According to TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith, writing in The Guardian in 1971, “Skin Deep, the Play for Today, had some excellent, thwacking dialogue which made your ears sing or your cheeks sting, like a cuff delivered where it does most good.” Skin Deep, written by Michael O’Neill and Jeremy Seabrook and directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, was broadcast in November that year and starred Donald Pleasence as a family man struggling with the overbearing management at the American company he works for.

Unfortunately our BFI Southbank season celebrating the 50th anniversary of Play for Today has been curtailed by the November lockdown, but my fellow programmers and I had never even considered screening Skin Deep for the season, or for the Play for Today collection in the BFI Mediatheque. In fact we didn’t even watch it, because there is no known copy of Skin Deep in the archives.

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Play for Today ran from 1970 to 1984, with a little more than 300 plays broadcast in its run. While many of these plays remain inaccessible to the public, most are still preserved at the BBC Archive, with other copies held within the BFI National Archive. However, around 30 Play for Todays are regarded as lost, with no surviving clips from their production. Unfortunately this is fairly common for TV programmes from this period owing to the practice of ‘wiping’ the 2” videotapes on which many programmes were made. In the early 1970s videotape was very expensive and, unlike 16mm film, it could be reused, which saved on production costs. Repeats on television were not so common and the archival value of keeping television had not yet been established. And so, many programmes from this era of television were lost.

In the case of Play for Today, studio-bound plays that were produced on videotape account for all of the lost programmes. While we can’t see these missing plays, there are some stills preserved in the BBC Archive that give an intriguing taste of these productions. Many of these stills have been digitised for the 50th anniversary of Play for Today and are previously unseen. This, then, is a look at just a few of the plays that are – in archival parlance – missing, believed wiped.

In the Beautiful Caribbean (1972)

Barry Reckord was one of only 3 writers of colour to contribute to Play for Today in its 14-year run, but his play, In the Beautiful Caribbean, which took on themes of unemployment and the Black Power movement in Jamaica, was wiped at some point after its broadcast in 1972. 

A clipping from The Sun at the time reports that Reckord was going to a friend’s house to watch the play as he didn’t own a television. The same report subsequently gives the impression that Reckord was rather new to writing for television. In fact he had written for ITV’s Play of the Week a decade earlier when his Royal Court play You in Your Small Corner was picked up by Granada. Starring Reckord’s brother Lloyd, You in Your Small Corner is a frank and passionate exploration of race and class in 1960s Brixton and can be seen on BFI Player.

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In the Beautiful Caribbean (1972)
© BBC Archive
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In the Beautiful Caribbean (1972)
© BBC Archive

Man Friday (1972)

In the Beautiful Caribbean featured an all-black cast, which included Ram John Holder. Holder also appeared in another missing play that was broadcast the same year, Man Friday, written by Adrian Mitchell and directed by James MacTaggart. In this reimagining of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Holder played the eponymous character who challenges Crusoe’s (as played by Colin Blakely) ideas about the meaning of civilisation. Mitchell reworked his script into a film version starring Peter O’Toole and Richard Roundtree a few years later, but while the 1975 film was made on location in Mexico, the original TV drama was confined to the studio and recorded on tape. 

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Man Friday (1972)
© BBC Archive
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Man Friday (1972)
© BBC Archive

A Life Is Forever (1972)

Before Scum (1979), his brutal and banned Play for Today portraying life in borstal, Alan Clarke made A Life Is Forever. With a script by Tony Parker, the oral historian and writer who specialised in case studies of prisoners, A Life Is Forever was an insight into the isolation of a life sentence in prison. Stills from the BBC Archive give a hint of the claustrophobic atmosphere Clarke may have created using studio set-ups while the script, which is held in the Special Collections of the BFI National Archive, is sparing and bleak.

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A Life Is Forever (1972)
© BBC Archive
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A Life Is Forever (1972)
© BBC Archive

Circle Line (1971)

Also held in BFI Special Collections is W. Stephen Gilbert’s script for Circle Line. As the winner of the BBC student play competition, Circle Line was touted as “a play by a student about a student”. The play follows Tim (Michael Feast) as he inveigles himself into the life of fellow student Isabella (Margo Andrew) and her husband and brother. As provocative as some of Dennis Potter’s contributions to Play for Today, Circle Line featured drugs and underage gay sex. It was shocking to some viewers, but it kick-started Gilbert’s relationship with Play for Today. He would go on to become a producer of the strand in later years.  

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Circle Line (1971)
© BBC Archive
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Circle Line (1971)
© BBC Archive

There are some plays for which no stills survive and we can only speculate on them using the limited information available. 

According to Professor John Hill, Wilson John Haire’s The Dandelion Clock (1975) was supposed to be shot on location in Belfast, but it was decided that location shooting at the height of the Troubles was too dangerous, and so the play was made in the studio in London. Following a girl called Suzy as she worries about the safety of her father, it would likely have survived as a play if it had been made on film. Peter Lennon, director of The Rocky Road to Dublin, reviewed it while writing for The Sunday Times, saying it “had the makings of a superb film, but was only granted a tatty studio production” and “I should like to see this not repeated, but refilmed.” If a tape of The Dandelion Clock was rediscovered, I would most definitely settle for a repeat.