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1970s 1980s BBC drama Play For Today

My Ten Plays for Today: John Hill

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 selection is a mix of personal favourites and work that I think deserves to be better known. Forced to restrict my choices to ten, the selection does, however, gravitate towards work that is loosely experimental, broadly political and results from a strong creative collaboration (particularly between writer and director). The plays are listed in chronological order.

In the Beautiful Caribbean (3 February 1972) w. Barry Reckord, d. Philip Saville, p. Irene Shubik

The theatre and television work of Barry Reckord has achieved a degree of recognition in recent years for its dramatisation and exploration of class, race and gender in post-war British society. His partly autobiographical play You in Your Small Corner (5 June 1962), dealing with the relationship between a black university student from the Caribbean and his white working-class girlfriend, was turned into an ITV play and then later reworked as Club Havana for the BBC (Second City Firsts, 25 October 1975) (and later shown as part of the Forgotten Black Television Drama season at the BFI Southbank). While both of these may still be seen and evaluated, this is not the case with Reckord’s most ambitious television project, In the Beautiful Caribbean. Described by producer Irene Shubik as ‘a “Brechtian” musical on the developing political consciousness of Black Jamaica’ it involved a large black cast that included Thomas Baptiste, Louise Bennett, Rick James, Calvin Lockhart and Ram John Holder along with a ‘live’ band overseen by Horace Ové, the co-writer and director of the later Play for Today, A Hole in Babylon (29 November 1979). While there are a number of intriguing Plays for Today that no longer survive, the distinctive artistic character and historical importance of this particular work makes its loss particularly unfortunate.

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Carson Country (23 October 1972) w. Dominic Behan. d. Piers Haggard, p. Graeme McDonald

Written by the Irish writer and singer, Dominic Behan, the younger brother of Brendan Behan, Carson Country was the first Play for Today set in Ireland. Focusing on the opposition of unionists, led by Lord Edward Carson, to Home Rule prior to the First World War, the play was unusual for a Play for Today  in turning to a historical subject, albeit one with resonances for the contemporary Northern Irish ‘troubles’. Shot primarily in the studio, and inventively directed by Piers Haggard, Behan’s tale of sectarianism and working-class division was exuberantly brought to life through a mix of drama and documentary, music and song, elaborate camera movements, changes in lighting and colour and the use of stills and slow motion. Despite the play’s underlying humanism, the production proved sufficiently challenging for the BBC to make cuts and delay transmission for a number of months.

Penda’s Fen (21 March 1974) w. David Rudkin, d. Alan Clarke, p. David Rose

Despite Play for Today’s reputation for hard-hitting realist drama, the series was always much more varied and eclectic than is commonly recalled. Indeed, it could be said that it is now those plays more commonly associated with ‘fantasy – such as John Bowen’s ‘folk horror’ Robin Redbreast (10 December 1970), Alan Garner’s time-switching Red Shift (17 January 1978) and David Rudkin’s mystical Penda’s Fen – that have come to be some of the series’ most celebrated productions. Penda’s Fen is clearly the most remarkable of these: a dense, multi-layered work, luminously directed by Alan Clarke, mining the themes of place, identity, sexuality, history and nation.  While no longer a neglected work, the play’s level of artistic achievement demands it be included in a list such as this.

Leeds United! (31 October 1974) w. Colin Welland, d. Roy Battersby, p. Kenith Trodd.

Based on the unofficial strike of mainly women clothing workers in Leeds in February 1970, Leeds United! is one of the great pieces of radical television drama made for Play for Today.  Running to three times the cost of the average Play for Today and involving a huge cast and several weeks of location shooting, the production combined the ‘epic’ qualities of Gillo Pontecorvo’s political cinema with the more intimate features of television soap opera. Arousing concern within BBC management for its lack of political ‘balance’, it also hastened the blacklisting of director Roy Battersby who directed only one further short play for the BBC until the mid-1980s.

Taking Leave (28 November 1974) w. Joyce Neary, d. John Mackenzie, p. Kenith Trodd

This was the first Play for Today by a woman writer new to television and the only television play by Joyce Neary, a Canadian living in London.  But what a play it is. Dealing with a young soldier’s return from Belfast on a short period of leave, the play reveals family life itself to be a ‘war zone’ characterised by paternal violence and abuse. A powerful and disturbing play that combines political allegory with a searching critique of the power relations at work within a seemingly ‘respectable’ family.

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Just Another Saturday (13 March 1975) w. Peter McDougall, d. John Mackenzie, p. Graeme McDonald

Peter McDougall wrote a total of four Plays for Today, three of which were directed by fellow Scotsman John Mackenzie (Just Another Saturday, The Elephants’ Graveyard and Just a Boys’ Game). All of these might feature in a list such as this but for me it is Just Another Saturday that is the most remarkable. Focused on an Orange parade in Glasgow, the play – or rather film – takes an unsparing look at sectarianism and its rootedness within working-class culture. Filmed in part during an actual march, the production generates a compelling sense of insiderism while maintaining a critical distance from the actions it observes (resulting in complaints from the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland that it had been misled into co-operating with the production team). A hard-hitting but complex work with a notably challenging ending.

The After Dinner Joke (14 February 1978) w. Caryl Churchill d. Colin Bucksey, p. Margaret Matheson

While Caryl Churchill’s adaptation of the transcript of a jury-less trial in Northern Ireland, The Legion Hall Bombing (22 August 1978) remains her best-known Play for Today due to the controversy it generated, her earlier play, made for the same season, The After Dinner Joke, is also a memorable work. Commissioned by Margaret Matheson who wanted ‘plays about public rather than domestic subjects’, the play satirises the world of charities, exposing some of the hypocrisies and ideological dispositions that underpin them. It does so, however, in a comic-book style partly inspired by the sketch form and absurdism of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (BBC, 1969-74). Making extensive use of contemporary electronic techniques, the play is also one of the most visually inventive of Plays for Today, departing radically from the observational realism with which the series has so often associated.

