1970s 1980s BBC drama Play For Today

My Ten Plays for Today: Katie Crosson

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 : Katie Crosson

Honourable, or perhaps dishonourable, mention?

Waterloo Sunset  (23 January 1979) w.  Barrie Keeffe, d. and p. Richard Eyre

Due to its problematic nature, this one couldn’t make it onto the list despite having one of the greatest emotional impacts on me. It features nonchalant use of the n-word from an elderly white woman quoting Yoko Ono, as well as the use of blackface (of which the play is critical) by the central character in a misguided attempt to show acceptance and oneness. But it’s a story that tugs on the heartstrings and encompasses so much about imperfect solidarity, and the way that solidarity can be painfully thwarted by systems of power that alienate us from one another and cloud our judgements and understandings. The unlikely and complicated friendship here will resonate with me always. A lot of pain in this one – a play that provides fertile ground for discussion of many historical and contemporary political issues.

10. Orkney (13 May 1971) w. John McGrath from the stories of George Mackay Brown, d. James MacTaggart, p. Graeme McDonald.

Three separate stories of Orkney arranged in a fascinating non-chronology that has its audience questioning simplistic narratives of social progress and how they often obfuscate nonlinear changes — or even the progressive worsening — of conditions for marginalised groups and the poor. Especially interesting in relation to women’s lives, alcoholism and poverty in rural Britain.

9. Our Day Out (7 February 1978) w. Willy Russell, d. Pedr James, p. David Rose

This one would probably feature more highly, but it’s kind of not actually a Play for Today – though it was repeated in the PFT slot in 1978 and I love it so much that I simply had to feature it. A frank and, to be honest, distressing look at how class systems infiltrate every level of society, including schools.

8. Edna the Inebriate Woman (21 October 1971) w. Jeremy Sandford, d. Ted Kotcheff, p. Irene Shubik

Few characters have the depth, intrigue and warmth of Edna. I’d imagine if I were a critic at the time this was broadcast I would’ve been prompted to write one of those terribly cringey pieces exclaiming that audiences simply WON’T BELIEVE she isn’t REAL. What should be a depressing and sobering watch feels like being taken on an adventure, and has us on the edge of our seats. My heart breaks for Edna every time, but she sings on the screen and I have seen few better depictions of stubbornness, pride and perseverance. 

Patricia Hayes as Edna

7. King (3 April 1984) w. Barrie Keeffe, d. Tony Smith, p. Michael Wearing

A brilliant take-down of nationalism and a poetic exploration of what a sense of belonging achieves materially as an immigrant, and the dangers of getting too wrapped up in a sense of loyalty and patriotism in search of this sensation. Painful, raw and politically bold.

6. No Visible Scar (17 November 1981) w. Rosemary Davies, d. Moira Armstrong, p. Innes Lloyd

Takes an extreme political circumstance involving torture and makes it relatable in the context of female subordination, harassment, shame and distrust. Ingenious. Evading a simplistic analysis of cultural differences and the nature of authoritarianism and war, the play is extremely clever in the parallels it draws between the UK and the treatment of women elsewhere. I think about this one a lot. Speaks volumes about trauma and media invasiveness, particularly in reference to an entitlement to women’s bodies.

Barbara Flynn as Margaret Hanson in No Visible Scar

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

A portrait of desire, marriage, masculinity, ageing. A slow pace that I enjoyed, allowing room for a great deal of reflection (which is needed, because there’s so much ground covered in the conversations between characters in this play). I particularly valued seeing such frank and explicit discussions about relationships, needs and human fallibility on the screen. It felt so heartbreakingly honest and at once deeply personal and unglamorous.

4. The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black Black Oil (6 June 1974) w. John McGrath, d. John Mackenzie, p. Graeme McDonald

What a mesmerising play. Unthinkable on TV today by all accounts. Just so unapologetically anti-capitalist and a frank depiction of a long forgotten Scottish history, situating (then) contemporary issues in a long story of destruction and extraction. Funny, beautifully put together, and filled with a fire, vibrancy and energy in both form and content, amplified by a live audience’s raucous hum.

