This mini-section on Play for Today starts with an episode guide: use the drop-down menu associated with the heading “Play for Today section” (above) to navigate menus for each year between 1970 and 1984. Click on underlined plays, writers or directors for essays on them.
by David Rolinson
Play for Today was a milestone in the history of British television, cinema and the wider culture. At its best, the strand combined a remit encouraging aesthetic experimentation and political radicalism with the potential to reach audiences of millions, free-to-air, on primetime BBC1 (at a time when there were far fewer channels to watch). This combination makes Play for Today a true “National Theatre”. One of the strand’s contributors, the playwright David Hare, has argued that the single play in this period, as written by the likes of Dennis Potter and David Mercer, became “the most important new indigenous art form of the 20th century”.1 Hare added elsewhere that the form allowed the “freedom to say what you wanted, and the rare excitement of knowing that it was being talked about by people all over the country”.2
This freedom was grasped by new and established writers and directors. In its first year alone, it featured the work of such diverse practitioners as John Osborne, Ingmar Bergman, Philip Saville, Dennis Potter, Alan Clarke, Colin Welland and James Ferman. It allowed a space for development for future Hollywood directors like Michael Apted, Stephen Frears and Mike Newell, and such stalwarts of British and European cinema as Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. As well as providing an outlet for writers, the strand’s prestigious all-film slots afforded opportunities for directors – not just a “National Theatre”, but almost an alternative national cinema at a time when British cinema was often bogged down in sitcom spin-off hell. Many of the strand’s contributors saw its overarching influence in terms of a studio system, which, as Andrew Clifford argues, rivals the celebrated developments within American cinema of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola: “In Britain, developments in another kind of studio system, the BBC’s, enabled writers like Roy Minton, Colin Welland, Peter Terson, David Rudkin and David Hare… to flourish… [each director] could learn, make mistakes, do new things without his career resting on each new play”.3 This was helped by a system which gave autonomy to such dedicated producers as Margaret Matheson, David Rose, Mark Shivas, Irene Shubik and Kenith Trodd.
We’re motivated by the fact that television plays, unlike cinema films, have little afterlife. Although its most famous productions – Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills – have been repeated fairly regularly and released on DVD,4 this represents only a fraction of Play for Today‘s output. For people interested in or studying these plays, access remains a major problem. Paradoxically, plays which drew audiences of millions dwarfing contemporaneous cinema audiences are less likely to be available to view than cinema works of the period. There is, therefore, a risk that these plays will be neglected, condemned by a short-sighted belief amongst critics in the medium’s “inherent” ephemerality. There are movements to counteract this, including the British Film Institute’s ‘Mediatheque’ initiative at their Southbank site in London. Since May 2007, there has been a Play for Today retrospective: every month, new titles from the National Archive are digitised and available to view for free to any visitor. Eventually, this will expand to cover every play. (David Rolinson was invited to speak on a panel at the launch event at the National Film Theatre on Saturday 19 May 2007 alongside producer Irene Shubik, director Michael Tuchner and writer Trevor Griffiths, in a discussion chaired by Lez Cooke.) This initiative is very welcome, and hopefully will extend to include regional centres so that people outside London can also gain access. For more information on Mediatheque, see the website.
We want to address television drama’s own lack of history, not only by drawing attention to select masterpieces (though this is important enough given the emergence of a “canon” in academic writing on television), but by covering the entire series, to get closer to a real sense of what the culture has lost with the decline of the single play strand. These days, the play or film-for-television has been subsumed by cinema films financed by television, and writers and directors have fewer slots to fight for. Experimentation is hindered by the very form – the higher budget required for films renders each piece a greater risk, particularly when that work is politically-motivated, within a culture and an industry reluctant to engage with political opposition. Our attempt to cover every play in different forms – essays, interviews, supporting material, educational activities – is ambitious and will continue to develop over several years. We will include studio pieces so that we don’t just import film studies terminology to discuss those filmed plays in cinema terms – we also want to engage with television on its own terms.
