Blu-ray Review: Play for Today - Volume 1

Blu-ray Review: Play for Today - Volume 1

British television drama had its roots in the theatre, Although drama was part of the service’s output from early on, as it was broadcast live (with repeat showings needing the cast and crew to be reassembled to perform the play again) the effective difference between television and stage was the presence of cameras and the audiences being those with television sets within range of transmitters, watching the results on small black and white screens. As far as we are able to tell – no recording of a British television play exists from before 1953 – much early television drama was stage bound. But a little later, writers such as Nigel Kneale and directors (billed then as “producers”, theatre-fashion) like Rudolph Cartier began to develop television drama as its own distinct medium.

The arrival of a second channel, ITV, in 1955 increased the amount of single plays broadcast, many of them original works written directly for television. If successful, they could have an audience of millions. Armchair Theatre was one such series of single plays, produced by Canadian expatriate Sydney Newman between 1958 and 1962. Newman was headhunted to become BBC Head of Drama and one of the results was The Wednesday Play, which ran for six years on BBC1. The series encouraged new writers, as well as new directors, and was not afraid to be controversial and to tackle “difficult” subjects.

After six years, The Wednesday Play became Play for Today, which of course didn’t tie it to a particular day of the week. In fact, the first one was broadcast on a Thursday: Alan Sharp’s The Long Distance Piano Player, directed by Philip Saville and starring Ray Davies of The Kinks in his first straight acting role, on 15 October 1970. Again, the remit was to encourage new writers but also to showcase established ones, and not to be afraid of being provocative. The plays were mostly originals, but some were adaptations from novels or from the theatre, and in some cases plays which had been first shown elsewhere were repeated in the Play for Today slot, including in the earliest days some former Wednesday Plays. Over time, Play for Today settled on Tuesday nights for the most part, usually in a 9.25pm slot straight after the news.

Play for Today was a flexible format, plays running as short as forty minutes (N.F. Simpson’s Thank You Very Much, from 1971) or as long as two and a half hours (Jim Allen’s United Kingdom, 1981). While its popular image was of contemporary-set, socially-conscious, left/liberal-political pieces, in reality it was far more versatile, and it’s fair to say that you could tune in not entirely knowing what you were about to see. There were dramas and comedies, period pieces and those bang up to date, both narratively conventional and experimental. Genres varied, including works of science fiction and fantasy or close to it – think Jeremy Paul and Alan Gibson’s The Flipside of Dominick Hide from 1980 and its sequel two years later, Alan Garner’s adaptation of his own novel Red Shift and David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen. With the British cinema industry much reduced throughout most of the 1970s, you could argue that it was alive and well on the small screen, and directors such as Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, Loach and Alan Clarke did much of their best work on television. With just three channels until 1982 and for the great majority of the public having no means of recording programmes, you watched the play at the time or you missed it, unless there was a repeat. With that in mind, some plays attracted large audiences and became talking points the next day. Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, a version of his stage play, attracted such a high audience (ITV was on strike and there was “something highbrow” on BBC2) that it has become imprinted in the national consciousness ever since.

You could argue that any television drama reflects the time in which it was made, not just in its technical aspects but in what it does or doesn’t say. Some of that is in subject matter. The Other Woman (1976) and Coming Out (1979) dealt with homosexuality, female and male respectively, and Even Solomon (1979) is an early depiction of a trans person. However, there was often a sense that plays dealing with the experience of a minority or marginalised group tended to see them as problems to be solved or at least discussed. But at least they did bring these things into the open. The BFI’s release does point how few Plays for Today are the work of non-white writers (just three) and of women, with just one non-white director (Horace Ové) and twelve productions directed by women, five of whom were Moira Armstrong. Another marker of the time is the fact that nudity, which had become increasingly accepted on television over the past decade, tends mostly to be of the female characters – in this set, The Lie is an example of this. Also, there is the matter of language: the 1970s was a time when all manner of what would now be called discriminatory language could be aired without comment but strong or very strong language was hardly ever heard. (Among the plays here, see especially A Passage to England.)

