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Saturday Night Theatre History
Probably the best-remembered and most often privately-recorded of all BBC Radio Drama series, largely because of its timing and the sheer variety of the plays which appeared. Saturday Night Theatre was launched on The Home Service on 3 April, 1943, and in the March 26 issue of “Radio Times”, the then BBC Director of Drama, Val Gielgud introduced the new series as follows :-

“To the writer of this article, no report from the BBC’s Listener Research was more gratifying than that which stated that, during the last year, the popularity of the radio play has increased by 11%. It has sometimes been made a matter of reproach to the Drama Department that while the “minority” (sometimes miscalled “highbrow”) audience for radio drama is well catered for, the average listener, who is just interested in plays as well as in other things, receives less generous treatment. Having regard to these two facts, it is now planned to establish a fixed programme period on Saturday nights, following shortly upon the News, which shall be given up to the production of what may loosely be termed ‘popular theatre’. Plays will be chosen for production during this period strictly on a basis of the type of good popular entertainment value associated in the minds of Mr. & Mrs. Everyman with the general idea of Saturday night.

Such plays will not by any means be confined within the bounds of adaptations from the stage. Adaptations from popular short stories, from films and from novels, as well as original radio plays, will all find their place, and, as a rule, a new production and a popular revival will alternate week by week. ‘Saturday Night Theatre’ will open next Saturday with an adaptation of one of the short stories of Dorothy L. Sayers : ‘The Man With No Face’, to be followed next week by a new play written for broadcasting by Lionel Brown, called ‘Great Uncle Upton’ – a thriller dealing with the most contemporary of rackets. Soon after comes a revival of the first three ‘Ashenden’ stories by Somerset Maugham, which I feel sure many listeners will be glad to take the opportunity of hearing again, with, I hope, Ronald Squire as Ashenden.

The work of Edgar Wallace will naturally find prominent representation in this series. Hugh Stewart’s adaptation of ‘The Man Who Changed His Name’ will be broadcast for the first time, and ‘The Squeaker’, ‘The Case Of The Frightened Lady’, ‘The Calendar’ and ‘The Ringer’ will all in due course be revived. Other titles which intending listeners may care to make a note are two new plays specially written by Peter Cheyney : ‘Parisienne Ghost’ and ‘The Perfumed Murder’, revivals of Monckton Hoffe’s ‘Grim Fairy Tale’ and Norman Edwards’s ‘Consider Your Verdict’, plus adaptations of the successful British film ‘The Lady Vanishes’ and of two novels – Anstey’s ‘The Brass Bottle’ and A.E.W. Mason’s ‘The House Of The Arrow’.

This list will carry ‘Saturday Night Theatre’ to the end of July, and in the event of its popularity being well and truly established, it is hoped to find an equally or more attractive list with which to carry on to the autumn.”

For those of us who lament the passing of the 90-minute play (apart from those on Radio 3 and the occasional carrot on Radio 4, usually on Bank Holiday Mondays), I should point out that none of the early offerings ran for more than an hour. Saturday Night Theatre was replaced as from 7 August, 1943, by a miscellany of shorter plays broadcast fairly late in the evening, 11 and 18 September for instance being given over to the first two plays in the “Appointment With Fear” series – ‘Cabin B.13’ and ‘The Pit & The Pendulum’.

Saturday Night Theatre reappeared as from 25 September, 1943, with the same starting time, 9.35 p.m., and a few items were extended to 75 minutes, whilst, on 16 October, Shaw’s “Candida” ran for 110 minutes. Play lengths were extended generally to 75 minutes in early 1944 and to about 85 when the starting time was brought forward to 9.20 p.m. as from early July, 1945, and this was adhered to, with occasional exceptions, until mid-January, 1949, when it became 9.15. It was then that the so-called “90-minute play” became standard practice, but, in practice, most ran for between 86 and 88 minutes. Audience figures reached an average of over 12 million (yes, this is not a misprint) in the late 1940s, declining steadily to less than one million by the end of the 1960s, when the influence of TV had become so marked.

