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The One-Act Festival

A Brief History

This is a brief history of the Competitive One-Act Festival scene which is still going on today and culminates in: -

"The British Final of One-Act Plays"

From the beginning there was an inherent connection between the festival scene and the British Drama League. Below is a condensed chronological history, which started life as the British Drama League, (BDL) in 1919, then became the British Theatre Association, (BTA) before transforming into the four national Associations that we have today. The 'U.K. Community Drama Festivals Federation' which now has ownership of the above event decided to retain the motto of the BDL as it still seemed relevant today. This motto is engraved on the "Friendship Cup" which is handed on to the next host country during the closing ceremony of the "The British Finals of One-Act Plays" each year.

It should be remembered that part of the original remit was to encourage drama groups in their endeavours to enter, improve and, not least, enjoy the rewarding hobby of ‘Amateur Acting’.


It is believed that the first list of officers of the BDL was for 1919 and listed as President Lord Howard de Walden and the Hon. Sec. was Geoffrey Whitworth. There were a further 34 on council with 8 other committees containing on average 9 members each. Their motto was:

Ludit qui bene laborat
Laborat qui bene ludit

He is playing who works well
He who works well is playing

We would like to think that this is as true in the amateur world now as it was then.

Under the chairmanship of Roger Fry, the object of the BDL, were defined as 'the encouragement of the art of the Theatre, both for its own sake and as a means of intelligent recreation among all classes of the community'. Expenses of running the League were estimated at £5000 a year. It was actually started on a capital of £400, contributed, for the most part, by Lord Howard de Walden and Robert Mond. On these slender resources a one-room office was rented in Southampton Street and a prospectus circulated to names suggested by the Committee.

