‘An ideology red, white and blue in tooth and claw’: David Edgar’s Destiny (1978) – Part 1 of 3


Play for Today Writer: David Edgar; Producer: Margaret Matheson; Director: Mike Newell

Part 1: Background and context
Please note that, in order to explore this programme and its political context, this essay quotes racially offensive language.

For the first time since the war, extreme right-wing, racialist organisations have become significant in British politics. Movements that, ten years ago were regarded as the most lunatic of lunatic fringes, are now gaining influence in the streets and even in elections. (Press information.)1

The forces of right-wing politics are resurgent; immigration is regularly discussed on the airwaves and the phrase “foreign workers, coming over here, taking our jobs” circulates obstinately. Those on the political left seem implacably divided. It could be 2017. It is, however, 1977 as depicted by David Edgar in Destiny. This Play for Today, which he adapted for television from his acclaimed theatre production, analyses how and why the far-right National Front was becoming a genuine political force in 1976-77. Edgar portrays the intersection of politics with human lives; his Brecht-influenced dramaturgy is accompanied by a close attention to British places and voices. Part one of this three-part essay will consider Edgar’s background and Destiny’s history as a stage play and will place the television play in its historical and televisual contexts. Part two will consider the television play’s casting and production and its reception by critics, BBC management and audiences. Part three will analyse this neglected entry in the eighth series of Play for Today in relation to debates over docudrama forms and naturalism. The essays will analyse its status as an adaptation, with close readings of how emphases were changed in making the play for television. The television Destiny will also be analysed as a contribution to debates on national and class identity and for its representations of a range of British political ideologies in the 1970s.

Background on David Edgar

David Edgar, whose father Barrie had worked for the BBC, was born in 1948 in Birmingham. In his early career, he worked on investigative stories at the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, including the story of the Poulson scandal; while he worked there, he lived in the “immigrant slum” of Mannington.2 In 2005, Edgar stated that his interest in the far right had begun in 1972, when he reported for the Argus on meetings of the Yorkshire Campaign to Stop Immigration. Anticipating situations in Destiny, the “leader was a rather dapper ex-Conservative councillor, who presided benignly over chaotic meetings in which films were shown upside down and without sound.”3 Edgar’s statement that this group, which later merged with the National Front, addressed many “real needs and some real fears” anticipates the rare empathy that Edgar later captured in his play.

By 1977, many of the 40 plays he had written were in the Soviet-inspired agit-prop style: “consciousness-raising theatre which privileges political message above art” and which “can be performed in any location.”4 These included short plays on Concorde and the motor-cycle industry.5 Edgar’s first work for television was The Eagle Has Landed (1973), a satire on the Apollo Space Programme for Late Night Theatre.6 Critic Benny Green enjoyed this “eccentric little pasquinade” with its lampooning of lunar coverage but baulked at the “undisguised hatred” Edgar showed for “Americans, technocrats and lumpen proles”.7 Also for Granada, Edgar wrote I Know What I Meant (1974), which dramatised Nixon and the White House tapes,8 and for the BBC’s Play for Today strand he dramatised his stage-play Baby Love (1974).9 His next work for BBC1, prescient of 2017 news, was A Crisis in Gibraltar (1975), co-written with actor-writer Ken Jones for the BBC ‘Schools and College’ morning strand Colour Focus: “Britain and Spain clash in the simulations room of the Pentagon.”10 In the same year, Edgar worked on two topical, live plays: the co-written Censors and his own The Midas Touch (1975).11 These plays were for The Eleventh Hour, a series of half-hour dramas on which each writer began work on Monday morning, leading up to the broadcast on Saturday night.

Edgar’s dramaturgy was influenced by television drama documentaries; he has expressed admiration for Leslie Woodhead’s unit at Granada, and has extensively analysed Granada’s Three Days in Szczecin (1976), ATV’s Death of a Princess (1980) and Granada’s Invasion (1980)12 as three key exemplar television texts in this style.13 In his guise as critic, Edgar much preferred fellow radical playwright Trevor Griffiths’ Brechtian approach in Comedians to his more individual-centred approach in his popular series Bill Brand (1976).14 Edgar argues “that dramatic fiction can uniquely illumine certain aspects of public life and the dramatic power of drama-documentary lies in its capacity to show us not that certain events occurred […] or even […] why they occurred […] but how they occurred: how recognisable human beings rule, fight, judge, meet, negotiate, suppress and over-throw”.15 These ideas are influential for his approach in writing Destiny as a drama that illuminates public events and that shows how people are rooted in and create history.

