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.
This piece was revised in 2020
15 October 2020 is the fiftieth anniversary of the start of Play for Today. The anniversary has been marked by the BBC with a new documentary and a short run of repeats,1 marked by the British Film Institute with online resources, a season of screenings and new blu ray releases, and marked by academia in online events, scholarships and a new website devoted to the strand. Where does that leave this Play for Today website? A group of us set this up in 2003 at a different host, then I moved its content across here to become a sub-section of my British Television Drama website in 2009, and added new material whenever possible up until 2017, after which it paused owing to a shortage of contributors. Its mission statement in 2003 was to counteract the risk that these plays would fall into neglect, as a result of the reduced afterlife of television plays in comparison with films from the period despite initially being seen by many more people, and a short-sighted belief among critics, some scholars and some practitioners about the medium’s “inherent” ephemerality, and limited availability of many of its plays. The critical climate around television has worsened since then, with popular writing and some elements of academia falling into wilful ahistoricism. Play for Today was a fascinating test case of the extent to which television drama can be forgotten or neglected, because – relative to all other television play strands except perhaps its predecessor The Wednesday Play – it has always been the least forgotten, the least neglected. It has long been the most name-dropped strand among actors, the one that has informed song titles, the one whose output includes a few plays which have been regularly repeated, released on physical media,2 and made available via streaming platforms. Access to the remaining plays has posed more of a challenge, counteracted by the British Film Institute’s ‘Mediatheque’ initiative,3 which has made many titles available at the BFI’s Southbank site and regional centres,4 but a few are more widely available via streaming services.5 Play for Today is not forgotten. Therefore, this site has always had other functions. This is not an exercise in nostalgia: it charts the achievements of the past not to dismiss the present but to hopefully inform it, to show what is possible. Clinging to the single drama as the gold standard of television drama risks perpetuating a decades-old canon, but it can also help to inform the industry’s current search for more diverse voices: new writers do not need initiatives, they need slots, they need a platform for their voices. This site covers the whole strand, providing information on every play and their contributors, celebrating their voices but also welcoming essays from a range of writers in their own voices, although the site has some way to go to deliver on that aim. The site works as a piece of television history, as a platform for scholarship and giving a sense of the culture as a whole, to get a more rounded sense of how such television drama spaces work – institutionally, aesthetically, politically, paratextually – not only to understand the old television programme Play for Today but to potentially be a play for today.
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. 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”.6 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”.7 This freedom was grasped by new and established writers and directors. In its first two years alone, it featured the work of such diverse practitioners as John Osborne, Ingmar Bergman, Philip Saville, Dennis Potter, Alan Clarke, Julia Jones, Barry Hines and N.F. Simpson. 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 an alternative national cinema. Many of the strand’s contributors saw its influence as equivalent to that 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”.8 This was helped by a system which gave creative authority to such dedicated producers as Margaret Matheson, David Rose, June Roberts, Mark Shivas, Irene Shubik and Kenith Trodd.
There are dangers of sinking into rhetoric about a ‘golden age’. I should draw attention to a phrase above: “At its best”. As the BBC’s later Head of Films, David M Thompson, warned 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”.9 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”.10 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. Revising this paragraph in 2017, I acknowledged that we are in a strong period for popular drama series – I am keen to sing the praises of Call the Midwife here and worry that the act of misremembering Play for Today can result in a marginalisation of certain types of drama, indeed some major television scholars perpetuate gendered value judgements while others continue to challenge this, aware that the greatest achievements in television studies as a discipline grew out of feminist television scholarship rather than a canon of ‘difficult’ American male writers. Popular drama series and soap operas serve some of the functions of play strands like Play for Today as an opportunity, as a space for authored drama, as a space to discuss issues. However, the space is more narrow and risks a false comparison. The most accurate comparison is between Play for Today and post-2000 single drama: there is less of it, though ever year brings some single plays that belong in the lineage of different aspects of Play for Today, such as Vacuuming Complete Nude in Paradise (2001) and God on Trial (2008). Docudrama continues to bring a space for one aspect of Play for Today, the ability to respond to recent events, as in Cyberbully (2015), Damilola, Our Loved Boy (2016), Sitting in Limbo (2020), Anthony (2020) and – before BBC Three was cut short of its potential as a platform for new voices – Murdered by My Boyfriend (2014) and Murdered by My Father (2016). It is in plays like debbie tucker green’s Random (2011) and serials like Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You (2020) – socially urgent, formally experimental, ground-breaking – that the potential for a contemporary Play for Today can be seen. An overarching strand identity like Play for Today provides an institutional space in which writers and directors can develop, a space for established voices, and a promise of actual commissioned slots to deliver diversity rather than just brand it. When the single play has largely been replaced by high-end productions with huge budgets, there is less scope for genuine risk, political opposition or specificity, less scope to expand the language of television instead of narrowing it to only mean ‘like cinema’. If the single play is, as John R. Cook once said, television’s cutting edge, “a special place for the expression of the individual, dissident or questioning voice”,11 then those voices are there, awaiting a space.
