TV that tackled the troubles: Play for Today and Northern Ireland

BBC’s Play for Today was the first TV drama series to try to get to grips with the Northern Irish ‘troubles’. But such groundbreaking and politically sensitive content would lead to these entries being scrutinised, regulated and in some cases censored.

17 November 2020

By Professor John Hill

Your Man from Six Counties (1976) © BBC Archive

In February 1980, ITV’s The South Bank Show featured an item, presented by Richard Hoggart, on the scarcity of television drama concerned with the situation in Northern Ireland. There were probably 2 main reasons for this. The BBC in Northern Ireland had little experience of drama production and, unlike English Regions Drama in Birmingham and BBC Scotland, was poorly placed to contribute drama to the network until the 1980s. Even more significantly, the onset of the Northern Irish ‘troubles’ in the late 1960s, the increased militarisation of the conflict in the early 1970s and the imposition of direct rule from Westminster in 1972 meant that television programmes concerned with ‘the troubles’ were among the most scrutinised, regulated and censored at this time.

So while the situation in the North of Ireland might seem to have provided precisely the kind of pressing social and political issue that the BBC’s Play for Today strand should address, the circumstances of the time made it difficult for such plays to get made and transmitted. 

This may be seen in the case of the very first Play for Today about the conflict to be broadcast: Carson Country (23 October 1972). Written by Dominic Behan (the younger brother of the playwright Brendan), and brilliantly directed by Piers Haggard, the play constitutes a formally inventive, quasi-Brechtian attempt to explore the historical roots of the ‘troubles’ during the 1912-14 period when the unionist Edward Carson led the opposition to home rule. 

Carson Country (1973)
BBC Archive

Although the play’s message was broadly ‘socialist-humanist’, it was nonetheless subjected to cuts and its transmission was delayed for several months on the grounds that it would be perceived as politically biased and might inflame the situation in Northern Ireland. When the decision was eventually made to show it, the BBC director general, Charles Curran, also took the precaution of consulting the Conservative secretary of state for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw. 

The sensitivity of BBC management to drama with any Irish content likely to be regarded as controversial was also evident in the case of The Legion Hall Bombing (22 August 1978), which also suffered from cuts and a delay in transmission. This production consisted of an edited transcription by Caryl Churchill of a jury-less trial of suspected IRA bombers held under ‘Diplock Court’ conditions. These courts accepted lower standards of evidence than normal courts and, in this case, were judged by many to have contributed to a miscarriage of justice. 

The Legion Hall Bombing (1978)
BBC Archive

Directed by Roland Joffé, the play itself offers a well-crafted and sober reconstruction of the legal proceedings. However, the BBC objected to the introduction, which was subsequently re-written by the controller of BBC Northern Ireland, as well as to the closing voiceover, which was removed on the grounds that it was held to involve inappropriate ‘editorialising’. This in turn led to a public row and the decision by Churchill and Joffé to remove their names from the credits. 

Both Carson Country and The Legion Hall Bombing were made in studios in London and Glasgow respectively. The possibilities of making work within Northern Ireland itself, however, remained limited due to the lack of suitable studio facilities and the problems associated with filming on location. In 1974, for example, the Belfast-born writer Wilson John Haire was commissioned to write The Dandelion Clock (15 May 1975), a Belfast-set play in which a young schoolgirl plays truant in order to search for her father. This was initially planned to be made in Belfast, but a combination of security risks and the reluctance of some London staff to travel there meant the play (which, sadly, no longer exists) had to be relocated to a London studio. 

Your Man from Six Counties (1976)

This situation slowly began to change as the decade progressed. The opening sequence of Colin Welland’s Your Man from Six Counties (26 October 1976), produced by Kenith Trodd, contains a few black-and-white shots filmed on the Falls Road in Belfast. The bulk of the drama, however, takes place in County Sligo in the Republic of Ireland, where the play is able to take advantage of the visual splendour and mythological associations of the local landscape (which includes the rock formation Ben Bulben made famous by W.B. Yeats). 