Background: Destiny on stage

To prepare for writing Destiny, Edgar spent a year reading sources and interviewing MPs.16 As a member of the Institute of Race Relations, which in 1972 had ousted the bankers and businessmen on its ruling council who were making money from the Third World, he “researched and argued out the ideas that went into his study of the ideological roots of British racialism.”17 The play was commissioned in 1975 by the Birmingham Repertory theatre, where Edgar was resident playwright, only for the Rep to “chicken out”, as W. Stephen Gilbert put it.18 It was first performed at the Other Place, Stratford-on-Avon on 22 September 1976, directed by Ron Daniels and designed by Di Seymour.19 Rather than transferring to the RSC’s London studio Edgar’s self-described “anti-fascist” play transferred to the Aldwych in May 1977,20 in repertoire with King Lear, where it was seen by 20,000 people.21 It opened during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, which Dorney and Gray call “an event looking back across a similar time period” as Destiny “with rather more nostalgia”.22 Edgar has written of its “propitious” context of Spring 1977, with the then-limping Callaghan government needing a Lib-Lab pact, the National Front reaching its electoral zenith and violence flaring on the Grunwick picket line: all events which validated the play’s content.23 The playwright commented that “perhaps it was no surprise that the only theatre not to lose business during the week of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee” was the patriotic bunting-decked Aldwych, showing its double bill of discord, Destiny and King Lear.24

Critical reception was also overwhelmingly positive. Destiny won the Arts Council’s John Whiting Award “for best new play with contemporary relevance” in 1976. In winning this award, Edgar followed Tom Stoppard, Peter Nichols, Peter Barnes, Howard Brenton, Edward Bond, John Arden and David Rudkin.25 On the May 1977 transfer of Ron Daniels’s RSC Production to the Aldwych in London, Robert Cushman praised what “may be the best new play in London” where “British fascism is traced to the imperial hangover”.26 Cushman also praised Ian McDiarmid’s performance as Turner, a shopkeeper turned parliamentary candidate for Nation Forward: “He charts magnificently the inroads of resentment, misfortune and fear. He has everybody’s grievances and is everybody’s dupe; his shell hardens then cracks before you.”27 Cushman drew the link to Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, in which many of Destiny’s cast also performed on other nights. Michael Billington praised the ambiguity of the later scenes featuring the troubled Labour candidate and how the play avoided “the simplicities of agit-prop”, showing “the mixed and muddled motives that generate right-wing extremism.”28 Billington praised the play in the highest terms: “The final effect is of a play that is something more than skilful and well-written. It is one that is actually necessary.”29

Seven days after his first review, Cushman revised his opinion upwards: “the panoramic political play that writers of Mr Edgar’s generation have been straining after for years.”30 Cushman now identified the journalistic conscientiousness as part of its power, its “excellent reportage” gestating into “theatrical poetry”. He praised the powerful metaphor (albeit unlikely coincidence) of all of the disparate characters converging in the same Midlands town, thirty years after the opening events in India. Cushman details the play’s empathy for the perspectives of those who are attracted to Nation Forward, and praises the power of Bob Peck’s delivery of Richard Cleaver’s speech about the fears of an old man surrounded by immigrants.31 As the BBC’s press information for the television version reveals, the May-June 1977 theatrical run received outstanding reviews from the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, The Times, the Sunday Times, the Sunday Telegraph, Punch, Time Out and the Newcastle Journal.32 Bernard Crick, later to write an important biography of George Orwell, remarked: “Here was a project I have often imagined but never hoped to see: a strong and committed left-winger able to understand and to empathetically dramatise the psychology and doctrine of fascism”.33 Victoria Radin highlighted the play’s comprehensive political reach: “Once you’ve seen it you feel you have a complete, if appalled, understanding of Britain today.”34

On the play’s London release, Edgar argued: “plays won’t send people out to the barricades, What they can do is ultimately give people new images with which to understand the world. But only in connection with their own experience.”35 Therefore, Edgar used settings that would be within people’s experiences: pubs, an antiques shop and a meeting hall. The play is set in the constituency of Taddley, a fictional town but rooted geographically: “to the west of Birmingham”.36 The play text opens with scrupulously dated quotations from the Conservative Party manifesto (1950) and Peregrine Worsthorne (1959),37 and there are references to left-wing Labour Party agent Paul’s antipathy for political figures Roy Jenkins and Reg Prentice.38 Edgar sets the pivotal Act 1 Scene 6 on 20 April 1968; Drumont gives Cleaver the newspaper containing coverage of Enoch Powell’s Birmingham “Rivers of Blood” speech, which Cleaver reads out.39 The non-naturalistic verse narratives given to Colonel Chandler, Major Rolfe and Turner and Khera all begin with adverbials of time: “In ’48.”, “In ’47.”, “In ’48.” and “In “58.” These verses explain the characters’ relocation back to England and place their lives against a specific historical canvas. It reflects Brecht’s dramatic form of epic theatre with its “sequential scenes rather than continuous narrative” for the purpose of “alienation over illusion, and political urgency”.40 The “Voice” opens the play by narrating events in the past-tense in typical epic theatre style.41 However, Edgar is also keen to enact events on stage, such as the picket-line and election count confrontations.

