Play for Today at 50
Play for Today constitutes one of the most important series ever 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 series won a reputation for social commitment, artistic experiment and contemporary relevance that attracted both critical acclaim and political controversy.
To mark the anniversary of the fiftieth anniversary of the series, Play for Today at 50 brings together a mix of television professionals and scholars to discuss the history of the series, its cultural legacy and the individual plays that were produced.
Registration for the symposium is free through Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/play-for-today-at-50-tickets-122011059363
Wednesday 14th October
18.30 – 20.00
Play for Today, today: John Wyver (Chair: John Hill)
Thursday 15th October 2020
9.30 Welcome and Introduction (John Hill and John Wyver)
9.40 Making Play for Today Interview: Richard Eyre (with Simon Farquhar)
10.10 Making Play for Today Interview: Margaret Matheson (with Eleni Liarou)
10.50 Panel 1: Revisiting the history of Play for Today: Tom May, Simon Farquhar, John Cook (Chair: Katie Crosson)
12.10 Making Play for Today Interview: Ken Trodd (with John Wyver)
12.40 Lunch break/ Compilation of clips and interviews
13.30 Making Play for Today Interview: Piers Haggard (with John Hill)
14.00 Panel 2: Play for Today and social change: Vicky Ball, Eleni Liarou, Katie Crossom (Chair: Tom May)
15.20 Making Play for Today Interview: Tara Prem (with Vicky Ball)
16.00 Making Play for Today Interview: Peter Ansorge (with Ian Greaves)
16.30 Panel 3: Play for Today and the ‘nations and regions’: Jonny Murray, John Hill (Chair: John Cook)
PRESENTATIONS AND PANELS:
John Wyver: Play for Today, today
In an introductory presentation John Wyver outlines the achievements of Play for Today (1970-84) and poses a number of questions about its resonances today that will be explored throughout the conference. He also reflects on the production process of making his documentary Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today, first screened on BBC Four on Monday 12 October and available for a year following transmission on BBC iPlayer.
PANEL 1: REVISITING THE HISTORY OF PLAY FOR TODAY
Tom May: A statistical history of Play for Today (1970-84)
This presentation will present the beginnings of a longitudinal analysis of Play for Today across its fourteen-year time span. I will use graphs and data visualisation to represent trends over time in the strand; areas I will discuss include:
- Originality – Numbers of original Plays for Today and those adapted from other media (prose fiction, prose non-fiction, stage).
- Aesthetics – Numbers of Plays for Today shot wholly on film as opposed to those primarily shot on video.
- Reception – An overview of viewing figures by year or series.
- Afterlife – Numbers of repeats by play and by year of repeat.
Simon Farquhar: QUIETLY CONFIDENT: Small Stories about Small Things
As well as its crusading and its pioneering, Play for Today was also a home for wise storytellers who excelled at studio drama, from the celebrated (Simon Gray, Colin Welland) to those whose work in the medium is less remembered (Arthur Hopcraft, Julia Jones, William Trevor, John Challen). Often overshadowed by the agitational, political or issue-driven pieces they fell between, these dramas often showcased the merits, not the limitations, of the studio play. They reflected more intimately the concerns of the time and the virtues of a craft that no longer exists in television: small stories told in small spaces. This paper celebrates some of the delights of an era of storytelling over narrative, writer over producer and studio over film.
John Cook: ‘Kisses at Fifty’: Remembering some Play for Today practitioners no longer with us
When The Wednesday Play mutated into Play for Today 50 years ago in October 1970, the two main producers in charge of the slot were the late Irene Shubik (1929 – 2019) and the late Graeme McDonald (1930-1997). Between them, they produced nearly 100 out of the approx. 300 plays transmitted over the life of the Play for Today slot. Hence it is important to remember and to acknowledge their contributions. This short presentation will recall meetings and interviews with both figures, together with the late Alan Bridges and late Barry Davis, both of whom made significant directorial contributions to the slot.
