1970s 1980s BBC Play For Today

Play for Today: The Top 21

This is the conclusion of a series of posts in which we have published selections of ‘top’ Plays for Today 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. We have now combined the lists and publish the Top 21 of 89 nominated plays, an interesting selection of productions that combines titles that might have been expected to appear with a number of less well-known works.

Those who took part in the poll are: Peter Ansorge, Susanna Capon, John Cook, Lez Cooke, Katie Crosson, Jon Dear, Richard Eyre, Simon Farquhar, Christine Geraghty, Ian Greaves, John Hill, Vanessa Jackson, Lisa Kerrigan, Ben Lamb, Tom May, Sally Shaw, Billy Smart, Ken Trodd, Sue Vice and John Wyver.

Tom May has also provided a summary of votes, original viewing figures and number of repeats in a table at the end of the post.

 1ST =

Gangsters (9 January 1975) w. Philip Martin d. Philip Saville p. Barry Hanson.

It’s worth bearing mind that this exciting and stimulating play with a diverse cast and set in multi-ethnic Birmingham appeared at a time when Love Thy Neighbour (1972-76) and The Black and White Minstrel Show (1958-78) still graced Britain TV screens. Its themes of drugs, corruption and immigration could have been done in the naturalist mode of other plays but Gangsters, filmed on location, was fast-moving and stylish, revelling in generic references to US movies, Bollywood colour, blaxploitation elements, dubious comedians in downmarket clubs and a ‘hero’ who declares that ‘My name’s John Kline, not John Wayne’. Inevitably, it caused controversy, with Birmingham City Council objecting strongly, but it went on to enjoy a second life as a series and gave a calling card to Black and Asian actors like Paul Barber, Albie Parsons, Saeed Jaffrey and Ahmed Khalil. (Christine Geraghty)

Nuts in May (13 January 1976) devised and d. Mike Leigh, p. David Rose

For me, this thorny comedy-drama of class conflict between urban holidaymakers in Dorset, devised by Mike Leigh from an earlier stage analogue just edges out his chastening Hard Labour (1973). This makes you laugh and think in equal measure and lingers long in the mind. It defies the sort of easy and unfair pigeonholing that Abigail’s Party suffered. Every performance is pitched perfectly to fashion a uniquely awkward and compelling social ensemble. (Tom May)

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

David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen is one of the most esoteric and unusual Plays for Today, a non-naturalistic exploration of mythological themes expressed through symbolic imagery conjured up by the imagination of a middle-class boy whose passion for the music of Edward Elgar is bound up with his patriotism and love of the English landscape, but complicated by a growing awareness of his homosexuality. David Rose suggested Alan Clarke as an unlikely director for the film (this is far removed from any notion of a ‘play’) but his choice was inspired and Clarke’s realisation of Rudkin’s poetic vision made for one of the most original and memorable of all Plays for Today. (Lez Cooke)


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

‘The Battle of Algiers’ meets ‘Coronation Street’ but it is Welland’s humanity and his love of working-class folk that shine through. (John Cook)

Leeds United!
5TH =

Blue Remembered Hills (30 January 1979) w. Dennis Potter d. Brian Gibson p. Kenith Trodd

The shocking everyday cruelty of children brought home by having them all played by adults, Dennis Potter’s critique of AH Houseman’s most famous poem features a remarkable performance by Colin Jeavons and gives voice to those who know that the land of lost content didn’t always feature happy highways. (Jon Dear)

The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil (6 June 1974) w. John McGrath d. John Mackenzie p. Graeme McDonald

Using the stage play by the 7:84 theatre company, director John Mackenzie turned John McGrath’s radical play into ‘a Brechtian way of approaching television’ juxtaposing three different forms in a dialectical montage: the agit-prop stage play, dramatised footage of the Highland Clearances, and documentary footage about the 1970s oil boom and the exploitation of it by multi-national companies. The result was one of the most radical, political dramas ever to appear on British television: informative, educational and entertaining. (Lez Cooke)

The Spongers (24 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. (Ben Lamb)

Through the Night (2 December 1975) w. Trevor Griffiths d. Michael Lindsay-Hogg, p. Ann Scott

Like a number of Play for Todays, Trevor Griffiths’ Through the Night shows an individual (Alison Steadman as hospital patient Mrs Potts) gaining understanding of a system (the NHS) through traumatic personal experience (an unexpected mastectomy). The story is ideally realised through the form of the television play, its concentrated narrative realised through a succession of subtly-but-clearly drawn institutional oversights, confined to the studio setting of the hospital (a space shown from the patient’s perspective). Unusually for Play for Today, the programme reached an audience that was both very large and highly appreciative, touching a latent wish on the part of the public for a serious and sensitive play about cancer treatment, at a time when talk about the disease was still whispered or avoided. (Billy Smart)

