|Country of origin||United Kingdom|
|No. of episodes||457|
|Producer(s)||ABC Television, later
|Original run||1956 – 1974|
|Related shows||Armchair Mystery Theatre
Out of This World
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 Associated British Corporation, and later by Thames Television 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 would be the most common form, though this was not be immediately apparent. It was launched by Howard Thomas, head of ABC at the time, who argued that "[t]elevision 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 series' first two years, and the early years drew heavily on North American sources including the first play, The Outsider, a medical drama adapted from a stage play by Dorothy Brandon, which was transmitted live on 8 July 1956 from ABC's northern studios in Didsbury, Manchester. 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. While Underground was being broadcast a key actor suddenly collapsed and died. 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 the 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. His 1958 stage play Hot Summer Night (1 February 1959) was adapted to shift its focus from an unhappy marriage of parents in the play onto their daughter's mixed relationship with a Jamaican man and the potential problems their possible marriage might face. It was one of the earliest British television plays to have "race" as a theme.
It was a script editor Peter Luke who first became aware of writers Clive Exton, who contributed eight plays for the series, Alun Owen (No Trams to Lime Street, 18 October 1959) and Harold Pinter (A Night Out, 24 April 1960.) Owen's play was the first of his 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 often high by the standards of the time, the programme benefitted from following the variety based Sunday Night at the London Palladium, but not always. Even so, Pinter once estimated that his stage play The Caretaker, enjoying its first run at the time, would have be performed for thirty years before matching A Night Out's audience of 6,380,000.
The German Jewish dramatist Robert Muller, who had arrived as a refuge to Britain in 1938, contributed seven plays to the series, three being transmitted in 1962 and directed by Philip Saville, who worked on more than forty episodes. Muller's wife in his later years, the actress Billie Whitelaw, made a number of appearances in the series.
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, and in Armchair Theatre'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, it was ABC's Howard Thomas, who had originally feared 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." 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.
Spin-offs and influence
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 the John Wyndham 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 hugely popular spy series Callan.
After the 1968 ITV franchise changes and ABC's metamorphosis into Thames, the programme continued until 1974. Hugely popular at its peak, with audiences occasionally touching an astounding twenty million, Armchair Theatre was an important influence over later programmes such as the BBC's The Wednesday Play (1964–70), a programme initiated by Sydney Newman after he had moved to the BBC. Later Thames productions such as Armchair Cinema, effectively a series of TV movies, and Armchair Thriller (1978-80) name-checked the earlier series.
Overall, 457 plays were made and broadcast under the Armchair... banner from 1956 to 1980. As with much early British television, not all of the plays from the original ABC series survive in the archives, due either to live plays not being recorded or recordings being destroyed.
R2 DVD releases
A DVD boxset featuring eight colour episodes from 1970 to 1973 was released by NetworkDVD in January 2010. It contained the following episodes:
- Say Goodnight to Your Grandma
- Office Party
- BBrown Skin Gal, Stay Home and Mind Bay-Bee
- Detective Waiting
- Will Amelia Quint Continue Writing 'A Gnome Called Shorthouse'?
- The Folk Singer
- A Bit of a Lift
- Red Riding Hood
Volume 2 appeared in 2012 of another eight colour episodes.
- Wednesday's Child
- The Left Overs
- High Summer
- The Creditors
- The Death of Glory
- The Square of Three
- According to the Rules
Volume 3 contained:
- Now Let Him Go
- The Criminals
- A Night Out
- Lena, O My Lena
- The Man out There
- The Omega Mystery
- Tune On The Old Tax Fiddle
- Afternoon of a Nymph
- The Snag
- Living Image
- Poor Cherry
- Old Man’s Fancy
Volume 4 contained:
- The Empreror Jones
- The Greatest Man in the World
- The Scent of Fear
- After the Show
- Lord Arthur Savile's Crime
- The Trouble with our Ivy
- The Hard Knock
- The Paradise Suite
- Long Past Glory
- The Importance of Being Earnest
- I Took my Little World Away
- The Night before the Morning After
Armchair Cinema, which included the pilot of the police series The Sweeney ("Regan") in its run, appeared on DVD (Network) in Autumn 2009.
- Armchair Theatre at the Internet Movie Database
- White, p. 33.
- "The Aimchair Theatre Effect", Teletronic website.
- Cited by George W. Brandt British Television Drama, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, p. 24.
- This work had inspired two British films of 1931 and 1939 and an earlier American film in 1926.
- Leonard White Armchair Theatre: The Lost Years, Tiverton: Kelly Publications, 2003, p. 25.
- Mark Duguid "Armchair Theatre (1956-74)", BFI screenonline.
- Laura Pearson "Emperor Jones (1958)", BFI screenonline.
- "Sydney Newman", Museum of Broadcast Communications website.
- "Teddimgton Studios" (history", The Twickenham Museum website.
- Cited in the article "Armchair Theatre", Television Heaven.
- Newman specifically cited Osborne's work, see the citation from the Daily Express of 5 January 1963 in the Museum of Broadcasting article.
- Oliver Wake "Hot Summer Night (1959)", BFI screenonline.
- Adam Benedick & Sydney Newman Obituary: Peter Luke, The Independent, 26 January 1995.
- Mark Duguid "Lena, O My Lena (1960)" BFI screenonline
- Mark Duguid "Night Out, A (1960)", BFI screenonline.
- Cited by George W. Brandt British television drama, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 1.
- Tise Vahimagi "Muller, Robert (1925-1998)", BFI screenonline.
- Mark Duguid "Afternoon of a Nymph (1962)", BFI screenonline.
- Oliver Wake "Philip Saville: biographical essay", University of Hull website.
- Obituary: Clive Exton, The Times, 22 August 2007.
- Mark Duguid "Trial of Dr Fancy, The (1964)", BFI screenonline; Anthony Hayward in his obituary of Exton, published in The Independent (18 August 2007), inaccurately places the blame on the ITA rather than the programme's production company.
- Dennis Barker Obituary: Clive Exton, The Guardian, 21 August 2007.
- White, p. 255.
- Mark Duguid "Magnum for Schneider, A (1967)", BFI screenonline.
- Round The Horne Subsite.
- Theatre 625
- The Wednesday Play
- ITV Playhouse
- Play for Today
- Second City Firsts
- Thirty-Minute Theatre