The Long Distance Piano Player (1970)

JOHN WHEATCROFT

Play for Today Writer: Alan Sharp; Director: Philip Saville; Producer: Irene Shubik

‘Everybody’s in showbiz, everybody’s a star…’1

This lyric, from the Kinks song ‘Celluloid Heroes’ written by Ray Davies, conjures up a world far removed from the gloomy hall inhabited by Pete, the long distance piano player he portrays in Alan Sharp’s Play for Today. However, the play and the song (written two years later) are closer in theme than you might think. While ‘Celluloid Heroes’ celebrates the enduring screen image of Hollywood stars, it’s also about the way the film industry exploits and sometimes destroys these icons.

Pianist Pete is a man ripe for exploitation and destruction by his predatory manager, Jack (Norman Rossington). He plays a young man trying to create a world record for non-stop piano playing, of four days and four nights. Success, Jack constantly reassures Pete in his bogus American accent, will bring fame and fortune on an epic, Hollywood scale. However, one image of the film industry which is likely to spring to the viewer’s mind is They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Sidney Pollack’s recent film about a six-day dance marathon in Depression-era America. Alan Sharp acknowledged his debt: ‘I read the book years ago, and was fascinated,’ he admitted in the week the play was aired on BBC12.

Angels are So Few (1970)

IAN GREAVES

Play for Today Writer: Dennis Potter; Director: Gareth Davies; Producer: Graeme McDonald

‘If Jesus came today… we would want to shut the door’1

Angels Are So Few represents not only the first Dennis Potter production to appear under the Play For Today banner but the cementing of a new strand in the writer’s career. In fact, the play itself is equally rooted in beginnings and endings, dealing as it does with leaps of faith, death and rebirth.

Angels Are So Few (publicity photo)

Producer Graeme McDonald had not expected this potent exploration of sexual and religious game playing when its first draft was submitted to the BBC Drama department on 15 December 1969. A covering note apologised for Potter’s radical departure from the commissioned play, initially scheduled for the then Wednesday Play slot. Condescension, apparently absent from Potter’s surviving papers, was set to be an exploration of middle-aged attitudes to the young and old. Prostitute Reformer (detailing Gladstone’s fascination with ‘fallen women’) and The Last Nazi (a play about Rudolf Hess, commissioned by Mark Shivas for BBC2) were similar proposals which never materialised from this period.

Robin Redbreast (1970)

JOHN WILLIAMS

Play for Today Writer: John Bowen; Director: James MacTaggart; Producer: Graeme McDonald

“They should have known that they had a way out, but being mere birds, didn’t.”

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Robin Redbreast has not been repeated since 1971, and yet is often recalled by viewers of the time, probably because of its eerie atmosphere, and particularly for its horrifying and surreal finale. Indeed, the play has had such a strong impact on those who have seen it, that it is almost seen as an “event” play – a work that came out of the blue, singular in approach and subject matter, and mysterious in genesis. It is because of this, perhaps, that the very limited amount of critical writing on the play has tended to be of the “remember that…what was all that about?” school of criticism. In fact its writer, John Bowen, has well over 50 plays, screenplays and novels to his credit, and Robin Redbreast is just one of many pieces he created that draw from his thematic interest in ancient myths and the way they live on in modern culture. Although Robin Redbreast is a good example of the thriller genre, Bowen was a very (some would say overly) serious writer, and he stressed the importance of ideas in his work: “A play is ideas expressed in incident…a play works first on emotions, but emotion unanchored by thought simply washes about the place in a thoroughly self-indulgent way…”1 The ideas in Robin Redbreast are not obvious at first, but when the play is viewed in the context of Bowen’s other work it becomes less opaque. It is also significant that the play represents the best synthesis of Bowen’s predominant ideas, and seems to have had an impact on the development of his subsequent career.

The Hallelujah Handshake (1970)

DAVID ROLINSON

Play for Today Writer: Colin Welland; Director: Alan Clarke; Producer: Graeme McDonald

“It’s as if he’s in constant chaos, reaching out for outstretched hands that just crumble in his grasp…”

BTVD_titleNot until the end of The Hallelujah Handshake do we discover the real identity of its central character, David Williams (played by Tony Calvin).1 A petty criminal and small-time thief on a repetitive cycle of police warnings and short prison sentences, Williams is an inveterate liar. A lonely storeman (or, perhaps, storyman), he passes himself off as Henry Tobias Jones (a touring writer who has visited the Bahamas and once had a football trial), John Rhys Davies (Welsh BBC Orchestra) and others. I have given away the ending here not to “explain” David, but to draw attention to the play’s refusal to do so. This is one of the reasons that Colin Welland’s play is so fascinating and so deceptively complex.

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