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1970s 1980s BBC BBC drama Play For Today

Play for Today’s Title Sequences

By Tom May

During its run from 1970 until 1984, the one-off drama series Play for Today employed seven different title sequences. In my article for the Special Issue on ‘Play for Today at 50’ for the Journal of British Cinema and Television , I provide a historical analysis of these. Focusing on how the different sequences invested the strand with a particular identity and prepared audiences for the plays that followed, it identifies the  main modes of address employed by the title sequences and the ways in which they both startled and seduced viewers.

This shorter post is intended to complement this article by presenting the findings of a survey I undertook from June 2021 to January 2022. This aimed to gather the views on the various title sequences of a range of interested parties. While there is no pretence at rigorous sampling, the views of the 61 people who contributed, including six who actually worked on Play for Today, does provide an insight into both historical and contemporary responses to the different sequences.

My findings are presented in chronological order. Each entry opens with a one-sentence potted summary of my own analysis. This is followed by their overall average rating (the mean average of people’s scores out of 10  expressed as a percentage). This is followed by a summary of – and samples from – the qualitative comments that respondents made.

Hyperlinks are provided to five of the title sequences which may be found in Ravensbourne’s fine BBC Motion Graphics Archive.

Title Sequence #1 (1970-71): ‘A strange jauntiness’

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View the sequence.

Play for Today’s first titles demonstrate a middlebrow BBC aesthetic, with Bach-like music fusing with fast-cut shots of individual letters. Average Rating: 56.2% (3rd). Favourite of 8 respondents. Least favourite of 14.

The first Play for Today titles went down fairly well. They were notably more popular with the six respondents who worked on Play for Today than those who did not, scoring 63.3% with this cohort. Some disliked its lack of urgency and contemporaneity, thinking its ‘cod-Baroque music felt too stuffy and old-fashioned’. However, others felt a strong nostalgic appeal for these ‘arty’ or ‘Reithian’ titles with ‘jolly’ music creating an effect that was oddly ‘melancholic and soothing’. For one respondent, it ‘tends to connote the artistic over the controversial’ which they thought was an attempt to move away from the ‘baggage’ of The Wednesday Play (1964-70).

Title Sequence #2 (1971-2): ‘Fantastically obnoxious’

Image 3 - PFT title sequence 2 (1971-72) detail

This aims for a more contemporary, urban feel and a younger audience with its jarring Delia Derbyshire ident and its posters on a wall visuals. Average Rating: 57.9% (2nd). Favourite of 9. Least favourite of 7.

The second Play for Today title sequence was even better received, being seen as tougher, more dramatic and even unsettling, evoking a gritty contemporaneity. For some tastes its ‘heraldic dissonance’ was ‘over-dramatic’ or ‘severe’. However, for many, the liveliness and brevity of these anarchic titles grabbed their attention, with some recognising the Radiophonic Workshop sounds and appreciating its striking ‘DIY’ aesthetic and intimations that sinister or political material will ensue.

Liked this one better, visually more appealing, colourful, energetic’.

Title Sequence #3 (1972-3): ‘Uber 1970s’

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This feels more streamlined in its modernism, with another Radiophonic Workshop ident accompanied by stencilled imagery which possesses a conveyor-belt regularity. Average Rating: 54.3% (3rd).  Favourite of 11. Least favourite of 13.

This elicited probably the most polarised response of all. Some admiringly or dismissively likened its 1970s’ aesthetic to that of Open University or science-fiction programmes. For one person,  it was ‘evocative of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma (1969) or Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy (1968), and therefore superb’; however, for another, it was ‘cheap and nasty – makes The Tomorrow People (Thames Television, 1973-79) look sophisticated by comparison’! Many found it insufficiently suggestive of the drama to follow, and blander than its predecessor. However, just as many admired its abstract experimentalism: ‘bold and full of newness, together with an attempt at Tomorrow’s World (BBC1, 1965-2003) Radiophonic Workshop metallic music.’ For this respondent, the typeface was the most ‘iconic’ of all, evoking Concorde, Britain’s entry to the European Economic Community and the clanking of industrial disputes. This was the second favourite of those who worked on Play for Today (65%), after…

Title Sequence #4 (1973-76): ‘Dynamic confidence’

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View the sequence.

This employs a more human-centric aesthetic involving juxtaposed stills of faces from different Plays for Today (that vary for different runs) to the accompaniment of Carl Davis’s warmly accessible piano-led musical ident. Average Rating: 75.7% (1st) Favourite of 33. Least favourite of 2.

This was unquestionably the popular favourite. This was due to its mix of Carl Davis’s jaunty musical theme with images which ‘actually introduced humans and life’: providing the clearest expectation of what to expect. One respondent felt it ‘reflects the series at its height and the height of its confidence’. Its gallery of actors’ faces provoked varied interpretations – as representing Britain’s geographical and class diversity, ‘all the various proletarians’ or characters being in ‘situations you might find yourself in’. A few dissenters felt its jump-cuts were like ‘a dodgy old horror film’ or that it was more outdated than its immediate predecessors. For one, its images evoked Ken Loach, Barry Hines and Trevor Griffiths’s ‘gritty political dramas’, against which Davis’s music was jarringly jolly! However, there was a widely expressed admiration for its ‘dynamic’ and ‘irresistible’ human factor.

