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).
My Ten Plays for Today: Christine Geraghty
This is a very arbitrary list and I could easily choose ten others. It is not related to the impact of the plays when I first viewed them (and some I have not seen at all). It is based mainly on plays that have been used, written about and discussed in my teaching but includes plays which I would have liked to have taught had they been available.
Man Friday (30 October 1972) w. Adrian Mitchell, d. James MacTaggart, p. Graeme MacDonald.
Featuring Colin Blakely as Robinson Crusoe and Ram John Holder as Man Friday, this is one of the missing plays though Adrian Mitchell’s script formed the basis of a later film (Man Friday, Jack Gold, 1975). I would have liked to have set it against Bunuel’s version of Robinson Crusoe (1954) and the European co-production Les Aventures de Robinson Crusoë (Jean Sacha, 1964) in my University of Glasgow course on ‘Ethnicity and Adaptation’.
Land of Green Ginger (15 January 1973) w. Alan Plater, d. Brian Parker, p. David Rose
My parents came from Hull and, as a child, the presence of a street called ‘Land of Green Ginger’ made the city more exotic to me than its drab reputation seemed to deserve. And, later, the fact that Alan Plater lived in ‘The Avenues’ meant that Hull was perhaps not so cut off as the long trip to get there indicated. Viewed through the eyes of Sally (Gwen Taylor), now London-based but returning to a city in the throes of change to review her options, this ‘affectionate, witty, poetic and musical evocation of Hull’ offered an account which was partly romanticized, partly full of affectionate observation, making it ‘a highlight of the regional drama . . . overseen from BBC Birmingham’ (Dave Rolinson, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/1202180/index.html).
Leeds United! (31 October 1974) w. Colin Welland, d. Roy Battersby, p. Ken Trodd.
An epic account of a 1970 equal pay strike by clothing industry workers, mainly women, which caused much controversy and upset management and unions alike (see John Hill’s article in Journal of British Cinema and Television, vo1. 10, no .1 for details). Filmed in black and white, the script was based on extensive interviews and the crowd scenes involved many Leeds locals, some of whom had participated in the strike. I am interested in the union politics, having once been a full-time trade union organiser (never a good career choice in a Play for Today). But I chose Leeds United! also because of the presence of the formidable Lynne Perrie and Liz Dawn who in 1974 also joined forces in Coronation Street (1960-) where Perrie as Ivy the shop steward would take on another factory owner, Mike Baldwin.
Gangsters (9 January 1975) w. Philip Martin, d. Philip Saville, p. Barry Hanson.
It’s worth bearing mind that this exciting and stimulating play with a diverse cast and set in multi-ethnic Birmingham appeared at a time when Love Thy Neighbour (1972-76) and The Black and White Minstrel Show (1958-78) still graced Britain TV screens. Its themes of drugs, corruption and immigration could have been done in the naturalist mode of other plays but Gangsters, filmed on location, was fast-moving and stylish, revelling in generic references to US movies, Bollywood colour, blaxploitation elements, dubious comedians in downmarket clubs and a ‘hero’ who declares that ‘My name’s John Kline, not John Wayne’. Inevitably, it caused controversy, with Birmingham City Council objecting strongly, but it went on to enjoy a second life as a series and gave a calling card to Black and Asian actors like Paul Barber, Albie Parsons, Saeed Jaffrey and Ahmed Khalil. Gangsters was much discussed on film and TV courses and featured in the Open University’s ground-breaking ‘Popular Culture’ course in the early 80s.
Just Another Saturday (13 March 1975) w. Peter McDougall, d. John Mackenzie, p. Graeme MacDonald.
Orange marches still take place in Glasgow so perhaps this play in which the hero John leads his local Lodge band as a mace-swinger still has something to say. Filmed in Glasgow, which itself provoked some controversy, the play shows the pride and warmth engendered by the traditions of the march but the story follows John’s gradual disillusionment as bigotry, drunkenness and violence also mark the day. The cast included Billy Connolly making his acting debut and Jon Morrison in the lead role who went on to have a long career in film and television working with Ken Loach on Sweet Sixteen (2002) and currently appearing as DC Kenny Lockhart in ITV’s detective series Vera (2011-)
Abigail’s Party (1 November 1977) w and d. Mike Leigh, p. Margaret Matheson.