Context – the far right and ideological struggles in British culture, 1974-79

In the February 1974 General Election, the National Front fielded 54 candidates and gained 76,865 votes. In an edition of ITV current affairs series This Week in September 1974, senior NF figures like Martin Webster and John Tyndall claimed that “we have a completely clear conscience” regarding violence.42 The programme undermines this statement by narrating the activities of Webster, Tyndall and Jordan with such groups as the Greater Britain Movement in the 1960s and recalling the assault of Kenyan president Kenyatta in 1964, which left Webster imprisoned. Tyndall’s predecessor John O’Brien speaks damningly of Webster: “The perfect example of the school bully grown large and grown adult, who has kept his school bully methods”. NF rhetoric attacking “30 years of incompetent government” anticipates opinions spoken by characters in Edgar’s Destiny. The supposedly “moderate” face of the NF, as associated with Roy Painter, a Monday Club Tory defector from Tottenham, is echoed in the play by characters such as Mrs Howard and Major Rolfe. This Week provides some coverage of campaigning by Leicester NF candidates, but the programme’s main focus is on delineating the history and characteristics of the party’s leadership. In the October 1974 election, they gained 113,843 votes from an enlarged roster of 90 candidates.

In February 1976, the British Campaign to Stop Immigration and their spokesman Jim Merrick, a Bradford National Front candidate, appeared on Open Door, a BBC slot for minority community interests.43 The programme focuses on Southall and Bradford, containing numerous vox pops with members of the public with anti-immigration views. A woman makes an unsubstantiated allegation, accusing immigrants of gambling and drinking in the cemetery where her ancestors are buried. A man speaks of being “unable” to go in his local pub anymore. The programme associates immigrants with drugs, disease and social breakdown. Its presenter Jim Merrick, Conservative councillor for Little Horton from 1968-70, is shown walking around untidy slum backstreets in Bradford; he scaremongers about rat infestations. Next, Merrick is joined by the Dowager Lady Jane Birdwood for a studio discussion of new race legislation about to be debated in parliament. Birdwood, who was later to stand as a BNP candidate in Dewsbury in 1992, draws an analogy: “If I eat bacon, in preference to sausage, there is no reflection on the sausage. Yet, in the field of human relationships, it is a crime to prefer one’s own race under this bill”. Ronald Bell, QC and Conservative MP for Beaconsfield, is featured; he claims that immigrant numbers are too large and proposes voluntary repatriation. The programme’s final section includes footage of an anti-immigration march in Bradford from October 1972, with protestors carrying “ENOCH IS RIGHT” placards. A Bradford woman is shown in front of a building and, in an affronted tone, explains that what used to be a Christian church is now an Asian cinema and bank. Throughout, we are shown many Asian shop frontages with the preferred reading that they represent, in Merrick’s words, “an alien society”. Twice in the programme, specific vox pop comments are removed, shown by large bold type on the screen: “CENSORED BY RACE RELATIONS ACT”. The Radio Times listing connotes the persecution complex and paranoia inherent to the far-right mentality: “This programme is dedicated to the silent majority who until now, because of a sinister veil of censorship, have never had the opportunity to give their views to the British public.”44 In June, anti-fascist magazine Searchlight editor’s Maurice Ludmer argued that there had been a rise in violent crimes against ethnic minorities following this broadcast.45 In the same month, far-right publication Spearhead printed an article claiming that the Nazi death camps did not exist. In August, a drunk Eric Clapton, on stage at the Birmingham Odeon, called for “fucking wogs” and “Pakis” to “leave the country”.46 Echoing the language of Enoch Powell, whose “Rivers of Blood” speech had occurred just over the road from the Odeon at the Midland Hotel, Clapton warned that the country was in danger of becoming “a black colony” within ten years.47 Cultural activist and freelance photographer Red Saunders wrote a letter in reply calling for “a rank and file movement against the racist poison in rock music”, leading to 200 letters of support and the formation of Rock Against Racism, whose first gig was at the Princess Alice pub in the East End of London in October 1976.48 This organisation, blending political values with music, would take a lead in initiating a sea-change in attitudes among the young, with important events such as the Victoria Park Carnival of 30 April 1978, at which Steel Pulse, Tom Robinson and The Clash (among others) performed to at least 80,000 people.49

