Play for Today: the TV series at the heart of 1970s British filmmaking

Memorable plays, dazzling careers, bruising controversies – has any UK drama series had as much impact as Play for Today? Robert Hanks reviews the first volume of the BFI’s new Blu-ray compilation.

12 October 2020

By Robert Hanks

Sight and Sound
Emily Bolton and Renu Setna in A Passage to England (1975)

▶︎ Play for Today at 50 will run at BFI Southbank from 19 October through November 2020.
A Drama out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today is available on BBC iPlayer.

It’s hard to recapture, from our vantage point in the age of the box-set and the binge-watch, how much Play for Today mattered in Britain in the 1970s. It was important partly because, to an extraordinary extent, it embodied the intellectual and artistic cutting edge of British film. In John Wyver’s new documentary A Drama out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today, Mike Leigh says, “The truth is… that there was no indigenous, serious British cinema” – to which the producer Kenith Trodd adds a gloss: “The aphorism that came out of that moment was ‘The British film industry is alive and well and living in television.’”

Play for Today lasted for 14 years, from 1970 to 1984: 306 one-off television dramas broadcast in primetime on BBC1. A very selective list of the writers would include Alan Bennett, Alan Bleasdale, Howard Brenton, Caryl Churchill, Trevor Griffiths, Dennis Potter, Jack Rosenthal, Willy Russell, Rose Tremain, William Trevor… Among the directors who worked on it were Michael Apted, Alan Clarke, Alan Cooke (so many Alans: there’s a thesis in there somewhere), Richard Eyre, Stephen Frears, Jack Gold, Roland Joffé, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and John Mackenzie. Writers came first, though, reflecting a culture that placed far more weight on literature and theatre than on film; many of them came from the theatre, and some of the best productions started life as stage-plays.

Apart from the careers kickstarted, nurtured or just tided over by the strand, there was the impact on viewers. A number of PfTs came to occupy an outsized place in memories of the era: Penda’s Fen (written by David Rudkin, directed by Alan Clarke, 1974), Sunset Across the Bay (Alan Bennett/Stephen Frears, 1975), Bar Mitzvah Boy (Jack Rosenthal/Michael Tuchner, 1976), Abigail’s Party (Mike Leigh, 1977), Red Shift (Alan Garner/ John Mackenzie, 1978), Our Day Out (Willy Russell/Pedr James, 1978), Blue Remembered Hills (Dennis Potter/Brian Gibson, 1979), the Billy trilogy (Graham Reed/Paul Seed, 1982-84). These plays were not just regarded with affection: they helped to construct Britain’s picture of itself at the time.

Comedians (1979)

A few years ago, I was asked to come up with a cultural artefact – film, book, play or whatever – that had had a profound influence on me; I immediately thought of Comedians (1979), a Play for Today written by Trevor Griffiths and directed by Richard Eyre – one of the stage-to-screen scripts, a bleak comedy about an evening class in Manchester for would-be stand-up comics. It’s a showcase for a riveting central performance by Jonathan Pryce, as the alienated, even vicious star pupil, and – though it sneaks up on you – a meditation on the question of what place laughter can have after Auschwitz. Teenage me had never felt so excited, not just by watching something on television, but by thinking about it: it was an early lesson in the pleasures of seriousness.

Individual PfTs have been repeated from time to time or issued on home media, particularly ones that can be assimilated to a genre (John Bowen and James MacTaggart’s Robin Redbreast, 1970, which verges on horror; Red Shift, which is a kind of science-fiction), often in box-sets devoted to a particular name – Dennis Potter, Alan Bennett, Jack Rosenthal, Alan Clarke. (Worth noting that Clarke is so far the only director to rate his own set.) A couple of years ago Simply Media issued three individual plays – The Fishing Party (1972), Our Day Out and The Imitation Game (1980) – with ‘A Play for Today’ on the boxes. But the importance of the label has been ignored. The new BFI set to mark the 50th anniversary, promisingly titled Play for Today Volume 1, is consciously broader in scope, trying to work as a sampler of the strand’s range of themes, moods and styles. It’s a stimulating, thoughtful selection and very welcome but also, in some respects, disappointing.

