1970s 1980s BBC drama Play For Today Writers

My Ten Plays for Today: Ian Greaves

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: Ian Greaves

Alastair Sim in The General’s Day

The General’s Day (20 November 1972) w. William Trevor, d. John Gorrie, p. Irene Shubik

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

Penda’s Fen (21 March 1974) w. David Rudkin, d. Alan Clarke, p. David Rose

Goodbye (6 March 1975) w. Hugh Whitemore adaptation of a novel by William Samson, d. Gavin Millar, p. Kenith Trodd

Tiptoe Through the Tulips (16 March 1976) w. Beryl Bainbridge, d. Claude Whatham, p. Kenith Trodd

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

Sorry…Two Plays by Vaclav Havel (21 November 1978) Adapted by Vera Blackwell, d. Claude Whatham, p. Innes Lloyd

Don’t Be Silly (24 July 1979) w. Rachel Billington, d. Kenneth Ives, p. Innes Lloyd

Baby Talk (21 April 1981) w. Nigel Williams, d. Derek Lister, p. Anne Head

A Cotswold Death (12 January 1982) w and d. Tony Bicat, p. Michael Wearing

Michael Gambon and Rosemary Leach in Tiptoe Through the Tulips

Top Tens are always invidious, and strands such as Play for Today even harder to govern thanks to their competing authorships. Of course, one is tempted to game the system to emphasise those plays which never enjoyed the afterlife they deserve. The tide is about to turn, however, the 50th anniversary celebrations prompting a greater appreciation of Play for Today’s diversity and lesser known voices.

So, the fairest approach is a gut instinct list. Ten plays for today, and with a change in the wind it will probably be another ten plays for tomorrow.  This is also a top ten of images, prompted by scanning the full list of 300 at brutal speed; plays which bobbed up through the data, thanks to a searing single frame in the mind’s eye or an immediate emotional response.

Rosemary Leach racing to a moonlit Michael Gambon (Tiptoe Through the Tulips). The wild visions of A Cotswold Death. The scars of Don’t Be Silly, a brutal and necessary play about domestic violence. A revelatory Michael Crawford in a piercing, incendiary production of Havel that blows apart political assumptions just as it does the studio space. Colin Jeavons’ useful idiot in Destiny, surrounded by flags and vipers. Trapped people. The distance between the characters of Nigel Williams’ Baby Talk, despite their boxed-in lives. The terrible, heartrending non-communication of Goodbye. Bill Maynard in Kisses at Fifty, as he navigates his way out of a fixed trajectory towards the grave – a depth-charge to his family and community.

This ten throws up chance commentaries on the influence of novelists in BBC television drama (William Trevor, Beryl Bainbridge), and the Granada TV ‘mafia’ of the 60s: Mike Newell, Michael Apted, Colin Welland, Claude Whatham. Unfortunately the great enabler, producer David Rose, is under-represented in my list. Yet in his production of Penda’s Fen, David Rudkin’s palimpsest drama of seemingly infinite resonance and radicalism, we have his crowning achievement and for my money the best Play for Today of all.

Ian Greaves researches and writes on television and acted as a consultant on the documentary Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today (2020). He is also the co-editor of Dennis Potter The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94 (2015) and editor of One Thing and Another: Selected Writings of Jonathan Miller 1954-2016 (2017).

5 replies on “My Ten Plays for Today: Ian Greaves”

Gangsters is the current leader, on five votes.

Six plays currently on four votes: Robin Redbreast, Edna the Inebriate Woman, The Cheviot the Stag & the Black Black Oil, Penda’s Fen, Through the Night, The Spongers.

Twelve plays currently on three votes: Orkney, Land of Green Ginger, Kisses at Fifty, Leeds United, Just Another Saturday, Nuts in May, Bar Mitzvah Boy, Destiny, Blue Remembered Hills, The Imitation Game, Country, King.

Five plays currently on two votes: Back of Beyond, The Lonely Man’s Lover, The Other Woman, Don’t Be Silly, Baby Talk.

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

Great list, Ian. Fascinating, Billy, that that means only 62 out of 295 PFTs have been voted for; still under a quarter! Ian’s novel list has added probably 5 which no one else had gone for, I would guess?

A few famous ones are yet to receive a vote – The Rank & File, Comedians, United Kingdom… Dennis Potter doesn’t hold the central place in this growing canon that you might expect, nor does Mike Leigh.

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