This is the first of a series of posts in which we publish the ‘top ten’ or ‘top five’ Plays for Today identified by a range of writers, researchers and media professionals. The brief was that such lists should not necessarily consist of what were considered to be the ‘best’ Plays for Today but could also include personal favourites, or work which it was believed should be better-known (though, in many cases, these categories overlap).
The first listing is provided by John Wyver whose documentary, Drama out of a Crisis: a celebration of Play for Today, is broadcast on BBC 4 today (12 October 2020) at 9pm. It is followed by a screening of one of John’s choices, Country, written by Trevor Griffiths and directed by Richard Eyre.
My Ten Plays for Today: John Wyver
Although the Play for Today canon is somewhat fluid, given that titles were commissioned for the series but not shown with the strand branding, and vice versa, there is general agreement that it comprises some 300 titles. My calculator suggests therefore that the number of possible ‘Top Tens’ that could be chosen from the list is 5,711e24 – which for those of us imprisoned in the humanities is apparently a very large number indeed.
What follows is just one choice, which would almost certainly be different if I was asked to compile it a week or a month hence. One of the marvels of Play for Today is the breadth and range of the commissioning across fifteen years, and while I have seen more than two-thirds of the extant dramas I continue to be surprised and delighted, as well as sometimes deeply disappointed, by watching a title for the first time.
My choice tends towards the serious, although there is delicate comedy in Long Distance Information and knockabout satire at the heart of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. Most of the titles have an explicitly political focus, although the social concerns of Orkney and Blue Remembered Hills are perhaps more oblique than the engagement with the class struggle in Leeds United!
There are exquisite performances in these films: Hannah Gordon in Orkney, Bill Paterson and Kate Nelligan in Licking Hitler, Harriet Walter in The Imitation Game, and practically the whole of the British acting aristocracy in Country. There is great writing and exceptionally fine, innovative filmmaking.
For each of my choices is, indeed, a film. There are many studio dramas made for Play for Today that I admire enormously, and I could compose a strong list of works created with multiple electronic cameras. But it would perhaps not contain dramas that are quite as bold and as formally challenging. Moreover, I must recognise that the majority of these titles have, in different ways, been personally significant at different moments in my life.
I first watched Penda’s Fen and Leeds United! when I was a bemused undergraduate trying to make sense of a strange and disconcerting world, and both helped with that process, albeit in rather different ways. I can still recall the profound visceral impact of the final sequence of Licking Hitler when I saw it on transmission soon after I had started work as a journalist, and the comparable power of The Spongers as I viewed a cutting copy on a Steenbeck in an East Tower editing room at Television Centre.
I went as a feature writer to the location shoots of Long Distance Information and Blue Remembered Hills, thrilled to watch the creation of such glories and determined one day to produce for television. The Imitation Game and Country have similarly stayed with me ever since I first wrote about them forty years ago, each revealing new depths and complexities on every occasion I re-watch them.
Only Orkney was a discovery a year or so ago when I started out making my BBC Four documentary Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today. I remain hopeful, however, that there are other titles still to be seen that will prove as achieved and surprising and enriching.
I have listed the films in transmission order.
Orkney (13 May 1971) Writer: John McGrath from the stories of George Mackay Brown, Director: James MacTaggart, Producer: Graeme McDonald.
Penda’s Fen (21 March 1974) Writer: David Rudkin, Director: Alan Clarke, Producer: David Rose.
The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (6 June 1974) Writer: John McGrath, Director: John Mackenzie, Producer: Graeme McDonald.
Leeds United! (31 October 1974) Writer: Colin Welland; Director: Roy Battersby, Producer: Ken Trodd.
Licking Hitler (10 January 1978) Writer and Director: David Hare, Producer: David Rose.
The Spongers (24 January 1978) Writer: Jim Allen, Director: Roland Joffé, Producer: Tony Garnett.
Blue Remembered Hills (30 January 1979) Writer: Dennis Potter, Director: Brian Gibson, Producer: Ken Trodd.
Long Distance Information (11 October 1979) Writer: Neville Smith, Director: Stephen Frears, Producer: Richard Eyre.
The Imitation Game (24 April 1980) Writer: Ian McEwan, Director and Producer: Richard Eyre.
Country (20 October 1981) Writer: Trevor Griffiths, Director: Richard Eyre, Producer: Ann Scott.
John Wyver is a writer and producer with the independent production company Illuminations which specialises in performance films and documentaries about the arts. His work has been honoured with a BAFTA Award, an International Emmy and a Peabody. As Director, Screen Productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company, he produces the RSC’s live cinema broadcasts of their stage productions. He is Professor of the Arts on Screen at the University of Westminster and his books include Vision On: Film, Television and the Arts (2007), Screening the Royal Shakespeare Company: A Critical History (2019) and Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television (2021, co-edited with Amanda Wrigley).