The NF had gained significant by-election votes in 1976, in the north and south: in June, they gained 1,696 votes (6.0%) in Labour-held Rotherham and, in July, received 3,255 votes (6.6%) in Thurrock.50 However, the NF high-water mark came with two West Midlands by-elections. In November, when the Conservatives gained Walsall North from Labour on a remarkable 22.5% swing, the NF came third with 2,724 votes (7.3%), comfortably beating the Liberals into fourth place.51 In March 1977, the Conservatives gained Birmingham Stechford from Labour while the NF’s Andrew Brons gained 2,955 votes (8.2%).52 In May 1977, the NF won 119,000 largely working-class votes in local elections and, in June, John Tyndall argued for curiously proto-Thatcherite positions: controlling the money supply, calling for less reliance on the Welfare State and more on “personal initiative and hard work”.53 The left did much to arrest the growth in the far right. In November 1977, just as the Play for Today version of Destiny was nearing production, the Anti-Nazi League formed; this organisation, along with the improving economy and increased popularity of the Callaghan government in 1977-78, stabilised by the Lib-Lab Pact, did a lot to reduce the NF’s progress in Labour areas.54

Destiny was not the only 1978 television programme about the National Front. In contrast to the earlier This Week documentary, the World in Action edition The Nazi Party focused primarily on the Party’s current stances and activities, addressing the party’s focus on anti-communism, anti-Semitism and racial purity.55 The documentary provides a history of the party from its formation in March 1967, and explains how its tactics had to change following the Racial Discrimination Act. (In 1965, the Greater Britain Movement had openly argued for gas chambers. By the late 1960s, inspired by Enoch Powell’s popularity, they primarily emphasised the issue of immigration.) The programme repeatedly emphasises the party’s violence, stating that there have been “25 attacks in the last year in Leeds alone”. The programme names members and candidates who have convictions for violent offences; two were convicted in January 1978, within two weeks of the broadcast of Destiny. Admiration of Hitler is said to be common among “some”. In a chilling premonition of the killing of Jo Cox MP, one person “told police he’d wanted to assassinate a public figure”.

Edgar has argued that the Left had been in the ascendancy and winning in the relatively radical period of 1968-74, and that “young, radical theatre-makers threw themselves eagerly into the struggle, producing plays which trumpeted their solidarity with the insurgent dockers, shipyard workers, railmen and miners, rising to a crescendo in early 1974, when the second of two great miners’ strikes brought the Heath government to its knees.”56 As John Medhurst has highlighted, there were many social democrat governments in Europe and the left had high hopes for the “Carnation Revolution” in Portugal that followed the overthrow of fascist dictator Salazar’s successor Caetano in April 1974.57 Further afield, Michael Manley’s People’s National Party had come to power in Jamaica and in 1972 began instituting democratic socialist reforms, encountering CIA interference analogous to that the Allende regime faced in Chile.58 By the summer of 1975, as inflation had hit 30 percent and the unions surrendered to Wilson’s pay policy, Edgar perceived a “moment of truth” whereby the 1968 generation realised the tide has turned. Globally too, the likes of Pol Pot were in the ascendancy, and the New Left’s hopes for “socialism with a human face” were dashed.59

1978 seemed a crossroads for the left, as expressed not just in Destiny but in published fiction and non-fiction. In June, Melvyn Bragg’s novel Autumn Manoeuvres captured discontent with the post-WW2 consensus and the longer-term rightwards trend, through the microcosm of one Cumbrian constituency.60 In October, Jeremy Seabrook published a comparable, but more pessimistic, “humanist meditation in documentary form” What Went Wrong? Working People and the Ideals of the Labour Movement.61 Bragg’s engaging novel portrays 1978’s tangible economic and political upturn for Labour, with its alternative-future story depicting Callaghan’s Labour winning the autumn 1978 election that “Sunny Jim” famously never called, and the Cumbrian MP Jimmie Johnston narrowly retaining his seat. Although the novel gives the Workers’ Revolutionary Party an important role, it does not mention the NF, in contrast to Seabrook who interviewed working-class NF supporters.

Edgar has highlighted the ascendant currents on the political right in the 1970s: the NAFF, the neo-liberals at the Institute for Economic Affairs and the “Peterhouse School” of more socially authoritarian conservatives.62 The former two tendencies were represented within K.W. Watkins’s edited collection In Defence of Freedom (1978), which included pieces by prominent “libertarian” rightists such as NAFF stalwarts John Gouriet and Norris McWhirter, as well as Robert Moss and Winston Churchill MP.63 The latter predisposition was distilled within the Maurice Cowling-edited Conservative Essays (1978),64 which collected pieces by Peregrine Worsthorne, Colin Welch, Kingsley Amis, Patrick Cosgrave, Roger Scruton and Cowling himself. It argued that the trouble with Labour was “that it has set too many people far too free”.65 Edgar defined these writers’ essentially anti-liberal left ideology as favouring an “assertion of national identity over freedoms”.66 Like Stuart Hall in his 1979 essay ‘The Great Moving Right Show’,67 Edgar makes the argument for Thatcherism as essentially authoritarian populism, representing ‘the reassertion of the paternal authority of the state over its pampered and infantilised subjects, for the firing of the indulgent nanny and the hiring of the no-nonsense martinet”.68 Before the “Iron Lady”, there was General Walter Walker, convenor of the paramilitary “GB75” “civil assistance” project and, in Destiny, Major Rolfe and Richard Cleaver are different types of ‘strongman” leader. In 1982, following the influence of Thatcher’s “swamped” discourse, John Casey, in the first edition of the Salisbury Review, advocated a retrospective reduction in legal rights for non-white immigrant communities: introducing “guest worker” status in a bid to encourage them to return to their countries of origin.69

