Prizes for playwrights, contracts for players

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ABC’s competition for top talent in the theatre

Cover of TVTimes
From the TVTimes for week commencing 19 January 1958

LET’S start with an indisputable fact. The play, be it live, filmed or telerecorded, is among the most popular items on the television agenda.

Let’s take the second fact, deemed indisputable by many an expert — that with ITV’s expansion and the increase in transmission hours, the supply of first-rate TV drama must eventually dry up.

That’s why the situation isn’t being left to look after itself. All the programme companies are on the look-out for new writers of talent and promise. And one of the biggest pieces of bait to tempt professional writers to write especially for television comes from ABC TV.

They announce a competition for plays, promise big money prizes for three winning plays, production, if the standard of the work is high enough, and possible contracts for some of the entrants.

There is no shortage of submitted plays. Something like 150 arrive at ABC TV every week. Mainly they are the work of enthusiastic amateurs. Drama Supervisor Dennis Vance admits:

“Many of them are unreadable. Then we get oldies that have been going the rounds for years — some I recognise from my BBC days. Not more than 20 a week come from professional writers. Not more than 10 a week are good enough to be read by me.”

Read by Vance — that means good enough to get through a couple of readings by the script department, for Vance could never cope with all the scripts, and supervise the non-stop activities of the drama department. And produce plays himself.

Drama is Vance’s life blood. And it’s the speciality of the company he works for. They want writers; they have signed producers — “Best production team in the country,” claims Vance. They are building a stable of young actors, and they have planned a big programme for the “Armchair Theatre” series in the near future.

Ann Todd is to star in The Lady of the Camellias in February. The same month Eugene O’Neill’s classic, Emperor Jones, with an all-coloured cast, vies with offerings from Italy, A Gust of Wind by Forzano, and Australia, The Night of the Ding Dong by Ralph Peterson, for Sunday night attention.

Raymond Massey comes from America in March to star in his own play, The Hanging Judge. The She-Wolves, by French authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (of The Fiends fame), is down for production the same month.

Beautiful American Kim Stanley arrived in London a few weeks back, to star in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She made her name with a TV play written by Horton Foote, The Travelling Lady. And it’s that “namemaker” that ABC have offered her for her first TV appearance in England.

But before we get to these, on January 26 there’s Tragedy in a Temporary Town, which was written by Reginald Rose and stars Janet Munro. Rose, like his contemporary Paddy Chayevsky, made headlines when his TV plays were turned into film hits, so any new play by him is something of an event.

The use of young players like Janet Munro is part and parcel of Vance’s starbuilding policy. So is the offer of exclusive contracts to a selected few artists.

Blonde, lovely Mary Peach, who has the female lead in The Master Builder on Sunday (January 19) got the first. Canadian Neil McCallum the second. Four more are still unclaimed, waiting for the right artists.

What qualities are needed? “Personal magnetism that is transmittable; talent; pleasant and attractive appearance,” says Vance. For them, as for McCallum and Peach, there will be seven-year contracts; plays especially written; release for stage and film work that ABC believes will further their careers and which they wish to do.

The reason for the offer? The company wishes to ensure a supply of stars, as well as new plays — which leads right back to the competition.

Plays may be submitted by any professional writer — with the emphasis on the word professional — who has not yet had work produced on TV. A short list will be prepared for a panel consisting of critics, a famous TV playwright and a leading TV actor and actress, from which the winning three entries will be chosen.

The settings must be contemporary, certainly not straying before the post-war period. And what is being sought is not necessarily a man with a good TV technique but one who can produce a good story.

“If we find the right writers,” Vance adds a parting titbit, “we would be prepared to offer five-year contracts for a play a year.”

About the author

Eric Linden wrote for the TVTimes

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