1 9 5 6 – 1 9 7 3 (UK)
1 9 7 4 – 1 9 7 5 (UK)
457 x 60 minute plays
Debuting on 8 July 1956, Armchair Theatre was a long-running series of single episode self-contained plays and programmes which gained a reputation for gritty down-to-earth ‘kitchen sink’ dramas’.
The first production was The Outsider, a story of medical ethics, starring Adrienne Corri and David Kossoff. This was an adaptation of a stage success by Dorothy Brandon in 1923 and most of the early productions were drawn from stage plays or novels until a new producer, Canadian Sydney Newman, introduced a policy of contemporary and realistic plays in 1958.
For many years, Armchair Theatre was an essential part of Sunday night viewing in Britain.
Several spin-offs were born from the series, including James Mitchell’s Magnum for Schneider (2 February 1967) which eventually resurfaced as the pilot for Callan, and Vince Powell and Harry Driver’s Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Width.
Like almost all TV drama of the time, Armchair Theatre was transmitted live, which presented profound technical challenges for the ambitious director and writer.
But such ambition brought problems of its own – multiple moving cameras meant the risk of cameras or microphones appearing in the shot; sets had to be large enough to allow cameras and actors to move freely – while, perhaps, convincingly evoking a confined terrace house.
The anthology provided one of the most striking demonstrations of the perils of live television drama when, in a play called Underground (1958), the actor Gareth Jones collapsed and died during transmission. The rest of the cast were told when out of camera shot that he had been taken ill and they ad-libbed to cover up for his absence.
In spite of the generally high standard, Armchair Theatre was a bit too realistic for some, and various seamy scenes led to it being dubbed ‘Armpit Theatre’.
From 1960 the series was alternatively called Armchair Mystery Theatre and Armchair Summer Theatre and when ABC lost its franchise to Thames in the late 60s the series was dropped completely before being resurrected in 1974 as Armchair Cinema, which had the distinction of producing Ian Kennedy Martin’s Regan, which went on to become the quintessential British cop series The Sweeney.
Many notable writers and playwrights contributed to the series, including; Robert Muller, Lynne Reid Banks, Donal Giltinan, Hugh Leonard, Robert Storey, Marc Brandel, John Hall, Robert Holles, and James Gibbins.
Armchair Theatre’s biggest audience was for The Hothouse, a comedy starring Harry H Corbett and Donald Churchill with Diana Rigg making her TV debut. It was shown in 1964 and seen in 8.2 million homes.
In 1978 Armchair Theatre was resurrected for the last time as Armchair Thriller, but by 1980 it was gone for good.