John McGrath wrote dozens of scripts for television and film. Z-Cars (1962), which he cowrote with Troy Kennedy Martin, was one of the most popular series in the 1962 television season, and his Diary of a Young Man ran as a six-part television series in 1964. His films include Billion Dollar Brain (1967), The Bofors Gun (1968), and The Dressmaker (1988, shown again in 1992 on public television). Films have been made for television of several of his major plays—The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil (1974), Blood Red Roses (1985), and Border Warfare (1989). His nonfiction works include The Bone Won’t Break: On Theatre and Hope in Hard Times (1990).
Known as a socialist playwright, John McGrath wrote mainly for working-class audiences in rural and industrial-urban Great Britain. The key influences on his work begin with the approaches of the Unity Theatre of the 1930’s, the Workers Theatre Movement formed in 1924, and the early Theatre Workshop of the 1950’s, which combine popular tastes as defined by working-class culture with political themes. Furthermore, McGrath deeply admires the revolutionary theater of Vsevolod Meyerhold and Erwin Piscator, and films with a social conscience such as those produced by Jean Renoir and Sergei Eisenstein. Many of McGrath’s plays employ skitlike agitprop techniques that feature humor, the songs and satire of the music-hall tradition, and folk, rock, and carnival music. Even so, the plays make new, challenging demands on their audiences with the serious underpinnings of ideological and ethical issues that endorse a revolutionary rather than a reformist perspective.
McGrath received the writers award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 1994 and he also received the Writers Guild Lifetime Achievement award in 1997.
Cherns, Penny, and Paddy Broughton. “John McGrath’s Trees in the Wind at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter.” Theatre Quarterly 19 (September/October, 1975): 89-100. Although describing the workings of an early production, this article offers real insight into the 7:84 Theatre Company’s rehearsal process and the special mix of ideology and theater that shapes the plays.
Craig, Sandy. “Unmasking the Lie.” In Dreams and Deconstructions: Alternative Theatre in Britain. Ambergate, England: Amber Lane Press, 1980. A spirited account of the revolution in British theater beginning in 1968. Craig’s discussion, which describes the whole range of theater in Great Britain, situates McGrath’s work in the continuum between commercial and subsidized theater.
Itzin, Catherine. Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968. London: Eyre Methuen, 1980. An invaluable handbook that documents the work of the most important political writers and theater companies between 1968 and 1980. Arranged in chronological order, this book explains the sequence of events that shaped alternative theater and suggests a line of influence among the most creative people in theater at that time. Accurate and complete.
MacLennan, Elizabeth. The Moon Belongs to Everyone: Making Theatre with 7:84....
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