Armchair Theatre: an appreciation

Archive television fans have been rejoicing over the past few weeks with reruns of some of the Thames episodes of Armchair Theatre on Talking Pictures TV.

Armchair Theatre was a series which ran on the ITV network between 1956 and 1974. It was originally a production of ABC (Associated British Corporation) until its successor Thames Television took over in mid-1968.

Network on Air have released several volumes on DVD, beginning in 2010 with a two-disc set of Thames episodes and then in 2012 with another two-disc set. Since later in 2012, subsequent releases have been purely of ABC episodes, licensed to the company by Studio Canal, and have so far numbered two four-disc releases in the general range, and four Armchair Theatre Archive releases of one-disc each.

Armchair Theatre title card, ABC years

There are approximately 170 episodes which have survived the widespread wiping of video tapes in the past, from a total of around 450. As well as official releases a number continue to circulate on the collectors’ market either as DVD-Rs or uploads to streaming sites.

Made during a time when plays were regular fare on television (The Wednesday Play/Play for Today, Theatre 625, Thirty Minute Theatre, Play of the Month, Play of the Week, ITV Playhouse, and others), Armchair Theatre stands out as a groundbreaking training ground for writers and directors finding their feet as well as stand-out performances from a wide range of actors, both veteran and new faces.

Although some actors rated performing on the stage over the new medium of television in the 1950s, writers were far more pragmatic, with Harold Pinter as one who recognised that an at-home audience of just over 6 million for A Night Out (1960) was far more lucrative than a theatre audience for The Caretaker, which was running at the same time.

I’ve started putting my thoughts together on the various episodes on the associated Armchair Theatre review project page here, and eventually all the episodes I have seen will have capsule reviews. Not every episode is a winner, but the standard, at least in the ABC years, seems consistently high, especially in the years where Sydney Newman was in charge (1959-1962).

There were spin-off series (Armchair Mystery Theatre), later Thames series using the same prefix but little in common (the group of TV movies under the title Armchair Cinema and the serial thrillers under the name of Armchair Thriller), and even a parody on radio in Round the Horne’s Armpit Theatre. The titles gave a sense of occasion, too, whether theatre masks or something more abstract, and in an era of two TV channels at the start of the series, Armchair Theatre could guarantee a captive audience, as well as giving the new upstart ITV a bit of class.

In the early days plays were performed live, and were a mix of new drama, titles imported from the USA, and adaptations of well-loved classics (The Emperor Jones, The Importance of Being Earnest). Later the plays were more or less original, and if a slight dip in quality occurred in the later Thames years, it coincided with what many archive TV fans class as the end of the golden era of the television play.

Check out the official Armchair Theatre releases from Network.

Twitter announcement from Talking Pictures TV about their showings of Armchair Theatre.

Purchase Armchair Theatre: The Lost Years by Leonard White, who produced the series between 1965 and 1969.

Purchase Anatomy of a television play: an inquiry into the production of two ABC Armchair Theatre plays by John Russell Taylor.

Purchase The Armchair Theatre: how to write, design, direct, act, enjoy television plays (1960).

2 thoughts on “Armchair Theatre: an appreciation

  1. A Night Out was seen by 6,368,0000 households, so well over six million viewers – 14 million by the usual rubric. A mistake frequently made about British television ratings, even by broadcasting historians.

    Two further Armchair Theatre plays are available on other DVD releases – A Magnum for Schneider on the first volume of Callan and The Hothouse on one of the volumes of The Avengers.

    1. Thanks Billy. I have that Avengers release so should have noted it! And of course I must note your contribution to the AT Archive releases (I hope there will be more!).

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