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1970s 1980s BBC drama Play For Today

My Ten Plays for Today: Tom May

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: Tom May

Christine Hargreaves, Susan Littler, Vivian Pickles, Queenie Watts, Harriet Walter and Peter Vaughan… I deeply regret that my list omits these formidable performers’ vital appearances in Play for Today. However, I do include Kika Markham, Suzanne Bertish, Bríd Brennan, Elizabeth Cassidy, Lori Wells, Pat Wallis, Rosemary Martin; while Alison Steadman, Dave Hill and Saeed Jaffrey feature twice.

It is simply too long since I have seen Leeds United! (1974) and Blue Remembered Hills (1979) to bring them into contention. I am also sad not to include John Goldschmidt’s Speech Day (1973), Spend Spend Spend (1977) or Vampires (1979), unique and distinct works. David Rudkin and Alan Clarke’s Penda’s Fen (1974) has such power and has been so persistently acclaimed – two book studies – that I don’t feel it needs my vote here. It seems perverse not to have included any Alan Clarke here, but such is the breadth and richness of Play for Today.  Only three of my list are totally shot on film, though another five use some film inserts, which signals how Play for Today was essential television drama informed by both cinematic and theatrical aesthetics.

1: Destiny (31 January 1978) w. David Edgar, d. Mike Newell, p. Margaret Matheson

David Edgar’s incisive stage play is captured and subtly opened out for television by Mike Newell, exemplifying the best ensemble-centric intensity of studio video productions. An outstanding cast powerfully and disturbingly enact a panoramic state of the nation story of contemporary Britain. Peter Jeffrey, Joseph Blatchley, Iain Cuthbertson, Paul Copley, Nigel Hawthorne and Saeed Jaffrey humanise Edgar’s intellectual history play, compellingly dramatising how clashing ideologies vie for control of British identity. It remains a play for today.

2: Rainy Day Women (10 April 1984) w. David Pirie, d. Ben Bolt, p. Michael Wearing

Surely the most disturbing of all Plays for Today, this for me exceeds the impact even of its ‘Secret War’ brethren Licking Hitler (1978) and The Imitation Game (1980). Ben Bolt and David Pirie convey a deep atmosphere of horror; the complex, myth-like narrative establishment conspiracy is informed by a pronounced feminism. Utterly haunting.

3: Nuts in May (13 January 1976) devised and d. Mike Leigh, p. David Rose

For me, this thorny comedy-drama of class conflict between urban holidayers in Dorset, devised by Mike Leigh from an earlier stage analogue just edges out his chastening Hard Labour (1973). This makes you laugh and think in equal measure and lingers long in the mind. It defies the sort of easy and unfair pigeonholing that Abigail’s Party suffered. Every performance is pitched perfectly to fashion a uniquely awkward and compelling social ensemble.

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

While I love All Good Men (1974) and Comedians (1979), key dramas of the British political left, this is the most universal and dramatically potent of Trevor Griffiths’s Plays for Today. Aided by sublime moments of humour and performances by Alison Steadman and Jack Shepherd, Griffiths exposes the limits of a paternalistic, patriarchal health care system. This is an archetypal RAID (radical, agitational, issue-based drama) built on a foundation of Griffiths’s real experiences of his wife’s breast cancer that helped the public to articulate widely felt, but rarely voiced, qualms about communication and patient experiences within NHS hospitals.

5: Kisses At Fifty (22 January 1973) w. Colin Welland, d. Michael Apted, p. Graeme McDonald

This is Play for Today realism-plus: Colin Welland and Michael Apted probe beyond surface realism and delineate raw, complex truths in how a Yorkshire community responds to adultery and marital breakdown.

6: Double Dare (6 April 1976) w. Dennis Potter, d. John Mackenzie, p. Kenith Trodd

A sonically enveloping dramatisation of the relationships between men and women and the processes of writing and acting. Light muzak fills the hotel bar diegesis, aiding Dennis Potter’s off-kilter, deeply thoughtful fantasy. This is modernist Play for Today, with a stupendous advert sequence. Kika Markham acts with incredible intellect and feeling.

