When commentators refer to a ‘golden age’ of television in Britain Play for Today is invariably one of the first titles to be cited. Certainly, Play for Today still stands as one of British TV’s finest hours, a place where a mass audience was gripped and entertained but also challenged to think about the world.
The folk memory of Play for Today emphasises gritty social realism but, important as those plays are, they are far from the whole story – it wasn’t all issues and outrage. There were comedies, historical plays, and even sci-fi broadcast in the slot, too, and the producers were very careful to offer viewers a very varied schedule each season.
Play for Today proved a great showcase for some of the great talents in TV drama such as Trevor Griffiths, Mike Leigh, and Dennis Potter, who claimed it as “the nourishing zest of an individual imagination”. It also encouraged many authors with reputations in literature and theatre to work in television.
Millions tuned in every week and the plays reached audiences far greater than the majority of cinema releases could hope to attract. From 1970 to 1984 over 300 plays were screened. All the surviving plays (sadly 30 are missing, believed wiped) will be added to the Mediatheque’s collection over the next three years. Although concerned with their time most of the plays seem just as relevant today. Thirty years on their questions about ourselves and our society still need asking.