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: John Cook
These are some of my personal favourites, selected from what I have been able to see over the years (No doubt other gems are locked up in the archive equal to or better than these choices but gaining accessibility, as we know, remains a big problem with archive TV drama).
In chronological order:
- THE CELLAR AND THE ALMOND TREE (1970; rptd as a PFT 1971)
Just sneaks in since it was a Wednesday Play that was later repeated in the PFT slot in June 1971. A masterclass in ‘intrusion of memory’ storytelling. David Mercer’s grim meditation on 20th century European history complemented brilliantly by director Alan Bridges’ memory jump cuts. Bridges was one of the great BBC drama directors, highly fluent in expressionist techniques.
- PENDA’S FEN (1974)
I know this one has been discussed to death. But I only caught up with it recently and could instantly see why Dennis Potter as TV critic lauded its non-naturalistic, mythic storytelling. It also became clear to me that its vision of a world where goodness and evil contend was to prove an influence on Potter’s own writing of ‘Brimstone and Treacle’, written and delivered to the BBC later that same year.
- THE CHEVIOT, THE STAG AND THE BLACK, BLACK OIL (1974)
The Johns McGrath and Mackenzie bring Brechtian techniques to television drama representations of the Scottish Highlands: revolutionary, revelatory and hugely influential (even changing the direction of the famous Days of Hope debate in Screen).
- LEEDS UNITED ! (1974)
‘The Battle of Algiers’ meets ‘Coronation Street’ but it is Welland’s humanity and his love of working-class folk that shine through.
5. GANGSTERS (1975)
The Play for Today that spawned the later series: proof that PFT, when it wanted to, could match the best of seventies narrative cinema punch by punch.
- DOUBLE DARE (1976)
The banning of Potter’s other PFT, ‘Brimstone and Treacle’, seized all the headlines in April 1976 but there are moments in Double Dare that simply take the breath away; where we are completely unsure of the status of what we are watching. Director John Mackenzie shoots it all on film, brilliantly transforming bland London hotel-land into a creepy, uncertain, nowhere place of mental disturbance.
- DESTINY (1978)
When the fictional right-wing populist leader in this play states that in order to win, the party must persuade working-class voters to distrust cosmopolitan elites, this could be a play for our today, not just 1978. PFT political studio drama at its very finest.
- COMEDIANS (1979)
Great oppositional television drama from Trevor Griffiths: when the lead character, Gethin Price (played by Jonathan Pryce) stands up to do his act, he doesn’t just want to make people laugh but to smash the whole system down.
- JUST A BOY’S GAME (1979)
In Scottish screen studies, writer Peter McDougall rather gets dismissed today as a promulgator of masculinist ‘Clydesideism’. But this PFT is a brilliant deconstruction of Glasgow hard man culture and its tragic cross-generational legacy, containing one of the most blackly comic but cruelly devastating twist endings you will ever see.
- UNITED KINGDOM (1981)
Probably the last great ‘socialist realist’ Play for Today but now where the collective action has become a bitter fight for survival against the bad Thatcherite times all knew were coming. Ricky Tomlinson gives a performance of great heart and humanity as an initially cowed ex-trade unionist, in what was his first screen role, whilst Colin Welland is suitably chilling as Chief Constable James McBride, the state’s selected instrument of reaction and authoritarian oppression.
JOHN COOK is Professor of Media at Glasgow Caledonian University. A researcher in TV drama history, he is the author of one of the first studies of the work of Dennis Potter to be published: Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen (1995; rev. 2nd ed., 1998).