Mike Leigh’s play gets into my list despite (or perhaps because) of his embarrassment at being responsible for putting on ‘a stage play that was wheeled into a television studio. . . as a piece of craft, it’s simply appalling’ (Amy Raphael, Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh Faber and Faber, 2008); it was actually proposed by Matheson to take a slot which was empty because of difficulties over The Legion Hall Bombing (see below). I like the hybridity but the play is really remarkable for the way in which Alison Steadman’s Beverly, like a Dickens’s character, bulldozed her way into British culture and is remembered as a glorious grotesque over 40 years on. Here, in 2020, is the brilliant Julia Davis, comedian, actress, writer and director, reflecting on how Beverly was the ancestor of her own creations: a ‘misfit . . . trying to find love . . . sexy and slightly sleazy but also weirdly cosy’ (The Guardian, G2, 24/9/2020).
The Spongers (24 January 1978) w. Jim Allen, d. Roland Joffé, p. Tony Garnett
One of the most powerful television plays ever. Screening this to first year undergraduates, who were almost inevitably patronising about ‘old’ television, was a painful pleasure. The students were reduced to stunned absorption but it meant that I too had to submit once again to the tragedy of Pauline’s struggle with the system and the deliberate but needless suffering of her children. Played out against the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations, the performance of Christine Hargreaves and Joffé’s direction gave The Spongers a humanity which some of Allen’s more didactic plays rather lacked.
The Legion Hall Bombing (22 August 1978) w. transcript edited by Caryl Churchill, d. Roland Joffé, p. Margaret Matheson.
The play is formally interesting as an early example of ‘verbatim theatre’ as well as evidence of the controversy a Play for Today could stir up. It was based on quotations from transcripts from a trial in a Northern Ireland ‘Diplock’ court in 1976 and recorded on video in the studio. The BBC, always nervous about Northern Ireland, delayed the screening and made cuts in the opening and closing voiceovers; Churchill and Joffé protested by removing their credits. (Dave Rolinson http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/557937/index.html)
The Imitation Game (24 April 1980) w. Ian McEwan d. and p. Richard Eyre.
A sombre piece, The Imitation Game takes the WW2 figure of the mobile woman and, in McEwan’s own words, seeks to ‘have her move from the outermost ring to the very centre, where she would be destroyed’ (The Imitation Game: Three Plays for Television, London: Picador, 1982). Cathy (Harriet Walter) shocks her father by joining the ATS but finds no satisfaction in the boring work she is allocated. Sent to Bletchley Park and seeking to find out more about what actually happens there, her curiosity is severely punished and she is locked up in solitary confinement in military prison. The play, with its rather distanced viewpoint which encouraged the audience to look at Cathy rather than empathise with her, was discussed as ‘Art Television’ and Tessa Perkins provides a clear account of debates generated when it was screened at the BFI Summer School in 1983. ‘The struggle over the meaning of The Imitation Game’, she concludes, ‘is not just a struggle over the meaning of the war for women but more importantly it is a struggle over the meaning of feminism for men’ (National Fictions, edited by Geoff Hurd, BFI, 1984)
Country (20 October 1981) w. Trevor Griffiths, d. Richard Eyre, p. Ann Scott.
I have had the pleasure of viewing and re-viewing Country recently while working on an article. Its intricate construction, elegant filming and complex presentation of personal and political relationships repay this attention. Set in 1945 as the election results confirm a Labour government will take power, the play gives both an account of the past and a contemporary analogy with Thatcher’s equally momentous result in 1979. As the power of the patriarchal Sir Frederic Carlion (Leo McKern) wanes, his modernizing son Philip (James Fox) steps in to ensure the family and the business will survive any revolutionary threat; the East End hop pickers who are squatting in the stables are evicted in the end. The play offers no settled place for the viewer: not the distanced viewpoint of the disaffected daughter, Virginia (Penelope Wilton), not that of Philip’s ruthless pragmatist, nor (given Thatcher’s later success) the victorious Labour incomers nor the working-class squatters. As the moving camera eavesdrops on secretive conversations in the different spaces of the house, Country manages to be both dreamlike and rigorous, beautiful and a prescient warning.
Christine Geraghty is Honorary Professorial Fellow (University of Glasgow). She publishes on film and television with a particular interest in fiction and form. Her books include Coronation Street (BFI, 1981), Women and Soap Opera (Polity, 1991), Now a Major Motion Picture: Film Adaptations of Literature and Drama (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) and Bleak House (Palgrave/BFI, 2012). Most recently, her work includes essays on Dennis Potter’s version of Tender is the Night (BBC 1985) and on BAME casting. She is an editor of the Journal of British Cinema and Television and is Book Reviews editor for Critical Studies in Television.