‘An ideology red, white and blue in tooth and claw’: David Edgar’s Destiny (1978) – Part 2 of 3

TOM MAY

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

This essay continues from Part 1.

Part 2: Production and reception

Production of the Play for Today version

David Edgar has observed that, although the theatre version has been placed in the lineage of the “rather inaccurately dubbed ‘state-of-England’” plays by Brenton, Hare, Barker, Griffiths and himself, the television version reflected the influence of the school of social realist drama that was associated with Ken Loach, Roy Battersby and Tony Garnett, which was more “grittily proletarian” and which echoed the British New Wave cinema of the early 1960s.1 Neither Edgar nor Matheson can recall who first suggested that Destiny be adapted as a television play,2 but Edgar recalls that, in a script meeting with himself and Newell, Matheson asked, “So, what are we telling the nation here?” For Edgar this demonstrates what “we thought we were about in the 70s […] not asking ‘how will the viewer respond to this?’”3 This reflects its era, with producers and creative personnel having control of decision making, in stark contrast with the later Birt-era move towards pleasing the consumer. Such engaged, high-minded ambition was made possible by settled scheduling which, as Matheson argues, allowed Play for Today to build a regular audience who, for half of the year, “knew they would get something distinct and surprising once a week.”4

Episode guide: 1976

THE OTHER WOMAN (6 Jan 1976)

wr. Watson Gould
pr. David Rose
dr. Michael Simpson

NUTS IN MAY (13 Jan 1976)

wr. Mike Leigh
pr. David Rose
dr. Mike Leigh
Nuts in May was released on DVD by the BBC/2Entertain in 2011 (as part of Mike Leigh at the BBC)

DORAN’S BOX (20 Jan 1976)

wr. Eric Coltart
pr. David Rose
dr. Matthew Robinson
Recording does not exist

PACKMAN’S BARN (27 Jan 1976)

wr. Alick Rowe
pr. David Rose
dr. Chris Menaul

A STORY TO FRIGHTEN THE CHILDREN (3 Feb 1976)

wr. John Hopkins
pr. Graeme McDonald
dr. Herbert Wise

THE HAPPY HUNTING GROUND (10 Feb 1976)

wr. Tom Hadaway
pr. Anne Head
dr. Brian Parker

JUMPING BEAN BAG (17 Feb 1976)

wr. Robin Chapman
pr. Rosemary Hill
dr. Alan Cooke

CLAY, SMEDDUM AND GREENDEN (24 Feb 1976)

wr. Bill Craig (novels Lewis Grassic Gibbon)
pr. Pharic Maclaren
dr. Moira Armstrong

LOVE LETTERS ON BLUE PAPER (2 Mar 1976)

wr. Arnold Wesker
pr. Graeme McDonald
dr. Waris Hussein

WILLIE ROUGH (9 Mar 1976)

wr. Bill Bryden
pr. Pharic Maclaren
dr. Bob McIntosh

Episode guide: 1971

ALMA MATER (7 Jan 1971)

wr. David Hodson
pr. Irene Shubik
dr. James Ferman
No recording exists

CIRCLE LINE (14 Jan 1971)

wr. W. Stephen Gilbert
pr. Graeme McDonald
dr. Claude Whatham
No recording exists

HELL’S ANGEL (21 Jan 1971)

wr. “David Agnew” [pseudonym]
pr. Graeme McDonald
dr. Alan Cooke
No recording exists

THE PIANO (28 Jan 1971)

wr. Julia Jones
pr. Graeme McDonald
dr. James Cellan Jones

BILLY’S LAST STAND (4 Feb 1971)

wr. Barry Hines
pr. Graeme McDonald
dr. John Glenister
No recording exists

THE LARGEST THEATRE IN THE WORLD – THE RAINBIRDS (11 Feb 1971)

wr. Clive Exton
pr. Irene Shubik
dr. Philip Saville Essay by Oliver Wake

REDDICK (18 Feb 1971)

wr. Munroe Scott
pr. Mervyn Rosenzveig, Robert Allen
dr. Mervyn Rosenzveig
[Canadian Broadcasting Corporation]
No recording exists

THE FOXTROT (29 Apr 1971)

Essay by David Rolinson
wr. Rhys Adrian
pr. Irene Shubik
dr. Philip Saville Essay by Oliver Wake

WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS (6 May 1971)

wr. Tony Parker Essay by David Rolinson
pr. Irene Shubik
dr. James Ferman

The Foxtrot (1971)

DAVID ROLINSON

Play for Today Writer: Rhys Adrian; Director: Philip Saville; Producer: Irene Shubik

“I have a great fondness for the past, the way things were.”

PFT_1971_08_RTphoto

The Foxtrot offers further proof of the wide variety of approaches and subject matter in Play for Today: a self-aware sex comedy about a ménage-a-trois between Michael Bates, Donald Pleasence and Thora Hird is far removed from the intensity and political commitment of plays from the same period such as When the Bough Breaks and The Rank and File. However, newspaper reviews were mixed – stressing its strengths and weaknesses, praising some elements and criticising what some saw as its self-awareness and obscurity. Given that some reviewers used The Foxtrot to question the very purpose of Play for Today as a strand, the following essay uses newspaper reviews of The Foxtrot – depending more heavily on reviews than the site’s essays usually do – in order to trace some of the ways in which Play for Today was a contested space.1

Evelyn (1971)

‘MR WOLF’

Play for Today Writer: Rhys Adrian; Director: Piers Haggard; Producer: Graeme McDonald

‘How old do you think I am? Go on – guess…’

In contrast to a lot of the heavier entries in Play for Today, Evelyn is a bit of a volte face, especially given its transmission just one week after that of Jeremy Sandford’s cause celebre Edna the Inebriate Woman. Produced in much the same whimsical vein as writer Rhys Adrian’s previous Play for Today script (The Foxtrot), it arguably provided a neat counterpoint to the more po-faced ‘serious’ plays on offer throughout the rest of 1971’s run. Starting life as a radio play, winning author Rhys Adrian the Prix Italia in 19701, it is – at its most basic – almost exclusively a series of dialogues. While this displays all the hallmarks of a potentially stultifying ‘art’ film (setting one’s early warning system twitching like a pair of clackers) it is, in fact, quite a clever little script and can lay claim to (mostly) excellent performances and sympathetic and unobtrusive direction. This is also one of those Play for Todays that, despite being repeated twice, is little remembered. It does not slaughter sacred cows or storm barns and it is neither revolutionary nor a catalyst for a kneekjerk bout of social outrage from publicity-seeking backbench MPs. It is quite simply a gentle ‘situation comedy’, centered around a forty year-old man’s extra-marital affair and, as such, would never be given the chance of even a footnote in any serious research of the single play. By ‘situation comedy’ I, of course, mean that any amusement value is derived purely through the characters and their situation and not that it is part of the ‘Sorry I didn’t hear you Vicar – my knockers must need a good seeing to’ school of comedy…