Rumpole of the Bailey (1975)


Play for Today; Writer: John Mortimer; Producer: Irene Shubik; Director: John Gorrie

“There is a golden thread running through British justice…”1


Horace Rumpole is one of those great fictional characters who emerged fully formed, with the potential to run and run. Like Sherlock Holmes, William Brown and Bertie Wooster, he burst on the scene with virtually all his key character traits established. The barrister whom we meet in the first Rumpole of the Bailey is fundamentally the same man readers and viewers were to follow through numerous television series and radio plays, many volumes of short stores, and a handful of novels. You can even read Rumpole in posh Folio Society editions.

Within a few minutes of the original Play for Today, first broadcast on 16 December 1975, we were introduced to some trademark Rumpole quirks and foibles. He quotes at length his favourite poet, Wordsworth, from Quiller-Couch’s Book of English Verse, refers to his wife, Hilda (Joyce Heron), as “She Who Must Be Obeyed” and wistfully recalls, as he will do so often in the years to come, his triumph as a young barrister in the Penge Bungalow Murders case.

The Long Distance Piano Player (1970)


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)


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)


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.”


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)


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.