1970s Barry Hines BBC drama Play For Today

My Five Plays for Today: Sue Vice

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 Five Plays for Today: Sue Vice

Number 1 is Jack Rosenthal’s Bar Mitzvah Boy (d. Michael Tuchner p. Graeme McDonald, 14 September 1976): I saw this play when it was first broadcast, and the image of the titular boy, Eliot Green, reciting his Torah portion while standing on his head in a playground, rather than in the synagogue, has never left me. Every time I’ve watched it since, I’ve marvelled at the stellar quality of the acting – including Jeremy Steyn as Eliot – and the dialogue, even if it now seems a shame that the bar mitzvah boy’s rebellion doesn’t come to anything, and the play really is about becoming a man, sometimes at the expense of the fabulous Adrienne Posta as Eliot’s sister Lesley, and Maria Charles as his mother Rita. I’m convinced its influence can be seen today in Simon Amstell’s Grandma’s House and Robert Popper’s Friday Night Dinner

Number 2 is Barry Hines’s Speech Day (d. John Goldschmidt, p. Graeme McDonald, 26 March 1973), currently only available to view on YouTube in a fuzzy version, is a realist-yet-Brechtian version of Kes set in Sheffield. Some teenage friends, including the central character Ronnie Warboys (David Smith), are excluded from the speech-day prizes at their ironically-named Attlee School comprehensive, because their particular talents don’t fit the narrow definitions that Hines always railed against. Despite its comic tone, the last few minutes, as we hear the school choir singing ‘Jerusalem’, in a telling echo of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962), while we see Ronnie’s brother Danny (Andrew Beaumont) carrying out deadeningly repetitive manual labour in a steel factory, bring tears to the viewer’s eyes.

Number 3: Barry Hines again, The Price of Coal (d. Ken Loach, p. Tony Garnett,  1977), archly subtitled, ‘A Film for the Silver Jubilee’, was developed as a Play for Today but broadcast outside the series as a two-part drama (before becoming a Play for Today once again as a repeat). In part one, ‘Meet the People’, a visit by Prince Charles to a South Yorkshire mine is the occasion for a great deal of strategic sprucing up, to the indignation of the republican miner Sid, fabulously played by Bobby Knutt. Hines and Loach preferred to cast local people and stand-ups from the northern club circuit in their film collaborations because of their lack of self-consciousness, which absolutely pays off here – in the form of Jackie Shinn’s pit manager Mr Forbes, Duggie Brown’s reluctant deputy Geoff, and Rita May as Sid’s wife Kath.

Number 4: Oy Vay Maria (d. Richard Loncraine, p. Margaret Matheson, 9 November 1977): I am one of the 11 million original viewers of this play, which, as John Hill points out, has been (very unjustly) lost to critical memory. I recently re-watched it 40 years on, and it’s unique in being about the conversion of the Catholic Dymphna (Cheryl Hall) to Judaism, her religious enthusiasm outstripping that of her non-observant Jewish husband Mark (Robert Whelan). It’s also a semi-autobiography by Mary O’Malley of Once a Catholic fame. The play is a companion piece in a way to Bar Mitzvah Boy, even including some of the same actors (Harry Landis, in this case an unsavoury uncle), though the wonderful Sidney Tafler, whose life-story the plot also mirrored, appears only here, as Mark’s disapproving father.

And number 5 is Edna the Inebriate Woman (d. Ted Kotcheff, p. Irene Shubik, 21 October 1971): I saw all of plays listed above when they were first shown, apart from Speech Day, including this one. I’ve never forgotten the image of Patricia Hayes’ face, in her role as Edna, but have also not been able to bring myself to watch it again – yet …

Sue Vice is Professor of English Literature at the University of Sheffield. She is the author or co-author of a number of books including Jack Rosenthal (MUP, 2009) and Barry Hines: Kes, Threads and Beyond (with David Forrest, MUP, 2018).

2 replies on “My Five Plays for Today: Sue Vice”

Gangsters is the current leader, on five votes.

Five plays currently on four votes: Robin Redbreast, Edna the Inebriate Woman, The Cheviot the Stag & the Black Black Oil, Through the Night, The Spongers.

Eleven plays currently on three votes: Orkney, Land of Green Ginger, Leeds United, Penda’s Fen, Just Another Saturday, Nuts in May, Bar Mitzvah Boy, Blue Remembered Hills, The Imitation Game, Country, King.

Five plays currently on two votes: Kisses at Fifty, Back of Beyond, The Lonely Man’s Lover, The Other Woman, Destiny.

Thirty-five other plays on one vote (plus a further two not originally broadcast as Plays for Today, and two ‘my eleventh choice’ appendices).

Thank you for keeping this running tally.

It’s interesting to see which titles are in this “top tier” and they’re not necessarily the ones that I, or anyone else, would have expected.

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