Armchair Theatre is an anthology series of one-off plays that aired on the ITV network between 1956 and 1974. A total of 426 episodes were produced over 19 series. The series was initially produced by ABC Weekend TV until 1968, and subsequently by Thames Television from 1969 onwards. The programme also had several spin-off series including Armchair Mystery Theatre, Out of This World, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Thriller.
Due to the archival policies of television at the time, a total of 258 episodes are missing from the archives. Although the first series has no surviving episodes to date, the survival rate of episodes increases from Series 2 onwards. A total of 104 monochrome episodes survive as 16mm telerecordings, 18 episodes exist as 405-line 2-inch videotape conversions and a further episode "Exit Joe - Running" exists in incomplete form. From Series 15 onwards when the show started colour production, all episodes exist in the archives.
The first series was produced by Dennis Vance, who had a preference for using classical material from plays and novels written by the likes of Dorothy Brandon, Guy de Maupassant, Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James respectively. The series was transmitted live from ABC's Manchester studios in Didsbury. Currently none of the episodes from this series are known to survive in the archives. The series was aired on Sundays, which would continue to be the standard until the end of Series 10 in 1966.
Currently the earliest series with surviving episodes that are extant in the archives. This series was the first to be produced by Sydney Newman, who took over as Head of Drama at ABC midway during the series from Vance, whom was promoted to a senior position in the company. Due to the live format of the series at the time, several episodes were pulled from transmission owing to technical failure or problems with the cast and crew. The broadcast of "The Shining Hour" was delayed by a week due to a faulty camera crane which could not be repaired in time, and the planned transmission of "Trial By Candlelight" was cancelled owing to the untimely illness of actress Freda Jackson, the production was subsequently remounted and tele-recorded for later transmission. The final episode that would have concluded the series "The House of Bernarda Alba" had to be pulled from transmission, after director Ted Kotcheff fell ill immediately prior to the live broadcast.
The first full series to be produced by Newman, whom pushed for more original material, that led to commissioning teleplays from the likes of Malcolm Hulke, Tad Mosel, Mordecai Richler and John Glennon respectively. This in turn helped boost the series popularity, and by June 1959 when the current series ended, it was consistently in the top ten of audience ratings, with figures regularly exceeding 12 million viewers for 32 out of the 37 weeks the series was broadcast. As the programme was still broadcast live, production issues continued to occur; notably during the live broadcast of "Underground" on 30 November 1958, when actor Gareth Jones collapsed and died from a heart attack in between his two scenes. Newman instructed director Ted Kotcheff to continue the play and instruct the actors to improvise, as a way of avoiding the missing character from being noticed by the audience. This series also happens to have the highest number of episodes, with 52 editions broadcast between September 1958 - September 1959.
Production of the series moved Teddington Studios during the summer of 1959, which allowed production to be pre-recorded on videotape. With the emergence of the Angry Young Men movement at the time, Newman sought to capitalise on this and commission original plays from writers within the group, including Clive Exton, Harold Pinter and Alun Owen. The series shifted its focus to showing more realist material that focussed on the lives of the working classes, in contrast to the adaptions of high-brow classical material of earlier series. Two further episodes were pulled from transmission. "Three on a Gas Ring", a drama about a single mother who shows no remorse for her situation was banned by the ITA due to its subject matter, whilst "Two on a Tightrope" which was originally recorded in 1958, was scheduled for transmission on three different occasions, including the 22/6/1958, 3/1/1960 and 22/5/1960 before being dropped from the transmission schedule permanently.
This series had the longest run of any season, running for 15 months in total, although some episodes later on in the run were broadcast in fortnightly intervals, as opposed to its traditional weekly format. One of the notable plays of the series was "Lena, O My Lena" by Alun Owen, which concluded the trilogy of plays about working class life in Northern England that he began in the previous series, "No Trains to Lime Street" and "After the Funeral". The three plays were critically acclaimed, and subsequently Owen won the Directors Merit Award.
