1970s 1980s BBC drama Play For Today Scotland

My Ten Plays for Today: John Cook

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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 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).

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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).

9 replies on “My Ten Plays for Today: John Cook”

Gangsters is the current leader, on seven votes.

Penda’s Fen has six votes.

The Cheviot the Stag & the Black Black Oil has five votes.

Seven plays currently on four votes: Robin Redbreast, Edna the Inebriate Woman, Leeds United, Through the Night, Nuts in May, Destiny, The Spongers.

Nine plays currently on three votes: Orkney, Land of Green Ginger, Kisses at Fifty, Just Another Saturday, Bar Mitzvah Boy, Blue Remembered Hills, The Imitation Game, Country, King.

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

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

It is fascinating to have all your ‘faves’ and this website gives such great information on Play for Today, in tandem with the BFI’s recent documentary.

However, it is really frustrating not being able to access the plays themselves. Although some are available on the BFI DVD – another forthcoming, I gather, unless you can easily access a mediatheque library, there is no way to view plays on which the team offers such fascinating insights – both on your research and opinions (yours and writers/directors).

Be good to hear back: betimes,

Very Best

It is worth noting that in the wake of our conference in 2017, organised in association with the BFI and Learning on Screen, ‘Television Drama: Archives, Access and Research’ we were involved in discussions that led to the Educational Recording Agency (ERA) agreeing to allow pre-1989 television material to be added to digital services for ‘formal learners’. These include Box of Broadcasts, hosted by Learning on Screen, that has now added a number of Plays for Today (including some of those featured in our lists such as Comedians, Destiny, Gangsters, Just Another Saturday and Land of Green Ginger) which are available to view by teachers and students whose institutions subscribe to BOB. We hope further PFTs will be added in due course and subscribers may request other programmes to be added if available. Unfortunately, full public access is not yet possible but for teachers and researchers this is a real breakthrough of which those of us who are in education should take advantage.

Thanks, Susan, lovely to hear from you ! Hope you are doing fine, despite these rather uncertain times ! 🙂

On the subject of availability, anyone with an Amazon Prime account can access quite a few Play for Todays on Prime Video, 23 at the latest count, many of which (perhaps all) were previously available on the BBC Store. They include well-known PFTs such as Edna the Inebriate Woman, Leeds United!, Nuts in May, Abigail’s Party, Red Shift and Blue Remembered Hills, but also lesser-known plays such as The Elephant’s Graveyard, The Other Woman, Coming Out, Even Solomon, A Walk in the Forest, The Kamikazi Ground Staff Reunion Dinner, Intensive Care and the ‘Billy’ trilogy. Apart from needing an Amazon Prime membership, each play costs £1.89 to rent.
There are also quite a few PFTs on YouTube, available to view for free, although it should be noted these probably contravene BBC copyright and are likely to disappear from the site. Also, some are of poor quality. They include plays such as Kisses at Fifty, Baby Blues, Destiny, and about 20 others.

Have any of the neglected BBC Scotland Plays for Today been selected yet? Of the very few of those I’ve seen, I have a fondness for Alma Cullen’s Degree of Uncertainty (1979) but couldn’t quite have included it in my Top 10.

No BBC Scotland productions as yet… But the most striking absence is any non-‘Penda’s Fen’ Alan Clarke-directed plays!

Nothing from 1983 yet, either (but then there weren’t many Plays for Today in 1983). I did toy with including ‘Shall I Be Mother?’ on my list.

I gave a shout out to Gates of Gold, which is fantastic, but it didn’t quite make the 10. I think that is actually the only one of the 8 or so 1983 ones I’ve seen, along with the second Billy play.

I watched Funny Farm again, with the expressed aim of ruling it in or out of the Top 10, and it didn’t quite make it. Really excellent play and a good complement to Through the Night, though I would possibly rate The Hallelujah Handshake fractionally higher. I should have watched Psy-Warriors again, as it is undeniably powerful and gets strangely neglected in the consideration of political Plays for Today…

[…] 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).  During the course of researching this in the early 1990s, he conducted interviews with a number of prominent Play for Today​ practitioners, some of whom sadly are now no longer with us. His personal selection of Plays for Today may be found here. […]

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