It’s an attractive musical accompaniment, quite memorable, and the series of stills promise dramatic scenarios from personal to political, bleak to heart-warming, so it gives a sense of the series’ range.’

Title Sequence #5 (1976-77): ‘Mainstream optimism’

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View the sequence.

This aims for Olympian universality and nowness in using a time-lapse film aesthetic, alongside an even more ebullient re-arrangement of Davis’s theme. Average Rating: 50.2% (7th). Favourite of 6.  Least favourite of 14.

This shorter-lived title sequence suffered in comparison with its revered predecessor. This was felt to be too mainstream or upbeat, suggesting, variously, the expectation of ‘lightweight comedy’, ‘breakfast television’, sport, game show, light entertainment or children’s programmes. The sped-up musical rearrangement was seen as inferior to its more piano-led predecessor. Some felt it failed to give a clear expectation of what was to follow: ‘the note of wistful optimism might have been a bit at odds with some of the subject matter’. However, a sizeable minority appreciated this title’s greater cheeriness, praising Sid Sutton’s effective visualisation of time passing and how it suggests Play for Today’s permanence amid changing weather. Notably, this title sequence was the least popular by far with men (48.8%) but was valued more highly by women respondents (53.3%).

Title Sequence #6 (1977-82): ‘Basic topicality’

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View the sequence.

This achieves a theatrical bareness, grabbing attention with its stark, minimalist visuals and brevity, alongside Nick Bicât’s forthright drumroll. Average Rating: 51.8% (5th). Favourite of 6. Least favourite of 15.

While generally not the best received, this, like other Play for Today title sequences, had its strong defenders. For many, its ‘basic’ quality was simply ‘dull’ or unimaginative, but to others this ‘bold’ simplicity ‘does the job’. One viewer felt it was like a ‘roll up’ announcement for a circus; more saw a resemblance to newspaper aesthetics, aptly signifying Play for Today’s topicality. What to some seemed cheap – ‘five minutes’ work for Ken Morse’s rostrum camera’ – was admired by others for promising ‘something powerful’ to follow and suggesting, economically, the strand’s diverse output. This one saw the biggest divide along gender lines with it being by far the least favoured among female respondents (47.2%), but men’s third favourite (53.7%). Many admired its ‘impact’ and ‘enigmatic’ qualities, though one devotee felt they couldn’t rate it a ten as it was ‘a bit laddish’.

More of a notice than a title sequence, the drumroll and simple bold red capitals and very short running time suggests a weighty importance for those inclined to watch but perhaps assumes its audience are already reading The Guardian or New Society.

Although incredibly basic there’s something about this sequence that adequately conveys most of the era it covers. It’s basically saying “no messing about, here comes a gut punch!” And then literally lurches towards the camera at the end.’

Title Sequence #7, 1982-84: ‘Portentous significance’

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View the sequence.

The final Play for Today title sequence is more portentous, its ident aims at a grandeur and cinematic gravitas that feels bathetic alongside rostrum camera visuals that recycle past glories. Average Rating: 51.5% (6th). Favourite of 9. Least favourite of 13.

This elicited a middling response. Adjectives like ordinary, dull, drab and ineffective were fairly common, one respondent suggesting it implies what follows will be ‘a rough watch’. Several felt this was self-important, stuffy and portentous: ‘as if the show wanted to be seen as suddenly having cultural significance rather than just intriguing you like the earlier credits did’. Others saw the colours as ‘horrible’, in an aesthetic that seemed low-budget and ‘too 80s’ with the music also ‘a touch melodramatic’. One respondent felt the fanfare – possibly by Geoffrey Burgon another noted – would have been more fitting for the ‘BBC Television Shakespeare’ (BBC2, 1978-85). However, quite a few liked the stately but simple graphics and regarded the ‘classy’ musical fanfare as signalling ‘something worth our attention […] intriguing as well as being sufficiently neutral to introduce comedy or tragedy’. Like #6, it was approved for being applicable to Play for Today’s diversity, but was seen as more artistic. While a few were bored by what they felt was overly akin to a news or BBC2 channel ident, others approved of its theatrical connotations and saw it as heralding ‘quality’ content.

Powerful, impactful, bold – if it could wear shoulder pads and read us the news it would.’

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Tom May is a postgraduate researcher at Northumbria University. He is nearing completion of his PhD thesis, ‘A history and analysis of Play for Today (BBC1, 1970-84)’. He previously taught a range of A-Levels at Newcastle Sixth Form College from 2006-2018 and has recently taught on Northumbria’s Media, Mass Communications and Journalism degree programmes. His article ‘Startling or seductive? An analysis of Play for Today’s title sequences’ may be found in the Journal of British Cinema and Television special issue on ‘Play for Today at 50’ (Vol. 19, No. 2, 2022).

One reply on “Play for Today’s Title Sequences”

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