Shakespeare or Bust (1973)

In Shakespeare or Bust (Brian Parker, 1973), playwright Peter Terson’s sequel to The Fishing Party, his trio of miners, Art, Ern and Abe, go on a canal-based pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon. Towards the end, after many frustrations and rebuffs, they are rewarded by a meeting with the real-life Shakespeareans Richard Johnson and Janet Suzman, who introduce themselves with a misquotation from Hamlet: “Pastoral-historical, tragical-comical, historical-tragical-comical-pastoral…” That could work as a billing for this set.

The Lie (1970)

The first film here, The Lie (1970), is purely tragical, a grim marital drama written by Ingmar Bergman, translated by Paul Britten Austin (Bergman’s brother-in-law) and given a Scandinavian-tinged British production by Alan Bridges (I hope you’re keeping count of the Alans). Frank Finlay and Gemma Jones are a prosperous couple – he’s an architect, she’s an academic living an icily detached marriage. He is failing at work and feeling increasingly numb; she is having an affair that doesn’t seem much more passionate than the marriage, though apparently the sex is better. Eventually, he feels compelled to speak to her honestly, and everything comes crashing down. An optimistic interpretation of the title is that this single marriage is based on a lie, but it could equally refer to the veneer of civilisation or the possibility of happiness.

After that, the comical-pastoral of Shakespeare or Bust is a relief, though the comedy – almost entirely driven by the wide-eyed dogmatism of Brian Glover’s Art – is deliberately primitive: I doubt it’s a coincidence that two of the three stars, Glover and Ray Mort, played rude mechanicals in Elijah Moshinsky’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1981), the most ravishing-looking product of the BBC’s very uneven complete Shakespeare project. (Douglas Livingstone, the third of the trio, may well have been too busy with his writing career: his I Can’t See My Little Willie had been in the first season of PfT.) The lightheartedness is deceptive: again and again the openhearted miners, expecting working-class solidarity and ordinary hospitality, are rebuffed; the final partial fulfilment of their different dreams gives it a sweetness, though.

Back of Beyond (Julia Jones/Desmond Davis, 1974) – the only play here written by a woman – is tragical-pastoral. Rachel Roberts plays Olwen, a widow (she seemed to play a lot of widows) who has sunk into almost speechless isolation, living on a farm in the Welsh hills that has barely been touched by the 20th century.

There’s some influence, I’d guess, from the Teesdale farmer Hannah Hauxwell, a celebrity through the ITV documentary Too Long a Winter (1972), though an archetype of solitary, barely civilised countrywoman has roots in English literature (there’s more than one version in Wordsworth), and you can trace it down to Jake Thackray’s song Old Molly Metcalfe. Olwen is befriended by a local schoolgirl (Lynne Jones): the mixed motives – generosity and vanity – the delicate balance of the relationship and the way Olwen’s clumsy need wrecks things are convincingly observed, but the context feels sketchy and the whole thing perhaps too slight for the weight of feeling it wants to evoke.

Back of Beyond (1974)

A Passage to England (Leon Griffiths/John Mackenzie, 1975, pictured at top) is the hardest play to fit into any kind of schema: Tariq Yunus is a Betjeman-quoting Asian immigrant trying to do a deal with fishing-boat skipper Colin Welland to smuggle him, along with his dying uncle and beautiful young cousin, to the motherland. The skipper seems a genial soul, but reveals darker corners when gold comes into the picture; then again, maybe his passengers aren’t quite the simple natives he believes.