3. The Spongers (24 January 1978) w. Jim Allen, d. Roland Joffé, p. Tony Garnett

This contains the single most heartbreaking scene I’ve watched. Not just in Play for Today, not just in television, but ever. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it; ask someone for a content warning if there are subjects you are sensitive about but if not, just watch. I wasn’t expecting it and it felt like a gut punch. As it should. I cried all the way home from the BFI Mediatheque, which is a 45-minute bus journey on a clear evening for some idea of proportion.

2. Sorry (3 March 1981) w. Carol Bunyan, d. Alistair Clarke, p. John Norton

I’ve spent around 10% of my first year doing this PhD trying to get people to watch Sorry. Interestingly, though reviews at the time were mixed, most of the positive ones focussed on Meg Davies’ performance as Kate, which was definitely very good. But for me, the real star of the show is telly’s beloved June Brown. Her monologue in this says more about alienation, reproductive labour, the class positionality of working women, the impulses behind longing and desire in a man’s world, the way ‘dreaming’ is valorised in society in order to keep people in their place, the hollowness of existence when you see yourself as an incubator for others and cannot even fulfil the role of mother… I could go on. I think that Carol Bunyan is a genius. You should too.

June Brown as June in Sorry

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

Honestly I don’t know where to start with this one. If you’re going to watch one play from the Play for Today strand in 2020, the one I’d recommend attending to with the most urgency is Destiny. It saddens me to say this but its critique of rampant fascism, landlordism and a predatory ruling class is just as relevant today as it was back in 1978. This play also has the most incredibly clever twist in it, which actually made me audibly gasp in the Mediatheque, loudly enough for me to be embarrassed by the fact, so I think that alone warrants the top spot. Just take my word for it and watch this one, and look out for a certain speech which might sound eerily familiar to a contemporary viewer.


Katie Crosson is a postgraduate researcher in the Department of Media Arts and the Centre for the History of Television Culture and Production, Royal Holloway, University of London who is working in collaboration with the British Film Institute. She helped curate the season of Plays for Today at BFI Southbank  and was the lead researcher on a BBC Canvas online exhibition in association with the BFI and BBC History.

5 replies on “My Ten Plays for Today: Katie Crosson”

Four plays currently on four votes: The Cheviot the Stag & the Black Black Oil, Gangsters, Through the Night, The Spongers.

Eight plays currently on three votes: Robin Redbreast, Orkney, Land of Green Ginger, Leeds United, Just Another Saturday, The Imitation Game, Country, King.

Nine plays currently on two votes: Edna the Inebriate Woman, Kisses at Fifty, Penda’s Fen, The Lonely Man’s Lover, The Other Woman, Nuts in May, Bar Mitzvah Boy, Destiny, Blue Remembered Hills.

Excellent list, I so agree on Destiny, Kisses at Fifty and now Sorry! Our Day Out may not be canonical, but it is definitely ‘close PFT family’ and is an absolutely wonderful piece. There are still too many of the others which I haven’t seen, though did see the stage version of The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil in Newcastle in 2019, IIRC. It was wonderfully interactive at the start!

On Waterloo Sunset, while it clearly would seem problematic if screened today, in the context of its time, it is close to being at the cultural vanguard, not being so far away in outlook to Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. Doesn’t Grace intend her Yoko Ono song quote as a form of reaching out, which at the time would have been seen as a proto-intersectional alliance building? Shifting cultural norms on language usage, of course, make this harder to appreciate now… I do fully agree that King is the stronger drama, overall, but Waterloo Sunset seemed to have more cultural impact, for good or ill… I explore this in a book chapter I am hoping to have published in a collection on the legacy of Stuart Hall’s 1999 ‘Whose Heritage?’ lecture which analyses these two Keeffe plays.

No Visible Scar sounds fascinating; another to add to a relatively small but notable ‘Cold War Plays for Today’ sub-category!

Was anyone else really looking forward to the showing of No Visible Scar at the BFI Southbank?

I think there are still a huge number of Play For Today entries like NVS that need critical re-evaluation (Reluctant Chickens, Dog Ends, Sorry, etc) and the first step towards that is being repeated, released on disc/streaming or cinema showings.

[…] KATIE CROSSON is a postgraduate researcher in the Department of Media Arts, Royal Holloway, University of London, working in collaboration with the British Film Institute. She helped curate the season of Plays for Today at BFI Southbank and was the guest curator of a BBC Canvas online exhibition in association with the BFI and BBC History. Her blog post on women and Play for Today may be found here and her personal selection of Plays for Today here. […]

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