- Play for Today
"Play for Today" was a
British televisionanthology drama series, produced by the BBCand transmitted on BBC1 from 1970 to 1984. Over three hundred original plays, most between an hour and ninety minutes in length, were transmitted during the fourteen-year period the series aired, and it is by far the most famous programme of its type to have been screened on British television.
It was in fact a successor to the 1960s anthology series "
The Wednesday Play", with the title being changed after the transmission day moved and became variable. Occasionally "Wednesday Plays" would be repeated under the "Play for Today" banner, as would examples from another earlier anthology series, BBC Two's " Theatre 625". There were also some groups of plays transmitted that — for various reasons — did not go out under the "Play for Today" banner, but which were funded from the same department, used much the same production team and are generally regarded in episode guides and analysis as being part of the "Play for Today" 'canon'.
Plays could cover all genres, although comedy was usually reserved for the separate "
Comedy Playhouse" strand. In its time, "Play for Today" featured gritty contemporary social realist dramas, historical pieces, fantasies, biopics and science-fiction. Most pieces were written directly for television, but there were also occasional adaptations of stories from other media, such as novels and stage plays.
Writers who contributed plays to the series included
John Osborne, Dennis Potter, Stephen Poliakoff, David Hare, Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale, Arthur Hopcraft, Alan Plater, Graham Reid, David Storey, and John Hopkins. Several prominent directors also featured, including Stephen Frears, Alan Clarke, Michael Apted, Mike Newell, Roland Joffe, Ken Loach, Lindsay Anderson, and Mike Leigh. Some of the most famous plays broadcast in the strand include " Edna, the Inebriate Woman" (1971), "Home" (1972), " Schmoedipus" (1974), " Nuts in May" (1976), " Bar Mitzvah Boy" (1976), " Our Day Out" (1976), " Abigail's Party" (1977), " Blue Remembered Hills" (1979), " Just A Boys Game" (1979) and " The Flipside of Dominick Hide" (1980).
Some installments in the series spun-off into full-blown series. Probably the two best-remembered examples of this are "
Rumpole of the Bailey", which was produced as a one-off in the "Play for Today" strand in 1975 and three years later became a series for Thames Televisionwith the same star, Leo McKern, and " Boys from the Blackstuff", a hard-hitting 1982 BBC2 drama serial by Alan Bleasdalewhich spun-off from his play "The Black Stuff", made in 1978 although not screened until 1980, and only then as a one-off play and not part of "PfT". Other spin-offs include "Gangsters", and a single series of science fiction-based plays styled as " Play for Tomorrow".
The series inspired the song "Play for Today" by the band
The Cure, from their 1980 album " Seventeen Seconds".
Two plays were controversially pulled from transmission shortly before broadcast due to concerns over their content: these were Dennis Potter's "
Brimstone and Treacle" in 1976 and Roy Minton's "Scum" the following year. In the case of "Brimstone and Treacle" it was due to concerns over the play's depiction of a disabled woman's rape at the hands of a man who may or may not be the devil, and with "Scum" the worry was its supposed sensationalism of life in a young offenders' institution (then still known as a borstal). "Brimstone and Treacle" remained untransmitted until it was shown on BBC Onein 1987, and "Scum" until BBC Twotransmitted it in 1991. In the meantime, however, both had circumvented their withdrawal by being re-made as films: "Brimstone and Treacle" was filmed in 1982 with Sting in the lead role, while the cinematic version of "Scum" appeared in 1979 with most of the same cast and directed by the man responsible for "Play for Today" version, Alan Clarke. The film version of "Scum" was shown on Channel 4in 1983, much to the chagrin of campaigner Mary Whitehouse, who instigated a private prosecution despite the fact that the Independent Broadcasting Authorityhad specifically approved the broadcast of the film. The High Court found in her favour, but Channel 4 won on appeal.
The series as a whole was viewed with suspicion by rightwing commentators and critics as many of the issues tackled were the subject of political controversy. Of particular note was the 1978 play "The Spongers" an ultimately tragic tale of benefit dependency set against the Queen's Silver Jubilee the previous year. This suspicion was lampooned in
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrinwhen Play For Today was listed by Geoffrey Palmer's character Jimmy in his famous "Forces Of Anarchy" diatribe.
The programme officially ended in 1984, although there was one further series not broadcast in its original name but in its replacement name "Screen One" and "Screen Two" in 1985. The general trend in 1980s television production was away from one-off plays and towards a concentration on series and serials. When one-offs were produced, they tended to be more cinematic and less theatrical than "Play for Today" and the earlier series had been, and its style of dialogue and character-driven one-offs increasingly fell out of favour.
Nonetheless, the series is generally remembered as a benchmark of high-quality British television drama, and has become a byword for what many continue to argue was a golden age of British television. In 2000, the
British Film Instituteproduced a poll of industry professionals to determine the 100 Greatest British Television Programmesof the 20th century, and five of the programmes included in the final tally were from "Play for Today". Some of the better-known plays in the series, such as " Abigail's Party", "The Black Stuff", " The Flipside of Dominick Hide" and several of the Potter plays, have been made available on VHSand DVD.
A revival of the single play for
BBC One, publicised as a return of "Play for Today", but under the working title of "The Evening Play", was announced at the beginning of March 2006, [cite web
title = BBC to revive the drama slot that helped Loach and Leigh to fame
accessdate =2008-03-31] but nothing has been heard from it since.
Kevin Spacey, film star and director of the Old Vic, in March 2008 told BBC Newsthat he would like to see the return of the show, [cite web
title = Spacey complains over BBC shows
accessdate =2008-03-31] but the Conservative MP
Michael Goveand journalist Mark Lawsonexpressed disagreement, Gove condemning them as "dreadfully earnest exercises in socialist-realist art". [cite web
title = Take our quiz to find out whether your partner is Just Tory Enough
accessdate =2008-04-10] [Mark Lawson [http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/apr/02/bbc.television2 "One-hit wonders"] , "The Guardian", 2 April 2008. Retrieved on 9 April 2008.] Jan Moir in "
The Daily Telegraph" wrote in support of Spacey though, saying "the British loved "Play for Today" once, and would do so again. A good piece of drama looks at the human condition, and tells us something we should know about ourselves." [cite web
title = Proper plays, please
*Evans, Jeff. "The Penguin TV Companion" (1st ed.).
London: Penguin Books. 2001. ISBN 0-140-51467-8.
*Vahimagi, Tise. "British Television: An Illustrated Guide".
Oxford. Oxford University Press/ British Film Institute. 1994. ISBN 0-19-818336-4.
* [http://web.archive.org/web/20070804170905/http://www.hull.ac.uk/filmstudies/FilmPFT01.htm "Play for Today" site]
* [http://tv.cream.org/lookin/playfortoday/index.htm Section on the series at the TV Cream website, containing good synopses of most episodes]
* [http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/454719/index.html Play for Today section] at the BFI's
* [http://www.lostshows.com/default.aspx?programme=a57df962-dad1-40fb-a479-67ce68895b65 Archive status of Play for Today] at lostshows.com
* [http://www.bodnotbod.org.uk/kettering Kettering Magazine] Issue #4 contains a history of the much underrated role of comedy in the Play for Today strand.
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.
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