Despite this, the popularity of the series must be gauged by the fact that it ran for nearly 55 years, but the concept of the regular 90-minute play was abandoned at the end of June, 1996; it is quite likely that financial pressures had something to do with this. The arguments have been adduced that “people” were unable to concentrate for up to an hour and a half – there’s no doubt that attention spans have been drastically shortened by the sheer volume and variety of both TV and radio channels, and by other distractions, but a well-crafted and well-acted play can still grab hold – so much so in one case that I would have been a real danger to myself and other road users had I continued to drive and listen!

I suspect that most readers will remember Saturday Night Theatre as starting at 8.30 p.m. running through until the 10 o’clock news. The “old” 9.15 start time was abandoned as from 24 September, 1960, and an 8.30 start continued until the end of March, 1986, when it was brought forward to 7 p.m., then altered to 7.45 p.m. as from 31 October, 1987, where it stayed until 22.9.1990. There was then a gap of over 2 years before Saturday Night Theatre was resurrected early in January, 1993, with a 7.50 p.m. kick-off. The final 90-minute play was aired on 29 June, 1996. There were occasions when Saturday Night Theatre was extended to 2 hours – e.g. the well-known adaptation of “The Cruel Sea” on 27.9.1980, and, exceptionally, 2½ hours in the case of Roy Clarke’s thriller “The Events at Black Tor” on 23 August in the same year. Incidentally, this had originally been aired as a 6-part serial on Radio 2 back in 1968, when such items appeared quite frequently. Stereo broadcasts on R4 of Saturday Night Theatre plays started late in 1973, but were spasmodic, and it was not until many years later that the material was recorded and broadcast in stereo week in, week out.

As to the roll-call of actors/actresses who have appeared over the years, one would need huge quantities of paper to provide a schedule. The long-defunct BBC Drama Repertory Company provided the backbone of the casts for most plays during what many regard as a ‘Golden Age’, but, on occasion, an external Repertory Company was used. Similarly, the list of authors is extensive : in some cases, very well-known, whereas others have been, shall we say, “one-hit wonders”. The list of Producers/Adapters is shorter, but names such as Martyn C. Webster, Howard Rose, Cynthia Pughe, Desmond Hawkins, Raymond Raikes, Archie Campbell, H.B. Fortuin, R.D. Smith, Val Gielgud, Audrey Cameron, Norman Wright, Betty Davies and Martin Jenkins will ring bells. As will those, more recently, of Alfred Bradley, Brian Miller, David Spenser, Glyn Dearman, Shaun MacLoughlin, Richard Wortley, John Cardy and Patrick Rayner.

Overall, Saturday Night Theatre represents an exceptionally valuable cross-section of the arts of acting, adaptation, production and writing for radio covering a period when radio drama was finding its feet, through to its full maturity and (some may say) its decline in the face of severe competition. Up until about mid-1988, BBC Sound Archives’ records show that 235 plays in the series had been officially archived, out of 2,300 or so which had been broadcast. Looked at another way, 90% of Saturday Night Theatre output had not been.

One could be very critical of this. However, in 2007, recording and archiving of both radio and TV material is both easy and cheap, and the cost, space and weight of keeping, for instance, one complete day’s output from a single channel, is minute, when compared with even 15 years ago, and infinitesimal when measured against the same parameters in the mid-1960s. In those days, quarter-inch tape was the principal medium, and, at even the lower preferred 7.5” per second recording speed, a 2400 ft 10½” spool, half-track monaural, would hold only a shade over 2 hours’ output. Weight just over 1 kg., cost in today’s money probably £30.00, so it is easy to see why so little could be retained, and why tape was re-used so often.

Of the plays which were archived, the vast majority are either by established authors and/or cover the more serious subject matter : lighter drama, such as thrillers, are poorly represented unless by very well-known writers. Yet, it is output of this genre which the general public probably remembers with affection, and which is far more likely to have been recorded by collectors.

Roger Bickerton March 2007


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