So, what has the culture lost? In one of the best books ever written about television, Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen, John R. Cook summarises the single play as television’s cutting edge, “a special place for the expression of the individual, dissident or questioning voice”.5 The feature that most critics emphasise is the keynote political radicalism (for example, querying the handling of trade disputes or terrorism) which resulted in controversies over bias and didactic realism in plays such as Days of Hope, Leeds – United!, The Legion Hall Bombing, Psy-Warriors and pieces by renowned playwrights including Hare, Howard Brenton and Trevor Griffiths. In an obituary for Jim Allen, who wrote such strong pieces as The Rank and File, Days of Hope, The Spongers and United Kingdom, Kenith Trodd summed up the “heady fantasy” of many that such plays “could maybe start a walkout around the country on a Thursday morning”.6 Such ambitions came under increasing attack from other areas as radical space became contested, with controversies over screened plays and the banning of plays like Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle and Roy Minton’s Scum.
But inherent in this are two interlinked dangers – that critics only describe Play for Today as an outlet for “issues” and “realism”, and that the strand be over-emphasised, which risks denying the fact that this was a banner for a variety of disparate pieces (and if the sense, above, of starting “a walkout” pointed to the dominance of leftist concerns, it should be remembered that other political perspectives and ways of life were also covered). These concerns were combined in an audience research department report published in 1977, which sought “to discover if viewers see any common features in the plays shown under the title Play for Today and, if so, is there any evidence that the title has acquired an unintended image?”7. The existence of a slot was more important than the umbrella title: indeed, during a review of Trevor Griffiths’ All Good Men, Dennis Potter complained about the “irritating stridency” of the Play for Today opening titles; his reviews show him, according to Philip Purser, “resenting slot titles such as Against the Crowd and Love Story and even the non-committal Play for Today, lest they impose or imply a house style”. Certainly there was more to Play for Todaythan issue-based realism.8 Its broad output included fantasy pieces like Z For Zachariah, comedies and genre pieces; Rumpole of the Bailey started here, as did Philip Martin’s extraordinary Gangsters, and David Rudkin and Alan Clarke’s Penda’s Fen, one of British television’s masterpieces. Gangsters and Penda’s Fen were the product of BBC English Regions Drama based at BBC Birmingham (Pebble Mill) who, under David Rose, formed a formidable outpost of BBC Drama. Before deregulation, television drama had a greater focus on reflecting life in Britain, and the strand does that across a range of regions and social backgrounds, and provided some (if not enough) outlets for the representation of different ethnic experiences, with plays about right-wing attitudes to immigration occupying the same strand as plays rooted in Black British or British Asian communities or, with the deceptively comic touch of Jack Rosenthal, pieces which have been celebrated as landmarks in representations of the British Jewish experience.9
On the other hand, while mentioning such plays, we should draw attention to a little phrase above: “At its best”. We are aware of the danger of sinking into rhetoric about a ‘golden age’. As the BBC’s current Head of Films, David M Thompson, warns about The Wednesday Play and Play for Today, “the truth is it that wasn’t all rosy under the old system, there were a lot of low points as well as high points. People only ever remember Cathy Come Home, they don’t remember all the dross”.10. These days, he told Broadcast, the “tradition of original, authored drama with a strong vision is as alive and kicking as it’s ever been… What is true is that there’s less of it”.11. Some of the forgotten plays were forgotten for very good reasons, and if there were four or five classics a year then we get those now – panic over standards of drama is clearly nonsensical when, since 2000, we’ve had Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise, Perfect Strangers, The Navigators, Buried, The Mark of Cain, Britz, God on Trial, Random…12 However, the impact of each new piece by a Stephen Poliakoff, William Ivory or Jimmy McGovern is an almost defiant stand-alone blast – what is lacking without that overarching strand identity is a regular institutional space within which writers and directors could develop, and through which the space was maintained within the culture. This is not simply a nostalgic study of the history of television drama but also a reminder of television drama’s potential in the present and future, for those studying, watching or working in television today.13
The loss is emphasised by the sheer number of play strands from this period: a by no means exhaustive list could include Armchair Theatre, Half Hour Story, Saturday Night Theatre, The Wednesday Play (the predecessor of Play for Today), Story Parade, Playhouse, Out of the Unknown, Plays of Today, Thirty Minute Theatre, Theatre 625, Second City Firsts, Play of the Week, Plays for Britain, Screenplay, Stages and, as television moved over to a greater emphasis on film productions, Screen One, Screen Two and the Film on Four films which continued much of single drama’s ambitions. We hope to study other strands in the same way.