However, in the 1980s, things changed. Channel 4 was launched in 1982 and invested money in single drama productions that it saw as feature films for the cinema (and which often had small releases there) as well as for the small screen. An increasing number of television channels favoured retaining audience loyalty through miniseries rather than single plays, and the anthology format of such as Play for Today became unfashionable, though there have been attempts to revive it over the years. With the greater emphasis on cinematic qualities, the studio-shot, multi-camera television drama effectively became obsolete.

Play for Today came to an end in 1984. Of over three hundred productions, thirty are now missing, studio productions shot on video which were since wiped. Another six were made in colour on tape but only survive as black and white 16mm film telerecordings. (At least one production was, very unusually, made in black and white, though at a time before the majority of the population had access to colour televisions – Colin Welland’s Leeds – United! from 1974.) Two more survive as home video recordings and one as an audio recording, while another exists in part but the complete programme is lost. Even despite that, Play for Today has quite some legacy.

While quite a few Plays for Today have been released on DVD before, Blu-ray releases have until now been restricted to the film-shot plays in the BFI’s definitive collection of Alan Clarke’s surviving work for the BBC, Dissent and Disruption, which included nine Plays for Today. Play for Today was broadcast in standard definition throughout its run, and made that way in the cases of the video-shot production. But over four discs are seven plays demonstrating the range of the series, the five shot on film restored from the original negatives and now in high definition. That Volume 1 implies there will be more, and there is certainly scope for that, so let’s hope that happens.

The Lie

Broadcast 29 October 1970, running time 89:58, certificate 15

Written by Ingmar Bergman, translated by Paul Britten Austin, directed by Alan Bridges.

The Lie was the third ever Play for Today, and was a product of the European Broadcasting Union’s Largest Theatre in the World project, in which a play by a well-known writer would be performed in many different countries, translated into the local language with local casts and directors. Five years earlier, the project had brought us Harold Pinter’s Tea Party, and later in the first season of Play for Today, Clive Exton’s The Rainbirds.

Bergman had moved between the cinema, the stage and television throughout his career, with some of his well-known big-screen productions also existing as longer television miniseries. The Lie is a drama of the well-heeled, centering on the marriage of academic Anna (Gemma Jones) and husband Andrew (Frank Finlay), an architect with a government job. A nanny looks after their children and outside their work, their social life is a round of dinners and parties. But cracks are there for those who look: Anna has a lover, and in the disappointment of being turned over for promotion in favour of a younger man, Andrew strays beyond the marriage as well. But by this time the two are sleeping in single beds anyway.

There are plenty of hints of darker things beneath the glacial surface and they finally erupt at the end. The Lie deals with themes that Bergman would return to again and again – not least in his 1973 six-parter Scenes from a Marriage. The Lie isn’t on that level, though few are. It’s well directed by Alan Bridges, then mostly working on television between his science fiction B movie Invasion in 1966 and his Cannes winner The Hireling in 1973. The play won the BAFTA for Best Drama Production and Jones was nominated for Best Actress for both this and her role in the BBC serial adaptation of Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton.

Shakespeare or Bust

Broadcast 8 January 1973, 82:18, 12

Written by Peter Terson, directed by Brian Parker

First there was The Fishing Party, closing the second series of Play for Today on 1 June 1972, Peter Terson’s play of three amiable Leeds miners on a fishing trip to Whitby away from their wives. That had been successful enough that Terson sent Art (Brian Glover), Ern (Ray Mort) and Abe (Douglas Livingstone) on a second journey, on their way to Stratford Upon Avon in a pilgrimage to the home of the Great Bard.

Shakespeare or Bust is really a road movie, or rather a canal movie. While there is a goal – reaching Stratford and a performance of Antony and Cleopatra – that’s less important than the journey itself and the people met along the way. Those include a young woman (Katya Wyeth) basically there as the canal boat ornament of her companion “Yachting Cap” (as Peter Honri is billed in the credits), an old man who hangs around in pubs keen to pass on stories of the waterways in return for a pint or two.

