I haven’t seen much mention about BBC TV’s Writers Pool, although it was possibly significant in the area of its drama's production of socially committed writing like Cathy Come Home, and the Wednesday play, the sort of writing that’s completely missing from TV drama today. I was invited to join it in 1962. There were about 20 plus script writers in the operation. They split between the leather patched elbows of the older pipe smokers in tweed, and the young blood Left Wingers – John McGrath, Roger Smith, Fred Watson, my brother Troy, myself, plus some fence sitters like John Hopkins (I never understood his politics). We had two roles. All drama at that time was live, and we could be summonsed from our offices in the new TV Centre to freezing rehearsal rooms to write extra minutes there and then for any drama that was under running after its timing at the dress rehearsal. So I’d write extra scenes and dialogue, the actors would learn them on the spot, and within hours it was in peoples livingrooms. There was a lesson to be learned about the non-preciousness of a script writer’s role. As a story editor later, I was to hear from writers who had not had the benefit of this experience, ‘if you cut those lines and add those lines, you have destroyed my script…’. Oh yeah? Our second role was to adapt for TV, stage plays, books, dropped on our desks. It was a time when books and stage plays were thought the best source for TV drama, an idea that lasted a good few years. For all this we were paid pitifully, but there was a carrot with the stick. This period marked the beginning of the TV continuing series, Dixon was established as well as Dr Finlay’s Casebook. So we could do some moonlighting being commissioned and paid to write these scripts. Soon a memo came around saying that no pool writer ‘should be seen to earn more than the Director General’ (he was probably on about 40,000 – those were the days before BBC managers expected to become millionaires every 36 months from our licence fees.)
We were all on short-term contracts. One of us decided that if this was the kind of faith they put in us, then a monthly ‘salary’ for this type of contract was unacceptable, and we must be paid in cash at the end of every week. So the pool writers ended up on Friday in line with the commissionaires and the kitchen staff etc. collecting our envelopes. Meanwhile, certainly two of our young writers had connections to the magazine The Black Dwarf. God knows what the MI5 officer who had a permanent office at telly centre made of some of us.
One remembered highlight. I adapted a three hander stage play. The cast was Patrick McGoohan, Alan Badel and Warren Mitchell. Director Alan Cook said quietly to me as he watched the three try to upstage and out-manoeuvre each other to steal the play, ‘Who do you think will win?’. I thought Patrick McGoohan. He thought Alan Badel. Warren Mitchell, with the smallest part, walked off with it.
Sydney Newman arrived as the new Head of Drama. He fired the writing pool. He instituted an American idea, ‘story supervisors’, a.k.a ‘story editors’. By a deal with the Screenwriters Guild, a BBC story editor had to have three script writing credits, so that when he was chaperoning another writer's script to production he might know what he was talking about. Not today. An American guru’s three day course and a current 'story editor' knows everything about script writing. These new ‘script writers’ have turned good writers away from writing for television.
There have been some references about a deep intellectual debate concerning the future of TV drama and naturalism happening in the Writers Pool. My memories are of a lot of drinking in the BBC Centre bar, and talk about foreign films in the Academy, Oxford Street. I think the key influences on evolving dramas were the meta-fiction aspect of de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and the Nouvelle Vague’s productions such as Jules et Jim (1961).