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Beloved Enemy (10 February 1981) w. David Leland and Charles Levinson, d. Alan Clarke, p. Keith Williams

David Leland and Alan Clarke collaborated on two Plays for Today broadcast in 1981. The second, Psy-Warriors (12 May 1981), dealing with military methods of psychological torture,  is probably the better-known (and more lauded) of the two. However, Beloved Enemy has always struck me as an underrated work. Based on Charles Levinson’s Vodka-Cola (1979), the production is unusual in setting out to examine ‘the overworld of the multinationals’, the power and influence of which outstrips the control of sovereign states and elected governments.  Clarke’s trademark mobile camera is here turned on the economically powerful, rather than the socially disadvantaged, in what constitutes an intriguing attempt to make visible the normally hidden mechanics of corporate capitalism and political lobbying.

Iris in the Traffic…. Ruby in the Rain (24 November 1981) w. Stewart Parker d. John Bruce p. June Roberts

Belfast playwright Stewart Parker was responsible for three Plays for Today, including one of the most peculiar, the somewhat misfiring The Kamikaze Ground Staff Reunion Dinner (17 February 1981).  His third Play for Today, Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain, however, works much better, harnessing the writer’s playfulness and sense of the absurd to a story firmly rooted in the realities of contemporary Belfast. Loosely modelled on James Joyce’s Ulysses the play focuses on two women, not known to each other, who are drawn into a series of chance encounters during the course of a single day. Focusing on the personal and ethical challenges that they face, the play also offers an oblique commentary on the ‘troubles’ which are regarded, like the ‘traffic’ and ‘rain’ of the play’s title, as a feature of daily life.  In line with its gently allegorical impulses, the play finally brings together the two main female characters at the play’s end when they are able to enjoy the pleasures of peaceful conversation and conviviality .

United Kingdom (8 December 1981) w. Jim Allen d. Roland Joffé p. Kenith Trodd

While writer Jim Allen and director Roland Joffé’s The Spongers (24 January 1978) remains one of the most emblematic of Plays for Today, the same team’s United Kingdom provides a less well-known but nonetheless stirring companion-piece. Focusing on a left-wing council removed from office for overspending on public services, and faced with an increasingly authoritarian and politicised police force, it was one of the first major dramas to address the socio-political changes wrought by the Thatcher-led Conservative government (elected in 1979).  Jim Allen’s sympathy for ‘ordinary’ people pushed towards political action shines through while Joffé’s visually restrained but eloquent direction invests the production with a ‘cinematic’ quality (that was particularly evident when shown on the big screen at BFI Southbank as part of the ‘Radical Television Drama’ season in 2009). It comes as no surprise that Joffé went on to direct major film features such as The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986).  However, for me, it is the much less bombastic United Kingdom that remains the most compelling of these.

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John Hill is Professor of Media at Royal Holloway, University of London and was the Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded research project, ‘The History of Forgotten Television Drama in the UK’. He is the author of books on British and Irish cinema and the editor or co-editor of journal special issues on ‘Radical Television Drama’, ‘Forgotten Television Drama’, Ken Russell and Play for Today.

4 replies on “My Ten Plays for Today: John Hill”

Gangsters and Penda’s Fen are the joint leaders, on eight votes.

Nuts in May has seven votes.

Three plays on six votes: Leeds United!, Through the Night and The Spongers.

Five plays currently on five votes: Robin Redbreast, The Cheviot the Stag & the Black Black Oil, Just Another Saturday, Bar Mitzvah Boy and Blue Remembered Hills.

Four plays currently on four votes: Edna the Inebriate Woman, Kisses at Fifty, Destiny and The Imitation Game.

Six plays currently on three votes: Orkney, Land of Green Ginger, Abigail’s Party, Licking Hitler, Country and King.

Sixteen plays currently on two votes: Shakespeare – Or Bust, Back of Beyond, Sunset Across The Bay, The Lonely Man’s Lover, The Other Woman, Double Dare, The After Dinner Joke, Don’t Be Silly, Comedians, Just A Boy’s Game, A Hole In Babylon, Long Distance Information, The Adventures of Frank, Iris In The Traffic… Ruby In The Rain, United Kingdom and Baby Talk.

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

Another excellent list! Carson Country definitely merits its first (?) vote. A brilliant play, given a revelatory Brechtian treatment in the studio. I’d argue that, like Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Alastair Reid, Colin Bucksey, Jane Howell and Philip Saville, Piers Haggard is an especially brilliant director of video-studio drama.

I hadn’t seen Iris… or United Kingdom when I did my list, but they’d definitely be there or thereabouts now. Especially the former. UK is surely the only PfT to include location footage shot in Sunderland!

Leeds United! is definitely one of the more partial of Plays for Today but then can’t it be argued that this was giving a clear, undiluted voice to a group less represented in the media at the time than their bosses or those higher up in the unions’ hierarchy? I think it is very valuable for that and shows that drama shouldn’t get overly constrained by notions of ‘balance’ when the rest of the media output provides the counter views.

The discussion show on In Vision after Leeds United! is really interesting in having some of the original striking women workers, bosses and trade union officials (and Ken Trodd) all discussing the play in a studio. Must say it came across that the actual strike had been rather successful from the workers’ perspective which runs counter to the impression given by the PfT’s bleak if defiant ending!

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