The sad fate of single television plays

One of the odd things about trying to evaluate the professional work of a writer, director, or performer, is gaining access to and having the ability to evaluate, ‘single-shot’ plays made for television alongside the ‘TV movie’ or the film made for the cinema.

I find it odd that plays as diverse and exciting as ‘Penda’s Fen’, ‘Abigail’s Party’, ‘Son of Man’, ‘King’s Cross – Lunch Hour’ in the UK, or ‘Marty’, ‘Bang the Drum Slowly’ or ‘Twelve Angry Men’ in the US, are dismissed by many film sites as simply ‘television episodes’.  The IMDb is largely to blame for this, classing a single play which went out under the ‘Play for Today’ banner in the same breath as an episode of ‘Friends’ or ‘Crossroads’.

I joined Letterboxd as it seemed to present a way of evaluating the output from every media together – however the single-shot plays, now they are linked to The Movie Database, seem to be lost in a black hole which depends on what IMDb says as gospel.  No matter than we might these days know ‘The Merchant of Venice’ from its inclusion in the ‘Maggie Smith at the BBC’ set rather than as a title transmitted on TV as a ‘Play of the Month’, or that titles as important as Potter’s ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’ cannot be presented in a unified way alongside his scripts for the cinema like ‘Midnight Movie’ or ‘Track 29’ (although we can consider his miniseries alongside the titles for cinema).

This injustice (so it seems) had led me to work on review and evaluation of individual plays in series such as ‘Armchair Theatre’, ‘The Wednesday Play’, ‘Performance’, ‘Thirty Minute Theatre’, ‘Screen One’, or ‘ITV Playhouse’ (in the UK) or ‘Four Star Playhouse’ or ‘Westinghouse Studio One’ (in the UK).  A few examples spring to mind where a comparative evaluation on a platform such as Letterboxd would be advantageous – the ‘Play for Today’ entry for ’84 Charing Cross Road’ might be looked at alongside the cinema version; the live TV versions of ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight’ or ‘1984’ might be compared with later versions of the same story; examples of the direction of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, Ken Russell and Ted Kotcheff, might be presented as a whole canon along with their more mature work.

What of directors, writers, and performers, who come back to television after cinema success?  Excluding the single play from consideration does not allow a proper trajectory through their careers, simply because those plays were originally collated under one banner.  The growth of DVD releases and/or TV repeats have detached many of these titles from their series titles – who thinks of ‘The Flipside of Dominick Hide’ or ‘Z for Zachariah’ as simply episodes of a TV series today?  Some titles are the only time a play or book has been filmed, or the solo representation of a particular performer’s work, and they deserve to be given the same consideration as any low-budget TV movie for the Hallmark channel!

I think that the enforced distinction on the IMDb and other services between television plays on the one hand, and TV miniseries, TV films, and pure cinematic releases on the other, is both ridiculous, and rather sad.  It keeps these productions hidden, and many are exceptional and do not deserve that fate.  It stops the proper critical evaluation of work on video or film, by removing key aspects of many careers from wide consideration.  And finally, it keeps these titles hidden and largely unknown, with the exception of a handful of titles.

NaBloPoMo November 2013