Robert Muller and features Janet Munro and Ian Hendry in the lead roles. It was directed by Philip Saville and produced by Sydney Newman.