Strategic Penetration

Adam Smith Series One on DVD

We’ve probably all at some point imagined what our younger selves would make of 2012 if they could have looked into their future. My 10 year old self from 1978 would have excitedly spotted mobile phones, iPads, the massive number of television channels, while no doubt being puzzled at the mysterious sight of people carrying water bottles around rather than cans of Lilt and Tizer. But most of all, my young self would have cheered and whooped to see that the kind of Sundays we endured in 1978 had finally been abolished.

It’s hard to convey the terrifying ennui of the Sabbath in the 1970s. For six days a week lifewas great – there was Tiswas, Computer Battleships, Target novelisations and children’s drama specifically designed to screw you up – then suddenly you’d be back to the weekly experiment of living life in the 1950s. Galton and Simpson’s fantastic Hancock’s Half Hour: Sunday Afternoon at Home from 1958 had lost none of its relevance.

Nothing epitomised the horror of Sunday better than what was served up on the box. The three channels of delight became dour and unfriendly for the day – aside from those blissful weeks when Emu’s Broadcasting Company was on – and the choice was frequently between six hours of John Player cricket on BBC2, and ancient films or regional football shows on BBC1 and ITV. Early evening offered no solace either, as both main channels had to meet the broadcasting authority regulations and provide around 75 minutes of religious programming known to all as the ‘God Slot’.

BBC typically showed Songs of Praise amongst other things, while ITV had a variety of discussion programmes, church debates, and most famously of all Stars on Sunday, a nightmare of religiosity consisting of hymn requests and light entertainment presided over by the unctuous gargoyle Jess Yates. If you liked to hear Noele Gordon or Gracie Fields destroying hymns while Raymond Burr droned through Deuteronomy then this was the show for you, and hard though it is to imagine, this satanic combination captured the viewing public and delivered massive viewing figures until Jess Yates was caught like a ram in a thicket and disgraced.

What’s probably less well-known is that drama could also come within the definition of religious programming, and Adam Smith was a notable example. Usually transmitted at around 6.15pm it frequently preceded Stars on Sunday and achieved comparatively high ratings. The series was conceived by Granada’s Denis Foreman (whose father was a Church of Scotland minister) and it was a canny attempt to appeal to the God Slot’s captive audience with a quasi-soap opera which still fulfilled a religious remit. Building an early audience for the rest of the evening would also have appealed to ITV.

In publicising the programme, Granada referred on more than one occasion to the BBC’s recently concluded Dr Finlay’s Casebook, and clearly in Adam Smith the company hoped to harness the audience that had loved the sedate adventures of Dr Finlay and the pleasing landscapes of Tannochbrae. But from the perspective of 2012, the idea of a drama specifically created to address religious matters sounds about as appealing as a dramatised Thought for the Day.

It’s fortunate then that despite dreadful Sundays and the God Slot, there were many other aspects of the 1970s that make our current television landscape look a bit peaky. One of these was that programmes were more often led by writers, and in some instances their interests took them well beyond the obvious brief for a series. In the case of the first series of Adam Smith, the main creative force was playwright Trevor Griffiths writing (because of an existing BBC contract) under the pseudonym of Ben Rae. Griffiths had just had great success with his theatre play Occupations which concerned the Italian revolutionary Gramsci and the factory occupations of the 1920s, and Adam Smith hardly looked an obvious fit for a left-wing atheist playwright. But it’s precisely that contradiction which, at its best, makes the series interesting, and some of Griffiths’ writing really pushes the boundaries of the early-evening slot.

Griffiths strongly believed in attempting to use popular forms as a vehicle for radical political ideas. This was known as ‘strategic penetration’, and he later went on to achieve great success with this technique in such works as the masterful Bill Brand and Play for Today: Country. Adam Smith though, was at the start of his television career and Griffiths lacked the influence to inject really radical subject matter into the finished work and his struggles with censorship from Granada eventually led him to quit the series. However, the scripts clearly reflect the methods typical of Griffiths’ later work, notably a dialectical approach which opposes the minister Adam Smith (Andrew Keir) and the rationalist Dr Calvi (Tom Conti – Jack Shepherd must have been busy that week) so that neither a religious or scientific engagement with the local community can offer a complete answer. Smith himself is conflicted – the series opens with the death of his wife and he struggles with religious doubts while actively attempting to strengthen his pastoral work. He also has two daughters, one of whom, Annie (Brigit Forsyth), is a student activist, and much of the drama comes from the tension between the differing stances of the main characters.

In this first series one of the dominant storylines is also, thanks to hindsight, the most uncomfortable. Adam attempts to arbitrate in a bitter separation between the Crichtons, a couple played by David Langton and Janet Munro. This was Munro’s last work before her early death brought on by alcoholism, and the fact her character is similarly afflicted makes these scenes rather harrowing to watch. Munro was not a great actress and in a technical sense doesn’t do justice to Griffiths’ writing but her fragility lends the narrative a disturbing edge.

This is certainly not to say that Adam Smith is lost classic. Griffiths provides all of the interesting moments, but plenty of dull and clunky patches as well. Writer Tom Gallacher’s contributions are particularly tedious, and thankfully a couple of his especially boring episodes featuring church politics were condensed into one (Episode Eight) presumably because Granada realised that there was only so much the audience could stand. The redundant and unaired concluding episode is featured as an extra – possibly the least exciting DVD extra since the mute film outtakes from Blake’s 7 Series Three.

It’s likely that many will find Adam Smith intolerably dull, and some of the acting performances are so lifeless that you find yourself praying for Brigit Forsyth to show up, as her appearances are engaging and also seem to liven up the rest of the cast. The show’s theatricality, including regular enormous pauses between lines that are more Amy Turtlesque than Pinteresque, also dates it considerably even by the standards of the time. It’s notable for instance, that when Adam Smith was repeated only six years later in 1978, it was already being described (by The Guardian) as “elderly”. Regardless of that, it was very popular at the time, and even though Griffiths walked off the series over the censorship of Adam’s radical sermon in the final episode, he had already mapped out a second, much longer series.

That series would see Adam relocated to South Africa, where he would be seen battling the authorities and exploring the moral issues surrounding apartheid. This more obvious political content drew some press attention at the time, indicating that even though Griffiths was no longer working on the series, his technique of strategic penetration had achieved some of his aims. Such overt political intent has rarely been present in recent Sunday early-evening viewing – although as I write Call the Midwife has covered incest, euthanasia and the contradictions of a Conservative-led welfare state – and Adam Smith demonstrates that in the 1970s intelligent drama involving problematic issues could appear in the most unlikely places. It almost makes up for those never-ending Sundays.

Adam Smith Series One was released by Network on Monday 6th February