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: Ben Lamb
For me, the spirit of Play for Today resides in the way in which it shines a light on the erosion of state protections provided under the post-war settlement. The anthology series was more than just drama; it was a weekly public service holding truth to power in order to ensure Keynesian western capitalism, forged in the ashes of World War Two, did not lose sight of its humanitarian compassion. My top ten list is ordered to replicate the journey of a person’s life from cradle to grave. It demonstrates how Play for Today sought to ensure all British citizens are educated, assured some form of income, provided medical treatments when sick, have shelter, and can enjoy the spoils of a comfortable retirement at the end of it all…
- Blue Remembered Hills (30th January 1979) w. Dennis Potter d. Brian Gibson p. Kenith Trodd
Despite being a strong advocate of videotaped productions, and the postmodern experimentations with reality they could provide, Blue Remembered Hills is relatively rare for a Dennis Potter BBC play as it is all shot on film on location. The use of a film camera, traditionally associated with a grittier verisimilitude, clashes with the fully-grown adult actors playing school children. This balancing act between being a song of innocence and experience maintains an unnerving tension throughout proceedings before the naive fun and games between the children (featuring a young Helen Mirren) become consumed by a traumatic experience set to emotionally scar the children for life. Potter’s argument that an infantile nostalgic pining for simpler childhood memories of WW2 will result in the arrested development of individuals and wider society feels more pertinent in 2020 than ever before.
2. The Spongers (24th January 1978) w. Jim Allen d. Roland Joffé p. Tony Garnett
Based on real-life events writer Jim Allen researched and observed in Salford, we see a single mother struggle with a new spate of government issued cuts in care provisions. Pauline (Christine Hargreaves) sees her disabled child prised from the support needed whilst struggling to make ends meet as a single parent. Compared to the politically charged dogmatic direction of Ken Loach, director Roland Joffé has a slightly different approach. Instead of the narrative concluding with a dramatic climax where a protagonist exercises some form of defiance, Pauline euthanizes her remaining children before committing suicide. The final shot silently observes Pauline and her children being carried down a stairwell in body bags with a distinct matter-of-fact tone. Whilst the play was accused of defeatism, the intended strategy was to provoke anger through bleakness. Fast forward to today where hungry children are denied free school meals vouchers outside of term time, it is hard to imagine such a political climate could exist if more hard-hitting dramas of this nature were being broadcast at peak hours regularly.
Seeking and securing work:
- The Adventures of Frank Parts 1 & 2 (4th & 11th November 1980) w. John McGrath d. John McGrath p. Richard Eyre
It’s grim up north! Unless you give John McGrath the resources to remake his experimental coming-of-age series Diary of a Young Man (1964) over two Play for Today slots and crank everything up to eleven. The usual bildungsroman where a working-class northerner ventures south to seek his fortune is repackaged as a postmodern cockney gangster, stockbroker thriller, love story, musical extravaganza. Here nothing is off the table when it comes to experimentation be it the aspect ratio chopping and changing during a Jim Broadbent boardroom speech, an obviously stuffed dog attacking people, or the menacing Alan Ford (aka Snatch’s Brick Top) breaking into song to explain everyone in London is tax dodging, aka ‘fiddling something’. Like Marmite you’ll either love Frank or hate it, but at least it puts to bed the age old myth that every Play for Today was a colourless inexpressive depressingly gritty slow-paced social-realist story of industrial strife. Speaking of which…
- The Rank and File (20th May 1971) w. Jim Allen d. Ken Loach p. Graeme McDonald
It feels somewhat clichéd to select a Ken Loach drama about a rea- life industrial dispute as an exemplar of the Play for Today series. Even more so as Loach was more prolific under the older Wednesday Play banner where he directed Up the Junction (1965), Cathy Come Home (1966), and In Two Minds (1967). Nevertheless, The Rank and File is an important text as its fictionalisation of the 1970 Pilkington Glass strike in St. Helens provides an emotive historical record of an industrial dispute that would otherwise be neglected by the history of 20th-century industrial relations. Correspondingly the production further solidified Raymond Williams’ definition of social realism as a form of drama that seeks to extend dramatic material to areas of life which had been evidently excluded from mainstream drama with a conscious political viewpoint. The Rank and File ensured Williams’ theory was not simply a one-off experiment attempted by Allen and Loach in The Wednesday Play’s The Big Flame (1969) but a consistent school of filmmaking that would develop over the next fifty years.
The National Health Service
- Through The Night (2nd December 1975) w. Trevor Griffiths d. Michael Lindsay-Hogg p. Ann Scott
This play pulls no punches in criticising the most cherished jewel in the crown of the British welfare state, the National Health Service. Alison Steadman became a household name as her performance commands the camera’s unscrupulous close-ups that probe into her soul at every stage of her mastectomy. Based on Jan Griffiths’ diaries of her own hospital experiences the play explores the various miscommunications that can exist between desensitised consultants, helpless junior doctors, and fearful patients. The performances of the actors owe a debt to the Method school of acting. Characters often lack the ability to articulate their feelings and so viewers are required to decode facial expressions. Under another director the material may have lent itself to the rhetoric of melodrama. Not under Lindsay-Hogg whose refreshing approach towards directing actors would go on to help instigate the heritage drama revival through Brideshead Revisited (1981).
