This is the third in 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: Simon Farquhar
More than anything else, Play for Today was my inspiration for becoming a writer. I’m just old enough to have been a precocious child watching it when I shouldn’t have been, and sprinklings of repeats in the 1990s cemented my devotion to a principle of television drama that was already by then a thing of the past. In the early 2000s, with access to the BBC archive and an exasperation that there was no book about the series, despite its illustrious run of contributors, I set about writing a complete history of the strand. It was an interesting adventure, for which I interviewed some magnificent people, many of whom have since died, made some firm friends, watched a lot of plays, read a lot of scripts and learned a lot about storytelling. The project was never completed, partly because my own writing gradually took over but chiefly because I couldn’t get a publisher to take it on, despite glimmers of interest. Since then bits of that material have been used for my blog, on features for the BBC and DVD releases, and found their way into obits, docs and now on to this site.
In assembling my top ten, I decided that the big-hitters could look after themselves, so no Penda’s Fen or Spongers here, although I wish there had been room for The Right Prospectus, Plaintiffs and Defendants, A Story to Frighten the Children and several dozen others. But many of those I hold the warmest feelings towards are the small mercies of the strand, the low-key and the transient. Here’s to them…
CIRCLE LINE (14 January 1971) W Stephen Gilbert’s student hero, Tim, gazing at the strangeness of society and devoid of moral tenets, muses that ‘this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a Wimpy Bar’. Gleefully iconoclastic, the playful nihilism and intellectualism, and the ennui, make this an important if invisible fragment of late-1960s counterculture which would shock even more now than it did then if it hadn’t been wiped.
ORKNEY (13 May 1971) A triumph of cinematic verve and televisual intimacy; Hannah Gordon astounds as the anti-heroine of Celia, destroying her soul through prostitution and her body through alcoholism to escape the horrors of the world she surveys. Her marathon monologue, as she explains herself to a speechless priest, is a masterpiece of controlled acting.
THE LONELY MAN’S LOVER (17 January 1974) The ferocity of strained family relations populates this nifty fable as bored Jan Francis ditches her dull suitor and dastardly mother for the bereaved poet on the hill, to the derision of the community whose gossip is voiced over shots of the imprisoning landscape they personify.
THE AFTER-DINNER GAME (16 January 1975) This attack on cash-strapped universities cosying up to business and government suffers from an unconvincing climax; it’s all about the tasty performances and put-downs, best of all from Margaret Whiting as the Vice-Chancellor’s man-eating ice maiden of a wife.
JUST ANOTHER SATURDAY (13 March 1975) The promised explosion of religious bigotry during the annual Glasgow Orange Parade is a long time coming, but as a study of a boy becoming a man in the course of one eventful day, this deserves all its accolades; its vivid sense of place, fizzing dialogue and magnificent, intimate third act, get everything just right.
MOSS (28 October 1975) A shattering performance by Warren Mitchell dominates a curiously stark production by an unusually restrained Philip Saville, who leaves unspoilt the play’s folk-tale simplicity.
AFTER THE SOLO (25 November 1975) Teacher John Challen’s story of an ugly schoolboy with a beautiful voice is filled with the concerns and hopes of a good teacher for the boy least likely to succeed. It’s a tale of someone who isn’t even the lead character in their own life, drifting beyond the reach even of Gerald Sim’s sweet choir master and the supernal beauty of the Pie Jesu by Faure, the performing of which will be the last gasp of innocence.
THE OTHER WOMAN (6 January 1976) Raging with ideas about society and sexuality, it’s a confused love story as much as a bid for revolution, filled with the fire with which television plays of the era so often breathed.
THE COUNTRY PARTY (26 April 1977) Brian Clark makes the everyday extraordinarily gripping in this sequel to The Saturday Party. A play about a seemingly triumphant Englishman (set on St George’s Day) was the last play before Margaret Matheson took over as producer and ushered in a hint of the punk era; as one character puts it, this is ‘the middle classes playing their last games’.
KING (3 April 1984) Watching this at 11 years old, Tom Baptiste broke my heart and opened my eyes to the power and potential of TV drama to do something even more than just tell good stories.
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. His book A Dangerous Place was shortlisted for the 2016 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. His blog may be found here: https://dreamsgatheringdust.wordpress.com/