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1970s 1980s BBC drama Black TV Writers Mike Leigh Play For Today

My Five Plays for Today: Sally Shaw

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: Sally Shaw

Robin Redbreast (10 December 1970). 

I’ve chosen this play because it is a brilliant example of a genre that I love – English folk horror. Robin Redbreast is a classic of the genre combining, as it does, the ‘sophisticated urban outsider’ and the dark paganism of rural life in a small self-contained community.  The story concerns Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper), a trendy BBC script editor who moves to a remote location.  Disturbed by unusual noises, she is told to consult ‘Rob the exterminator’ (Andrew Bradford).  The two have a brief affair and Norah becomes pregnant.  Norah finds herself unable to leave the village and it becomes clear that paganism and occult forces are at the heart of this.  Robin Redbreast is beautifully filmed and genuinely creepy.  It can be read as a feminist fable and in this way has much in common with Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives.  Robin Redbreast arguably paved the way for The Wicker Man and traces of the play can be seen in recent films such as Midsommar.

Nuts in May (13 January 1976)

I’m sure that this will be a popular choice and, as such, it needs little introduction from me.  I’ve chosen it because it has so much to say about class and what we would now term toxic masculinity.  Angry Keith (Roger Sloman) and the naive Candice Marie (Alison Steadman) are unforgettable characters and Keith’s rage is both funny and terrifying at the same time.  It also has a wonderful theme tune ‘I want to go away, she said, I want to go away’.  

Abigail’s Party (1 November 1977)

Again a popular choice, I’m sure.  I never tire of watching Abigail’s Party and I always seem to notice some new aspect of the play.  As with Nuts in May, Abigail’s Party is spot-on about class anxieties (my personal favourite line is when Bev says ‘ooh red wine, how lovely, I’ll just pop that in the fridge’).  Bev (Alison Steadman) is a diva trapped in suburbia and, as I get older, I feel rather sorry for her (despite the fact that she is undoubtedly monstrous).  The end of the play is as darkly funny as anything Joe Orton wrote and never fails to make me laugh.   

A Hole in Babylon (29 November 1979)

I suspect that this is a bit of a forgotten gem, although I’ve tried to write and talk about this play as much as possible!  Based on a true story about a botched heist in a Spaghetti House in Knightsbridge, A Hole in Babylon tells the backstory of how three Black youths became desperate enough to become involved in such a situation.  As co-writer and director Horace Ové explained to me in an interview: ‘I wanted to show the world that they were not simply hooligans’.  The result is a complex story of the pressures on Black youths in the 1970s, issues of structural deprivation (not least in schooling and housing) and inter-generational misunderstanding.  This is not a polemical play and it is to Ové’s credit that we can see the way in which the key protagonists are both radical and naive. Filmed entirely on location (including the very cellar where hostages were taken) this ‘play for today’ looks like a beautiful feature film.  Its themes are still highly relevant and I find it difficult to believe that Steve McQueen would not have seen this play before embarking on his Small Axe series.

The Flipside of Dominick Hide (9 December 1980)

 On first viewing this time-travel sci-fi romance play could seem somewhat whimsical and slight.  It is concerned with the story of Dominick Hide (Peter Firth) who in 2130 is a ‘corro’ – a correlator of information – following a worldwide disaster in 1999.  As such it is Dominick’s job to travel to ‘the flipside’ – the time before the disaster (in this case contemporaneous 1980s London). Although Dominick has a wife at home, his life is dominated by holograms ‘performing’ in his living room and his world is sterile and ordered to the point of tedium. During a trip to the flipside, Dominick falls in love with the bohemian and vibrant Jane (who becomes pregnant with their child – resulting in a rather complex family tree)!  Watching the play in the light of recent events, I was struck by the beautiful authentic human messiness of ‘the flipside’ and how, under current restrictions, we risk losing our very humanity.  The Flipside of Dominick Hide has much in common with Philip K Dick’s short stories and the film version of Fahrenheit 451.  In a time of ‘social distancing’ and totalitarian levels of social control, I find that this play is more relevant to me than ever.

Sally Shaw teaches at the University of Portsmouth and has written on black British film and television. Her article on A Hole in Babylon may be found here. This play reappeared as part of the recent Play for Today season on BBC4 after Sally’s notes had been written.

One reply on “My Five Plays for Today: Sally Shaw”

Gangsters is the current leader, on seven votes.

Penda’s Fen has six votes.

Robin Redbreast, The Cheviot the Stag & the Black Black Oil and Nuts in May have five votes.

Five plays currently on four votes: Edna the Inebriate Woman, Leeds United, Through the Night, 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.

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

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

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