Further important context for Destiny was provided by the Grunwick dispute (1976-78). The left backed striking Asian female workers at a photo-processing plant,70 against their boss George Ward, who was soon backed by right-wing allies such as the National Association for Freedom. The dispute escalated into a major confronation between left and right, with the SWP on the left and the NAFF on the right seeing the strike as a proxy war for the political direction of the UK. In May and June 1977 respectively, the picket line was joined by three government ministers and two coachloads of miners from Barnsley led by Arthur Scargill.71 Violence occurred, with PC Trevor Wilson injured and featured on many newspaper front-pages on 24 June 1977, such as the Daily Mail, whose headline described this as “A BLOT ON BRITAIN”.72 This is widely credited as a turning-point in the dispute, providing ammunition for the political right, and was followed by the famous tactics of the NAFF with their “Saturday midnight coup” when, in July, they posted the entire backlog of Grunwick’s mail themselves.73 This backlog had built up in the factory as the postal unions had refused to deliver the company’s mail in solidarity with the striking workers. This incident has been mythologised by those involved as an individualist, somewhat Ealing comedy-esque, rebellion against authority, which in the late 1970s was seen as the trade unions and a liberal legal establishment.74 Despite the 1977 Scarman Report,75 which largely vindicated the picketers’ case, the trade union side’s loss became inevitable – due to divisions in the workplace itself and the loss of public sympathy, influenced by the prevalence of the PC Wilson image in the national consciousness.

Something of the era and its polarisation can be symbolised by the fact that the “Blacks vs Whites” testimonial football match for Len Cantello at West Bromwich Albion’s Hawthorns ground in May 1979 was a comparatively progressive, transitional moment. While the Sandwell Community Relations Council had expressed concerns, a contemporary article revealed that black WBA stars Regis, Batson and Cunningham were all “strongly in favour” of the game going ahead, as it would help talented black players.76 All of the black players who featured in Adrian Chiles’ recent BBC documentary Whites Vs. Blacks (2016) view the experience positively, and the subsequent generation of players were inspired by Ron Atkinson’s “Three Degrees”. This was in the same year when Bob Hazell was told by the Football Association that he couldn’t have dreadlocks.77 Now-reformed Birmingham City fan Nigel Bromwich described being “groomed” by the National Front in the 1970s, who handed out bananas at the ground and had a core of 40-50 “foot-soldiers’ who positioned themselves in pockets around St Andrews and led monkey and other racist chants, as well as committing acts of violence.78 In 1981, Cooksley claimed that, at Third Division Millwall, there were “a hundred or so British Movement supporters who gather together at most home games’ and that Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge was a “no-go area for black supporters”.79

That times were changing was shown by the end of the successful series The Black and White Minstrel Show.80 The challenging of television’s casual racism became more marked following the broadcast of Destiny. In March 1979, Open Door, which had previously given a platform to Jim Merrick, gave a late-night slot to CARM (the Campaign Against Racism in the Media), whose programme ‘It Ain’t Half Racist Mum’ forcefully criticised racist representations on television.81 None of this cultural counter-attack affected the stridency of the NF; Michael Salt was quoted in 1981 as saying that if the NF came to power, they would repeal the 1948 British Nationality Act, “and all coloured immigrants […] together with their dependents and descendants, will revert to the status of being aliens and will be liable to be repatriated. We make no exception in the case of footballers or anyone else.” Electorally, however, the National Front faded: in 1983 they stood in 60 seats and gained 27,065 votes and in 1987 stood in one seat and gained just 286 votes.