"You have undertaken great tasks", wrote Sir Frank Benson; "many of us will wish you success in their achievement. I, for one, see what further service you can render from your combined viewpoint of audience, artist and manager, to authors, actors and their public. If you are true to your programme you will, on the neutral ground of art, unite many antagonists and reconcile many divergent interests in one common and noble purpose. You will help to lead a blindly groping and war-worn world into the old paths of peace, for in love and beauty and delight there is no death, no change." The Public inauguration of the British Drama League took place at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, on June 22nd.
This year the offices of the BDL moved from Southampton Street to more commodious premises at 10 King Street, Covent Garden. Two rooms were here available, one for a general office and the other for a private room for interviews and committee meetings. The general office could also accom¬modate the nucleus of the BDL Library which had arrived in the form of the gift from Miss A. E. Horniman and consisted of the entire collection of plays and annotated prompt copies used by her during her tenancy of the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester. By this time, the individual membership had settled at 400 with 54 societies. The journal ‘Drama’ continued and the BDL became almost self-supporting.
In addition to the Annual General Meeting, it had now become the custom to hold an Annual Conference in some important provincial centre. This year it was held at Stockport, and once again afforded an unrivalled opportunity for members of the BDL to exchange views in person and to take measures for the development of their own work and that of the BDL in general. Early in the year, Mr. Gordon Craig had challenged interested parties to take action for the transfer to London of the International Theatre Exhibition recently opened in Amsterdam; this was achieved.
Outstanding during this year was the decision of the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust to grant a sum of £750 annually for three years for the running of the BDL Library, which, it will be remembered, had been started in a small way three years earlier. The Trustees also allocated £500 for the expense of moving the League from 10 King Street to the larger premises which would now be needed. New premises were found at 8 Adelphi Terrace. Then a further 1500 volumes were donated by the late William Archer.
An invitation arrived from America for the BDL to nominate an Amateur Company to take part in the New York Little Theatre Tournament. Seven societies offered themselves and Viscount Burnham kindly suggested that Mr. W. A. Darlington, Dramatic Critic of the Daily Telegraph, should select the best. The choice fell on the Huddersfield Thespians with their production of Mr. Sladen-Smith's one-act play ‘St. Simeon Stylites’. This company went to New York and won the prize of $200 'for the best production of a published play'.
Inspired by the success last year, ‘The festival of Community Drama’ was born on a nationwide scale. For the purposes of the competition, Great Britain was split into six areas and the best teams selected from each area competed in the final festival which was held in London. In total 107 teams competed to represent GB in America.
In the BDL’s twelfth annual report it stated that there were now 3320 members. Two summer schools were started, one in England and one in Scotland. The Scottish event was destined to continue annually under the auspices of the Scottish Community Drama Association (SCDA)
Major changes were afoot and the SCDA broke away from the BDL, with the intention of representing amateur drama in Scotland and finding its own national winner rather than being an Area of Great Britain.
Major changes were, again, afoot and the Drama Association of Wales (DAW) broke away from the BDL, with the intention of representing amateur drama in Wales and finding its own national winner rather than being an Area of Great Britain.
It became evident that the library service was hampered for lack of space. The decision to seek larger premises was taken and suitable premises were found at 9 Fitzroy Square. Then, with help from Carnegie Trust, the Pilgrim Trust and contributions from our members, the freehold was purchased. The new Headquarters were officially opened by the Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Cromer, on Friday, July 28th.
The library had grown to well over 32,000 volumes and with the thunder of war looming on the horizon, the National Festival of Community Drama was held outside London, taking place at the invitation of the SCDA at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow.
The decision was taken that the competitive festival would not take place, this continued until 1946.
During 1940 there was a steep decline in membership. However, new members began to pour in and the BDL, as well as the country as a whole, knew that the worst was over.
When a document was prepared to celebrate the BDL’s twenty fifth anniversary, there were 5000 members. We never reclaimed that level of support but the BDL did grow and prosper.
The BDL became an Incorporated Company on 1st August.
The BDL was formally wound up and became the BTA on 21st March. The reason given was that an ‘improved image of the League was needed’. The title would ‘fit in with more modern ideas on theatre’.
The BTA finally wound itself up and closed its doors due to financial reasons, having become very much a professional organisation. It should, however, be recorded that the Drama Association Wales did manage to salvage the play script lending library which formed the basis for what is now acknowledged as being one of the best in the world.
The festival scene continued to operate under the banner of the BTA, but was administered as the National Festival of Community Theatre (NFCT) in England.
The management of the BTA decided that they could no longer be supportive of the competitive festival scene, even though it had been an intrinsic part of the organisation since its inception. The official reason was believed to be the introduction of VAT. The NFCT became the All-England Theatre Festival (AETF) in September; the name is believed to have been the brainchild of Donald McLoughlin from the Northern Area.
The AETF broke away from the BTA and was re-born as an amateur organisation to run the competitive One-Act festival scene within England. This was not a natural progression but forced by the BTA. The AETF is now run and maintained by unpaid volunteers. It is the only national ‘Competitive Festival of One-Act Drama’ within the country. At its birth it was decided that it would retain the three Area format and dispense with the Central London Area.
Saw the unveiling of the AETF emblem which was done under the guidance and support of ‘KLEENEX’. The emblem is still used today. Throughout all of this time the four nations have met in healthy competition, the festival taking place by rotation between the nations. This has been on a somewhat ad-hoc basis until.
When a Memorandum of Understanding document was signed by all four nations.
Saw the acceptance of the constitution for the "U.K. Community Drama Festivals Federation"
International Trophies Associated formally with the BDL, then the BTA and now the UKCDFF
These trophies are: -
The Howard De Walden Cup - Was presented to the BDL to be presented to the ‘winning Team in the National Festival of Community Drama’ each year. The Festival is now known as the British Final. The trophy was first presented in 1927. The only years that the festival failed to take place were 1940 to 1946.
The Geoffrey Whitworth Trophy - Was presented to the BDL to be presented for the 'best original play performed in the festival season' each year. It is presented at the British Final and the selection is made from all countries making up the British Final. It was first presented in 1951.
The Friendship Cup - Was presented in 2011 by the England to Wales and thence to be passed on each year to the forthcoming host nation.
These trophies show the association with and the continuance of the original concept of the BDL, and represent all that was good and acceptable by the founding fathers for a ‘festival of drama’ within Great Britain.
© The UK Community Drama Festivals Federation - Charity Registration Number SC045173