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: Lez Cooke
Not so much a Top Ten, more a selection of ten personal favourites, in chronological order.
Robin Redbreast (10 December 1970)
John Bowen’s Robin Redbreast contributed to an eclectic mix of plays in the first Play for Today season. Coming after plays by John Osborne, Dennis Potter and Peter Nichols, this was a folk-horror drama originally commissioned for a suspense series, but picked up by director James MacTaggart when it was rejected because it included a scene featuring a contraceptive cap – a key aspect of the Rosemary’s Baby-style plot in which Anna Cropper’s liberated television script editor encounters a paganistic community when she relocates to a country village and is made pregnant by the karate-practising outsider Rob, who subsequently is taken off by the villagers to be sacrificed in a fertility ritual. No surprise that this acquired a cult reputation.
The Fishing Party (1 June 1972)
Peter Terson’s The Fishing Party was the first Play for Today to be produced by BBC English Regions Drama, the department set up in 1971 at the new Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham, under the leadership of David Rose, to produce drama by regional writers. Terson’s play set the standard for regional play production with an entertaining drama about three Yorkshiremen on a fishing trip to Whitby, whose lively banter was characteristic of his writing. The play was filmed entirely on location, giving it the ‘sense of place’ that Rose felt was essential ‘to reflect regional life, the landscape and the community’.
Land of Green Ginger (15 January 1973)
Alan Plater’s Land of Green Ginger was the third Play for Today produced by English Regions Drama, following Peter Terson’s The Fishing Party and Shakespeare – or Bust (8 January 1973), and it consolidated the growing reputation of the department for distinctively regional drama. Ostensibly named after a street in Hull, Plater’s hometown, the title is really a metaphor for a ‘misty and magical’ place which is changing as old industries and ways of life decline, like many provincial cities in the 1970s. Consequently, there is a lyrical, melancholy quality to the play which derives partly from Plater’s script and Brian Parker’s sensitive direction, but also from the evocative folk music of The Watersons.
Penda’s Fen (21 March 1974)
David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen is one of the most esoteric and unusual Plays for Today, a non-naturalistic exploration of mythological themes expressed through symbolic imagery conjured up by the imagination of a middle-class boy whose passion for the music of Edward Elgar is bound up with his patriotism and love of the English landscape, but complicated by a growing awareness of his homosexuality. David Rose suggested Alan Clarke as an unlikely director for the film (this is far removed from any notion of a ‘play’) but his choice was inspired and Clarke’s realisation of Rudkin’s poetic vision made for one of the most original and memorable of all Plays for Today.
The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil (6 June 1974)
Using the stage play by the 7:84 theatre company, director John Mackenzie turned John McGrath’s radical play into ‘a Brechtian way of approaching television’ juxtaposing three different forms in a dialectical montage: the agit-prop stage play, dramatised footage of the Highland Clearances, and documentary footage about the 1970s oil boom and the exploitation of it by multi-national companies. The result was one of the most radical, political dramas ever to appear on British television: informative, educational and entertaining.
Back of Beyond (4 November 1974)
One of four Play for Todays written by Julia Jones, Back of Beyond is set in rural Wales where Olwen (Rachel Roberts) lives alone in an isolated farmhouse. A young girl delivering newspapers is puzzled by the woman’s reclusiveness and leaves her some wild flowers; gradually a friendship develops between them, until the woman reveals a secret which shocks the girl, ending their friendship. Unseen since its 1976 repeat, Back of Beyond is one of seven plays, and the only one written by a woman, to be released on Blu-Ray in October to mark the 50th anniversary of Play for Today.
Gangsters (9 January 1975)
After Penda’s Fen, English Regions Drama continued to subvert the notion of a television ‘play’ with Philip Martin’s fast-paced, action-packed Gangsters, shot in Hollywood B-movie style by director Philip Saville. Martin, an actor turned writer, appeared in the play as a villainous nightclub owner in a story involving drug-trafficking, heroin addiction, illegal immigration and sleezy nightclubs, featuring a multiracial cast of English, Irish, West Indian, Chinese, Indian and Pakistani actors. Birmingham City Council was not amused at the way the city had been portrayed, but the play had an audience of eight million and was enthusiastically received by viewers, leading to the commissioning of two spin-off series.
Nuts in May (13 January 1976)
Nuts in May was Mike Leigh’s second Play for Today and it was quite different to Hard Labour (12 March 1973), which had been produced by Tony Garnett and was more social realist in style. Based on a 1973 stage play featuring the same characters, Nuts in May was a comedy featuring Keith Pratt (Roger Sloman) and Candice-Marie (Alison Steadman), described by Michael Coveney in The World According to Mike Leigh as ‘rabid vegetarians, health freaks, crass conservationists and sexual frigidaires’ (1997, p.102). As Leigh told me in 2000: ‘I did in Nuts in May what I’ve been doing ever since … in one form or another, I was deliberately subverting the assumptions of the form. In other words, here was a Play for Today but I thought well why should I make another play that looks like a Play for Today, let’s get out and do something fresh, and something that came very naturally to me.’
Bar Mitzvah Boy (14 September 1976)
Jack Rosenthal’s Bar Mitzvah Boy is about the preparations for 13-year old Eliot’s Bar Mitzvah, a rite of passage which Rosenthal turns into a play which is both hilarious and a serious reflection on the significance of this enduring Jewish tradition. Having spent many hours analysing one scene for my book on Style in British Television Drama (2013) I grew to appreciate the subtlety of Rosenthal’s writing, the brilliance of the acting and the technical expertise with which director Michael Tuchner crafted a perfectly realised Play for Today, shot entirely on 16mm film. A social realist comedy drama.
The Adventures of Frank (4-11 November 1980)
John McGrath returned to television for the first time in six years with the two-part The Adventures of Frank, a reworking of the 7:84 stage play The Life and Times of Joe of England (1977), which was itself a musical reworking of Diary of a Young Man (1964), the six-part serial which McGrath wrote with Troy Kennedy Martin. Using music from the stage play and new video technology to present a ‘state of the nation’ drama about the politics and morality of Thatcherism in the early 1980s, Frank was an ambitious Play for Today which was not entirely successful. Yet its experimental nature and application of Brechtian techniques, on primetime television over two and a half hours, is testimony to the creative freedom possible within Play for Today, especially under the auspices of an enlightened producer like Richard Eyre.
Lez Cooke is Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Media Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London, and was the Co-Investigator on the AHRC-funded research project, ‘The History of Forgotten Television Drama in the UK’. He is the author of Troy Kennedy Martin (MUP, 2007), A Sense of Place: Regional British Television Drama, 1956-82 (MUP, 2012), Style in British Television Drama (Palgrave, 2013) and British Television Drama: A History (2nd edition, BFI/Palgrave, 2015).