1970s BBC drama Play For Today The Wednesday Play Writers

My Ten Plays For Today: Susanna Capon

This is the second 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). 

My Ten Plays for Today: Susanna Capon

Reading through the list of Play For Today productions, it is actually quite difficult to disassociate them in one’s mind from what came before them. I am not sure that in viewers’ minds there was any great distinction between them and The Wednesday Play, but on closer reflection there was.

The massively groundbreaking Ken Loach productions were Wednesday Plays. The early Dennis Potters, the earlier extraordinary David Mercer scripts which brought new concepts and new subject-matter to television dramas were also part of this time. Both were still writing of course at the time of Play For Today, but what stands out is the general explosion of writing talent and the sheer breadth of the writing. The genre and focus seemed to shift every week and it went from plays about the conventional middle class to hard-hitting political dramas. One never knew what to expect. It must have been extraordinary for the audience and so very different from the viewing experience of today when, by and large, we tune in knowing more or less what we will be getting.

What it first and foremost underlines is the sheer wealth of writing talent that is represented in the plays. Writers sometimes almost forgotten today but exciting and sometimes astonishing talents emerging at the time. Peter Terson, Rhys Adrian, W. Stephen Gilbert, Piers Paul Read, David Rudkin. I could go on for several paragraphs. Utterly diverse but all extraordinary voices. They sprang from different places. Novelists, playwrights and those who simply sat down and wrote for television with no previous dramatic experience. It was a one-off event and it happened because at that time in this slot there was the space and the will to find room on the network.

Television drama at that time was truly a writer’s medium in a way it never was before or after.

Difficult not to choose ‘the best’. They are, after all, the ones one remembers.

Edna, the Inebriate Woman (21 October 1971)

Written by the groundbreaking Jeremy Sandford and directed by Ted Kotcheff, a very important early TV director. One of Sydney Newman’s imports from Canada.

Hard Labour (12 March 1973)

An early Mike Leigh production, bringing his groundbreaking improvisatory work to national attention.

The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil (6 June 1974)

Something of a cheat as it is John McGrath’s groundbreaking touring theatre production, bringing theatre to the people throughout Scotland. The John Mackenzie directed filming of it was a masterpiece and it was rightly acclaimed at the time.

Leeds United! (31 October 1974)

Written by Colin Welland and directed by Roy Battersby. An important political film which caused great controversy at the time in the BBC

Gangsters (9 January 1975)

Directed by Philip Saville, written by Philip Martin and produced by Barry Hanson. This was the original film which was then turned into a series. It was daring and original and contentious.

Just Another Saturday (13 March 1975)

This was the best first script by a writer I ever read during my career. Bursting with talent, it was written by Peter McDougall and there were doubts in Television Centre that it would ever be able to be made for television because of its political content, but it was eventually turned into a triumphant film by John Mackenzie and won TV’s top prize The Italia Prize. Perfection.

Through The Night (2 December 1975)

My favourite Trevor Griffiths play. It was groundbreaking in its depiction of breast cancer. Unforgettable.

Bar Mitzvah Boy (14 September 1976)

Surely the greatest Jack Rosenthal film.

Blue Remembered Hills (30 January 1979)

No list complete without this beautiful Dennis Potter film

Country (20 October 1981)

One of Trevor Griffiths’ finest plays, directed by Richard Eyre.

Susanna Capon was a trainee Script Editor on the Wednesday Play before becoming the commissioning editor for drama on Radio 3. She worked in BBC TV as Head of the Television Script Unit and as an independent producer before becoming a Senior Lecturer at Royal Holloway where she ran the MA in Producing Film and Television with Tony Garnett.

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