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Play for Today at 50

Along with Armchair Theatre and The Wednesday Play, Play for Today constitutes one of the most important series of British television drama. Beginning on BBC1 on Thursday 15 October 1970, it continued until 1984, running to over 300 individual plays and regularly commanding audiences of several millions. Launched as a successor to The Wednesday Play the change in title, nevertheless, signalled a renewed commitment on the part of the BBC to create television drama that would address contemporary realities in original and imaginative ways.

Although the initial intention was not to specialise ‘in any particular genre or subject area’, the series did, as a BBC research report indicates, go on to acquire an association with ‘”realistic” plays on modern subjects’ that were considered ‘more likely to provide “food for thought” than pathos or diversion’.[1]  As a result, it has often been works which draw attention the plight of the socially disadvantaged – from Jeremy Sandford’s Edna, the Inebriate Woman (21 October 1971) to Jim Allen’s The Spongers (24 January 1978) – that are taken to emblematise the series as whole.

Play for Today, Spongers
The Spongers

This may also be linked to the series’ reputation for social and political radicalism and willingness to provoke controversy. The transmission, all in the same year, of Trevor Griffiths’ dissection of Labour reformism All Good Men (31 January 1974), John McGrath’s exuberant dramatisation of the history of exploitation in the Scottish Highlands The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (6 June 1974) and Colin Welland’s epic tale of striking clothing workers Leeds United! (31 October 1974), directed by Roy Battersby and produced by Ken Trodd, not only led to complaints of Play for Today’s ‘left-wing bias’ but also provoked concern within the BBC regarding its responsibility for political ‘balance’.[2]

The desire of producers, writers and directors  to push back the boundaries of television drama also generated conflicts within the BBC over other plays  dealing with sensitive subject-matter. Some concerned with Northern Ireland, for example, such as Dominic Behan’s Carson Country (23 October 1972) and Caryl Churchill’s The Legion Hall Bombing (22 August 1978), were subject to changes and delays in transmission. Most famously of all, Dennis Potter’s ‘blasphemous’ play involving the rape of a disabled young woman, Brimstone and Treacle (1976), and Roy Minton’s unflinching expose of borstal life, Scum (1977), were refused transmission altogether and led to debates about the limits of acceptability in public broadcasting.

However, while there is little doubt that Play for Today was responsible for some of the most challenging and politically ‘radical’ television drama in the history of British television, it only tells a part of the story. The strand was much more varied and eclectic than subsequent accounts have allowed and encompassed a range of genres stretching from comedy, domestic drama, historical drama, crime and horror to science fiction and the openly experimental. Indeed, in recent years, it might be said that it is the dramas most associated with ‘fantasy’ (rather than ‘politics’) – such as John Bowen’s ‘folk horror’ Robin Redbreast (10 December 1970), David Rudkin’s mystical Penda’s Fen (21 March 1974), directed by Alan Clarke, and Alan Garner’s time-switching Red Shift (17 January 1978) – that have emerged as some of the most revered.

Play for Today, Penda's Fen
Penda’s Fen

Thematically, the series may also be seen to have encouraged a widening of the range of dramatic representations on network television by virtue of its ambition to tell stories about the UK in its entirety. It is therefore significant that both Penda’s Fen and Red Shift were BBC Birmingham productions. The opening of new studios at Pebble Mill in 1971, and the appointment of David Rose as Head of English Regions Drama, (Television) led to an explicit commitment to create drama that would deal with ‘life outside London’.[3]

In the case of Play for Today, this  generated a regular supply of drama rooted in the English regions, starting with Peter Terson’s The Fishing Party (1 June 1972), filmed in Whitby, Yorkshire. Alan Plater’s Land of Green Ginger (15 January 1971), shot in Hull, Philip Martin’s energetic crime drama, Gangsters (9 January 1975), set in multi-ethnic Birmingham, and Liverpudlian Alan Bleasdale’s Scully’s New Year’s Eve (3 January 1978) were among those that followed.

An effort to extend dramatic representation beyond England also led to a strong profile for material from Scotland. The very first season of Play for Today included writer John McGrath’s and director James MacTaggart ‘s compelling adaptation of George McKay Brown’s short stories, Orkney (13 May 1971), while subsequent seasons featured plays by the Scottish writer Peter McDougall, most notably Just Another Saturday (13 March 1975) and Just a Boys’ Game (8 November 1979) both directed by John Mackenzie, Antonia Fraser’s first play for television, Charades (13 December 1977), and John Byrne’s adaptation of his successful stage play The Slab Boys (6 December 1979). The Play for Today strand also provided an outlet for a number of Northern Ireland writers such as Stewart Parker, Ron Hutchinson and Graham Reid whose trilogy of Billy plays, starring Kenneth Branagh, provided a notable addition to the series in its final seasons.