Following a hiatus of four months, the series returned to transmission in May 1962, with the episodes initially broadcast weekly, while the last three episode were broadcast fortnightly, there was also a brief mid-season break during August. At 11 episodes long, this was the shortest run during Newman's tenure, although a further episode "The Trial of Dr. Fancy" was taped but pulled from transmission by the ITA as they feared the play would cause offence, it was subsequently transmitted at the start of Series 8 in 1964. Robert Muller contributed two plays that series, including "Night Conspirators" and "Afternoon of a Nymph". The later being a stinging exposé of the underbelly of the entertainment industry. Muller would go onto write five more plays for the programme during the course of the decade. The kitchen sink element was gradually dropped from the series, after Newman announced "no more plays about 'kitchen sinks', unless they are brilliant", although realist plays continued to be commissioned, they became more infrequent.
This series was the last for Newman as producer, who would depart from ABC when his contract expired in December 1962 to take on the position of Head of Drama at the BBC. He was succeeded by Leonard White who took over as producer mid-way during the series run starting with "Into the Dark", White had acted in a couple of plays in earlier series, and had produced the spin-off shows including Out of This World and Armchair Mystery Theatre, along with the first two series of The Avengers. He would go onto to have the longest run as producer, staying on until Series 14 in 1969.
The first full series with Leonard White as producer, although his work as producer is often overlooked by his predecessor Newman's legacy, he continued to commission and produce notable plays for the series Although 22 episodes were transmitted, two further episodes "The Bandstand" and "The Blood Knot" were also produced but dropped from transmission due to scheduling issues, although the latter play's subject matter about apartheid may have been a factor towards its cancellation. White continued to his predecessor's work, by commissioning plays from upcoming writers, including John Hopkins, Andrew Sinclair and Len Deighton respectively
This series continued its shift away from the social realist themes of earlier seasons, with plots focussing more on fantasy and horror, such as "The Trial of Dr. Fancy" by Clive Exton which is a surrealist satirical courtroom drama about a Doctor (John Lee) who is accused of performing bizarre medical procedures which was notably held back from transmission for two years over its content, and "The Hothouse" by Donald Churchill, about a supermarket tycoon Harry Fender (Harry H. Corbett) whom has become increasingly obsessed with growing exotic plants within his house and turns his property into a hothouse. Notably, this story, along with "The Man Who Came to Die" by Reginald Marsh, marked a rare instance where the writer of the episode, also played a principal role within the cast. This series was met with stiff competition from the BBC's The Wednesday Play which began transmission in October 1964, which was produced by White's predecessor Sydney Newman, and would go onto have a greater impact than Newman's former show. Two further episodes were produced but pulled from tranmission, "Unexpected Summer" and "Old Man's Fancy" were cancelled due to scheduling issues.
This series broadcast into two blocks with a mid-series break between January - March 1966. The series continued to explore a variety of themes, including "The Gong Game" by Michael Herald, which casts Leslie Phillips as Clive Breeze, an ex-RAF veteran who faces a prison sentence after stealing money to help fund his daughter's school tuition fees. White continued to commission plays from upcoming writers including Jack Rosenthal who contributed the story "The Night Before the Morning After" which deals with the self doubts of a prospective Bride and Groom on the night before their wedding. This series also has the highest archival rate for the show during the ABC Era, with only 4 episodes out of a total of 14, that are missing from the archives. This was also the last series to be transmitted on Sundays.
Like the previous series, this series was also split into two blocks with a mid series break occurring between October 1966 - January 1967. The series was also notable for featuring the pilots for two successful series Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width and Callan, the latter was initially titled as "A Magnum for Schneider". The plot for the episode was later reworked into the feature film version, along with writer James Mitchell's novelisation of the story. The transmission day for this series was switched to Saturdays, and would continue until Series 13 when ABC lost their weekend franchise following the ITV franchise review.
This series continued attract writers of calibre to produce noteworthy plays including Terrence Frisby, Emanuel Litvinoff, Fay Weldon and Richard Harris respectively. "Poor Cherry" by Weldon, was unusual for the series as it was written by a female writer, the story focusses on Cherry (Dilys Laye) whose troubled marriage to Brian (John Wood) is further strained when she has an affair with Philip Rick (Peter Arne) a candidate at a by-election campaign, in which she's involved in. Shortly before the first episode of this series aired, it was announced following the ITV franchise review in June 1967, ABC would lose their weekend franchise and be forced to merge and form a joint company with Rediffusion, which would be called Thames Television, that would begin transmissions the following year.
