Play for Today: women’s work, on screen and off

Our series of articles celebrating the 50th anniversary of the BBC’s landmark series Play for Today continues with a survey of the best plays written by or about women.

27 October 2020

By Katie Crosson

A Sudden Wrench (1982) © BBC Archive

Although Play for Today was by no means equally representative of female creative talent in the UK – less than a 10th of the writers on the BBC’s classic series of plays were female – women made a sizeable contribution both on-screen and behind the scenes. 

Female leads were commonplace in the strand, creating beloved household names such as Edna (Edna the Inebriate Woman, 1971), Beverly (Abigail’s Party, 1977) and Pauline (The Spongers, 1978). Writers like Julia Jones, Rosemarie Davies, Caryl Churchill, Antonia Fraser and directors including Moira Armstrong and Fiona Cumming made their mark on the series, while a large proportion of Play for Today’s output was produced by the very active and illustrious Irene Shubik and Margaret Matheson.

In terms of women’s writing, highlights include the woefully underrated Sorry (1981), a masterpiece written by Carol Bunyan that tackles themes of sexual assault and workplace subordination, as well as the social, economic and cultural dependence weighing upon women, among many other political issues. It features standout performances by both lead actors, Meg Davies and June Brown. 

Along similar political lines, the same writer’s Ladies (1980) depicts the trials and tribulations facing a diverse group of female department-store workers, following their (mis)adventures, traumas and discoveries through a working day. The play shows how female subordination is multifaceted, complex and contradictory, and is experienced differently by all women. With dialogue like “All this slimming and dieting and ting, I don’t see what female liberation is if you always have to be a smaller size or always having to colour your hair”, the plot explores what it’s like to navigate the contradictions of living as a working-class woman in early 80s Britain.

Rosemary Davies’ No Visible Scar (1981) is a very different but equally affecting Cold War-themed play reflecting on the invasive torture of nurse Margaret Hanson (Barbara Flynn) and the similarly invasive way that the western media accesses her trauma, demanding proof and subjecting her to scrutiny. Eloquently drawing parallels between the mistreatment of women overseas and at home, the play offers a resonant critique of misogyny. 

No Visible Scars (1981)
BBC Archive

Many of the women involved in Play for Today had – or went on to have – extraordinarily prolific careers. From acclaimed theatre writer Antonia Fraser’s comedy Charades (1977) via Julia Jones’s iconic The Piano (1971) to Caryl Churchill’s contribution to the strand, the politically bold The Legion Hall Bombing (1978), there was plenty of recognised talent revolving around the series. (Churchill’s work was heavily censored in post-production, however, and she remained uncredited at her request).

Another hidden gem is Paula Milne’s A Sudden Wrench (1982), which recounts the entertaining tale of a frustrated housewife taking up a new trade and finding fulfilment in self-sufficiency, much to the dismay of her male peers. Not simply a feel-good drama, the play fuses humour and playfulness with gripping character development and a frank look at working Britain. 

The contribution female creatives made to Play for Today is often forgotten. Celebrations of the show more often focus on stories centred around depictions of men engaging in workplace struggle, mischaracterising the strand as being made by men and for men. Yet many of the most interesting plays are concerned with more traditionally feminine (or even feminist) subject matter, in the home and outside of it. 

Kisses at Fifty (1973)
BBC Archive

Similarly, it does the strand and the viewer a disservice to leave out histories of workplace struggle by women on screen, as evidenced in Leeds – United! (1974) and A Sudden Wrench to name two. Kisses at Fifty (1973), Colin Welland’s eloquent tale of middle-aged love, lust, introspection and infidelity, also touches on gender politics. Although not made by women, stories like this have been marginalised in histories of Play for Today, perhaps partially because they don’t fit into traditionally respected cubby holes like social realism or involve the philosophical ponderings often associated with the strand. All of these plays highlight the ways in which Play for Today’s formal and political radicalism was not limited to one formula, one identity or one gender. 

Venturing further into Play for Today’s stories of women on screen, Even Solomon (1979) features the first trans lead character on television (though regrettably played by a cis male actor) and depicts trans womanhood in a touching tale of self-fulfilment.

The pain experienced by Ingi (Claire Nielson) in the 1971 play Orkney resonates profoundly. An adaptation of short stories by George Mackay Brown, this 3-part play depicts 3 different times in the island’s life. It’s a tale of social progress/regress/stagnation that unfolds poetically, and in which Ingi’s vacant stares are haunting. Likewise, one of Play for Today’s most beloved characters, the homeless protagonist of Edna the Inebriate Woman faces many hurdles as she contends with everyone from police to psychiatrists.

In The Spongers, broadcast in 1978, Pauline (Christine Hargreaves) captures the pain experienced by struggling mothers in an austerity-addled UK. As we witness her making attempt after attempt to improve the lives of everyone around her without a second to think of herself, Hargreaves gives one of the most devastating performances in the whole strand. It’s certainly worth reflecting on where her story would fit into mainstream television today. 

Alan Plater’s Land of Green Ginger (1973) centres on a couple facing a series of challenges as Sally Brown (Gwen Taylor) returns to her hometown from the big city with big questions about the lives they lead: “Why shouldn’t people do decent jobs and have decent lives and live where they want to live?” In place of major narrative advances, the interest is in what we learn from small interactions. The play revolves around conversation, exploring ideas, experiences, hopes, dreams, theories and perspectives.

In this plethora of women’s work, Play for Today revealed how a woman’s place is in the writer’s room, in the production suite, behind the camera and in front of it.