Wednesday 14th and Thursday 15th October 2020
Beginning on BBC1 on Thursday 15 October 1970, and continuing until 1984, Play for Today was one of the most important series ever of British television drama. Running to over 300 individual plays and regularly commanding audiences of several millions, the series won a reputation for artistic experiment and contemporary relevance that attracted both critical acclaim and public controversy.
To mark the anniversary of the fiftieth anniversary of the series, the Play for Today at 50 conference brought together a mix of television professionals and scholars to discuss the history of the series, its cultural legacy and the individual plays that were produced. Co-organised by John Hill and John Wyver, the conference consisted of interviews with Peter Ansorge, Richard Eyre, Tara Prem and Ken Trodd as well as presentations by Vicky Ball, John Cook, Katie Crosson, Simon Farquhar, John Hill, Eleni Liarou, Tom May, Jonny Murray and John Wyver. Recordings of these interviews and presentations may all be found below.
Play for Today, Today
John Wyver (introduced by John Hill)
In this introductory presentation, John Wyver outlines the achievements of Play for Today (1970-84) and poses a number of questions about its resonances today. He also reflects on the process of making his documentary Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today, screened the same week as the conference.
Making Play for Today
Interview : Richard Eyre (with Simon Farquhar)
Richard Eyre discusses his role as both a producer and director of numerous Plays for Today.
A Statistical History of Play for Today (1970-84)
In this presentation Tom May presents an overview of Play for Today, looking at its sources, aesthetics, reception and afterlife.
Quietly Confident: Small Stories about Small Things
In this presentation, Simon Farquhar highlights the merits, not the limitations, of the studio play, indicating how it reflected more intimately the concerns of the time and demonstrated the virtues of small stories told in small spaces.
‘Kisses at Fifty’ – Remembering some Play for Today practitioners no longer with us
In this presentation, John Cook reflects on the contributions, amongst others, of Irene Shubik (1929 – 2019) and Graeme McDonald (1930-1997) who produced nearly 100 of the plays transmitted over the life of the Play for Today slot.
Making Play for Today
Interview : Ken Trodd (with John Wyver)
Producer Ken Trodd reflects on his contribution to Play for Today and on the aesthetics and politics of television drama of this period more generally.
Women Writers and Writing Women into Histories of Play for Today
In this presentation, Vicky Ball considers how Play for Today can cast new light on the contributions women have made to the single play and assesses the significance of Play for Today in histories of women and British television drama.
The Diverse Spaces of Play for Today
In this presentation, Eleni Liarou explores the ways in which the small number of Plays for Today dealing with the experiences of Black and Asian communities use location filming to record and witness multicultural Britain as well as reflect upon changing notions of Britishness in the context of an economic recession, loss of empire and the clash between the re-emergence of a far-right, anti-immigrant discourse and anti-racist politics.
The Canonisation and Commemoration of Play for Today
In this presentation, Katie Crosson looks at the ways in which popular and critical accounts of Play for Today have prioritised or marginalised particular types of material, characteristically ignoring the full range of plays produced.
Making Play for Today
Interview : Tara Prem (with Vicky Ball)
In this interview, Tara Prem discusses her role as a Play for Today script editor and producer
Making Play for Today
Interview : Peter Ansorge (with Ian Greaves)
In this interview, Peter Ansorge discusses his role as a Play for Today producer with English Regions Drama.
Scotch Missed – BBC Scotland’s Contribution to Play for Today
In this presentation, Jonny Murray discusses the Plays for Today produced in or about Scotland, encouraging a reassessment of an important, but largely overlooked, aspect of Scottish television history.
Play for Today and Northern Ireland
In this presentation, John Hill discusses the Plays for Today dealing with Northern Ireland, identifying the eclectic mix of productions – stretching from anti-naturalism and absurdism to realism and documentary drama – that were made despite the problems of censorship and filming on location in Northern Ireland.
NOTES ON PARTICIPANTS
PETER ANSORGE joined the BBC’s English Regions Drama Department in Birmingham in 1975 as a script editor and producer. Under David Rose’s innovative regime, he worked on Mike Leigh’s early success Nuts in May (1976), David Hare’s Licking Hitler (1978), both of which were commissioned as Plays for Today, and Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff (1982). Peter devised and produced the UK’s first black soap opera Empire Road (1980), written by Michael Abbensetts and starring Norman Beaton. In 1982 Peter followed David Rose to the UK’s new broadcaster Channel 4 where he became a commissioning editor for fiction and helped to create the Film on 4 strand. Subsequently, Peter became Head of Drama for television series and serials. His award-winning commissions included A Very British Coup (1988) and Alan Bleasdale’s GBH (1991). Since leaving Channel 4, he has worked as a producer of feature films and television and he is currently Head of Short Courses at the National Film & Television School. His personal selection of Plays for Today may be found here.
VICKY BALL is Senior Lecturer in Cinema and Television Histories at De Montfort University in Leicester. She is the principal investigator on the BA/Leverhulme project entitled ‘Play for Today at 50: Women Writers and Writing Women into Histories of British Television Drama’. She was recently co-investigator on the AHRC funded project ‘Women’s Work, Working Women: A Longitudinal Study of Women Working in the Film and Television Industries (1933-1989)’. She has published articles on gender and British television drama and most recently she is the co-editor of ‘Structures of Feeling: Contemporary Research in Women’s Film and Broadcasting history,’ a special themed issue of Women’s History Review.
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.