The tone of the play is notable: at once warm towards our sometimes-naive trio and also sending them up a little. Art has a natural way with words, and soon finds out that his ideals of working-class solidarity are not shared by everyone they meet. The years-old local pub is now given over to selling scampi and chicken in a basket. Old traditions are on the way out and things exist to be bought and sold. They do finally reach Stratford – what happens there, I’ll let you find out, though the real life Royal Shakespeare Company actors Richard Johnson and Janet Suzman make appearances as themselves. Terson wrote a third Play for Today about Art, Ern and Abe, Three for the Fancy, which was broadcast on 11 April 1974.

Back of Beyond

Broadcast 14 November 1974, 59:58, 12

Written by Julia Jones, directed by Desmond Davis

Back of Beyond was prolific screenwriter Julia Jones’s fourth and last Play for Today, and while not in itself tapping into the folk horror that some plays did (of which more, see A Photograph below) is certainly not far away from it. Rachel (Lynne Jones) is coming of age in a small village in the Brecon Beacons. Times are changing outside the village – school friend, not quite boyfriend, David (Michael Griffiths) tells her that marriage is obsolete – less so within it. She meets and befriends Olwen (Rachel Roberts), an old woman living alone on one of the hills. The story is the relationship between the two women, old and young.

Desmond Davis, who had become a director a decade earlier with Girl with Green Eyes, has form in stories of female friendship, portrayed sensitively in that earlier film and here, in broad comic terms in Smashing Time. However, this time the two women are of different generations. Back of Beyond has a remarkable spareness, which is reflected in its shorter-than-usual running time: Roberts has no dialogue for the first third of it but her presence more than makes up for it, and the story does with hindsight have a bearing on the actress’s own less than happy life. Like much work in a minor key, Back of Beyond lingers in the mind.

A Passage to England

Broadcast 9 December 1975, 81:29, 15

Written by Leon Griffiths, directed by John Mackenzie

Onslow (Colin Welland), Graham (Niall Padden) and Mack (Jake D’Arcy) are fishermen fixing up their boat in present-day Amsterdam when Anand (Tariq Yunus) approaches them. If they are able to smuggle him, his cousin Pramila (June Bolton) and uncle Dharam (Renu Setna), who is very ill, to England, he will repay them with a gold bar. But can either side be trusted?

A Passage to England (a title with E.M. Forster references no doubt intended) is a comedy which more than touches on race relations. That was a timely subject then, as it certainly is now, forty-five years later. Political organisations like the National Front were on the rise and fears of (white) British culture being “swamped” were certainly out there. Griffiths goes so far as to include text captions from the past, such as the 1910 quote from the then Viceroy of India that “the working of the Hindu mind is really beyond anyone’s imagination”. Anand and his family are among the Asian population expelled from Uganda in 1972 by President Idi Amin, their arrival in England causing racial tensions in areas where they settled.

The play gives its characters quite a few shades of grey, and bears out what I say above in that discriminatory language (which gives this play its 15 certificate) was more acceptable, or at least not as actively taboo, as strong language. Nowadays the reverse would more likely apply. Griffiths went on to create Minder, which, in tone at least, shares much with this play.

Your Man from Six Counties

Broadcast 26 October 1976, 94:26, 12

Written by Colin Welland, directed by Barry Davis

Colin Welland makes his second appearance in this box set, though as a writer than an actor. In all, he was credited as an actor on three Plays for Today and as writer on five. He more often acted than wrote, but his credits in the latter capacity certainly made an impact, including an Oscar for Chariots of Fire. Jimmy (Joseph Reynolds) lost his father in a bomb blast – shown, briefly, in grainy black and white in this otherwise colour production – and is sent from Northern Ireland (the six counties of the title) to stay with Aunt Mollie (Brenda Fricker) and Uncle Danny (Donal McCann) south of the Border.