The final series to air before ABC merged with Rediffusion to form Thames Television on the 30th July 1968, it was also the last series to be shown on Saturdays since the weekend franchise would soon by taken over by London Weekend Television. This series was notable for a number of plays, including "Mrs. Capper's Birthday" which was adapted from a play by Noël Coward, and "The Ballad of Artificial Mash" which aired during ABC Television's final weekend before its handover to Thames. A large number of episodes from this series are missing, with only 4 episodes known to exist in the archives.
The first series to air following the franchise merger that formed Thames Television the previous July; it was the last series to be produced by Leonard White and also the final one to be produced and transmitted in monochrome. Following the show's acquisition by Thames, it was no longer aired on Saturday and was moved to a weekday slot instead. Due to the policy of wiping at the time, many episodes from this series were junked, and only one episode "Edward the Confessor" is known to exist in the archives. A further 4 episodes were written for this series but were not taped.
This was the first series to be produced and transmitted in colour, following the commencement of colour tranmissions on both ITV and the BBC on the 15th November 1969. John Kershaw took over as producer along with Lloyd Shirley as executive producer, whom would continue in that role for the remainder of the show's run. Notable plays from the "Say Goodnight to by Colin Welland which deals with the cross-generational differences in a Northern family, the play subsequently won Welland a BAFTA award for Best TV Screenplay in 1971, and "Wednesday's Child" by John Marshall, which was a prequel to the Public Eye episode "My Life's My Own" (1969). From this series onwards, all episodes exist in the archives.
This series was noteworthy for several plays, including "Detective Waiting" by Ian Kennedy Martin, that deals with a young CID officer Lewis (Richard Beckinsale) who tries to prove himself by cracking an unsolved case, an early example of the gritty realist police dramas that Kennedy Martin would later specialise in, such as The Sweeney, Juliet Bravo and The Chinese Detective. "Office Party" by Fay Weldon, which delves into the retirement party of a bank manager Mr. Moore (George A. Cooper) who becomes aware of rapidly changing world around him, and "Will Amelia Quint Continue Writing 'A Gnome Called Shorthouse'?" by Roy Clarke, a comedy drama about a semi retired novellist Amelia Quint (Beryl Reid) who is attemptedly coaxed from her life in Italy, to write another best-selling novel.
Kim Mills took over as producer for this series, she also directed several plays in earlier and subsequent series. This series was troubled by political controversy when one of the plays "The Folk Singer" by Dominic Behan, ran into a dispute with the ITA with its subject matter, since it was a black comedy about The Troubles in Northen Ireland at the time that delved into both sides of the conflict. The play was eventually transmitted, albeit a later time slot than usual.
For this series, Joan Kemp-Welch took over as producer. At the time, Armchair Theatre was increasingly criticised as being an outdated reminder of its theatrical routes, the style of television drama production had moved on by this time. The series continued to feature innovative plays, including "Red Riding Hood" by John Peacock, a psychological reimagining of the fairy tale that deals with deals with a timid librarian Grace (Rita Tushingham) who finds herself drawn into relationship with Henry (Keith Barron) whom she believes murdered her grandmother. And "A Bit of a Lift" written and starring Donald Churchill, a bedroom farce comedy which stars Churchill as Frank, a henpecked husband whom contemplates suicide at a hotel when he crosses paths with a couple, Alec (Ronald Fraser) and Penelope (Ann Beach) after he accidentally enters their hotel room.
Kim Mills had returned as producer, this series also has the shortest length of the program's entire run with only 4 episodes long . By the time the final series went into production, Thames decided to hand production duties over to Euston Films which had gradually established itself as a production unit that specialised in producing dramas shot entirely on 16mm film, as opposed to the traditional medium of studio based videotape that had been used at the time. The show was subsequently superseded by Armchair Cinema, which began airing in conjunction with the transmission dates of the episodes during this series. The anthology strand would subsequently return as a spin off series Armchair Thriller, which ran for two series produced between 1978 and 1980.
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