Jacqueline Mulhallen and William Alderson look at the film celebrating 50 years since the first episode of the BBC series and the importance of Play for Today then and now
Play for Today, a BBC series of 300 90-minute plays ran from 1970-1984, employing writers like Alan Bennett, Trevor Griffith, David Hare and Rachel Billington and directors like Richard Eyre, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. The plays reached audiences of 6 million and consistently got excellent reviews from television critics. They have been described as ‘contemporary, controversial, challenging, varied, writer-centred and unafraid to tackle taboos’ (Ken Loach) and to have ‘diversity, integrity, range’ and be an ‘inspiration for what film or drama should be’ (Mike Leigh).
Drama out of a Crisis – A Celebration of Play for Today interviewed many of those involved in the production, direction and commissioning of the series, and was itself interesting and entertaining. Its style of splitting the screen to show credits with scenes from the play side by side, or clips from plays alongside the interviews was illuminating and economical – in the case of the beginning of one play, Destiny, the screen was split in four.
Contributors to Drama out of a Crisis felt that the audiences were pleased by ‘not knowing what they were going to get’ and the producer Margaret Mathieson felt that it was ‘a place for breaking the rules and taking chances’. In this respect Play for Today ignored what is normally the first question asked about a proposal for television: ‘What is your audience for this?’ Huw Wheldon confirmed this, explaining that the BBC wanted to ‘find new writers and nurture them’ and that ‘the business of literature and drama is truth’.
The plays were often filmed away from TV Centre rather than in the specially built studios, although 30 plays were made in the studio including the controversial Gotcha! by Barrie Keeffe and Caryl Churchill’s The After Dinner Joke with its experimental use of blue screen technology. The writers were influenced by film makers who were innovative: Battersby by Eisenstein and Pontecorvo, and Loach by the French ‘New Wave’. They discussed domestic violence, gender, racism, gay issues, and class, and 20 plays were about the situation in Northern Ireland. especially the effect it was having on personal relations.
It seems that socialism was openly discussed in ways as different as the whimsically humorous Shakespeare or Bust of Peter Terson and the anti-Nazi Destiny by David Edgar, but positive ideas of socialism were also inherent in many of the plays, as is rarely the case today. Richard Eyre explained that ‘the promise of the 1945 [Labour] government informed our work’ and that writers of the left were commissioned but ‘they were too good just to put polemic on-screen’. Roy Battersby said ‘our characters live, they are not propaganda’. Even with this brief, it is clear that the BBC was not keen to ‘go too far’ since Battersby says that he was blacklisted by the BBC for years for his leftwing views. The plays were censored and two (Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle and Roy Minton’s Scum) were banned, though shown years later.
The plays often consciously broke taboos and were a stunning use of TV the like of which we cannot see now. There was an intensity, commitment and richness to these productions not seen in other television programmes, and this made them stick in the mind for years after. For example, where a soap now might ‘tackle’ domestic violence, clips of Rachel Billington’s Don’t Be Silly reveal a play focussed on the progression of tiny steps in the process and on the different trajectories of the two characters. The woman ends up blaming herself, while the man is in denial, creating a metaphor for the position of women in society.
Roy Minton’s Scum, about conditions at a Borstal, was based on detailed interviews, but was withdrawn because it was too violent, though later revelations about the treatment of young people in institutions suggests that the situation may have been even worse in real life than as depicted. In this case, the director, Margaret Matheson, arranged an unofficial showing of the play to television critics as she considered it a ‘fantastic piece of writing and a story that should be told’. Technically, she should have been sacked for this, but she was not.
Many other plays were ahead of their time, such as identifying what the ‘future’ police force would look like (correctly), or showing a 1913 attack on Cornish clay pit workers which forewarned of what we would see in 1984 and the miners’ strike. On the other hand, the choice of writers was more backward, with only 12 plays by women and only three by black writers. The degree of institutional racism in particular is shown by the director of Empire Road being told that ‘black actors were terrible’ and ‘the audience would hate it’.
There are often suggestions that the model should be revived, but it is clear that the opposition to this is political. For example, Radio Times co-editor, Alison Graham, wrote a column headed ‘Why the BBC must never bring back Play for Today’, claiming that in today’s ‘box-set hungry world, there’s no room for a weekly one-hit piece of drama.’ Her real reason, however, is made clear later when she criticises ‘all the dry Lefty-polemical stuff’ which would be ‘too earnestly dull’ and ‘a gift to rightwing newspapers’ who ‘wish to batter a BBC facing an uncertain future’.
Not all the plays contained ‘Lefty-polemical stuff’ since there was a huge variety which ranged from the ‘very experimental, wild, crazy’ Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin dealing with myth, history, Christianity and gender through Horace Ove’s A Hole in Babylon, about the Spaghetti House siege which combined news footage and a background of black activism in a non-chronological style, to Colin Welland’s Leeds United, about a massive strike in the Leeds clothing industry. Jim Allen’s Day’s of Hope was a set of four plays, and John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey later became a series (re-run on DramaTV not long ago) and available as a DVD box set – which should satisfy Graham.
The challenge of Play for Today was not just political but artistic and experimental. Although some plays were written for the stage originally, the idea was to get away from that and make television plays. Ken Loach explained how he was commissioned by the BBC to write contemporary drama in the 1960s which would ‘rattle the cages of the establishment’ and to film ‘in the streets’ rather than in the studio. This attitude was shared by Play for Today, which was not London-centred but also filmed in Birmingham.
Outside television, the small scale touring theatre had been at its peak in the late 70s, presenting theatre (often political) in a wide range of working class spaces, and providing an important cultural background to Play for Today. Many writers worked for both the small scale and television, and some plays such as 7:84’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil or Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party were specifically adapted for Play for Today. After 1979 and the ‘new dawn of Thatcherism’ the funding for challenging drama was harder to find. Small scale touring theatre was the first victim of Thatcher’s cuts when she came to power, but she also pushed the ethos of the market into the BBC.
When William Alderson was part of the strike at the BBC in 1989, many employees could have tripled their salary by doing the same job in independent television, but people stayed at the BBC because there was a sense of being expected and able to make the best programmes possible – the ethos of Play for Today. However, the pay rise which was won was accompanied by a specific injunction to downgrade this aspiration, and moves began to split the BBC into competing sections with their own budgets and managements. The BBC was also forced to farm productions out to profit-making independent companies, and it is still, as Graham correctly remarked, ‘facing an uncertain future’.
The problem is that competition for ratings drives the BBC into a no-win position. If its ratings are low, its funding can be attacked as lacking value for money; if its ratings are high, its funding can be attacked as unnecessary because it could survive in the market place. If the Play for Today is not revived, it will be because the BBC is continually looking over its shoulder about its funding, and no longer has the will or trust or belief to commit to nurturing new writers and allowing them the freedom to experiment because, as Huw Wheldon said: ‘the business of literature and drama is truth’.
 Alison Graham, ‘Why the BBC must never bring back Play for Today’, Radio Times, 10 October 2020 p.19
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Jacqueline Mulhallen, actor and playwright, has co-ordinated King’s Lynn Stop the War since 2003 and initiated and organised 14 Women for Change talks for King’s Lynn & District Trades Council (2012/2013). Her books include The Theatre of Shelley (Openbooks, 2010), and a Shelley biography (Pluto Press, 2015). Her plays include 'Sylvia' and 'Rebels and Friends’.
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