Play for Today, Just a Boys Game
Just a Boys’ Game
Play for Today, King
King

Play for Today also sought to come to terms with the shifting dynamics of contemporary Britain. There were plays about racial politics and the experience of racism, most notably in David Edgar’s examination of the rise of racialised politics in post-war Britain in Destiny and Barry Keeffe’s portrait of a changing East End in Waterloo Sunset (23 January 1979) and the same writer’s re-imagining of King Lear as King (3 April 1984), featuring a predominantly black cast led by Thomas Baptiste.

Play for Today was, however, rather less successful in promoting black writers and directors, though Barry Reckord’s ‘Brechtian’ musical In the Beautiful Caribbean (3 February 1972), now sadly lost, formed part of the second season while Horace Ové, who acted as Musical Director on the earlier play, co-wrote and directed both A Hole in Babylon  (29 November 1979), dealing with the 1975 Spaghetti House siege in London, and The Garland (10 March 1981), an original examination of the difficulties confronting British-Asians.

The series also addressed issues of gender and sexuality in pioneering plays such as Watson Gould’s exploration of lesbianism The Other Woman (6 January 1976), James Andrew Hall’s gay drama Coming Out (10 April 1979) and Andrew Taylor’s drama about a transsexual Even Solomon (1 November 1979). A number of plays also tackled the issues of sexual violence and rape, such as Charles Wood’s disconcerting Do As I Say (25 January 1977) and Carol Bunyan’s insightful critique of masculinity, Sorry (3 March 1981).

However, although women producers such as Irene Shubik, Ann Scott, Tara Prem, Margaret Matheson and Anne Head made a notable contribution to the making of Play for Today, women writers (and, of course, directors) were much less numerous, and earned much less critical attention, than their male counterparts. This has been so even if their work was well-regarded at the time.

Play for Today, Oy Vay Maria
Oy Vay Maria

So while the Radio Times devoted a front cover to Penelope Mortimer’s play about the relationship to their psychiatrist of a couple involved in an affair, Three’s One (4 June 1973), and Mary O’Malley’s play about a young Catholic woman deciding to marry her Jewish boyfriend after she becomes pregnant, Oy Vay Maria (8 November 1977), achieved  one of the highest viewing figures ever – 11.5 million – for a Play for Today, neither has enjoyed any kind of critical afterlife.  Due, in part, to the association of their work with the domestic and the personal, rather than the ‘big themes’ associated with some of the most famous Plays for Today, the work of women  writers, such as  Joyce Neary, Rachel Billington, Rosemary Davies, Carol Bunyan and Rose Tremain, remains little-known and ripe for reassessment.

This is also true of Plays for Today more generally. Over thirty Plays for Today (including Three’s One) no longer exist, only a fraction were ever repeated and relatively few have benefited from a release on VHS or DVD. Most of the surviving plays therefore remain difficult, if not impossible, to see although a growing number have in recent years been added to the BFI’s Mediatheque (sadly, not available online).

In an earlier blog for this site, Billy Smart considered the Plays for Today then available on DVD. As he indicates, none were released as Plays for Today per se and most formed part of collections devoted to the work of recognised ‘auteurs’, be they well-known writers such as Alan Bennett, Dennis Potter and Jack Rosenthal or directors such as Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach (commonly  associated with the use of film rather than the televison studio). While this has led to some highly distinguished work becoming available, it still only constitutes a relatively small proportion of the total output of Play for Today.  This means that while Play for Today as a series could hardly be said to have been ‘forgotten’, it is the case that large numbers of individual plays have.

It is for this reason that we are launching, on the Forgotten Television Drama website, an occasional series of blogs on the Play for Today strand to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of its launch.  These will consider some of the less well-known or critically-neglected productions that contributors consider worthy of more attention. The first post is on The Right Prospectus (22 October 1970), the second play in the series which, despite being the work of the well-known playwright John Osborne, has remained largely unseen since its television repeat in 1971.

If you would like to draw attention to a particular Play for Today or contribute to the blog, please leave a comment or email john.hill@rhul.ac.uk.

Further reading and viewing

Click here to read more blog posts about Play for Today.

Recordings of the Play for Today conference may be found here.

For a full list of Plays for Today see the excellent British Television Drama website: http://www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/

Footnotes

[1] British Broadcasting Corporation, ‘Play for Today’ An Audience Research Report, September 1975 (BBC Written Archives).

[2] John Hill, ‘From Five Women to Leeds United!: Roy Battersby and the Politics of “Radical” Television Drama’,  Journal of British Cinema and Television, 10: 1, 2013, pp. 130-150.

[3] BBC Handbook 1972, London, p. 59.

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