In the late-1970s, popular drama series openly depicted the insurgent far-right. The dystopian Survivors tackled the subject in Roger Parkes’ The Chosen (1976), which featured an unmistakably authoritarian far-right settlement, run by ex-schoolteacher Max Kershaw (Philip Madoc).82 Made for the first series of The Professionals, the episode Klansmen depicted The Empire Society, a white supremacist group, terrorising and trying to forcibly repatriate blacks.83 As Andrew Pixley notes, the organisation was intended as a composite of the National Front and the British Movement.84 However, the episode was pulled from the schedules by the London Weekend Television (LWT) franchise, as they were concerned about the reaction of regulators the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) to its racial content. As Pixley infers from an LWT statement, they were concerned that the “hero” Bodie is given racist attitudes, which are challenged by the narrative – a troubling and challenging move for an action genre series, reflective of the makers’ genuine attempt to enlighten the audience.85 As Clemens stated: “We were making an episode that was hopefully going to change attitudes […] with all these racist things, you have to bring them out from under the stone and expose them.”86 While the dialogue is often clunky, in comparison with Edgar’s sophistication, it remains a bravely ethical episode of a usually amoral, right-wing series.87

Context – Play for Today series 8

In a Guardian article in October 1977, Peter Fiddick acclaimed the impact of recent BBC single plays, including Stephen Poliakoff’s Stronger than the Sun (1977),88 a visceral, bleak anti-nuclear play that opened the eighth series of Play for Today. Despite the play’s troubled genesis,89 Fiddick felt that it was a “major success” of the autumn’s drama season, along with Tom Stoppard’s BBC2 play Professional Foul (1977) about freedom of speech and thought in a communist country.90 Edgar was critical of the lack of balance in Professional Foul, decrying how the play “stacked the cards so grossly against his left-wing villains” that it wouldn’t have been allowed “if any of us had tried the same gambit the other way around”.91

Fiddick discussed the perception that the single play on television had become seen as safe and lacked major new writers beyond the 1960s-nurtured school of John Hopkins, David Mercer and Dennis Potter. This perception of a more conservative turn is supported by John Hill, who has argued that BBC management “reduced” the number of radical, left-wing plays following the controversial Leeds United! (1974) and Jim Allen, Ken Loach and Tony Garnett’s Days of Hope (1975).92 Fiddick argued that greater risks were now being taken again, with writers like Poliakoff, Mary O’Malley, Barrie Keeffe, Mike Leigh and David Edgar being recruited from the theatre world to write for the new series of Play for Today. Its first two plays, Stronger than the Sun and Robin Chapman’s Come the Revolution (1977),93 hint at the increased political content that would be enabled by the appointment by Head of Plays James Cellan Jones of a new producer, thirty-one year-old Margaret Matheson.94 When asked about the style of plays she wanted, Matheson said that “I want to do public plays, not domestic ones. Loud plays you could call them – drama you couldn’t miss the subject of, that would stir us up a bit.”95 Alongside commissioning new works she acquired the rights to adapt existing plays, from the zeitgeist-capturing Abigail’s Party96 to Destiny. Edgar’s play was an adventurous choice, a play that would indeed “stir us up a bit”.

This essay continues in Part 2 and Part 3 (posted 2 June).

Visit Tom May’s British Cold War Culture blog here.

Originally posted (Part 1): 31 May 2017.
2 June 2017: minor typographical corrections and standardisation.
14 July 2017: addition of eleven extra sentences on Open Door; standardisation of endnotes by completing first names in citations; correcting Matheson quotation; minor typographical corrections; punctuation standardisation.

  1. ‘PLAY FOR TODAY: DESTINY – Press Information’ (BBC, 1978), p.1. Supplied by Margaret Matheson. 

  2. Victoria Radin, ‘Fair-play playwright’, The Observer, 8 May 1977, p. 30. 

  3. David Edgar, ‘My fight with the Front’, The Guardian, 14 September 2005, available here. Accessed: 11 March 2017. 

  4. John Lennard and Mary Luckhurst, The Drama Handbook: A guide to reading plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 318. 

  5. Radin, ‘Fair-play playwright’. 

  6. Late Night Theatre: ‘The Eagle Has Landed’, Granada for ITV, tx. 4 April 1973. Written by David Edgar, script editor Jonathan Powell, produced and directed by Colin Cant. 

  7. Benny Green, ‘Texts for Sunday morning’, The Observer, 8 April 1973, p. 35. 

  8. Late Night Drama: ‘I Know What I Meant’, Granada for ITV, tx. 10 July 1974. Edited by David Edgar, produced by Michael Cox, directed by Jack Gold. 

  9. Play for Today: ‘Baby Love’, BBC1, tx. 7 November 1974. Written by David Edgar, produced by Kenith Trodd, directed by Barry Davis. It gained 6.35 million viewers. BBC Audience Research Department ‘PLAY FOR TODAY: Baby Love’, VR/74/651, 3 December 1974. Accessed at BBC Written Archives Centre [subsequently BBC WAC]. 

  10. Focus: ‘A Crisis in Gibraltar’, BBC1, tx. 30 January 1975. Written by Ken Jones and David Edgar, series producer John Twitchin. The cast included Nigel Stock. Actor-writer Ken Jones had worked with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. 

