The Sad Demise Of The Single Drama On TV

Once upon a time, TV was the home of adventurous, challenging and provocative single dramas – we should all mourn their loss.

Of all the reasons to bemoan the current state and pointlessness of modern television broadcasting, one thing that usually goes unmentioned is the death of the single drama. For the most part, it has gone unnoticed and if people are aware of it at all, it is as just one more thing from the dim and distant past now out of fashion, like popular British sitcoms and ITV shows that weren’t made for the moron market. Yet I would argue that the single drama – be it the TV movie in the US, the ‘play’ in the UK or the ongoing series of one-off, unconnected stories – has been one of the great achievements of television over the years and its disappearance is something that we should all regret.

If you look at the history of television, you’ll see that there was once a time – especially in the UK but also for a long time in the USA – where you might reasonably expect to see single dramas two or three (or more) times a week. In fact, this was one of the earliest forms of television before the continuing series established itself, with shows like Playhouse 90, General Electric Theater, Goodyear TV Playhouse, The Dick Powell Show and Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the US. These are weekly shows where the only connection is the umbrella title, usually based around a celebrity name (who may or may not have an involvement in the actual show) or a sponsor. In Britain, TV went from single dramas like the 1954 version of 1984 to acclaimed strands like The Wednesday Play and Play for Today as well as lesser-known series like Playhouse, Play of the WeekLate Night Drama and ITV Playhouse. Then, there were the more specialist genre anthology series – Thriller (both the 1960s US series with Boris Karloff and the 1970s British show produced by Brian Clemens), The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Hammer House of Horror and Tales of the Unexpected – as well as comedy showcases – sometimes acting as pilots for actors like Ronnie Barker, who saw both Porridge and Open All Hours spun off from Seven of One, a collection of single shows that worked both as stand-alone comedies and possible series pilots.

Hammer House of Horror

The joy of the single drama – be it entirely stand-alone or part of an anthology show – is obvious. It greatly expands the number of stories available for viewers to enjoy, especially back when we only had three or four channels to choose from, and it allowed writers, directors and broadcasters to try out new and challenging ideas. Not every narrative is suited to an ongoing series or even a mini-series and the single drama is a great way to allow a variety of voices and stories to be presented to the public that might otherwise go unheard.

I’ll happily admit that many single dramas – perhaps most of them, in fact – were not especially memorable, though I suspect that rather more than you’d expect will hold up today if we were actually able to see more than a handful of them. For instance, the DVD release of the obscure and almost entirely forgotten 1976 crime drama Machinegunner, starring Leonard Rossiter, was a revelation when it came out several years ago and you can’t help but suspect that there are dozens – maybe hundreds – of dramas that had a couple of screenings and then vanished into the archives that are quietly excellent and in need of rediscovery. We can’t rely on the BBC to make these available, of course – as any glance at iPlayer will reveal, finding any content that is more than a few years old will be a frustrating hit and miss affair – and other distributors are only likely to license those that might have some commercial appeal. However much archive material emerges, we know that it is the tip of the iceberg.

Of course, Of course, television would become increasingly generic and unchallenging as the years went by. The problem that TV companies – and the bean-counting executives who jump from channel to channel ensuring an overwhelming generic emptiness throughout – have with single story dramas is that they are not guaranteed rating successes – unless you have a strand that has a loyal following, a strong central identity and a consistent quality, then things are likely to be very hit and miss. What’s more, single dramas are also relatively expensive to make compared to a continuing series where sets, costumes, writers and actors could all be supplied for an entire run. As broadcasters – even/especially the supposed ‘public service’ broadcasters – became increasingly fixated on ratings and demographics, so single plays made way for more and more episodes of continuing dramas – soaps, to be precise, which went from two episodes a week to every day and sometimes even twice a day, while safe and populist reality shows and bland dramas that are laughably hyped as ‘edgy’ dominate the schedules. What’s more, things that might once have been a single drama are now dragged out for several episodes – in much the same way that cinema is awash with overlong, bloated movies, so TV (in whatever format) now stretches a story to breaking point in the lust to pull audiences in for the long haul.

Yes, there are still the odd series that revive the idea – Black Mirror, for instance. But these all tend to be high-concept affairs. The idea of a series like Play for Today – a prestige production, shown at peak viewing time and offering everything from gritty social commentary to surreal science fiction and folk horror with no connecting line – is unthinkable now.

Cathy Come Home

We can’t just blame the broadcasters for this. Modern audiences are clearly happiest when sticking with the familiar. Indeed, even cinema now seems most comfortable with ongoing franchises based on already established stories that bring people back knowing that they are unlikely to be challenged by anything difficult or new. Yet television’s most acclaimed moments – the ones we see debated and discussed as groundbreaking, terrifying, heartbreaking and provoking cultural shifts – from Cathy Come Home to Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, from Elephant to The Stone Tape, from Blue Remembered Hills to Ghostwatch – exist because there was once space for single stories to do something different to everything else. Whether they failed or succeeded wasn’t important – the mere fact that they were able to do so is what counts. The unwatchable blandness and smug self-satisfaction of image-obsessed broadcasters are entirely down to the fact that no one is willing to take risks anymore and we should all be sorry about that.


Help support The Reprobate:



  1. You’d think Britbox would be the ideal home for the existing one offs, but beyond a few high brow plays there’s nothing on there. They also seem oddly reluctant to go beyond the 70’s with the usual exceptions (Dr Who etc…).

    1. It’s the thing that continually amazes me. The BBC – which, as an organisation, should not be concerned with ratings or chasing demographics – has plenty of outlets for making its archive available – iplayer, digital channels etc – but refuses to do so, instead reviving BBC3 to serve an audience that sees broadcast TV as prehistoric and doesn’t even watch it.

  2. I guess you are aware that TPTV has screened a number of these, including The Dick Powell Theatre, The June Allyson Show, The Veil (Boris Karloff), Armchair Theatre and The David Niven Show. You have to keep your eye on the midnight to dawn slot. They are also showing The Outer Limits on Friday evenings.

    Don’t forget the government want to get rid of The BBC and Channel 4. This will mean a complete loss of the rare screenings when these two stations decide to dig into their archive. BBC4 had Up The Junction, a Ken Loach Wednesday play a week of so back. I would very much like to see more.

  3. We can be grateful that Talking Pictures TV occasionally broadcasts anthology series like The Outer Limits, and the BFI have recently released various titles from Play For Today on DVD/Blu-Ray, proof that mainstream television has now seen its better days, now merely content in putting out tenth-rate prole feed that dumbs down the apathetic viewers.

Comments are closed.