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British Cinema, Global television

Alan Plater 1935-2010

Alan Plater was a strong supporter of his trade union – the Writers' Guild which he chaired in the 1990s. Here he receives a 'Life time Achievement Award' in 2007. Photo © Simon Renton.

It’s sad to record the death of one of the most important writers in the UK over the past 50 years. Alan Plater wrote around 200 full length scripts and as many shorter ones. He wrote novels and plays for theatre and radio alongside his higher profile work for television and in the 1970s for British Cinema. Because his most acclaimed work was for television it is likely that he is known outside the UK only by a small coterie of fans in North America and Australasia. Perhaps that in itself exemplifies the problem for British moving image culture in that its best talents often reside in small screen drama.

The most useful short critique of Alan Plater’s astonishingly prolific writing career is probably Lez Cooke’s entry on the Screenonline website. His trademarks, across a wide variety of material in terms of narrative content, are witty and realistic dialogue rooted in observation, a solid underpinning of socialist politics, a love of jazz and healthy dollop of surrealism. Although he successfully adapted the work of writers such as Anthony Trollope and Olivia Manning, most of his best work was rooted in the working-class culture of the North of England. My personal favourite of all his projects was the Beiderbecke trilogy of comedy thrillers. The first of these, The Beiderbecke Affair appeared as a series (6 x 53 mins) in 1985. It was followed by two 90 minute television films under the title The Beiderbecke Tapes in 1987 and a final series of 4 x 53 mins broadcast as The Beiderbecke Connection in 1988. Starring James Bolam and Barbara Flynn as Leeds schoolteachers in a kind of Thin Man (William Powell and Myrna Loy) spoof, these wonderful programmes with their surreal humour and Bix Beiderbecke music offer the best critique of living through the dark and terrible days of Thatcherism that it is possible to imagine. The only thing that you can do is laugh at the idiocy of it all. As we slide into another Dark Age of real Tory twaddle (as distinct from the pretend Toryism of Blair and sadly Brown) it’s tempting to re-watch the series yet again. IMDB is instructive in how the series could be misunderstood in the US and it is indeed ‘very British’ – but for anyone outside the UK who wants an example of how Northern working-class culture could sustain itself through the darkness of the 1980s, look no further than the DVD boxed sets, and enjoy!

Alan Plater will be sorely missed. Here’s a YouTube clip from the BBC News coverage of his passing:

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