Tag Archives: 1970s

THE FOXTROT (1971)

By 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.’

For newspaper critics at the time, The Foxtrot summed up both the strengths and weaknesses of the Play for Today strand. If nothing else, it offers further proof of the wide variety of approaches and subject matter in Play for Today: after all, a self-aware sex comedy about a ménage-a-trois between Michael Bates, Donald Pleasance 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, as we shall see, although some critics praised the play, others were annoyed by its self-awareness and occasional obscurity, and used The Foxtrot to question the very purpose of the strand.

THE RANK AND FILE (1971)

By John Williams

Play for Today Writer: Jim Allen; Director: Kenneth Loach; Producer: Graeme McDonald

‘I go along with Trotsky, that life is beautiful, that the future generation cleanses all the oppression, violence and evil’

Most of Ken Loach’s work for television has attracted at least some critical writing because of his towering reputation in the cinema. Even so, The Rank and Filehas generally been overlooked in favour of the first Loach/Allen Wednesday Play collaboration The Big Flame (1969), and both writer and director seem to have mixed feelings about the piece. Allen stated that the play ‘was written in three weeks…if you get too didactic, politically or otherwise, as I probably did in The Rank and File, it can be a lantern lecture’1 and Loach has commented that ‘the [films] we’ve done that show their age badly are the ones where you’re trying to catch the headlines and be topical…some of the films from the early seventies’2. However Rank…, while superficially similar to The Big Flame, was written for specific reasons about a recent strike, rather than a (prophetic) vision of a political occupation. And Loach’s own reference to topicality should lead us consider that one of the strengths of the Play for Today strand lay in the ability, as in this case, to move with astonishing speed from a real-life event to a fictional representation in just under 11 months. The urgency of such a representation is not diminished just because the events that inspired Rank… have become obscure footnotes in twentieth century industrial relations, but I’d like to try and illuminate some of the historical background to the play, and also look at what it tells us about the role of politics, specifically Trotskyite politics, in the BBC Plays department at the time.

TRAITOR (1971)

By David Rolinson

Play for Today Writer: Dennis Potter; Director: Alan Bridges; Producer: Graeme McDonald
John le Mesurier with Dennis Potter (photo © Radio Times)

‘I had to turn my back on all that I had been brought up to love…’

Western journalists visit Moscow to interview Adrian Harris (John Le Mesurier), a former controller in British intelligence who was also a Soviet agent passing on vital information, and who has now defected. Harris believes in both Communism and Englishness – he believes that he has betrayed ‘my class, yes… my country, no’ – but the press find these beliefs incompatible, and want to find out why he became a ‘traitor’. Harris is plagued by anxieties over his actions and his upper-class childhood, and drinks to a state of collapse. Put in this way, the play’s attitude towards Harris’s psychology seems straightforward. Its staging, too, seems conventional – mostly a dialogue-heavy one-set studio piece, its theatricality led some reviewers to find it ‘heavy going’, a ‘static and verbose’ piece ‘long on self-conscious speeches and dialogue tussles which depended for their effectiveness upon liberal use of literary quotations’1. It is no surprise that it was later remade for radio2. However, Traitor is one of the most thematically ambitious of Dennis Potter’s early plays, tackling family psychology, patriotism and, through nuanced use of literary quotation, the way culture and institutions reinforce political values.

EVELYN (1971)

By ‘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…

SUNSET ACROSS THE BAY (1975)

By David Rolinson

Play for Today Writer: Alan Bennett; Director: Stephen Frears; Producer: Innes Lloyd

‘Knocking-off time…’

Sunset Across the Bay follows a retired couple who move from Leeds to the seaside resort of Morecambe. Their struggle to adapt to retirement produces humour through the observation of Northern dialogue and idiosyncrasies, but moves towards tragedy.1 One of many impressive collaborations between writer Alan Bennett and director Stephen Frears, the play combines understated emotional power and a sense of the social impact of urban planning with a skilful deployment of cinematic technique that builds mood, character and theme.2

The play (if not the published script) opens with Mrs Liversidge’s spiritedly inept performance of Ivor Novello’s We’ll Gather Lilacs in the Spring Again.3 Its heightened, ‘florid’ delivery is so different from Mam and Dad’s prosaic understatement that it has been called an ‘ironic prologue’.4 However, the song’s lyrics anticipate key moments (‘never leave me’… ‘when you come home once more’), create a relevant sense of moving on by looking backwards (gathering lilacs ‘again’) and foreshadow Mam’s moment of articulacy in the Lake District later, when she performs a poem featuring daffodils.