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Summer 04

Sam Thompson and the BBC in Northern Ireland
Andrew Hill

The controversy over Sam Thompson’s 1965 television play Cemented With Love fore-shadowed Ulster’s later political and sectarian troubles. Discovering its behind-the-scenes history has been one important focus of the University of Ulster’s research strand on the development of television drama in the regions.

Sam Thompson was a shipyard worker who came to writing relatively late in life. The BBC in Belfast, and in particular the producer Sam Hannah Bell, played a key role in nurturing Thompson’s talent. Bell was anxious to bring local voices to the Northern Ireland Home Service and worked closely with Thompson on a series of early radio pieces about life in East Belfast and the shipyards. These early commissions provided Thompson with a springboard for his first stage play, Over the Bridge, which become a landmark in the history of Northern Ireland theatre when staged in 1959 for the way in which it confronted the province’s sectarian tensions. It was subsequently produced in a television version by Granada, and radio version by the BBC in Belfast.

Cemented with Love was developed through close liaison between Thompson and the BBC drama department in London. At the time the Northern Ireland region lacked the resources to produce television drama itself. Thompson promised a play about elections in Northern Ireland for the year of the 1964 Westminster elections, and was encouraged by his producer in London to write a piece that would fully confront the sectarian politics of the province. The capacity of television to address contemporary socio-political concerns was to flourish over the next ten years – the so-called Golden Age of television drama – and Cemented with Love was to appear as one of the first of the ‘Wednesday Plays’, a series that would become synonymous with this type of drama.

Thompson delivered a powerful black comedy about bigotry and corruption on both sides of the sectarian divide. The long-time Unionist MP and leading Orangeman John Kerr has been forced for ‘health reasons’ (actually corrupt business activities), to resign his seat, and his son William has returned from Canada to contest the election as his father’s successor. William wishes to distance himself from the bigoted, sectarian politics of his father, and the gamut of corrupt election tactics, including gerrymandering, personation and bribery, that his father has previously employed. Thompson juxtaposes the attitudes and tactics of the Unionist party with the equally bigoted views and corrupt practices employed by the Nationalist candidate Sean O’Byrne. Much of the play’s comic force and satirical power derives from the way in which both parties mirror each other in the rhetoric they deploy and the justification they find for their prejudices and corrupt activities. Both candidates are double crossed by insiders close to them, who bare them grievances, but what decides the election result is the revelation that the wife William Kerr has back in Canada is Catholic. The shock this registers hands victory to O’Byrne. John Kerr reacts with outrage to the revelation, but William is encouraged by the amount of votes he received despite what has happened, and vows to stand again when the opportunity arises.

The BBC in Belfast only found out about the play a month before its intended broadcast in December 1964, and demanded to see a script before quickly moving to have the showing of the play postponed. This move was indicative of the position of the Corporation in the province. In the period from 1924 (when the BBC began broadcasting in Northern Ireland) through to the Second World War, the Corporation had played an integral role in promoting the values of the Unionist political establishment, largely ignoring the presence and opposing views of the Nationalist community. Across the Fifties the BBC had become more willing to acknowledge the presence of divisions in the province, however it remained under intense pressure not to deviate from the prescribed Unionist vision of the province, and not to draw attention to the nature of these divisions.

The response to this postponement came swiftly. The play’s producer led a campaign to get it transmitted, highlighting the distance between the more progressive elements of the BBC in London and the hierarchy of the BBC in Belfast. And the press in Northern Ireland and London picked up on the controversy, making much of the way in which the play had effectively been censored. The debate around the censorship of the play prefigured the debates around media censorship that would surface with regularity during the Troubles.

Under mounting pressure the BBC gave way, and in May 1965 the play was at last shown to a highly favourable response from the audience. By this time however, Thompson, who had long suffered from a heart condition, no doubt exacerbated by the controversy around the play, was dead. In highlighting the political corruption in the province and the persisting intensity of sectarian divisions, Thompson’s play presented a warning of the type of tensions that would come to the surface a few years later with the eruption of the Troubles. The play was also prescient in another respect: it demonstrated the capacity of television drama to engage with contemporary social and political concerns in a way that would mark the most striking output from the Golden Age of television drama.

Researching television drama presents many difficulties, not least due to the loss of many productions. But even when tape or film no longer survives, much valuable material has often been preserved in the BBC Written Archive at Caversham, Berkshire, which is the source of much of the above material on Thompson and the Cemented With Love affair.




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Last modified 24 November, 2004 ; web@bftv.ac.uk