PANEL 2: PLAY FOR TODAY AND SOCIAL CHANGE
Vicky Ball: Women writers and writing women into histories of Play for Today
The 50th anniversary of Play for Today is an apt moment to reflect upon the contributions women have made to this prestigious drama slot and the attendant gendered politics at play in both television production and associated drama historiography. This sphere of drama production has, as this flagship series illustrates, been male-dominated; only 13% of the Play for Today series were written by women, 23% produced by women and only 4% directed by women. The critical neglect of women’s contributions to the single play has largely been attributed to the male dominance of the industry and the attendant invisibility of women in archives (Moseley and Wheatley, 2008) and television drama histories (Caughie, 2000; Cooke, 2003, 2015).
Drawing on the Kaleidoscope dataset this paper suggests that, although women have had greater representation relative to men in ‘feminine’ genres such as soap opera historically, it is the play slot on television that has employed the most women and men in absolute terms. This paper uses Play for Today as a case study to cast new light on the contributions women have made to the single play, and concomitantly, the significance of Play for Today in histories of women and British television drama.
Eleni Liarou: The diverse spaces of Play for Today
Of the roughly 300 Play for Today dramas, a dozen have a non-white writer or director, and/or deal with the experiences of Black and Asian communities in urban England. These dramas then, are a tiny proportion of the overall body of work for this strand, but nevertheless they offer bold, often uncompromising representations of race, class and generational divisions in 1970s and early 1980s British culture.
Focusing on space – in both the physical and cultural sense – this paper will explore the ways in which these dramas use location filming to record and witness multicultural Britain, but also to reflect on changing notions of Britishness in the context of an economic recession, loss of empire and the clash between the re-emergence of a far-right, anti-immigrant discourse and anti-racist politics.
Katie Crosson: The canonisation and commemoration of Play for Today
Given the current celebrations of the 5oth anniversary of Play for Today, this paper will look at the ways that popular and critical accounts of the series have prioritised or marginalised particular strands or types of material. Focusing on both aesthetic and political issues (particularly the intersection of gender and class), the presentation will query some of the prevailing assumptions about Play for Today and identify the lack of recognition for the full range of plays produced. While this is due in part to issues of access and the sheer volume of work produced for Play for Today, the presentation will argue that it also reflects particular critical and socio-political preferences.
PANEL 3: PLAY FOR TODAY AND THE ‘NATIONS AND REGIONS’
Jonny Murray: Scotch Missed – BBC Scotland’s Contribution to Play for Today
Largely under the auspices of producer Pharic Maclaren, BBC Scotland was a consistent contributor to Play for Today throughout the series’ lifetime. But with the exception of the work of screenwriter Peter McDougall – Just Your Luck (1972), Just Another Saturday (1975), The Elephants’ Graveyard, Just a Boys’ Game (1979) – most of the other twenty-odd Scottish-produced and/or –set Play for Today entries occupy a marginal position within histories of Scottish and British screen cultures. This presentation identifies certain central themes and evolving representational patterns within Play for Today’s Scottish corpus. In this way, it attempts to encourage the rediscovery and reassessment of an important, but today largely overlooked, aspect of Scottish television history.
John Hill: Play for Today and Northern Ireland
Due to the relative absence of local drama production in Northern Ireland and the problems of regulation and censorship faced by television during the ‘troubles’, the 1970s are often regarded as something of a ‘lost’ decade for dramas about the North of Ireland. This is not, however, an entirely justified perception and, during its run, Play for Today managed an eclectic mix of productions that ranged from anti-naturalism and absurdism to realism and documentary drama. This presentation will trace briefly the history of Plays for Today about Northern Ireland- such as Carson Country (1972), The Legion Hall Bombing (1978) and The Last Window Cleaner (1979) – and assess some of the issues – both aesthetic and political – that the plays have generated.
PETER ANSORGE joined the BBC’s English Regions Drama Department in Birmingham in 1975 as a script editor and producer. Under David Rose’s innovative regime, he worked on Mike Leigh’s early success Nuts in May (1976), David Hare’s Licking Hitler (1978), both of which were commissioned as Plays for Today, and Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff (1982). Peter devised and produced the UK’s first black soap opera Empire Road (1980), written by Michael Abbensetts and starring Norman Beaton. In 1982 Peter followed David Rose to the UK’s new broadcaster Channel 4 where he became a commissioning editor for fiction and helped to create the Film on 4 strand. Subsequently, Peter became Head of Drama for television series and serials. His award-winning commissions included A Very British Coup (1988) and Alan Bleasdale’s GBH (1991). Since leaving Channel 4, he has worked as a producer of feature films and television and he is currently Head of Short Courses at the National Film & Television School.