7: Robin Redbreast (10 December 1970) w. John Bowen, d. James MacTaggart, p. Graeme McDonald

John Bowen and James MacTaggart’s eerie, folkloric thriller contains some of the most indelibly weird shots in the Play for Today corpus. This has incredible performances by Anna Cropper, Andrew Bradford, Bernard Hepton and Freda Bamford, performing Bowen’s frightening narrative founded on classical and English myths, which exposes the dangerousness and persistence of tradition. As with so many Plays for Today, there’s greater atmosphere for the lack of telegraphed musical underscoring.

8: Too Late To Talk To Billy (16 February 1982) w. J. Graham Reid, d. Paul Seed, p. Neil Zeiger and Chris Parr

A markedly theatrical drama, in the best sense, from Graham Reid and Paul Seed of Protestant life in Belfast, during – but far from defined by – the Troubles. Yet, it is opened out with ample film sequences which convey the claustrophobia of the city. There is menace and gravity in its depiction of violence, and wisdom and skill in the portrayal of a community where faith ebbs and unemployment mounts. The Billy trilogy (1982-84) has some of the best dialogue ever given to child actors, while its representation of children is revelatory. Two of the trilogy’s cast later appeared in Channel Four’s sitcom Derry Girls (2018- ), which presents the other side of the sectarian divide but demonstrates a cultural and attitudinal continuity.

9: Gangsters (9 January 1975) w. Philip Martin, d. Philip Saville, p. Barry Hanson.

Head of English Regions Drama and producer David Rose was inspired to commission a filmed Play for Today thriller after going to see The French Connection at the cinema. Writer Philip Martin was sent to do extensive research in Birmingham’s underworld and, with director Philip Saville, made this exceptionally taut, exciting and representationally radical film. This is Play for Today’s grittiest, pulpiest fiction which was spun off into a majestically original series (1976-78), a sublime exemplar of popular modernism that entertained and informed.

10: A Sudden Wrench (23 March 1982) w. Paula Milne, d. Jon Amiel, p. Alan Shallcross

I just had to pick a Jon Amiel-directed Play for Today. Edging out Gates of Gold (1983), a drama of religious and class tensions in 1959 County Antrim, is this archetypal feminist Play for Today. Writer Paula Milne shows a family getting closer and learning, as 43-year-old housewife Christine (Rosemary Martin) develops her latent abilities and enters the workplace. Amiel displays total mastery of the vivid everyday aesthetic of Outside Broadcast video.

TOM MAY is a postgraduate researcher at Northumbria University working on 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).

5 replies on “My Ten Plays for Today: Tom May”

Through the Night regains its lead, becoming the first play to gain four votes.

Six plays currently on three votes: Leeds United, Gangsters, Just Another Saturday, The Spongers, The Imitation Game, Country.

Eight plays currently on two votes: Robin Redbreast, Orkney, Land of Green Ginger, The Cheviot the Stag & the Black Black Oil, The Lonely Man’s Lover, The Other Woman, Blue Remembered Hills, King.

Through the Night is becoming the anomalous studio production alongside of all the famous films in this developing Play For Today canon.

[…] [i] These four terms are used about Martin’s work in these articles: ‘non-naturalistic’ in David Rolinson, ‘Beyond the reach of the cartographer: Dennis Potter the reviewing writer and writing reviewer’, British Television Drama, 31 July 2013 [online] Available at: http://www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/?p=3817; ‘experimental’ in Frank Collins, ‘CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: VENGEANCE ON VAROS / SPECIAL EDITION DVD REVIEW’, Cathode Ray Tube [online] Available at: https://www.cathoderaytube.co.uk/2012/08/classic-doctor-who-vengeance-on-varos.html; ‘postmodernism’ in Jon Arnold, ‘Philip Martin’s ‘Gangsters’ reviewed’, We Are Cult, 17 October 2016 [online] Available at: http://wearecult.rocks/philip-martins-gangsters-reviewed; ‘popular modernism’ in Tom May, ‘My Ten Plays for Today: Tom May’, Forgotten Television Drama, 24 October 2020 [online] Available at: https://forgottentelevisiondrama.wordpress.com/2020/10/24/my-ten-plays-for-today-tom-may/ […]

[…] TOM MAY is a postgraduate researcher at Northumbria University undertaking a funded PhD research project on the history 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) and his personal selection of Plays for Today may be found here. […]

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