With its visionary writing, mythic backdrop, rural location and complex digging into notions of nationhood and sexuality, Penda’s Fen (1974) has in recent times become a signature Play for Today. It centres on a boy called Stephen who is intoxicated with thoughts of Englishness, the landscape and traditional English culture, but slowly comes to realise his own personal inheritance and sexuality are more complex and mixed than he had first thought. Told with startling intensity, the story blurs elements of fantasy and reality, even occasionally using horror tropes.
It was high on producer David Rose’s list when it came to selecting a slew of highlights from the BBC’s classic strand for repeat on Channel 4 in 1990. Crossing the wire fence of the channels, it was presented in the rebranded series ‘Film 4 Today’ and introduced by its illustrious playwright author David Rudkin.
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Rose, now an employee of the other side, was rightly proud of this subversive highlight of 1970s television. He presumably considered it powerful, resonant and exploratory enough to hold its own as a paradoxical twist of both old and new drama, in a slot that blurred the distinction between the past (Play for Today) and the present (the output of Film4, which started in 1982, shortly before Play for Today wound down).
So does this make Penda’s Fen a play, a TV programme or a film now, the work tentatively climbing that aspirant slope to become a Film4 production, along with, say, Trainspotting (1996)? One of the compelling qualities and strengths of this thing that we call folk horror – with which Penda’s Fen is sometimes allied – is its mix of both openness and closure as a generic form. It’s both heavily codified and loose. It collides film and television and very different production contexts, works slipping out from their narrow allotments to meet on some new, chilling, moonlit common land.
Without getting too stuck into what can and what cannot align with the category, there is something brilliant about the way it can pen in say Hammer’s The Witches (1966) or Tigon’s Witchfinder General (1968) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) alongside Penda’s Fen, each area connecting with different contexts and imperatives. For example, Hammer demanded immediate commercial return on their cinema releases, while Play for Today existed as part of a broad, balanced diet of TV offerings, shored-up by the license fee and a guaranteed large audience.
The desire to beckon yet further works into folk horror’s unholy flock is also part of its pleasures. It opens up areas of British film and television in a way that other forms and styles do not. And the works that don’t quite fit its already ill-defined taxonomy are often the more interesting – Penda’s Fen being a case in point. Analogue broadcast television is truly still the undiscovered country, countless artefacts lying in wait to be overturned by the plough.
For those so inclined, Play for Today is a veritable underground labyrinth. The increasingly popular Robin Redbreast (1970) is by now almost canonical folk horror, filling an enjoyably sinister Wicker Man-type hole, but there is also A Photograph (1977), a far more jagged but equally delicious, if unlikely, entry also written by John Bowen. Anticipating his work for ITV’s Armchair Thriller, it presents the slow, unpredictable attack of a deadly conspiracy. The arrival of a photograph through the post causes an already unstable couple to further unravel, as the dark, deep, unresolved undercurrents present around trauma, class, culture and sexuality bubble disturbingly to the surface.
Definitely horror, but of the more weird and socially transgressive variety, it combines Bowen’s fascination with commuting and journeys between town and country (going as far back as his 1959 novel The Centre of the Green) with his desire to introduce shocks to fracture the mundane and everyday. A key scene sees the main character describe his work as a critic and how his thoughts might relate to and serve the general public, using the metaphor of the Eloi and the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine.
Several uncanny Play for Todays hover on the hinterlands of genres, exploring the outer limits of the form and the furthest reaches to which it can be pushed. Red Shift, written by Alan Garner, was based on his novel of the same name and saw 3 separate time streams proceeding in parallel: Roman Britain, the English civil war and the modern day. A stone axe-head provides an almost 3-dimensional view of time, linking these different periods and bringing productively jarring tensions to the late 1970s life of Tom, who struggles to manage his anxiety, living in a caravan with his parents and dating an unfaithful girlfriend.