The importance of researching television’s past has been reinforced by increasingly inaccurate broadsheet representations of television drama in general and Play for Today in particular. It is important to do justice to the work that was produced – great, good, indifferent, bad – rather than regurgitating convenient stereotypes (be they positive or negative). Play for Today productions rarely feature in broadsheet polls on the best TV dramas – indeed, a 2010 Guardian writers’ poll was so poorly-researched that it claimed that Coronation Street was set in Yorkshire – so if nothing else we want to show the dangers of cultural amnesia.14
These are just a few reasons for this strand’s importance, and the driving force behind this site.
(A version of this page was used as a handout at the National Film Theatre’s introduction to Play for Today on 19 May 2007.)
We get a lot of queries asking where people can find copies of these plays. Whilst that demand is heartening – let’s hope someone is paying attention to that potential market! – we cannot and will not trade in plays and do not support or promote those websites that sell or put online copyrighted material of that sort. We are updating our episode guides with details of which Play for Today productions are available commercially, but if you want to see a play that hasn’t been released, we can’t help. In the past, scholars have accessed such plays via the BFI library, but there is now an easier option that’s very accessible to the public: we would advise you to visit your nearest Mediatheque, in which the BFI has made many Play for Todays available to view, and will eventually have every extant Play for Today. They currently have stations in London (BFI Southbank), Newcastle, Cambridge, Derby and Wrexham, and their current holdings are listed on the BFI’s website here.
Screenonline includes a section on Play for Today with contributions from some of our writers. Visit here.
Thanks to: Simon Farquhar (whose separate study into Play for Today will be such a vital resource), Ian Greaves (for a crucial role in development and continuing editorial advice), Colin Brockhurst (for invaluable help with web design and provision).
Thanks also to: Alan Andres, Becky Barrett, Ian Beard, Shaun Brennan, David Bromley, John Brown, Gavin Collinson, Lez Cooke, Nick Cooper, Peter Cregeen, Darren Giddings, Simon Harries, Michael Hirst, Stephen W Lacey, Martin Marshall, Jonathan Mohun, Andy Murray, Alan Plater, David Rose, David Rudkin, Andrew Screen, Steven Stapleton, Colin Welland, Herbert Wise. Plus, all our contributors and interviewees, BBC Written Archives Centre (Caversham, Reading), BFI Library and Viewing Services (London), BBC Worldwide, BFI Southbank/Mediatheque, the British Film Institute (including Dick Fiddy, Phil Wickham and Alex Hogg) and the Mausoleum Club website for a crucial role in development.
Earlier draft versions of this site were hosted by The Mausoleum Club circa 2003 and by me via The University of Hull circa 2006. This current site replaces both of those versions.
This essay was transferred to main British Television Drama site, from different URL, November 2010. Minor revisions in April 2011 and July 2012.
- David Hare, ‘Theatre’s great malcontent’, The Guardian ‘Review’, 8 June 2002, p. 6. [↩]
- David Hare, interviewed in Alan Clarke – ‘His Own Man’, 400 Blows Productions, tx Film Four, 18 September 2000. [↩]
- Andrew Clifford, ‘The Scum manifesto’, The Guardian, 16 July 1991, p. 30. [↩]
- Indeed, Abigail’s Party was given away free with a newspaper in 2009. [↩]
- John Cook, Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), p. 6. 2nd edition. [↩]
- Kenith Trodd, ‘Jim Allen’, The Independent ‘Review’, 6 July 1999, p. 16. [↩]
- Anonymous, ‘Viewers’ reaction to BBC drama and comedy’, The Stage and Television Today, 7 April 1977, p. 13. [↩]
- Philip Purser, ‘Dennis’s Other Hat’, in Vernon W. Gras and John R. Cook (editors), The Passion of Dennis Potter: International Collected Essays (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), p. 186. Note added July 2012. [↩]
- See Sue Vice, Jack Rosenthal (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008). [↩]
- David M Thompson, interviewed by David Rolinson at BBC Films, 7 November 2002. [↩]
- Steve Clarke, ‘The screen saver’, Broadcast, 21 January 2000, p. 22. [↩]
- List updated and abbreviated, July 2012. [↩]
- Random is a particularly brilliant example of the sort of modern, relevant, inventive work that could be achieved in this lineage. [↩]
- http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2010/jan/12/guardian-50-television-dramas. [↩]