Focusing on a young Catholic boy who arrives from Belfast to live with his uncle following the death of his father in an explosion, the script for Your Man from Six Counties was considered sufficiently sensitive to be referred upwards. However, the play’s emphasis on the boy’s route to recovery and need for practical domestic support rather than political rhetoric ensured the production’s success (and a nomination for a BAFTA). 

The following year, BBC Northern Ireland collaborated in the making of Catchpenny Twist (5 December 1977), the first of 3 Play for Todays by Belfast writer Stewart Parker. Dealing with a pair of songwriters on the run from paramilitaries, the play begins in Belfast before the characters flee first to Dublin and then to London. 

Ron Hutchinson’s The Last Window Cleaner (13 February 1979), produced – like Your Man from Six Counties – by Ken Trodd, was made almost entirely in Belfast. Hutchinson had previously written The Out of Town Boys (2 January 1979), a gritty Play for Today looking at Irish involvement in the building trade in the English Midlands. In contrast, The Last Window Cleaner takes the form of a black comedy in which a dim-witted policeman (played by a deadpan Ken Campbell) is sent from England to gather intelligence – entirely unsuccessfully – on a suspected ‘terrorist’. Deemed largely ‘incomprehensible’ by the majority of critics and viewers, the play’s scattergun humour proved too hit and miss to be entirely coherent. However, its use of comic playfulness and absurdism to diagnose the dangers of living with the ‘troubles’ for too long did nevertheless invest it with an unexpected freshness.

Ken Trodd subsequently returned to Northern Ireland to make Shadows on Our Skin (20 March 1980), the poet Derek Mahon’s thoughtful adaptation of Jennifer Johnston’s coming-of-age story about a young Catholic boy faced with the realities of political division. Shot on location in the city of Derry, the production also provides something of the ‘sense of place’ which other Play for Todays (such as those from English Regions Drama) sought, but which previous plays about Northern Ireland had previously found difficult to evoke. 

This might also be said of Stewart Parker’s third Play for Today, Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain (24 November 1981), which also made a highly effective use of its Belfast locations. Although firmly rooted in the realities of the city, the play’s story of 2 women drawn into a series of chance encounters in the course of a single day also possesses an allegorical dimension drawn from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Attempting to go beyond the pessimism commonly associated with portrayals of the ‘troubles’, the play explores various responses to the prevailing political climate before the 2 central characters eventually meet and enjoy the pleasures of female conversation and camaraderie. 

Too Late to Talk to Billy (1982)
BBC Archive

This provides something of a contrast to the first of the Play for Todays produced by BBC Northern Ireland following the establishment of its own television drama set-up. Graham Reid’s Too Late to Talk to Billy (16 February 1982) deals with the predicaments of a Protestant working-class family in Belfast, focusing on the enmity between young Billy (played by a youthful Kenneth Branagh) and his violent and embittered father (played by the former Z Cars actor James Ellis). Watched by an audience of over 6 million, this was the Play for Today about Northern Ireland that seemed to resonate most strongly with viewers across the UK, and 2 further plays followed that continued to chart the family’s fortunes and the eventual reconciliation of father and son: A Matter of Choice for Billy (10 May 1983) and A Coming to Terms for Billy (21 February 1984). 

The success of Too Late to Talk to Billy also provided a new stimulus to drama production in Northern Ireland, with the result that plays about Northern Ireland were better represented in the last 2 seasons than at any previous point. Indeed, the fourth to last play to be broadcast under the Play for Today banner was a rather fine adaptation by Derek Mahon and Chris Menaul of a short story by Irish writer John Montague, The Cry (31 July 1984), which features a very young-looking Adrian Dunbar as a journalist returning to his home town to discover the tensions that are simmering just below the surface prior to the onset of the ‘troubles’. 

The ‘troubles’ were, of course, to remain the staple of Northern Irish drama for many more years to come. Play for Today was the first drama series to try and come to terms with them in any regular way. The resulting plays were something of a mixed bag – ranging from documentary drama and family melodrama to black comedy and modernist experiment. Yet they provide a valuable insight into how writers, directors and producers first sought to get to grips with the most acute of conflicts then facing the UK.  

  • John Hill is Professor of Media at Royal Holloway, University of London