Alison Steadman in Through the Night
9TH =

Bar Mitzvah Boy (14 September 1976) w. Jack Rosenthal d. Michael Tuchner p. Graeme McDonald

I saw this play when it was first broadcast, and the image of the titular boy, Eliot Green, reciting his Torah portion while standing on his head in a playground, rather than in the synagogue, has never left me. Every time I’ve watched it since, I’ve marvelled at the stellar quality of the acting – including Jeremy Steyn as Eliot – and the dialogue, even if it now seems a shame that the bar mitzvah boy’s rebellion doesn’t come to anything, and the play really is about becoming a man, sometimes at the expense of the fabulous Adrienne Posta as Eliot’s sister Lesley, and Maria Charles as his mother Rita. I’m convinced its influence can be seen today in Simon Amstell’s Grandma’s House and Robert Popper’s Friday Night Dinner.  (Sue Vice)

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 Just Another Saturday 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 what it reveals (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.  (John Hill)

Robin Redbreast (10 December 1970) w. John Bowen d. James MacTaggart p. Graeme McDonald

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. (Sally Shaw)

Robin Redbreast
12TH =

Edna the Inebriate Woman (21 October 1971) w. Jeremy Sandford d. Ted Kotcheff, p. Irene Shubik

Few characters have the depth, intrigue and warmth of Edna. I’d imagine if I were a critic at the time this came out I would’ve been prompted to write one of those terribly cringey pieces exclaiming that audiences simply WON’T BELIEVE she isn’t REAL. What should be a depressing and sobering watch feels like being taken on an adventure, and has us on the edge of our seats. My heart breaks for Edna every time, but she sings on the screen and I have seen few better depictions of stubbornness, pride and perseverance. (Katie Crosson)

Destiny (31 January 1978) w. David Edgar d. Mike Newell p. Margaret Matheson

David Edgar’s incisive stage play is captured and subtly opened out for television by Mike Newell, exemplifying the best ensemble-centric intensity of studio video productions. An outstanding cast powerfully and disturbingly enact a panoramic state of the nation story of contemporary Britain. Peter Jeffrey, Joseph Blatchley, Iain Cuthbertson, Paul Copley, Nigel Hawthorne and Saeed Jaffrey humanise Edgar’s intellectual history play, compellingly dramatising how clashing ideologies vie for control of British identity. It remains a play for today. (Tom May)

The Imitation Game (24 April 1980) w. Ian McEwan d. and p. Richard Eyre

Ian McEwan’s The Imitation Game forms the middle part of an informal Play for Today trilogy between David Hare’s Licking Hitler and David Pirie’s Rainy Day Women, three feminist revisionist WWII plays written by men and realised in a particular filmic style. The sense of (Suffolk and Essex) place – wide, expansive, chilly – in The Imitation Game is extraordinary. The film’s powerful effect owes something to the remarkable triangular chemistry of the combination of writer, producer-director (Richard Eyre) and lead actor (Harriet Walter). None of the trio was experienced in making full-length television films at the time, a lasting testament to the countless risks taken on, and opportunities created for, generations of talented programme-makers that Play for Today employed over its 14-year run. (Billy Smart)

Kisses at Fifty (22 January 1973) w. Colin Welland, d. Michael Apted, p. Graeme McDonald

A portrait of desire, marriage, masculinity, ageing. A slow pace that I enjoyed, allowing room for a great deal of reflection (which is needed, because there’s so much ground covered in the conversations between characters in this play). I particularly valued seeing such frank and explicit discussions about relationships, needs and human fallibility on the screen. It felt so heartbreakingly honest and at once deeply personal and unglamorous. (Katie Crosson)

