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Play for Today (1970-84)

Single drama slot known for its provocative political work

Main image of Play for Today (1970-84)

One of the most famous and influential of all play strands, Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84) demonstrated single drama's potential to engage mass audiences with social comment and artistic experimentation.

In effect The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70) renamed after being rescheduled from Wednesday nights, Play for Today reflected in its name its defining concern with contemporary British life. The series has been associated with social realism, controversies and attacks on its perceived leftwing bias, but its sheer diversity belies such a reductive analysis. Its different styles and genres included comedy and science-fiction; its protagonists encompassed alienated youths and institutionalised pensioners, and its subject matter ranged from regional identity to multinational corporations, from racial politics to time travel.

Within Play for Today's regular industrial space, committed producers (including Tony Garnett, Graeme MacDonald, Margaret Matheson, David Rose and Irene Shubik) enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy. Writers and directors were drawn from theatre (including Richard Eyre and David Hare), established Wednesday Play contributors (including Ken Loach and Dennis Potter) and new talent.

The first piece transmitted under the Play for Today banner (though early pieces were commissioned for The Wednesday Play) was 'The Long Distance Piano Player' (tx. 15/10/1970) by Alan Sharp, directed by regular strand contributor Philip Saville, with Ray Davies as a pianist seeking a record for continuous playing. Early highlights included John Osborne's 'The Right Prospectus' (tx. 22/10/1970), about a middle-aged couple returning to school; 'Circle Line' (tx. 14/1/1971) by W. Stephen Gilbert, who won a BBC Student Play competition; and two contributions to the European initiative Largest Theatre in the World: 'The Lie' (tx. 29/10/1970) and 'The Rainbirds' (tx. 11/2/1971), written by Ingmar Bergman and Clive Exton respectively.

Early examples of overt social comment included Jeremy Sandford's highly-rated homelessness study 'Edna, the Inebriate Woman' (tx. 21/10/1971) and two intricately-researched Tony Parker pieces, 'When the Bough Breaks' (tx. 11/2/1971), on child welfare (directed by future British Board of Film Censors chief James Ferman), and 'A Life is For Ever' (tx. 16/10/1972), on the effects of long-term imprisonment, which was enhanced by Alan Clarke's adept direction of themes of institutionalisation.

However, for directors like Clarke, Play for Today also meant tackling uncharacteristic pieces with different methods, making the strand a kind of studio system. With British cinema undergoing financial uncertainty, directors (including Michael Apted and Stephen Frears) were able to hone their skills on initially rare, much-coveted slots for plays shot entirely on 16mm film - for example, Clarke's 'Penda's Fen' (tx. 21/3/1974), an extraordinary visionary piece by David Rudkin - in addition to less desirable video and multi-camera work.

'Penda's Fen' also exemplified the regional imperative and experimental vision encouraged by producer David Rose at BBC Birmingham. Other examples included 'Land of Green Ginger' (tx. 15/1/1973), Alan Plater's evocation of Hull, plus 'Gangsters' (tx. 9/1/1975), Philip Martin's tough exploration of racial tensions and organised crime in Birmingham, which spawned the self-aware series of the same title (BBC, 1976-78).

Another Play for Today that became a series, 'Rumpole of the Bailey' (tx. 16/12/1975), demonstrated that tough themes and comedy could mix superbly. Other examples included Jack Rosenthal's exquisite coming-of-age piece 'Bar Mitzvah Boy' (tx. 14/9/1976), the genre pastiche 'A Cotswold Death' (tx. 12/1/1982) and the often-cited Mike Leigh pieces 'Nuts in May' (tx. 13/1/1976) and 'Abigail's Party' (tx. 1/11/1977).

Play for Today benefited from film and theatre practitioners embracing television as a platform for social engagement. Determined to address the popular imagination, Trevor Griffiths contributed such incendiary plays as 'All Good Men' (tx. 31/1/1974) and 'Comedians' (tx. 25/10/1979), the latter epitomising the strand's relationship with radical theatre. Further provocative examples included Lindsay Anderson's production of David Storey's 'Home' (tx. 1972) and landmark pieces such as Howard Brenton and David Hare's 'Brassneck' (tx. 22/5/1975), David Edgar's 'Destiny' (tx. 31/1/1978) and the dialectical event 'The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil' (tx. 6/6/1974) from John McGrath and the 7:84 Theatre Company.

Plays on trade union politics and the betrayal of labour engaged with (and, critics feared, incited) industrial action. Key work included Jim Allen and Ken Loach's 'The Rank and File' (tx. 20/5/1971) and Colin Welland's 'Leeds - United!' (tx. 31/10/1974), ably directed by Roy Battersby. However, a political backlash - which damaged Battersby among others - makes Play for Today a barometer of the changing cultural climate.

Several pieces suffered cuts or controversy, particularly those on Northern Ireland, including 'The Legion Hall Bombing' (tx. 22/8/1978) and David Leland and Alan Clarke's 'Psy-Warriors' (tx. 12/5/1981), which presented themes that resonate strikingly with today's 'war on terror'. Two plays were banned outright: Dennis Potter's 'Brimstone and Treacle' (eventually transmitted 25/8/1987) for its conflation of disability, sex and the demonic, and Roy Minton's 'Scum' (tx. 27/7/1991) for its compressed catalogue of Borstal abuse. The BBC's capitulation to Home Office anxieties over 'Scum' exacerbated a purge of leftwing programme makers. The bans were particularly painful given that Potter and Alan Clarke (director of 'Scum') were regular, committed strand contributors - Potter interwove themes across such major pieces as 'Angels Are So Few' (tx. 5/11/1970), 'Double Dare' (tx. 6/4/1976) and 'Blue Remembered Hills' (tx. 30/1/1979).

The furore underlined the increasing vulnerability of single drama strands to political suppression and economics. The strand produced some groundbreaking film work - note the shared aesthetic, akin to Italian neo-realism or art cinema, in early plays, including Leigh's 'Hard Labour' (tx. 12/3/1973) - but the increasing dominance of film raised costs. Despite the interesting related strand Play for Tomorrow (BBC, 1982), the term 'play' seemed anachronistic: a few Play for Today commissions were broadcast without that label, and the mid-1980s saw film-based strands such as Screen One, Screen Two and Film on Four (which, while aiming for cinema release, saw David Rose pursuing themes and approaches comparable with his Play for Today work). Quality drama persists in series and serials, but the absence of a regular slot for contemporary comment and talent development is regrettable: notably, Play for Today was namechecked when the BBC recently mooted a new evening play slot.

Dave Rolinson

Further reading

Lez Cooke, British Television Drama: A History (BFI, 2003)
Irene Shubik, Play for Today: The Evolution of Television Drama (Manchester University Press, 2000).

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