VICKY BALL is Senior Lecturer in Cinema and Television Histories at De Montfort University in Leicester. She is the principal investigator on the BA/Leverhulme project entitled ‘Play for Today at 50: Women Writers and Writing Women into Histories of British Television Drama’. She was recently co-investigator on the AHRC funded project ‘Women’s Work, Working Women: A Longitudinal Study of Women Working in the Film and Television Industries (1933-1989)’. She has published articles on gender and British television drama and most recently she is the co-editor of ‘Structures of Feeling: Contemporary Research in Women’s Film and Broadcasting history,’ a special themed issue of Women’s History Review.
JOHN COOK is Professor of Media at Glasgow Caledonian University. A researcher in TV drama history, he is the author of one of the first studies of the work of Dennis Potter to be published: Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen (1995; rev. 2nd ed., 1998). During the course of researching this in the early 1990s, he conducted interviews with a number of prominent Play for Today practitioners, some of whom sadly are now no longer with us.
KATIE CROSSON is a postgraduate researcher in the Department of Media Arts and the Centre for the History of Televison Culture and Production, Royal Holloway, University of London who is working in collaboration with the British Film Institute. She helped curate the season of Plays for Today at BFI Southbank and has been the lead researcher and author on a BBC Canvas online exhibition in association with the BFI and BBC History: https://canvas-story.bbcrewind.co.uk/playfortodayat50/
Sir RICHARD EYRE was artistic director of Nottingham Playhouse from 1973–78 where he commissioned and directed many new plays, including Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians. He joined the BBC in 1978 as series producer for Play for Today, and his work for the strand as a producer and director included Barrie Keeffe’s Waterloo Sunset (1979), Neville Smith’s Long Distance Information (1979), a studio adaptation of Comedians (1979), Just a Boys’ Game (1979), written by Peter McDougall and directed by John Mackenzie, Ian McEwan’s The Imitation Game (1980), an adaptation of David Storey’s novel Pasmore (1980) and Trevor Griffiths’ film Country (1981). He was director of the National Theatre from 1987 to 1997 and a member of the BBC’s Board of Governors from 1995 to 2003. In addition to directing numerous award-winning plays and operas, his extensive film credits include The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983), Tumbledown (1988), Iris (2001), Notes on a Scandal (2006), The Children Act (2017) and King Lear (2018).
SIMON FARQUHAR is a writer and broadcaster. Works include, for the stage, Rainbow Kiss (Royal Court and 59E59 New York), Dream Me a Winter (Old Vic) and Wassail Play (Theatre Royal, Dumfries), and for BBC Radio 4 A Sympathetic Eye: The Story of Man Alive (Archive on 4) and Elevenses with Twiggy. He writes for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent and his book A Dangerous Place was shortlisted for the 2016 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. He is currently under commission by Rose Pictures for a forthcoming television drama. This paper will draw on interviews and research conducted for his planned book on Play for Today dating back twenty years. His blog may be found here: https://dreamsgatheringdust.wordpress.com/
IAN GREAVES researches and writes on television and acted as a consultant on the documentary Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today (2020). He is also the co-editor of Dennis Potter The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94 (2015).
PIERS HAGGARD began his career as an assistant director at the Royal Court in 1960 and joined the National Theatre company in 1963. He joined the BBC in 1965 and for Play for Today he directed Evelyn (1971), and then Dominic Behan’s Carson Country (1972) and Howard Brenton’s Desert of Lies (1984), both of which make exceptional creative use of the television studio. In 1978 he directed Dennis Potter’s landmark serial Pennies from Heaven, and the following year directed Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass for Thames Television. His feature films include the cult classics Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and Venom (1981), and he also director the 2006 mini-series The Shell Seekers with Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell. He is also highly regarded for his campaigning work for directors’ rights, and in 1982 he founded the Directors Guild of Great Britain, and in 2008 he was instrumental in creating Directors UK.