Bill Maynard in Kisses at Fifty

Licking Hitler (10 January 1978) w. and d. David Hare, p. David Rose

David Hare won the BAFTA for best single television play for Licking Hitler in 1978. Remarkably, it was his television directorial debut. Set in an English stately home in 1941, it tells the story of Anna, played by Kate Nelligan, who is thrust into a secret world, broadcasting propaganda to Nazi Germany. After the war, Anna, and Archie, the chief writer of the now disbanded unit, played by Bill Paterson, long for the meaning of their wartime work, and the excitement of their former lives. It was shot at Compton Verney House in Warwickshire. Peter Ansorge, who script edited the play and was a friend of David Hare, thought it astonishing that Hare was allowed to direct it, having never directed television before. Even in the late 1970s it was a tremendous risk to give a high profile and complex drama to someone without television experience. However, it paid off, and Peter acknowledges that no one could have made the film better. It was Peter who brought David Hare to television and helped him overcome the prejudices he had about it as a medium. David Rose described Licking Hitler as an absolute gem that he could just keep on watching. He had seen a number of plays of David Hare’s in the theatre and had no qualms about him directing, saying he appreciated how precise he could be and how he knew exactly what he wanted to do with the script. (Vanessa Jackson)

17TH =

Abigail’s Party (1 November 1977) w. and d.  Mike Leigh p. Margaret Matheson

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. (Sally Shaw)

Country (20 October 1981) w. Trevor Griffiths, d. Richard Eyre, p. Ann Scott.

I have had the pleasure of viewing and re-viewing Country recently while working on an article. Its intricate construction, elegant filming and complex presentation of personal and political relationships repay this attention. Set in 1945 as the election results confirm a Labour government will take power, the play gives both an account of the past and a contemporary analogy with Thatcher’s equally momentous result in 1979. As the power of the patriarchal Sir Frederic Carlion (Leo McKern) wanes, his modernizing son Philip (James Fox) steps in to ensure the family and the business will survive any revolutionary threat; the East End hop pickers who are squatting in the stables are evicted in the end. The play offers no settled place for the viewer: not the distanced viewpoint of the disaffected daughter, Virginia (Penelope Wilton), not that of Philip’s ruthless pragmatist, nor (given Thatcher’s later success) the victorious Labour incomers nor the working-class squatters. As the moving camera eavesdrops on secretive conversations in the different spaces of the house, Country manages to be both dreamlike and rigorous, beautiful and a prescient warning. (Christine Geraghty)

King (3 April 1984) w. Barrie Keefe, d. Tony Smith, p. Michael Wearing

Watching this at eleven years old, Tom Baptiste broke my heart and opened my eyes to the power and potential of TV drama to do something even more than just tell good stories. (Simon Farquhar)

Thomas Baptiste in King

Land of Green Ginger (15 January 1973) w. Alan Plater d. Brian Parker p. David Rose

My parents came from Hull and, as a child, the presence of a street called ‘Land of Green Ginger’ made the city more exotic to me than its drab reputation seemed to deserve. And, later, the fact that Alan Plater lived in ‘The Avenues’ meant that Hull was perhaps not so cut off as the long trip to get there indicated. Viewed through the eyes of Sally (Gwen Taylor), now London-based but returning to a city in the throes of change to review her options, this ‘affectionate, witty, poetic and musical evocation of Hull’ offered an account which was partly romanticized, partly full of affectionate observation, making it, in David Rolinson’s words, ‘a highlight of the regional drama . . . overseen from BBC Birmingham’. (Christine Geraghty)

Orkney (13 May 1971) w. John McGrath based on stories by George Mackay Brown d.James MacTaggart p. Graeme McDonald

A triumph of cinematic verve and televisual intimacy; Hannah Gordon astounds as the anti-heroine of Celia, destroying her soul through prostitution and her body through alcoholism to escape the horrors of the world she surveys. Her marathon monologue, as she explains herself to a speechless priest, is a masterpiece of controlled acting. (Simon Farquhar)

Play for Today: Summary of votes, original viewing figures (in millions) and number of repeats. Compiled by Tom May (with thanks to Billy Smart)

No. Play for Today title  Votes Viewers (m) Repeats
#1 Gangsters 8 7.32 1
= Nuts in May 8 9.44 8
= Penda’s Fen 8 4.85 1
#4 Leeds United! 7 6.11 1
#5 Blue Remembered Hills 6 6.79 5
= The Spongers 6 10.45 3
= Through the Night 6 11.67 1
= The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil 6 4.19 2
#9 Bar Mitzvah Boy 5 6.87 9
= Robin Redbreast 5 8.64 1
= Just Another Saturday 5 4.04 4
#12 Destiny 4 2.93 1
= Edna, the Inebriate Woman 4 9.44 3
= Kisses At Fifty 4 7.47 2
= The Imitation Game 4 5.69 2
= Licking Hitler 4 6.57 2
#17 Abigail’s Party 3 9.09 11
= Country 3 5.50 2
= King 3 3.59 0
= Land of Green Ginger 3 4.70 2
= Orkney 3 8.23 1
Hannah Gordon in Orkney



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