Just Before Midnight


This series of playlets was launched on Wednesday 1 January, 1964 on The Light Programme. Richard Imison introduced this new venture in that week's "Radio Times" in these words:


"A man is given 6 months to live and decides to commit murder. A mysterious and unwelcome guest in a family seems to know all their closest secrets. A recurring dream begins to come true. A threatening telephone call sets off a hunt through the London fog. A man is greeted as an old friend by a total stranger. Just a very few of the situations from a new series of 15-minute plays starting this week in the Light Programme.


 The idea was born in Spring, 1963; a late night series of short plays to be broadcast every night from Monday to Friday. Each one a complete story - very short, perhaps only a single situation, but with a twist in the tail. Horror? Thrillers? Well, yes, occasionally they could be just that. Comedy? Yes, of course. In fact, the series should contain a little of everything. Established and new authors from all fields of writing should be represented; they should be encouraged to experiment.


Unexplored territory and a lot of hard work lay ahead. The word went out. We were in business. One of the most difficult problems was the sheer volume of material required - 5 plays a week, even when they're short ones, is a lot of plays. Gradually, the number of writers involved in the series grew until over 100 people were at work on ideas and complete scripts. The challenge of the unfamiliar length and placing was even stronger that we had dared to hope. Writers of comedy, drama, short stories, novels, newspaper articles and even technical journals remembered some "short" ideas, not suitable for lengthy treatment, but ideal for just 15 minutes.


 A man borrows 10 shillings to back a horse, and hits a winning streak. A husband and wife discuss the end of the world. An elderly lady carries contraband across a frontier in a suitcase. A baby show reveals a macabre situation. Two girls listen to a late night series on the Light Programme and are threatened by intruders. An elderly couple talk in a churchyard. 


Good - the scope is getting wider……….."


 The first series ran until Friday 1 May, 1964 on each weekday night. After a gap of over 14 years, it was resurrected on Saturday 18 November, 1978, this time on Radio 4.


By then, "Radio Times" was dominated by TV, and had started to include some magazine type articles : Delia Smith had a recipe section each week, for instance. So, there was not even a muted fanfare. Our friend M.B. was Script Editor, and Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays were allocated to the plays at first. After the play on 23.9.1979, the Sunday slot was dropped, and the final Saturday JBM was broadcast on 29.12.1979, leaving only Fridays when the series was aired. The last play, on 11.4.1980, was introduced by the author Susan Hill, in the Radio Times's "Preview" section thus: 


"I also have personal reasons for listening very closely to the last ever play in "Just Before Midnight" (Friday, R4 at 11.45 p.m.). This series is a victim of the BBC's financial cuts, and its disappearance means a few more doors will be slammed on already hard-pressed actors, not to mention the playwrights.


 It has been a widely varied series, the standard of acting and production has been as high as anywhere in radio drama, and it has presented a challenge which has stretched the talents of many good writers. I'm sorry to see it go, and glad to have had the honour of contributing to it".


Only 2 from the first series of 88 plays have survived, but, whilst the second series is reasonably well-represented, it is disappointing to see how many gaps still remain, and how many plays by well-known and respected authors seem to be "missing, believed wiped". Out of 260 in total, only about 40 remain in the BBC's archives, and a further 18 have been discovered, largely thanks to M.B., who produced some in the series and kept copies.

Click the link to see the titles and dates.

Roger Bickerton / Diversity website

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