Play for Today

The drama strand Play for Today ran on the BBC between 1970 and 1984. Over the years, more than 300 different television plays were broadcast, in around two dozen outings each year. The series featured some of the era’s foremost writers, actors and directors. Many of the plays were award winners and are fondly remembered.

I didn’t watch all of them (I was busy being a teenager for many of those years, and had more important things to do than sit on the sofa and absorb some Culture) but I do recall some of them vividly.

Penda’s Fen, in March 1974, terrified me into sleeplessness. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t understand what it was all about (neither could the play’s director, Alan Clarke), just that it was deeply unsettling. On the way up the stairs to bed, for instance, you might possibly run into an angel, or a demon. (I love the fact that the Wikipedia page for the play tersely states See also: Manichaeism.)

Bar Mitzvah Boy in 1976 gave me a glimpse into a way of English life that was a mystery to me. The same year, Nuts in May ignited my impression that Britain had more than its fair share of nutcases. Blue Remembered Hills confirmed it.

In 1977, Abigail’s Party posed that most serious question of the politically charged times: whether you should or shouldn’t put Beaujolais in the refrigerator. Alison Steadman, in a splendid tangerine outfit, played the aspiring Beverly in an utterly terrifying turn. Nancy Banks Smith in The Guardian called her a “magnificent monster“.

This year, 15 October 2020 was the 50th anniversary of the strand.

The British Film Institute marked the milestone with activities throughout October and November, including screenings at BFI Southbank, and a Blu-ray box set: Play for Today: Volume One.

In addition, 130 plays – almost half of those that survive – are available to watch for free if you can get yourself down to London’s south bank.

That’s the key, though. Those which survive. If you want to check out whether the 1972 play Better Than The Movies really is better than the movies, you can’t. It’s vanished. Along with several others.

(And several other programmes. A topic for another day…)

There is a lingering suspicion that Play for Today was cancelled because the BBC caved to pressure from the right-wing commentariat who objected to the strand’s political leanings. However, Paula Milne, one of the playwrights, calls that a misconception. “It was more about budgets,” she says.

Single plays, by their very nature, demand new sets, new characters, new costumes each time. Serials allow economies of scale. Welcome, instead, to the era of Boys from the Blackstuff, Edge of Darkness, and The Singing Detective.

Pass the cheesy pineapples.

They had all the hot social issues to deal with in Abigail’s Party: fitted carpets, olives, driving lessons for women, and… Trimphones

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