KATIE CROSSON is a postgraduate researcher in the Department of Media Arts, Royal Holloway, University of London, working in collaboration with the British Film Institute. She helped curate the season of Plays for Today at BFI Southbank and was the guest curator of a BBC Canvas online exhibition in association with the BFI and BBC History. Her blog post on women and Play for Today may be found here and her personal selection of Plays for Today here.
Sir RICHARD EYRE was artistic director of Nottingham Playhouse from 1973–78 where he commissioned and directed many new plays, including Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians. He joined the BBC in 1978 as series producer for Play for Today, and his work for the strand as a producer and director included Barrie Keeffe’s Waterloo Sunset (1979), Neville Smith’s Long Distance Information (1979), a studio adaptation of Comedians (1979), Just a Boys’ Game (1979), written by Peter McDougall and directed by John Mackenzie, Ian McEwan’s The Imitation Game (1980), an adaptation of David Storey’s novel Pasmore (1980) and Trevor Griffiths’ film Country (1981). He was director of the National Theatre from 1987 to 1997 and a member of the BBC’s Board of Governors from 1995 to 2003. In addition to directing numerous award-winning plays and operas, his extensive film credits include The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983), Tumbledown (1988), Iris (2001), Notes on a Scandal (2006), The Children Act (2017) and King Lear (2018). His personal selection of Plays for Today may be found here.
SIMON FARQUHAR is a writer and broadcaster. Works include, for the stage, Rainbow Kiss (Royal Court and 59E59 New York), Dream Me a Winter (Old Vic) and Wassail Play (Theatre Royal, Dumfries), and for BBC Radio 4 A Sympathetic Eye: The Story of Man Alive (Archive on 4) and Elevenses with Twiggy. He writes for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent and his book A Dangerous Place was shortlisted for the 2016 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. He is the author of Play for Today: The First Year 1970-71 (2021) and his personal selection of Plays for Today may be found here while his personal blog may be found here.
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). His personal selection of Plays for Today may be found here.
JOHN HILL is Professor of Media at Royal Holloway, University of London and Co-Director of the Centre for the History of Television Culture and Production. He is the author, editor or co-editor of numerous books and journals on film and television including Cinema and Northern Ireland: Film, Culture and Politics (2006), Ken Loach: The Politics of Film and Television (2011), The Companion to British and Irish Cinema (2019) and special issues of the Journal of British Cinema and Television on ‘Radical Television Drama’ (2013) and the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television on ‘Forgotten Television Drama’ (2017). His blog post on Play for Today and Northern Ireland may be found here.
ELENI LIAROU is lecturer in film and television history at Birkbeck College, University of London. She has published articles on postcolonialism and Gangsters (BBC, 1975-1978), ‘British Television’s Lost ‘New Wave’ Moment: ITV’s single drama and race’ and ‘Leo Lehman and the Europeanness of early British TV drama’. In 2014, Eleni organised and curated a screening and panel discussion on Multicultural TV in the UK, supported by Birkbeck’s Institute for the Moving Image. Extracts from Eleni’s interview with TV producer Tara Prem can be accessed here.
TOM MAY is a postgraduate researcher at Northumbria University undertaking a funded PhD research project on the history of Play for Today with attention to its aesthetics and style, representation and reception. He also blogs at May’s Britain and Opening Negotiations. He has previously written about David Edgar’s Plays for Today Baby Love (1974) and Destiny (1978) and his personal selection of Plays for Today may be found here.
JONATHAN MURRAY is Senior Lecturer in Film and Visual Culture at Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. His books include Discomfort and Joy: The Cinema of Bill Forsyth (Peter Lang, 2011) and The New Scottish Cinema (I.B. Tauris, 2015). He is also the editor of a special issue of Visual Culture in Britain on ‘Television Drama in Scotland’ (2017).
TARA PREM is a film and television drama producer. At the BBC she worked a script editor, director and producer for English Regions Drama at Pebble Mill where she was in charge of the Second City Firsts series of new dramas, which brought Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell and Ian McEwan, among others, to television audiences. She also produced early work by directors Stephen Frears, Mike Newell and Mike Leigh. Her credits for Play for Today include, as script editor, Penda’s Fen (1974), Three for the Fancy (1974) and Breath (1975) and, as producer, Vampires (1979) and Thicker than Water (1980). She produced Paul Greengrass’s first feature film Resurrected (1989) and Jimmy McGovern’s award-winning drama series Hearts and Minds (1995). Her own screenplay, A Touch of Eastern Promise (1973), was the first television drama to deal with the lives of an ordinary Asian family in the inner city.
KENITH TRODD is a British film and television producer whose credits since 1966 include thirty Plays for Today, some highly distinguished, and a large subsequent output for all sizes of screen employing the best talent available across more than 50 years. A listing of his credits may be found here.
JOHN WYVER is a writer and producer with the independent production company Illuminations which specialises in performance films and documentaries about the arts. His work has been honoured with a BAFTA Award, an International Emmy and a Peabody. As Director, Screen Productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company, he produces the RSC’s live cinema broadcasts of their stage productions. He is Professor of the Arts on Screen at the University of Westminster and his books include Vision On: Film, Television and the Arts (2007), Screening the Royal Shakespeare Company: A Critical History (2019) and Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television (2021, co-edited with Amanda Wrigley). He is also the director of the documentary Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today, first screened on BBC Four in 2020. His personal selection of Plays for Today may be found here.
Thanks to the Centre for the History of Television Culture and Production and to the the Humanities and Arts Research Institute (HARI), Royal Holloway, University of London.