  11. The Eleventh Hour: ‘Censors’, BBC1, tx. 21 June 1975. Written by David Edgar, Robert Muller and Hugh Whitemore, produced by Graeme McDonald, directed by Mike Newell. The Eleventh Hour: ‘The Midas Touch’, BBC1, tx. 2 August 1975. Written by David Edgar, produced by Graeme McDonald, directed by Mike Newell. 

  12. Three Days in Szczecin, Granada for ITV, tx. 21 September 1976. Written by Boleslaw Sulik, produced and directed by Leslie Woodhead. Death of a Princess, ATV and co-production partners including WGBH Boston for ITV, tx. 9 April 1980. Written by Antony Thomas and David Fanning, produced by Martin McKean and Antony Thomas, directed by Antony Thomas. Invasion, Granada for ITV, 19 August 1980. Written by David Boulton, produced by Eva Kolouchova, Leslie Woodhead and David Boulton, directed by Leslie Woodhead. 

  13. David Edgar, The Second Time As Farce: Reflections on the Drama of Mean Times (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980), pp. 59-65. 

  14. Ibid., pp. 37-40. Bill Brand, Thames for ITV, 11 episodes, tx. 7 June-16 August 1976. 

  15. Ibid., p. 58. 

  16. Radin, ‘Fair-play playwright’. 

  17. Martin Walker, ‘A rump that blossomed’, The Guardian, 26 October 1982, p. 21. 

  18. W. Stephen Gilbert, ‘This Week in View’, The Observer, 29 January 1978, p. 31. 

  19. Kate Dorney and Frances Gray, Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 Plays (London: Methuen Drama), p.94. 

  20. Edgar, The Second Time as Farce, p. 11. 

  21. Dorney and Gray, p. 94. 

  22. Ibid. 

  23. Edgar, The Second Time as Farce, p. 11. 

  24. Ibid. 

  25. Amongst other work, Rudkin wrote Penda’s Fen. Play for Today: ‘Penda’s Fen’, BBC1, tx. 21 March 1974. 

  26. Robert Cushman, ‘In perfect harmony’, The Observer, 15 May 1977, p. 30. 

  27. Ibid. 

  28. Michael Billington, ‘David Edgar’s study of the National Front transfers to London’, The Guardian, 13 May 1977, p. 10. 

  29. Ibid. 

  30. Robert Cushman, ‘Further thoughts in the RSC’s fascists’, The Observer, 22 May 1977, p. 30. 

  31. Ibid. 

  32. Press Information, pp. 5-6. 

  33. Press Information, p. 6. 

  34. Radin, ‘Fair-play playwright’, p. 20. 

  35. Ibid. 

  36. David Edgar, Plays: 1 (London: Methuen, 1977), p. 315. 

  37. Ibid., p. 316. 

  38. Ibid., p. 329. 

  39. Ibid., pp. 340-346. 

  40. Lennard and Luckhurst, p. 333. 

  41. Ibid., p. 247. 

  42. This Week: ‘The National Front’, Thames for ITV, tx. 5 September 1974. Produced by David Elstein and directed by Michael Ruggins. 

  43. Open Door, BBC2, 28 February 1976, 11.10pm. 

  44. Radio Times #2729, 26 February 1976, p. 17, online at BBC Genome

  45. Lindsay Mackie, ‘Far right parades its mini martyr’, The Guardian, 22 June 1976, p. 13. 

  46. 5 August 1976. Daniel Rachel, Walls Come Tumbling Down: The music and politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge (London: Picador, 2016), p. xix. 

  47. Ibid. 

  48. Ibid., pp. xix-xx. 

  49. Ibid., p.142. 

  50. 24 June 1976; 15 July 1976. 

  51. 4 November 1976. 

  52. 31 March 1977. By-election caused by the resignation of Roy Jenkins. 

  53. Edgar, The Second Time as Farce, p. 87. 

  54. By the Brockwell Park Carnival of 24 September 1978, jointly organised by the ANL and RAR, Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69, a working-class band with a contingent of far-right fans, attended and declared his support for RAR, which was seen as a “seminal moment” by committee member Syd Shelton. Rachel, op. cit., pp. 174-5. 

  55. World in Action: ‘The Nazi Party’, Granada for ITV, tx. 3 July 1978. Produced by Gavin MacFadyen. This episode is available on DVD as part of the World in Action collection (Network). 

  56. Edgar, Second Time as Farce, p. 228. 

  57. John Medhurst, That Option No Longer Exists: Britain 1974-76 (Winchester: Zero Books, 2014), pp.80-81. 

  58. Ibid., p. 82. 

  59. Edgar, The Second Time as Farce, p. 229. 

  60. Melvyn Bragg, Autumn Manoeuvres (London: Martin Secker and Warburg, 1978). This was a more thoughtful work than Bragg’s preposterous co-written sci-fi musical Orion, BBC2, tx. 26 December 1977. 

