Play for Today: Volume One

In DVD/Blu-ray by Huw Thomas

Play for Today, the seminal BBC1 anthology series, provided endless water cooler moments in Britain before the term had been coined. Running from 1970 to 1984, its 306 one-off dramas were broadcast on primetime BBC1 and featured some of the UK’s finest writers, directors and actors. 15th October 2020 marked the programme’s 50th anniversary and this milestone is being celebrated by the BFI with a dedicated programme of activity. A new Blu-ray release, Play for Today: Volume One, collects seven rarely-seen plays stretching from the series’ inception to 1977. Though Play for Today is best remembered for gritty, politically-charged dramas, the programme’s remit was broad and more eclectic as these seven plays prove.

The earliest production here, The Lie (1970), was written by the great Ingmar Bergman and translated into English by Paul Britten Austin.  It’s a devastating account of a disintegrating relationship. Frank Finlay and Gemma Jones play a bourgeois couple kept together by their lies. Typical of Bergman, it is a cold and sometimes painful piece. Comedy fans be not afeard – there’s a short but absolutely scene-stealing appearance from a young Annette Crosbie. 

Lighter in tone is Shakespeare or Bust (1973), the second of a trilogy featuring Leeds miners Art (Brian Glover), Ern (Ray Mort) and Abe (Douglas Livingstone). In this play, the trio become “noddy boatmen” as they take a narrowboat pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon. The bard-obsessed Art leads, aiming for working class solidarity but finding his Southern counterparts “corrupted by a thousand years of serfdom”. Meanwhile, Ern and Abe suffer homesickness and lust respectfully. It’s a sparkling and quotable script by Peter Terson, and it is surprising it took nearly 50 years to reach home media. It deserves to be repeated on the BBC, perhaps in April to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday? 

Filmed entirely on location in Wales, Back of Beyond (1974) is the only play in this set written by a woman, Julia Jones. It focuses on a haunting performance from This Sporting Life’s Rachel Roberts as Olwen, a widow who lives silently and solitary. Leon GriffithsA Passage to England (1975) counters any arguments that portrayals of race and empire on 1970s UK television never graduated past Mind Your Language or It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. It’s a nuanced and often comedic piece set in Amsterdam where British dockers are propositioned by an Indian family trying to gain entry into Britain. Themes of Englishness, racism and xenophobia are played out in this slippery and atypical play.

From 1976, Your Man from Six Counties by Colin Welland tells the story of Belfast orphan Jimmy, who moves to his uncle and auntie’s farm following his father’s death in an explosion. It deals with the Troubles sensitively and with complexity. There are parallels with Ken Loach’s Kes, which playwright Welland starred in, in the play’s depiction of childhood defiance amidst trauma. Additionally, the score by the legendary Carl Davis must be among Play for Today’s finest. Mike Stott’s Our Flesh and Blood (1977) stars television greats Bernard Hill (Boys from the Blackstuff) and Alison Steadman (Abigail’s Party) as expectant parents in a farcical piece centering on changing attitudes about childbirth. Richard Briers is brilliantly slimy as the patronising, unbudging gynaecologist Mr. Smythe.

The final play in this set is Vic Pratt’s A Photograph (1977). It’s the most peculiar here, a psychological thriller-cum-folk horror that recalls Pratt’s best known work Robin Redbreast (1970). It pivots on a photograph showing two figures outside a caravan received in the post one morning by freelance arts journalist Michael Otway (John Stride). The photograph is the catalyst that changes the lives of Otway and his wife Gillian (Stephanie Turner) forever. It’s an intricate and demanding piece and a deserving inclusion on this set.

Unlike other anthology programmes from its era, Play for Today was most often shot entirely on film. This has allowed the BFI to rescan most of these productions from the 16mm A/B roll camera negatives with stunning results. There is the occasional evidence of missing sections; one scene in Shakespeare or Bust was removed for a repeat transmission and thus there’s a noticeable dip in video and sound quality – but any lesser sources are integrated as seamlessly as possible. Perhaps most impressive in this set, though, is its 77-page book. It features essays for each of the seven plays, examining them with unprecedented detail. It’s an outstanding companion to these plays and helps make Play for Today: Volume 1 a first-class presentation and a welcome reminder of one of the BBC’s greatest achievements. As Marcus Prince argues in the book’s final essay, in an age where terrestrial television seems to be wilfully bumbling into redundance, it’s about time Play for Today returned.