But it is important to understand what Play for Today did and did not do. It is true that one thread was political radicalism, whether querying the handling of trade disputes or confronting discourse around welfare spending or around terrorism. That did result in controversies over didacticism in plays such as 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”.12 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. It is also the case that responses to Play for Today have undersold the different types of politics in the strand. The dominance of Screen theory in academia over the years in which Play for Today was running meant an emphasis on certain types of responses to the filmmaking language used. The strand gave a platform – admittedly limited and contingent – to some aspects of working-class experience, in different regions and registers (tragic, comic, politically articulate), and included an engagement with women’s industrial action.13 There has been less detailed engagement with the strand’s interest – admittedly rare and at-times tentative or problematic – in feminist politics and the politics of representation in terms of race, the immigrant experience and LGBTQI+ stories from the transgender concerns of Even Solomon (1979) to what Simon McCallum describes as the “treatise on the structures of heteropatriarchy” in the much-viewed The Other Woman (1976).14 Play for Today is not necessarily the highest-achieving strand in these areas, but closer attention to the strand as a whole can help in reflecting, rather than marginalising, marginalised voices. Access embeds this: there should be more scholarship on a key Play for Today piece such as ‘A Hole in Babylon’ now that it is more readily available after appearing in the BBC Four repeat run in 2020. It is understandable that these plays are not more widely available – drama is particularly expensive to add to iPlayer and that cost comes from programme-making – but more informed choices like this are a start.
Perhaps Play for Today is not so much forgotten as misremembered, in which case some of its individual plays, achievements and failures are themselves in need of retrieval. There is a danger that we see Play for Today as an outlet for “issues” and “realism”, and a danger that the strand be over-emphasised, which risks denying the fact that this was a banner for a variety of disparate pieces. 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?”15 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.16 It was the flagship drama platform whose range of output included fantasy pieces like Z For Zachariah, drama with comedy, horror or science fiction and time travel emphases, or experiments from Brechtian theatre; popular comic drama series Rumpole of the Bailey was developed from a Play for Today, as was Philip Martin’s extraordinary postmodern series 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.17 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.18 So far much writing – including the pieces volunteered for this website – have neglected these areas of the strand.19 King in particular suffers from the neglect common to the 1980s period of Play for Today. I find these later years fascinating, not so much despite the strand’s neglect by the institution in these years but because of it: although these later years produce fewer great achievements or variety of achievements, the period seems open to more voices, in particular on questions of representation. This site began with the aim of starting at the beginning and working its way gradually through the plays: this has perhaps reinforced some of the dominant views of the strand. It would be tempting to work backwards from the end.
Our attempt to cover every play in different forms – essays, interviews, supporting material, educational activities – is ambitious and will continue to develop over the years. We celebrate and investigate drama shot in the television studio, not just importing film studies terminology to discuss those filmed plays in cinema terms – we also want to engage with television on its own terms, with its specificity and its potential. In describing Play for Today as a space for filmmakers, as the alternative British cinema of the 1970s, there is a danger of prioritising the productions that were shot entirely on film, as if perpetuating a value judgement.20 Box sets of major directors who contributed to the strand at times perpetuate this – such as the Leigh and Loach sets – but the BFI’s Alan Clarke set helps to make available such a vital piece as Psy-Warriors (1981) which demonstrates the potential of the television studio.
Play for Today is only one of a wide range of play strands: far from being forgotten, it has come to dominate the conversation (thereby fairly reflecting its position as BBC1 flagship strand) at the expense of some vital strands across the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, including strands with a better record on some of the issues listed above and strands which had stronger (yet not strong) records on diverse commissioning. Emphasising the specialness of Play for Today risks downplaying the potential of single drama. 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 much-discussed The Wednesday Play, 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. Different strands often had different identities – some were themed, the nearest equivalent to which is the excellent comedy anthology series Inside No. 9 (2014-present), though that has the same writers throughout. The continued production of daytime strand Moving On (2009-present) underlines the potential of strands as platforms for new and continuing talent, in this case just one of the play strands or near-strands that involve a mentoring arrangement with writer Jimmy McGovern.
Studying Play for Today alone will not be sufficient to understand the play strand. We hope to treat other strands in the same way in the future; certainly individual essays on this site and elsewhere already pick up on work in those strands, in particular Screenplay – at times a platform for guerrilla filmmaking – and Screen Two. The importance of researching television’s past has been reinforced by 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). In 2017, the Guardian claimed that Play for Today had no women writers, which while indicative of a valuable general point, was a factual error soon corrected by letter writers here and here. These responses stressed the series’ distinctive social impact as well as reminding us of the need to get the work of its women writers, producers and other creative talent out there.
These are just some of the reasons for this section of the British Television Drama website and for the work that is going on both here and elsewhere.
