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Play for Today celebrates its 50th birthday

Play for Today was a milestone in the history of TV drama

On 15 October BBC 1’s Play for Today celebrates its 50th birthday. It succeeded The Wednesday Play, ran from 1970-84 and was one of the highpoints of a golden age of TV drama, along with Jack Rosenthal’s plays, Euston Films on ITV, European imports like Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Edgar Reitz’s Heimat and drama series like The Glittering Prizes, Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, the two Smiley series and Granada’s Brideshead and The Jewel in the Crown.

This special anniversary is being marked by events at the BFI, the release of a BFI Blu-ray box set (Play for Today: Volume 1), a Radio 4 documentary, John Wyver’s feature length BBC documentary, Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today, and a season of some of the best plays will be shown on BBC4. BFI Southbank will be celebrating the historic Play for Today series throughout October and November.

Play for Today featured work by most of Britain’s best-known playwrights, from John Osborne, Dennis Potter and David Hare to Alan Bennett, Trevor Griffiths and David Edgar. Some were well-known veterans from The Wednesday Play, others were exciting new talents like Stephen Poliakoff, Mike Leigh (Nuts in May, Abigail’s Party) and Alan Bleasdale, all of whom became better known in the 1980s and ‘90s.

It hit the ground running with its very first series, 1970-1, with acclaimed dramas like Ingmar Bergman’s The Lie, Alun Owen’s No Trams to Lime Street and Jim Allen’s The Rank and File. But it was arguably the second season (1971-2) which really launched its reputation with Dennis Potter’s Traitor, with John le Mesurier playing a spy loosely based on Kim Philby, Edna, The Inebriate Woman with Patricia Hayes, written by Jeremy Sandford (famous for Cathy, Come Home) and David Storey’s Home, set in a mental asylum, with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.

Play for Today was a very white, male world

The range of characters was typical of Play for Today: militant trade unionists, spies, people like Edna or the patients in Home who had hit hard times. The plays were often political and gave a voice to left-wing writers, in particular, Barry Hines (The Price of Coal), Jim Allen (The Spongers, Days of Hope), Trevor Griffiths (All Good Men, Country), David Edgar (Destiny), Brenton and Hare (Brassneck) and John McGrath (The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil). Often their plays were topical, about Britain in the 1970s. But perhaps more interestingly, these writers offered an alternative version of British twentieth-century history. Jim Allen’s Days of Hope gave a radical account of British trade union history from 1916-26, Country by Trevor Griffiths was about the 1945 Labour landslide election, and was shown around the same time as ITV’s Brideshead Revisited, giving a very different, more political analysis of the British ruling class, and David Hare’s Licking Hitlerand Ian McEwan’s The Imitation Game, were both part of a darker, revisionist account of wartime Britain.

These plays were not just remarkably political, they were unabashedly left-wing. There was no attempt at political balance. At the height of Thatcherism, the editors never sought out right-wing voices. They were also astonishingly parochial. Despite plays by Bergman and Havel, there were very few plays set outside Britain, not even in America or the former empire.

A recurring theme is elegiac accounts of working-class men and women looking back at their lives or at communities which have changed forever, such as Alan Bennett’s Sunset Across the Bay or Owen’s No Trams to Lime Street. It is no coincidence that these were both by northern working-class writers. Others included Colin Welland, Barry Hines, Trevor Griffiths, Jack Rosenthal and Alan Plater. This gave a significant twist to British post-war drama, dominated for years by southerners, whether posh like Coward and Rattigan or working and lower middle class, like Osborne, Pinter and Wesker. It was a brief moment in British culture when northern voices could be heard.

Play for Today was a milestone in the history of TV drama

Some plays were adapted from successful theatre productions like Trevor Griffiths’s Comedians and Brenton and Hare’s Brassneck (both first produced at the Nottingham Playhouse) or David Storey’s Home (first shown at The Royal Court). But what was really striking about Play for Today was how it created a new kind of TV drama, the single play, low-budget and new kinds of more mobile cameras. What is striking is how few were experimental and played with the form. Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills stands out. The play is about a group of seven-year-olds playing in the Forest of Dean, but the children are played by grown up actors.  John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil openly took on ideas from Brecht, with actors taking on multiple roles and slipping out of character. But the vast majority of the plays were openly realistic.

Play for Today gave an opportunity to a new generation of writers, producers and directors, many of whom went on to have hugely successful careers in theatre and cinema, including Bennett, Hare and Mike Leigh or in television during the 1980s and ‘90s (Potter, Bleasdale, Rosenthal, Poliakoff). Most of the leading actors were familiar faces from television: George Cole, Bill Paterson, Frank Finlay, Tom Bell and Leonard Rossiter, Colin Blakely, Freddie Jones, Alison Steadman and Frances de la Tour. Only a few went on to have major careers in the cinema.

The same is true of the directors. Many went onto direct more prestigious TV dramas. Christopher Morahan became better known for The Jewel in the Crown in the 1980s and Jon Amiel for The Singing Detective. Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields, The Mission) and Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Queen) went on to direct some of the best-known British films of the next thirty years. Play for Today gave them a terrific training so they were ready when Film on Four and the British film industry took off in the 1980s.

There are interesting absences. Play for Today (and TV drama in general) was a very white, male world. Of the 36 writers from the opening season, one was a woman. Of the 34 directors, there was one woman. There were hardly any Black or Asian authors or directors. The real breakthrough to a more ethnically diverse Britain came much later. Even Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette was a rare exception in the 1980s.

It’s also striking how few one-off plays launched famous series. John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey with Leo McKern was unique. Single plays were the dominant genre. And very few dramas were commissioned as two- or four-parters. The Price of Coal (two episodes), Graham Reid’s Billy trilogy, with the young Kenneth Branagh and Days of Hope (four episodes) were very unusual. Abigail never got to have another party.

Play for Today is like opening Tutankhamun’s tomb. A remote world, but full of untold riches

But the future didn’t lie with single TV dramas. Big high-budget TV drama series like Brideshead and The Jewel in the Crown, Film on Four and ambitious series like The Singing Detective and Shooting the Past and offered a very different kind of TV drama with different production values and different kinds of characters. No more Ednas, no old working-class couples looking back over their lives, no left-wing dramas about industrial conflict or coal miners. Instead a very different world opened up: Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, Joe Orton and Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio, Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract and Fay Weldon’s She-Devil.      

However, this month’s 50th anniversary celebrations are a reminder that Play for Today was a milestone in the history of TV drama. It also tells us a fascinating story about Britain in the 197os and early ‘80s. Its absences were as revealing as the subjects of the plays. It is a reminder of how far away the 1970s now seem. It is like opening Tutankhamun’s tomb. A remote world, but full of untold riches.

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