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My Ten Plays for Today: Billy Smart

My Ten Plays for Today: Billy Smart

This is the latest 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). 

Through the Night (2 December 1975) w. Trevor Griffiths d. Michael Lindsay-Hogg, p. Ann Scott

Like a number of Play for Todays, Trevor Griffiths’ Through the Night shows an individual (Alison Steadman as hospital patient Mrs Potts) gaining understanding of a system (the NHS) through traumatic personal experience (an unexpected mastectomy). The story is ideally realised through the form of the television play, its concentrated narrative realised through a succession of subtly-but-clearly drawn institutional oversights, confined to the studio setting of the hospital (a space shown from the patient’s perspective). Unusually for Play for Today, the programme reached an audience that was both very large and highly appreciative, touching a latent wish on the part of the public for a serious and sensitive play about cancer treatment, at a time when talk about the disease was still whispered or avoided.

Alison Steadman in Through the Night

The Other Woman (6 January 1976) w. Watson Gould d. Michael Simpson, p. David Rose

The Other Woman is a – literally – astonishing film, its view of the world so unique and distinct that it pushes against its categorisation as an ‘issues’ play about homosexuality. Jane Lapotaire’s Kim is as much a force of nature as a character, whose every action is in some way transgressive. A nightmare to know, dirty, imposing herself on others but unwilling to empathise with their problems and yet not a bad person in herself, charismatic and her own invention. The points when she tries to fit in are very funny – as is much of the film in its audacity.

Sunset Across the Bay (20 February 1975) w. Alan Bennett d. Stephen Frears, p. Innes Lloyd

‘He won’t mix!’  Fitting in is a preoccupation of Alan Bennett’s Sunset Across the Bay, the story of an aging couple, Mam and Dad (Gabrielle Daye and Harry Markham, familiar actors but unfamiliar leads) who move from Leeds to the seaside at Morecambe when Dad retires. Told in a series of vignettes that acquire a cumulative power once – inevitably – one partner dies, the drama is representative of a number of regional filmed Play for Todays that were defined by the unfamiliar non-urban environments where they were set.

Joe’s Ark (14 February 1974) w. Dennis Potter d. Alan Bridges, p. Graeme McDonald

Joe’s Ark was a rare Welsh location for Play for Today, a rainy chapel-and-valley setting for some of Dennis Potter’s most searching meditations upon faith and mortality. One understated moment magnified by the stark, intense, quality of studio drama particularly stays in the memory. A terminally ill young woman (Lucy, played by Angharad Rees) is visited on her deathbed by an earnest would-be-boyfriend from Oxford University. The young man removes her glass of orange squash out of her reach, replaced by his wholly unsuitable gift of a scholarly monograph about Wordsworth.

Hearts and Flowers (3 December 1970) w. Peter Nichols d. Christopher Morahan, p. Irene Shubik

The day after the broadcast of Hearts and Flowers Peter Nichols was surprised to receive a telephone call from Harold Pinter to say that the play ‘had knocked him North, South, East and West’. A few months later a party of Alan Bennett, Michael Frayn, John Hopkins and Tom Stoppard were convened at the BBC for a private showing of the programme that they had missed. The tape broke after five minutes. This mishap seems somehow of a piece with Nichols’ autobiographical dramas, always surprisingly honest, deeply funny in their exposure of wounded pride and exposed hubris. The story of a family funeral, very specific in its Bristol setting and generational concerns of its protagonists, Hearts and Flowers is the equal of Nichols’ more famous theatrical plays.

Even Solomon (1 November 1979) w. Andrew Taylor d. Roger Bamford, p. Anne Head

An audacious drama about transsexuality, Even Solomon feels about 40 years ahead of its time – truly a play for today as much as it was one for 1979. Its tremendous effect is created through an ingenious three-act structure, each act setting up the viewer’s expectations through a premise that is then confounded in a surprising dramatic reversal of expectations. The viewer learns about Stephen’s character through a similar mistaken process that (s)he learns about him/herself, reaching an empathetic understanding of a situation that must have initially seemed bewildering and outlandish for much of the audience.

Baby Talk (21 April 1981) w. Nigel Williams d. Derek Lister, p. Anne Head

Don’t Be Silly (24 July 1979) w. Rachel Billington d. Kenneth Ives, p. Innes Lloyd

Two plays about violence (spousal and postnatal) and middle-class couples. Don’t Be Silly and Baby Talk both inspire similar sensations on the part of the viewer – surprise at their boldness and risk, appalled engagement with each successive bad event that we see, and ultimately an uncomfortable awareness that these plays are still very contemporary. Each leaves us with a valuable record of the exceptional, distinctive, qualities of an actress who died before her time, Susan Fleetwood and Susan Littler.

The After Dinner Joke (14 February 1978) w. Caryl Churchill d. Colin Bucksey, p. Margaret Matheson

Caryl Churchill describes The After-Dinner Joke as being an exercise in ‘extreme non-naturalism’, its form and structure inspired by Monty Python’s Flying Circus (BBC 1969-74). Using sketch-like scenes and deliberately artificial settings, the play provides a tart, kaleidoscopic, array of responses to the institution of charity and the hypocrisies and paradoxes that lie behind supporting or running charitable institutions.

The Imitation Game (24 April 1980) w. Ian McEwan d. and p. Richard Eyre

Ian McEwan’s The Imitation Game forms the middle part of an informal Play for Today trilogy between David Hare’s Licking Hitler (1978) and David Pirie’s Rainy Day Women (1984), three feminist revisionist WWII plays written by men and realised in a particular filmic style. The sense of (Suffolk and Essex) place – wide, expansive, chilly – in The Imitation Game is extraordinary. The film’s powerful effect owes much to the remarkable triangular chemistry of the combination of writer, producer-director (Richard Eyre) and lead actor (Harriet Walter). None of the trio was experienced in making full-length television films at the time, a lasting testament to the countless risks taken on, and opportunities created for, generations of talented programme-makers that Play for Today employed over its 14-year run.

Susan Fleetwood in Don’t Be Silly

Billy Smart is a writer and researcher. He was Research Officer on  the ‘Forgotten British Television Drama, 1946-82’ research project at Royal Holloway, University of London (2013-17) and previously worked on the ‘Spaces of Television: Production, Site and Style’ project at the University of Reading (2010-13). He has written on the development of Scottish and Welsh television drama, TV representations of lesbianism in 1970s drama, dramas made on Outside Broadcast, the work of the BBC Audience Research Unit, the changing visual form of soap opera and how the theatrical conventions of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Brecht and J.B. Priestley were altered by studio practice when adapted for television. Examples of his writing may be found elsewhere on the Forgotten Television Drama blog.

2 replies on “My Ten Plays for Today: Billy Smart”

We now have a leader – three votes for Through the Night!

Eleven plays currently on two votes: Orkney, The Cheviot The Stag & The Black Black Oil, Leeds United, The Lonely Man’s Lover, Just Another Saturday, The Other Woman, The Spongers, Blue Remembered Hills, The Imitation Game, Country, King.

Fantastic list. Once they’re all in, Billy, I am sure a video/film comparison can be done, and a look at how many BBC Scotland, Birmingham and Northern Ireland ones are in there and which producers score highest…!

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