No. of episodes
1956 – 1974
Final episode date
Number of episodes
Country of origin
First episode date
ABC Television, laterThames Television
Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Jeremy Brett, Tim Curry, Ian McShane
Armchair Theatre is a British television drama anthology series of single plays that ran on the ITV network from 1956 to 1974. It was originally produced by Associated British Corporation. Its franchise successor Thames Television took over from mid-1968.
The Canadian-born producer Sydney Newman was in charge of Armchair Theatre between September 1958 and December 1962, during what is generally considered to have been its best era, and produced 152 episodes.
Armchair Theatre filled a Sunday-evening slot on ITV, Britain's only commercial network at the time, in which contemporary dramas were the most common form, though this was not immediately apparent.
The series was launched by Howard Thomas, head of ABC at the time, who argued that "Television drama is not so far removed from television journalism, and the plays which will grip the audience are those that face up to the new issues of the day as well as to the problems as old as civilisation."
The original producer of the series was Dennis Vance, who was in charge for the first two years. In its early years the series drew heavily on North American sources. The first play, The Outsider, was a medical drama adapted from a stage play by Dorothy Brandon, which was transmitted live on 8 July 1956 from ABC's northern studios in Didsbury, Manchester. Reportedly Vance had a preference for classical adaptations, though some of these — such as a version of The Emperor Jones (30 March 1958) by the American dramatist Eugene O'Neill — were not conservative choices. Vance was succeeded by Sydney Newman, who was ABC's Head of Drama from April 1958.
The perils of live transmission caught up with the production team on 28 November 1958, early in Newman's tenure. While Underground was being broadcast a key actor suddenly collapsed and died. Such nightmare situations could be handled more easily when Armchair Theatre was able to benefit from prerecording on videotape after production of the series moved from Manchester to the Teddington Studios near London in the summer of 1959.
Migrating from his native Canada to take up his responsibilities with ABC, Sydney Newman objected to the basis of British television drama at the time he arrived:
"The only legitimate theatre was of the 'anyone for tennis' variety, which, on the whole, presented a condescending view of working-class people. Television dramas were usually adaptations of stage plays, and invariably about upper classes. I said 'Damn the upper classes - they don't even own televisions!'"
He converted Armchair Theatre into a vehicle for the generation of "Angry Young Men" that was emerging after John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger (1956) had become a great success, although older writers such as Ted Willis were not excluded. His 1958 stage play Hot Summer Night (1 February 1959) was adapted to shift its focus from an unhappy marriage of parents in the play onto their daughter's mixed-race relationship with a Jamaican man and the problems they might face if they got married. It was one of the earliest British television plays to have "race" as a theme.
A script editor, Peter Luke, was the first to become aware of the writers Clive Exton, who contributed eight plays to the series, Alun Owen, who wrote No Trams to Lime Street (18 October 1959),) and Harold Pinter, who contributed A Night Out (24 April 1960).) Owen's play was the first of a trilogy transmitted during 1959 and 1960, which was completed by After the Funeral (3 April 1960) and Lena, O My Lena (26 September 1960).
Ratings for the series were often high by the standards of the time, probably because the programmes benefited from following the variety show Sunday Night at the London Palladium, but not always. Even so, Pinter once estimated that his stage play The Caretaker, enjoying its first run at the time, would have to be performed for thirty years before matching A Night Out's audience of 6,380,000.
The German Jewish dramatist Robert Muller, who had arrived in Britain as a refugee in 1938, contributed seven plays to the series, three being transmitted in 1962 and directed by Philip Saville, including Afternoon of a Nymph. Saville worked on more than forty episodes in the series, while Muller's wife in his later years, the actress Billie Whitelaw, had a part in eleven episodes.
Newman's three-and-a-half-season involvement in Armchair Theatre concluded at the end of December 1962. He was succeeded by Leonard White, an early producer of The Avengers, and in Armchair Theatre's last years Lloyd Shirley was the series producer. A holdover from the Newman era, Clive Exton's legal satire The Trial of Dr Fancy (13 September 1964), was among the first television plays on ITV to be suppressed. The deliberately absurd and savage play was a conscious break on Exton's part from the social realism of which he had grown tired. Although the Independent Television Authority (ITA), the regulator of the commercial channel at the time, had not objected to the production, Howard Thomas of ABC feared that it would give offence to viewers. The programme controller at ABC, Brian Tesler, explained the later change of heart: "We believe that the climate of opinion concerning black comedy has changed in the past two years. When the play was recorded we felt that many people might fail to appreciate the compassion which underlies the irony in Mr Exton's play."
Another play from this period was not so lucky. The Blood Knot (recorded 18 May 1963), a two-hander by the South African writer Athol Fugard with Apartheid as its theme, was never scheduled.
Spin-offs and influence
The programme occasionally spun off ideas into full-blown series such as Armchair Mystery Theatre, hosted by Donald Pleasence, which specialised in crime and mystery thrillers. A 1962 adaptation of John Wyndham's short story Dumb Martian, scripted by Clive Exton, was a deliberate showcase for the spin-off science fiction anthology Out of This World. Two 1967 episodes became series. One of these was developed into the sitcom Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width, while the other, A Magnum for Schneider, became the pilot for the hugely popular spy series Callan.
After the 1968 ITV franchise changes and ABC's replacement by Thames, the programme continued until 1974. Hugely popular at its peak, with audiences occasionally touching twenty million, Armchair Theatre had an important influence on later programmes such as the BBC's The Wednesday Play (1964–70), a series initiated by Sydney Newman after he had moved to the BBC. Later two later Thames series used the Armchair... prefix. These were Armchair Cinema, effectively a series of TV movies, and Armchair Thriller (1978–80), which used a serial format.
Overall, 452 plays were made and broadcast under the Armchair Theatre banner between 1956 and 1974. As with much early British television, not all of the plays from the original ABC series survive in the archives, due either to live plays not being recorded or to recordings being destroyed.
A DVD boxset featuring eight colour episodes from 1970 to 1973 was released by NetworkDVD in January 2010. It contained the following episodes:
Volume 2, with another eight colour episodes, appeared in 2012:
Volume 3 contained episodes ranging from 1957 to 1967:
Volume 4 contained:
Armchair Cinema, which included the pilot of the police series The Sweeney ("Regan") in its run, appeared on DVD (Network) in Autumn 2009.