BBC Events John Hill Northern Ireland Play For Today Stewart Parker Writers

Play for Today at 50 at Belfast Film Festival

A short season of Plays for Today, curated by John Hill, for the Belfast Film Festival that was scheduled for April 2020 but, sadly, cancelled in March.

Play for Today was launched on BBC1 in October 1970 and ran until 1984, commanding audiences of several millions. It is generally recognised to be a hugely important series of television dramas, responsible for over 300 single plays of often striking originality and invention. The series also acquired a reputation for its willingness to address contemporary subject-matter as well as court controversy (perhaps most famously in the cases of Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle (1976) and Roy Minton’s Scum (1977)).

This was also true of some of the Plays for Today dealing with Northern Ireland, such as Dominic Behan’s Carson Country (1972) and Caryl Churchill’s The Legion Hall Bombing (1978), both of which were only transmitted after considerable delay.  However, Play for Today was also notable for the encouragement it gave to a range of local writers such as Wilson John Haire, Stewart Parker, Ron Hutchinson, Derek Mahon and Graham Reid (whose Billy plays with Kenneth Branagh proved especially popular) to write about the situation in Northern Ireland in new and distinctive ways. 

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of Play for Today, this mini-season presents three of the local plays to have emerged out of the North of Ireland during its fourteen-year run.

Iris in the Traffic… Ruby in the Rain (1981)

Written by Stewart Parker; produced by June Roberts; directed by Jon Amiel. With Frances Tomelty (Ruby), Aingeal Grehan (Iris), Leila Webster (Sadie), Jake Burns (Ducksey), Brenda O’Neal (Claire), Maggie Shelvin (Joyce), Bryan Murray (Terry), Margaret D’Arcy (Mrs Waring).

Belfast playwright Stewart Parker achieved growing recognition during the 1970s and was responsible for three Plays for Today. Of these, Iris in the Traffic … Ruby in the Rain (1981), written specifically for television, is undoubtedly the best.  Shot in part in Belfast, it follows the mini-odysseys of Iris and Ruby, two women initially unknown to each other, during the course of a day in the city.

Although set firmly during the Troubles, the play is less concerned with the politics of the conflict than the ways in which the characters respond to the more immediate personal and ethical challenges that confront them.  Frances Tomelty delivers a fine performance as Ruby, the social psychologist at the end of her tether, singer Jake Burns appears in a small role as a friend of Ruby while Stiff Little Fingers are not only heard on the soundtrack but also perform at a gig attended by Iris (Aingeal Grehan).  

Queen’s Film Theatre, 8 April 2020 8.30pm

The screening will be preceded by an introduction to Play for Today and Northern Ireland by Professor John Hill.

Shadows on our Skin (1980)

Written by Derek Mahon based on Jennifer Johnston’s novel; produced by Kenith Trodd; directed by Jim O’Brien.  With Macrea Clarke (Joe), May Friel (Mum), Joe McPartland (Dad), Lise-Ann McLaughlin (Kathleen), Ewan Stewart (Brendan), Catherine Gibson (Miss McCabe).

Jennifer Johnston’s novel of a young boy, Joe, growing up in war-torn Derry was published in 1977 and then turned into a Play for Today by Belfast poet Derek Mahon. A sombre coming-of-age story in which Joe is forced to come to terms with the realities and conflicts of the adult world, the play was unusual in actually being filmed in Derry at the time. Director Jim O’Brien (who went on to work on The Jewel in the Crown and The Monocled Mutineer) invests the play with a strong sense of place while folk musician Donal Lunny contributes a memorable soundtrack.

Beanbag Cinema, 2 April 2020, 6.30pm.

The Cry (1984)

Written by Derek Mahon and Chris Menaul based on a John Montagu story;  produced by Chris Parr; directed by Chris Menaul. With Adrian Dunbar (Peter Douglas), Michael Duffy (Mr Douglas), Doreen Keogh (Mrs Douglas), Peter Quigley (Joe Doom), Breffni McKenna (Michael Ferguson), Carol Scanlan (Shevaun), Rio Fanning (Concannon), John Keegan (George Harbinson), Stella McCusker (Mrs Ferguson), Denys Hawthorne (RUC District Inspector), ‘B’ Special Sergeant (Derek Lord).

First published in 1964, John Montague’s short story, ‘The Cry’, has been seen to anticipate the crisis to come at the end of the 1960s. Adapted by Belfast poet Derek Mahon and director Chris Menaul for television in 1984, the play now becomes a melancholic look back at the origins of the conflict to follow.

In one of his first television roles, a very young-looking Adrian Dunbar plays a London-based journalist on a visit to his home town. Woken up by the cries of a local youth being set upon by the RUC, he embarks upon an investigation that uncovers the social and political tensions simmering below the surface. Supported by a strong local cast, Dunbar gives a fine performance as the troubled journalist who is forced to take stock of his views.  

Beanbag Cinema, 4 April 2020, 4pm.

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