BBC Sunday-Night Play: The Chopping Block (October 1960)

The BBC's Sunday-Night Play series ran from 1960–1963, and was the successor to the long-running Sunday Night Theatre (1950–1959). The Chopping Block, written and produced by Vincent Tilsley and directed by Vivian Matalon, aired on 23 October 1960.

I don't know what specific brief the BBC had for the Sunday-Night Play productions, as a new series; whether the intention, in starting afresh with a slight name change, was deliberately to mark a new approach to the production of single plays. Certainly, though, this was a time of transition in UK television drama – both from predominantly live broadcasts to more pre-recorded or filmed productions and, in terms of content, from adaptations to new writing, with an emphasis on realistic treatment of the everyday lives of working people. In the era of the so-called angry young men, television was responding to the same trends that were shaping literature, theatre and film. Late in 1960, I gather that ITV was regarded as leading the charge (with Sydney Newman famously presiding over Armchair Theatre, and Coronation Street just about to start), but The Chopping Block indicates that the BBC was moving in the same direction.

Happily, a copy survives in the BFI archive, and you can see it by way of their research viewing service, though this is not a particularly easy thing to arrange. It's such a shame that access to plays like this is so limited. If you feel inclined to pursue it, though, the play is a real gem. The script is satisfyingly well-structured, the dialogue plausible and engaging, and the direction sympathetic and well-executed. Characters and relationships, rather than plot, are the focus here, and they are sharply observed.

The casting is fantastic, too. Ursula Howells and Glyn Houston are entirely believable as a couple who, on the principle of opposites attracting, could well have been a really happy match if not for the warping effects of bereavement, low self-esteem and money worries building up over the years. Even physically, they contrast to excellent effect, with Howells all tension and sharp angles while Houston is softer and slower-moving. Jacqueline Hill is exactly right as Houston’s colleague, a self-reliant, capable young woman whose hopes and ambitions veer just far enough away from average to make happiness a little elusive. Marion Mathie and Arnold Bell give skilful support as another dysfunctional couple; Mathie in particular hands in an absolutely epic turn in a pivotal scene with Howells that hugely impressed me.

All in all, there is much here to recommend the good judgement of both Tilsley and Matalon. If I had to single out the best thing about the production, though, it would undoubtedly be Howells. She is utterly brilliant. The role of Sarah is a good one anyway, but she finds all sorts of things within it that make the characterization catch fire; little moments where one layer slips away to reveal a glimpse of something else, or bigger transitions when a sudden shift in the stakes of a scene calls for a complete about-face subtly rendered. A lesser performer might easily have slipped into overplaying some of Sarah’s more extreme moments, but Howells never loses her touch and just keeps knocking balls out of the park in scene after scene. She has a fair bit of screen time alone, too, and holds your attention throughout. It is a beautifully controlled, powerful performance.

The rest of the article is missing, alongside a picture featuring Glyn Houston, Ursula Howells and Jacqueline Hill.

One day, I'll go and see it. Seems like a very interesting play...