- Abigail’s Party (1st November 1977) w. Mike Leigh d. Mike Leigh p. Margaret Matheson
Mike Leigh’s cynical take on middle-class debauchery stands the test of time. It was one of the few adaptations commissioned and is in fact more fondly remembered than the original stage play itself. Although Leigh originally tried to turn Abigail down on account of feeling too visually constrained by the studio production method, he successfully utilises this feeling of claustrophobia to his advantage. Here his acerbic take on middle-class aspiration feels genuine and less voyeuristic than his subsequent exposés of working class families. Leigh’s television play is one of profound introspection as it asks whether the vacuous competitive materialism on the middle rung of the social ladder is the best form of human enlightenment to which the post-war era can hope to aspire.
- The Muscle Market (13th January 1981) w. Alan Bleasdale d. Alan Dossor p. Michael Wearing
Alan Bleasdale is more readily associated with Boys from the Blackstuff (1980) or GBH (1991) and their highly-charged insights into the destructive effects of toxic masculinity. Sandwiched in between both dramas comes The Muscle Market, a subtler outing and undervalued contribution to Bleasdale’s oeuvre. Pete Postlethwaite’s Danny Duggan is a Fargo-esque contractor with a plastered nose who keeps digging himself a hole further and further into the seedy underbelly of the British mob when trying to balance his fledgling business’s books. Stuck between a rock (debt collectors) and a hard place (the inland revenue) this darkly comic tale of trying to bullshit bullshitters treads that fine line between humour and violent tragedy in what turns out to be a shocking indictment of an increasingly ruthless neoliberal economy.
Home Office and security:
- Psy-Warriors (12th May 1981) w. David Leland d. Alan Clarke p. June Roberts
No Play for Today list would be complete without a visually arresting, loud, and violent Alan Clarke television play. Here Clarke’s characteristically unflinching cameras do not shy away from psychological torture tactics employed by the British military, making for a more difficult watch than the infamously banned Scum (1977). Psy-Warriors does not just pose a moral dilemma, it rugby-tackles it head on creating a tortuous experience for viewers as they are challenged into considering how far you would be willing to torture and degrade prisoners in the name of democracy and freedom. Accused of being sadomasochist by some and sympathetic to the IRA by others (it was broadcast a week after Bobby Sands’ death), it is surprising that Psy-Warriors was even broadcast. Ultimately it begs the question as to whether we would be as complacent with illegal wars, waterboarding, and drone strikes if more mainstream drama was as starkly exposing us to the true horrors of said tactics rather than distilling them through the heroics of whistle-blowing protagonists in racy political thrillers on Amazon Prime.
Ageing and Retirement:
- Kisses at Fifty (22nd January 1973) w. Colin Welland d. Michael Apted p. Graeme McDonald
Michael Apted will always be best remembered for overseeing the greatest documentary experiment of all time, ITV’s Up (1964-present). However, his contribution as a director of fiction (largely ruined by James Bond’s 1999 yawn-fest The World is Not Enough) is in long need of reappraisal. Yes, Colin Welland’s writing of Harry’s (Bill Maynard) midlife crisis is rightly praised for being wryly tragicomic, realistically nuanced in capturing the everyday rituals of working-class life, and psychologically astute in explaining the reasons for each characters’ actions. That said, it is the visuals of Apted’s direction that leave a lasting impression and elevate the script from something special to one of the stand-out dramas of the Play for Today anthology series. The scene where Harry walks to his local pub for his fiftieth birthday is a masterclass in poetic realism. Viewers witness Harry’s fifty years condensed into fifty seconds as the sights, sounds, and memories of his former school, barracks and current place of work are evoked from all three neighbouring buildings to underlay the rhythm of the weary well-trodden walk to his local. This impressionistic capturing of Harry’s life does not necessarily excuse our protagonist’s actions but rather demonstrates how difficult it is for the middle-aged to break free from the life deterministically set out for them and pursue the happy rewarding existence promised to them by the post-war settlement.
- Comedians (25th October 1979) w. Trevor Griffiths d. Richard Eyre p. Richard Eyre
What better way to complete this list than Trevor Griffiths’ bittersweet story of retired comedian and World War Two veteran Eddie Waters (Bill Fraser) hosting an evening class in Manchester for aspiring working-class comedians? In the concluding scene Waters talks to up-and-coming comedian Gethin Price, a role that would effectively catapult Jonathan Pryce into stardom. Here both characters debate what the acceptable boundaries of comedy are and whether the horrors of war can be satirised. Through the course of the conversation it soon dawns on Waters that his perspective belongs to a bygone age and he is woefully out of touch with the tastes and values of the baby boomer generation who have become the purveyors of society, for better or worse.
Ben Lamb lectures at Teesside University and is the author of You’re Nicked! Investigating British Television Police Series (2019).