This wasn’t the only Play for Today to deal with the Irish Troubles – there were, for example, the Billy trilogy by Graham Reid, featuring Kenneth Branagh straight out of drama school, and Shadows on Our Skin, based on the Jennifer Johnston novel – but like them, Your Man from Six Counties embeds the issue into the lives of fully-rounded characters. While some are kind to Jimmy, others are not – a teacher rejects him because he is Northern Irish. Jimmy too has issues to work out for himself. Finely written – with some delicate symbolism there for the taking – Your Man from Six Counties is a richly humane play.

Our Flesh and Blood

Broadcast 18 January 1977, 80:24, PG

Written by Mike Stott, directed by Pedr James

Jan (Alison Steadman) has always wanted a baby. And now she’s in hospital about to have one, as husband Bernard (Bernard Hill) waits nervously, with flashbacks showing us how he got here.

There had been other Plays for Today on the subject of pregnancy and childbirth, but what distinguishes Our Flesh and Blood is its comic tone and its emphasis on the experiences of the father to be, one who feels quite helpless as the night wears on. It’s of its time in its use of the then-current debate over childbirth methods, and the Natural Childbirth Movement. Not much earlier, fathers often were not allowed in the delivery room and icy consultant Smythe (Richard Briers, cast well against type) is happy for it to stay that way. Too often, Bernard is expected to just get on with his job even though he and his wife are going through a life-changing event. If Our Flesh and Blood entertains, with humour as much as heavy drama, and leaves audiences with things to think about, job done – and that’s what it does.

A Photograph

Broadcast 22 March 1977, 71:33, 12

Written by John Bowen, directed by John Glenister

A Photograph begins with...a photograph, one delivered anonymously in the post to Michael (John Stride). It shows two girls outside a caravan – or does it? Michael, not especially happily married to Gillian (Stephanie Turner), looks to find out…

John Bowen’s play is a companion piece to his earlier Play for Today, Robin Redbreast, in that nasty things are found to lurk under the surface of a supposedly peaceful rural community. Although both plays stand alone, they have a character in common, played by the same person no less. Bowen’s plays – see also The Ice House, his contribution to the Ghost Stories for Christmas – are dense with hints and nuances, small details which may need more than one viewing to unpick. That was some ask in days when your play would only be broadcast once or maybe twice, and hardly anyone had home video recording facilities. That said, the plot is clear enough, moving to a conclusion all the more chilling for being inevitable.


Play for Today: Volume 1 comprises four Blu-ray discs all encoded for Region B only. The box set carries a 15 certificate. Certificates and running times for each play are indicated above.

All seven plays are transferred in their original ratio of 1.33:1, as you would expect for 1970s television productions. The first five, all shot on 16mm film throughout, have been scanned and restored at 2K resolution from the original negatives and, needless to say, are far in advance of what you would have seen on original broadcast – and many would have been watching in black and white anyway. Our Flesh and Blood and A Photograph are presented in standard definition: they were shot in the then-common combination of 625-line PAL video in the studio and 16mm film for location sequences, the latter telecined in to the master tape at time of recording and editing. The delivery-room sequence in Our Flesh and Blood was also shot on film, allowing for a couple of library shots of actual childbirth to be edited in without them standing out too much. As the intended speed of all of the plays is twenty-five frames per second, the Blu-ray transfers are 1080i50.

The soundtracks are all the original mono, rendered as LPCM 1.0. English subtitles are available for the hard of hearing.

The extras on the disc are an image gallery (9:00) covering all seven plays, on the first disc, and galleries of the original shooting scripts for each play.

The BFI’s book runs to eighty pages. It begins with an overview by John Wyver, and is followed by an appreciation of each play by, in order, Rebecca Vick, William Fowler, Dr Josephine Botting, Sukhdev Sandhu, Katie Crosson, Simon McCallum and Vic Pratt. Following full credits for the plays, Marcus Prince examines the legacy of Play for Today.

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