As you’d expect from the creator of Minder, the script has a comical edge; but it also offers complex thoughts and provocations about race and what we assume about race – conveyed through Yunus’s part-caricature of a performance, and the quotations that punctuate the action from Imperial guides to the slack morals and unreliability of Indians. The unwillingness to fit people into boxes, or to be fitted into a box itself, makes it the most considerable play here, as well as the one with the most resonances for today.

Our Flesh and Blood (1977)

Our Flesh and Blood (Mike Stott/Pedr James, 1977) is more straightforwardly comical, though still with an edge: Bernard Hill and Alison Steadman are expectant parents experiencing the highs and lows of the NHS, their newfangled notions about natural birth and fathers being present at the event dismissed by Richard Briers’s condescending consultant.

As a time-capsule of attitudes to class, health and gender it’s fascinating: hard to imagine now a play about childbirth making the mother so much a supporting character. But perhaps it doesn’t say much about its emotional depth that I only realised ten minutes before the end that I’d seen it before, though the line that reminded me was one I could still have quoted word for word – Hill telling Briers, quietly and crushingly, “I don’t think you should be a gynaecologist. I think you should be a pathologist. Or possibly a traffic warden.”

A Photograph (1977)

A Photograph (John Bowen/John Glenister, 1977) is tragical-comical-pastoral, roughly, though as a sort of sequel to Bowen’s Robin Redbreast, it has links to the modern category of horror. The two plays are linked by the character of the creepy Mrs Vigo (Freda Bamford), and the pleasure of over-sophisticated metropolitan types – here, John Stride’s smug, lecherous arts broadcaster falling foul of primitive rural malice, or perhaps it’s merely justice. The confidence to take the sort of people who watched Play for Today as its target was one of the admirable things about Play for Today.

Finally, Your Man from Six Counties (Colin Welland/Barry Davis, 1976) is another tragical-pastoral. When Jimmy’s father is killed by a bomb in Belfast, he’s sent south to live on his uncle Danny’s family farm. He is marooned among prejudice and pity, and further isolated by a battle for his affection between Danny, a humanist freethinker, and his father’s old friend Pat, a fierce (at least theoretically) republican.

Like Douglas Livingstone, Welland made his mark on PfT as both actor and writer: his script here is very effective, though the ending is a reminder that, as in his Oscar-winning screenplay for Chariots of Fire (1981), he could sometimes give way to sentimentality. The acting is wonderful, especially by Donal McCann and Brenda Fricker as Danny and his wife Mollie.

Your Man from Six Counties (1976)

What’s missing from this set is much sense of how confrontational, how hard Play for Today could be. Often it was the politics that were in your face; as Wyver’s documentary brings home – arguably hammers home – PfT was famous for its eagerness to tackle big, contentious issues: trade unions (in an era when industrial action created upheavals that shaped the economy and elections), race (though not nearly enough), sexual discrimination (though women rarely got to write or direct), the repercussions of Empire, Britain’s still sclerotic class system…

But there were other ways, too, in which PfT pushed at the viewer: sex and violence had Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle (Barry David, 1976) banned for years; violence, along with contempt for our institutions, brought Roy Minton’s Scum (Alan Clarke, 1977) to the same pass. Sometimes PfT confronted its audience with sheer oddity – John Osborne’s deeply strange The Right Prospectus (Alan Cooke, 1970), in which middle-aged businessman George Cole and his wife Elvi Hale enrol in the sixth form of a public school, has long been on my viewing wish-list. So have David Edgar’s Destiny (Mike Newell, 1978), about resurgent British fascism, and David Hare and Howard Brenton’s drama about class and greed Brassneck (Mike Newell, 1975): all three are scheduled for the BFI’s Play for Today at 50 season, which – plague willing – runs at BFI Southbank, London, from 19 October to the end of November.

Meanwhile, this Volume 1 has a lot to enjoy, put into context by an intelligently written booklet that has essays on each of the plays and overviews by Wyver and Marcus Prince. But I’m hoping for more toughness and intellectual excitement in Volume 2.

Originally published: 12 October 2020

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