Garner, author of the book behind weird-TV exemplar The Owl Service (1969), was perhaps suggesting that the trials of the lead character were somehow also linked to the violence of these earlier times (and vice versa). It shattered the once studio-bound restriction of the form and appeared, at 9.25pm, 17 January 1978 on BBC1, as part portmanteau film, part visionary experiment.
If not quite spooky enough for you, consider Vampires (1979), an urban folk horror of sorts. In this one, a primary school kid, again living in unsettled circumstances, catches a late-night Hammer Dracula film on TV and begins to see the world very differently. Hysteria sweeps through his school class and the kids descend on the local cemetery, intent on staking a so-called vampire, in fact (apparently) a strange man with a piercing gaze, a long cloak-like coat and a stiff, devilish hairstyle. True folk horror, surely? Of a certain type, at least. It celebrated the rich internal imaginings of adults and children, framing broken family life in unusual new terms while getting close to the heart of what our appreciation of horror is all about.
Many of these productions are cinematic in feel, in part because of their use of locations – real places, with all their attendant histories – and partly because of the decision in many cases to shoot on film. Not in all cases, however: some, notably A Photograph, were captured in the studio, on video, with the bright lights of the studio rendering that play’s final horrors in unnervingly lurid and jarring fashion.
Another late Play for Today captured the countryside in rich, cinematic terms. The setting: inland Britain during the Blitz, where an army officer is sent to investigate rumours of a German spy in a sleepy English village. Large scale and confidently written, by David Pirie, and executed (anticipating the bigger-budgeted output of Film4), Rainy Day Women (1984) channels Hammer horror, gothic literature and a fear of witches and women. The lead character, played by Charles Dance, describes it as “ghost story without ghosts” and when his military pass is checked by a Home Guardsman, a hard nut played superbly by Ian Hogg (who also plays Arne in Penda’s Fen), it’s like he’s entering the wild west.
The drama thereafter has shades of both Witchfinder General and Straw Dogs (1971), but it also has political points to make, regarding the internal propaganda surrounding the war effort. Good morale must endure, whatever the costs or the lies. (David Hare’s Play for Today, Licking Hitler (1978), explored similar concerns.) We still live in that world – the glories of war and Britain’s finest hour defining the country’s sense of identity.
Folk horror fans might also enjoy the creepy (in more ways than one), rural, post-apocalyptic Z for Zachariah (1984). And, of course, Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May (1976), which offers its own brand of rural horror.
The Lonely Man’s Lover (1974) is not horror at all, but very much about rural tensions in a closed community, change and continuity, and even the mythic. Jan Francis plays the alienated, raven-haired young woman drawn to a sulky outsider recently arrived with his young, motherless son. Her story is told in part through the voices of unseen gossips, like the chorus in a play, as she leaves her soon-to-be-husband for the published poet. A pithy 55 minutes, it tells its tale with little fanfare or drama and yet the world it presents is in some small way turned upside down. Two years later, writer Barry Collins scripted The Witches of Pendle, about the Lancashire witch trial of 1612.
There are countless oddities and genre hybrids, folk horror and otherwise, to discover across the huge, unlikely vistas of British TV land, including but also going far beyond Play for Today. Large and unwieldy, the dales and dark woodland of this landmass are at least partially fenced in with the ceasing of the analogue signal in 2012. Or earlier still with the 1990 Broadcasting Act, which opened up the bandwidth, coaxing what would become Sky television into existence and increasing the levels of now overt competition between the channels.
From that point on, it was less likely that strange things, even politically pertinent and radical things, might occupy a primetime mainstream platform. But hopefully, with this 50th anniversary celebration of Play for Today, we can bring some of these unusual artefacts out into the air and use them for something both enjoyable and pertinent to now. The best of them still say something about the lie of the land. They are all plays for today: slippery, open to different contexts, and ready for resurrection.
- A Photograph is included on our new Blu-ray boxset Play for Today Volume One