JOHN HILL is Professor of Media at Royal Holloway, University of London and Co-Director of the Centre for the History of Television Culture and Production. He is the author, editor or co-editor of numerous books and journals on film and television including Cinema and Northern Ireland: Film, Culture and Politics (2006), Ken Loach: The Politics of Film and Television (2011), The Companion to British and Irish Cinema (2019) and special issues of the Journal of British Cinema and Television on ‘Radical Television Drama’ (2013) and the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television on ‘Forgotten Television Drama’ (2017).
ELENI LIAROU is lecturer in film and television history at Birkbeck College, University of London. She has published articles on postcolonialism and Gangsters (BBC, 1975-1978), ‘British Television’s Lost ‘New Wave’ Moment: ITV’s single drama and race’ and ‘Leo Lehman and the Europeanness of early British TV drama’. In 2014, Eleni organised and curated a screening and panel discussion on Multicultural TV in the UK, supported by Birkbeck’s Institute for the Moving Image. Extracts from Eleni’s interview with TV producer Tara Prem can be accessed here: https://womensfilmandtelevisionhistory.wordpress.com/2013/11/30/tara-prem-pioneer-of-british-multicultural-tv-drama/
MARGARET MATHESON was series producer for Play for Today from 1977 to 1979, for which her credits include Barrie Keeffe’s Gotcha and Nipper (both 1977), Stephen Poliakoff’s Stronger than the Sun (1977), Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party (1977) and Who’s Who (1979), David Edgar’s Destiny (1978), Caryl Churchill’s original drama for television The After Dinner Joke (1978) and two controversial productions, The Legion Hall Bombing (1978) and Scum, written by Roy Minton and directed by Alan Clarke, which was filmed in 1978 but banned by the BBC. The film was subsequently shown in 1991. Her other work as a producer and executive producer includes Muck and Brass (1982), the television mini-series Kennedy (1983), Alex Cox’s feature films Sid and Nancy (1986) and Revengers Tragedy (2002), adapted from Thomas Middleton’s play by Frank Cottrell Boyce, and the series Cardiac Arrest (1994-96), which was Jed Mercurio’s debut as a writer, and Katie Morag (2013-15).
TOM MAY is a postgraduate researcher at Northumbria University, just entering his third year of study of a funded PhD research project constructing a history and analysis of Play for Today with attention to its aesthetics and style, representation and reception. He also blogs at May’s Britain and Opening Negotiations. He has previously written about David Edgar’s Plays for Today Baby Love (1974) and Destiny (1978).
JONATHAN MURRAY is Senior Lecturer in Film and Visual Culture at Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. His books include Discomfort and Joy: The Cinema of Bill Forsyth (Peter Lang, 2011) and The New Scottish Cinema (I.B. Tauris, 2015). He is also the editor of a special issue of Visual Culture in Britain on ‘Television Drama in Scotland’ (2017).
TARA PREM is a film and television drama producer. At the BBC she worked a script editor, director and producer for English Regions Drama at Pebble Mill where she was in charge of the Second City Firsts series of new dramas, which brought Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell and Ian McEwan, among others, to television audiences. She also produced early work by directors Stephen Frears, Mike Newell and Mike Leigh. Her credits for Play for Today include, as script editor, Penda’s Fen (1974), Three for the Fancy (1974) and Breath (1975) and, as producer, Vampires (1979) and Thicker than Water (1980). She produced Paul Greengrass’s first feature film Resurrected (1989) and Jimmy McGovern’s award-winning drama series Hearts and Minds (1995). Her own screenplay, A Touch of Eastern Promise (1973), was the first television drama to deal with the lives of an ordinary Asian family in the inner city.
KENITH TRODD is a British film and television producer whose credits since 1966 include thirty Plays For Today, some highly distinguished, and a large subsequent output for all sizes of screen employing the best talent available across more than 50 years so far. A listing of his credits may be found here: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0873282/?ref_=nmbio_bio_nm
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.).
The event is organised by John Hill, Professor of Media and Co-Director of the Centre for the History of Television Culture and Production at Royal Holloway, University of London and John Wyver, Professor of the Arts on Screen, University of Westminster.
Thanks to the Centre for the History of Television Culture and Production and to the the Humanities and Arts Research Institute (HARI), Royal Holloway, University of London.