I liked the garlanded Nelson play, but…


Television plays: yay or nay? Nay, says Milton Shulman

Syndicated to UK newspapers on 19 March 1966

THE SINGLE PLAY is television’s problem child. There have been more arguments, more protests, more petitions, more heart-searchings, more letters to editors, more threats and more conferences about this one aspect of TV production than about any other.

It was inevitable that trying to produce something like 200 original plays a year would mean, from the writer’s standpoint, a drastic deterioration of standards.

When one recalls that between Sheridan and Pinero – over 100 years – there was not a single important play or single significant playwright produced in this country, the chances of getting two or three “good” plays on TV every year would be very remote. But 300 comparison, a miracle would be child’s play.


Recognising the impossible, the series and serials with their stereotyped set of fixed characters permuting a routine number of situations has been adopted by TV as its peculiar gift to drama. The single play has largely been restricted to providing opportunities for new writers and experimentation.

It has, therefore, been argued that in order to prevent plays becoming confined exclusively to coterie viewing and to tempt the multitude away from their Coronation Street tripe and Emergency Ward pap, the play from time to time must be presented as a Big Occasion.

And certainly ATV did all it could to drum up interest in its Monday night’s play, Nelson, and garland it with all the excitement of something special.

The writer was Terence Rattigan. It had star names like Rachel Roberts, Celia Johnson, Michael Hordern, Felix Alymer and Michael Bryant. And it was introduced by Prince Philip. About the only thing missing was Lew Grade on an elephant.


And, judged solely by TV standards, this sensitively-written glimpse of Nelson’s uncontrollable fascination for the vulgar Emma Hamilton was superior to most original drama offered up by the parlour’s grey eye.

But compared to what the cinema or the theatre might have done with the same theme, this Big Occasion was a midget, indeed.

Although Michael Bryant admirably conveyed the cynicism and self-doubt that churned restlessly beneath the resolute exterior of a national hero, there was something superficial and contrived about the reasons Mr. Rattigan put in his mouth for his treatment of his neglected wife.

He hated her, it seems, because she insisted on forgiving him for his mean treatment of her and be cause she made him choose between her and Emma. Nelson could never have been so facile or self-deceptive.

And, too, the introduction of a 16-year-old boy, nicely played by Fergus McClelland, to act as a go-between and a catalyst in a tempestuous, seething affair between complex, sophisticated adults resulted in some dubious and jarring conversation and situations.


Too intellectually spurious for the theatre, the theme might have been the basis of a cinema epic had we been allowed to witness a million-pound reconstruction of the Battle of Trafalgar so that the film’s stupendous climax would have allowed us to be patient with much of the rest.

But on TV we had to be content with a battle represented by knives, forks and silver salt cellars. That’s what the art of the small budget does to these opportunities.

Still the play did have its compensations and some moments of telling effect. The dinner party in which Lady Hamilton, perhaps little too raucously played by Rachel Roberts, provokes an embarrassing, strident quarrel with Nelson and the confession Nelson makes to Lord Minto, interpreted with fine subtlety by Michael Morder about his feelings for Emma were directed with a fine flair by Stuart Burdge.

– Milton Shulman

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