  61. Jeremy Seabrook, What Went Wrong? Working People and the Ideals of the Labour Movement (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1978). Discussed in Bernard Crick, ‘The Sense of Betrayal’, The Observer, 24 December 1978, p. 20. 

  62. Edgar, The Second Time as Farce, p. 111. 

  63. K.W. Watkins (ed.), In Defence of Freedom (London: Littlehampton Book Services Ltd., 1978). 

  64. Maurice Cowling (ed.), Conservative Essays (London: Cassell, 1978). 

  65. Quoted in Edgar, The Second Time as Farce, pp. 147-148. 

  66. Ibid., p. 112. 

  67. Stuart Hall, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, Marxism Today, Volume 23, Number 1, January 1979, reprinted for example in Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques (eds.), The Politics of Thatcherism (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1983). 

  68. Edgar, The Second Time as Farce, p. 117. 

  69. Ibid., p. 128. 

  70. The dispute began on 20 August 1976 when Mrs Desai walked out due to pay and working conditions. 

  71. 19 May 1977 and 23 June 1977 respectively. The government ministers included Shirley Williams. 

  72. Joe Rogaly, A Penguin Special: Grunwick (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), p. 180. 

  73. 10 July 1977. 

  74. Tory! Tory! Tory!, BBC Four, tx. 8 March 2006. 

  75. Published on 25 August 1977. 

  76. Patrick Barclay, ‘Black v. white soccer match “tasteless”’, The Guardian, 26th January 1979, p. 24. The match took place on 16 May 1979. 

  77. Whites Vs. Blacks: How Football Changed a Nation, BBC2, tx. 27 November 2016. 

  78. Ibid. 

  79. G. Cooksley, ‘“Indoctrination is the name of the game”’, The Listener #2703, 12 March 1981, p. 337. 

  80. The Black and White Minstrel Show, BBC1, tx. Friday 21 July 1978. 

  81. Open Door, BBC2, 1 March 1979. 

  82. Survivors: ‘The Chosen’, BBC1, tx. 26 May 1976. Written by Roger Parkes, directed by Eric Hills. Followers included a character played by a young David Neilson, in a role that is the antithesis of Roy Cropper, the character for whom he is now well-known on Coronation Street

  83. The Professionals: ‘Klansmen’. Written by Brian Clemens, based on a story by Simon Masters, directed by Pat Jackson. 

  84. Andrew Pixley, The Professionals Mk I, viewing notes (Network, 2014), p. 147. The episode was filmed in November 1977, with extensive location work at Southall, West London, which was incidentally the part of Ealing where anti-racist campaigner Blair Peach was killed in April 1979. Inserts were recorded on the last day that Destiny was being recorded: 15 December 1977. 

  85. Ibid., p. 62. 

  86. Ibid., p. 63. 

  87. The less controversial episode broadcast in its place on 10th February 1978, ‘Close Quarters’, gained a typically high 17.4 million viewers. Ibid., p. 137. 

  88. Play for Today: ‘Stronger Than The Sun’, BBC1, tx. 18 October 1977. This was Poliakoff’s first Play for Today

  89. Fiddick explains that Brian Gibson “walked off” the project, in the mistaken belief that President Carter’s new stance on nuclear energy “devalued” Poliakoff’s drama. Replacement director Michael Apted then had only two weeks to prepare before its shoot on film began. Peter Fiddick, ‘Coming out from under the umbrella’, The Guardian, 24 October 1977, p.8. 

  90. Play of the Week: ‘Professional Foul’, BBC2, tx. 21 September 1977. Written by Tom Stoppard, produced by Mark Shivas, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Like Edgar, Stoppard had previously written for Eleventh Hour, co-writing The Boundary with Clive Exton – BBC2, tx. 19 July 1975. Their play was the subject of a behind-the-scenes Omnibus documentary – BBC1, tx. 21 September 1975. 

  91. Edgar, The Second Time as Farce), p. 165. 

  92. John Hill, ‘From Five Women to Leeds United!: Roy Battersby and the Politics of “Radical” Television Drama’, Journal of British Cinema and Television, Volume 10, Number 1, 2013, p. 145. 

  93. Play for Today: ‘Come the Revolution’, BBC1, tx. 25 October 1977. Written by Robin Chapman, produced by Rosemary Hill, directed by Michael Darlow. 

  94. Matheson used all the writers mentioned above by Fiddick. 

  95. Fiddick, p. 8. Matheson also planned to avoid over-commissioning. 

  96. Play for Today: ‘Abigail’s Party’, BBC1, tx. 1 November 1977. Devised and directed by Mike Leigh, produced by Margaret Matheson. 

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