Play for Today was the BBC’s flagship single drama strand from 1970 to 1984, a genre-spanning, politically engaged ‘national theatre’ in our living rooms, and a testing ground for new and emerging talent from across the UK. This primetime BBC1 slot pulled in many millions of viewers, far surpassing most cinema releases.
As we celebrate the strand’s remarkable legacy on its 50th anniversary, one focus is the stories of diverse and marginalised communities among the 300 broadcast plays (270 of which survive). Play for Today provided a platform for working class and regional voices, while women writers, directors and producers made a strong contribution.
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Unsurprisingly for its time, people of colour were not well represented in front of or behind the camera (Horace Ové’s work is a notable exception), and queer stories were few and far between – although a handful of plays pushed that particular envelope in some interesting ways.
Prolific gay screenwriter John Bowen, whose best known Play for Today is the folk horror classic Robin Redbreast (1970), contributed a subtle dose of queerness to the strand with A Photograph (1977) – now available on Blu-ray for the first time. But what of those plays that truly centred LGBTQ+ lives? Here are 4 key titles, which are essential viewing for fans of queer British television drama.
The Other Woman
Broadcast: 6 January 1976
An estimated fifth of the UK population tuned into this searing play, written by enigmatic newcomer Watson Gould, who was adapting her then-unpublished novel The Three Sexes. Less a play ‘about lesbianism’ than a treatise on the strictures of heteropatriarchy, at its heart is a magnetic performance by Jane Lapotaire as hot-tempered, motorbike-riding artist Kim. Bouncing in a booze-soaked rage between her married best friend and sometime-lover Robin (Michael Gambon) and prissy bi-curious rich girl Nikki (Lynne Frederick), Kim explodes their conventional lives like a bomb, her friendship with sex worker Rose (Rosalind Adams) adding further complication.
It’s a truly extraordinary piece of work, not without its questionable moments. The suggestion that Kim’s sexuality was shaped by childhood abuse at the hands of her father raised eyebrows even at the time, and Kim’s seduction of a traumatised Nikki is queasily akin to a rape scene, amplifying negative stereotypes of the predatory butch dyke. Gould herself was unhappy with the finished play. Yet the mercurial Kim was in some respects ahead of her time, embracing a queer identity and articulating more expansive ways of thinking about sexuality and gender. Her ranting verges on the nihilistic at times, but as she quite rightly observes, “the world’s ill, no doctor can cure that”.
Broadcast: 10 April 1979
This multi-layered play by James Andrew Hall neatly skewers a certain complacent metropolitan elite of affluent gay men in late-1970s Britain – a post-‘liberation’, pre-AIDS world of apparent comfort and relative assimilation belying very real struggles beyond this cosy bubble.
Sardonic, middle-aged author of (heterosexual) romantic novels Lewis Duncan (Anton Rodgers) has a younger on-off boyfriend (Nigel Havers) and a smart set of gay, bohemian friends. Yet he’s not ‘out’ and when he writes a provocative magazine article under a pseudonym criticising what he sees as gay men’s promiscuity and victimhood, the ensuing flood of letters sends him on his own journey of self-discovery.
Afraid of being exposed to the literary establishment as the real ‘Zippy Grimes’, he’s nevertheless persuaded by his agent to meet some of the letter writers for a follow-up article (though not the one who confesses to killing a man he picked up for sex because he was “queer, like you”, creepily presaging the Dennis Nilsen case).
One ‘interviewee’, black rent boy Polo (Ben Ellison), objects to Lewis’ ignorant view of sex work as a cushy number and educates him on the dangerous reality. Ellison later appeared in Isaac Julien’s queer classic Looking for Langston (1989) before his tragic early death from AIDS.
In a gripping climactic dinner party scene, Lewis’s cowardice and lack of solidarity is brilliantly called out by disdainful queen Gerald (Richard Pearson). The play’s resounding message to queer viewers is to recognise those who have paved the way and – as we’d say today – to check your privilege.
Broadcast: 1 November 1979
“I want it all done and said, once and for all,” declares Susan, a young, pre-transition bank clerk and British TV drama’s first transgender lead character (though not played by a trans actor). Even Solomon is no dry historical footnote. Andrew Taylor’s sole Play for Today script eschews sensationalism in favour of quietly gripping drama, as Susan is bullied and belittled by her volatile bohemian mother (a riveting performance by Sylvia Kay), a predatory teenage girl-next-door, a homophobic colleague and a GP who tries to refer her to the “head shrinkers”.
Despite some inaccurate medical detail, Susan’s coming-out journey is depicted with frankness and compassion. The play also shows how the muddling of gender identity with transvestism and homosexuality – still rife in 1970s Britain – complicates that journey. Yet Susan’s inner strength and resolve shines through, and will resonate with many LGBTQ+ viewers today.
A Room for the Winter
Broadcast: 3 November 1981
An early screenwriting credit for novelist Rose Tremain, this was one of several plays to touch on Britain’s tangled relations with apartheid South Africa. Taking place entirely inside a dingy London lodging house, it’s a dour, despairing chamber piece, centring on white South African writer and anti-apartheid activist James van Stanten (Jack Shepherd), who has fled to England after a bombing campaign to sabotage government facilities. Van Stanten is wracked with guilt and feelings of failure at leaving his country and his male partner behind. He yearns for Stephen (Michael Kitchen), whose arrival the play builds towards.
Meanwhile, James maintains a fraught relationship with his exasperated West Indian landlady (Pamela Obermeyer) – deeply suspicious of these “gallant knights on white ponies telling blacks how to run their show” – and an emotionally unstable English lover (Paul Copley).
The incidental way in which homosexuality is depicted is quietly radical. The gay characters here are complex and flawed; even Stephen, who’s made a “deal with the devil”, courting favours from a closeted bigwig in South Africa’s ultra-conservative National Party in a risky bid to get James home. A Room for the Winter is not an uplifting watch, but it’s a fascinating one.
Originally published: 13 October 2020