Follow the drop-down menus at the top of this page to access a full episode guide for Play for Today and essays on the plays and on the people who made them. To get you started, these are the plays that currently have essays of their own:
The Long Distance Piano Player [see also piece on re-recording]
Angels Are So Few
The Hallelujah Handshake
The Fox Trot
The Rank and File
The Fishing Party
Land of Green Ginger: Alan Plater interview
Leeds – United! [three essays]
Gangsters Coverage within Scene vs Scene feature
Sunset Across the Bay
84, Charing Cross Road
Rumpole of the Bailey
Brimstone and Treacle
Destiny [three essays]
The Falklands Factor [see also piece on Falklands drama]
Our contributors have also written essays on other Play for Today for academic journals, for the BFI’s Screenonline and Mediatheque, and other sources. For links to those pieces and full lists of all essays on this site, use the ‘Contents’ drop-down menu above or click on Updates; List of biographies and topics; List of dramas by decade.
Originally posted: 1 July 2003 on the old Mausoleum Club version of this site.
2006: revised when posting this on my old University of Hull version of this site.
2009: transferred essay to new Play for Today mini-site initially separate from the British Television Drama site
November 2010: first appearance of this essay on the main British Television Drama site, moved from a different URL, as all the pieces from the old mini-site were transferred to the main site.
April 2011: minor revisions.
July 2012: minor revisions.
25 February 2017: added discussion of more recent contemporary programmes (any 2011-2017 programme mentioned here was added in this update); revised the text accompanying the discussion of contemporary programmes; added discussion of 2017 writing about female writers; updated availability with revisions to comments on Mediatheque and BBC Store; made minor revisions to earlier sections, amending or reducing the occasional sentence and adding other example contributor names; amended list of first-year contributors to a list of first-two-year contributors; added this ‘Updates’ record in line with standard practice on this site; minor corrections to punctuation around endnotes; tidied formatting of byline and text below this section.
14 October 2020: added discussion of fiftieth anniversary and more recent contemporary programmes. Added new first paragraph, although it includes some material from later paragraphs of the 2017 version. Minor changes, and occasional new sentences, throughout. Reduced and updated postscript discussion of Mediatheque and changed contact details; light revision of thanks section.
16 October 2020: minor alterations to two sentences for clarity; added to this introductory essay a list of some relevant links to pieces elsewhere on the site.
A much earlier 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 from people asking where they can find copies of these plays. The demand is heartening, but 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 update our episode guide 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. Now, you could visit your nearest Mediatheque. Their locations and resources 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: Ian Greaves (for a crucial role in development and continuing editorial advice), Simon Farquhar, Colin Brockhurst (for invaluable help with web design and provision). Thanks to all contributors and interviewees for pieces on the site past, present and future. Thanks to Oliver Wake for such a vital role in the later years of the site.
Thanks also to: the BBC Written Archives Centre, BFI Library and Viewing Services (in the site’s early stages), the British Film Institute (including, in the site’s early stages, Dick Fiddy, Phil Wickham and Alex Hogg), 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, the BFI Library and Viewing Services, BBC Worldwide/BBC Studios, BFI Southbank/Mediatheque, and the Mausoleum Club website for a crucial role in development.
- Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today, tx. BBC Four, 12 October 2020. Written and directed by John Wyver. Its consultants include Ian Greaves, who has written for this site and played a key part in getting it started in 2003. [↩]
- It is notable that Abigail’s Party remains the first reference point of newspapers when illustrating the fiftieth anniversary coverage. It has been repeated regularly even this century, is available to buy on DVD, and indeed was given away as a free DVD in issues of the Observer in 2009. [↩]
- For more information on Mediatheque, see the website. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- BBC Store made some lesser-known pieces available to buy, but it closed on 1 November 2017. Since then, some of those plays moved to Amazon Prime Video in the UK. In 2020 these plays included Even Solomon and The Kamikaze Ground Staff Reunion Dinner. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- David M Thompson, interviewed by David Rolinson at BBC Films, 7 November 2002. [↩]
- Steve Clarke, ‘The screen saver’, Broadcast, 21 January 2000, p. 22. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- See for example David Rolinson, ‘Women and Work: Leeds – United’ in three parts starting here. [↩]
- Simon McCallum, ‘Play for Today at 50: Queer stories’, British Film Institute website, 13 October 2020, available <here. Accessed 14 October 2020. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- For more on this, see this site’s coverage of Land of Green Ginger or Dave Rolinson, ‘The surprise of a large town: depicting regional space in Alan Plater’s Land of Green Ginger’, Journal of British Cinema and Television, Volume 4, Number 2, 2007. [↩]
- See Sue Vice, Jack Rosenthal (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008). [↩]
- I have written about relevant pieces such as The Garland and King for the BFI’s Mediatheque resource but have not yet had the opportunity to develop them for this site. [↩]
- See Dave Rolinson, ‘The last studio system: a case for British television films’, in Paul Newland (editor), Don’t Look Now: British Cinema of the 1970s (Bristol: Intellect, 2010). This website returns to these debates in pieces on Alan Clarke, Sunset Across the Bay and others. [↩]